In DARK SUN, this tension is heightened by the game’s setting and themes. Life is cheap, danger lurks around every corner, and the world is a pitiless wasteland. In the original release, players are instructed to build four characters and interchange them on a character tree, partly so that they can switch characters between scenes or stories, but also because death is so quick and cheap that you might need a replacement character at a moment’s notice!
Of course, if you want to run a DARK SUN game with a strong emphasis on character story and on the characters’ role as potential movers and shakers of Athas, this kind of random character death and disfigurement can be dissatisfying. Though the published adventures tend to push characters to their limit and kill them with great frequency, who really wants to play in a world of gritty gladiators and secretive wizards and find that they’re just playing chumps? (Maybe your group wants to have city adventures as a bunch of beggars and ne’er-do-wells, but in that case you’re not likely to have pressing problems of character death at the whimsical drop of a sandstorm or rampager.) There’s a broad scope of possibilities between the extremes of total narrative protection and total chance, and you can use some handy tools to help you land on the spot you like.
First things first: Figure out what your group wants. Some players want to face the dangerous challenges of the game in all of its random-outcome gory glory. This is a dangerous road but for some players it’s the only way to gain satisfaction from the game – if they can best all comers through luck and skill. This is the same drive that pushes people to try to complete Rogue or ADOM as hardcore players, with their characters deleted if they make one mistake or have one stroke of bad luck. On the far end opposite this spectrum are players who are more invested in figuring out the stories of their characters, who feel that they’re playing out a central narrative and so it’s important that they follow a dramatic arc to its conclusion. That conclusion might mean character death, retirement, or some other final fate, but it’s important that the character’s story has a satisfying conclusion, rather than simply being a random victim of the whims of the dice. Many players lie between these extremes, garnering some satisfaction from pitting their wits against the game system and finding ways for their characters to excel but also hoping to tell an interesting tale along the way.
Figuring out what your group wants doesn’t mean writing some kind of social contract; rather, it means having a dialog about your goals as players and fellow adventurers, and it also means paying attention to what other players do. Some players, especially new ones, won’t necessarily know what they want, or might respond with an answer that they think is “popular” or “acceptable” instead of the answer that is what they really feel. Watch for what excites and engages those players as opposed to what bores them, and you’ll have an idea of where they land. Does one of your players fall asleep at the table until it’s time to make attack rolls? Does another player struggle with calculating those same attack rolls but shine when there’s an opportunity to chat up one of your NPCs? Bam, you know what to deliver to each of those players. Long-time readers may recall my prior post where I talked about the possibility of having part of your character creation process involve players rating how much they care about connections to other characters and narrative input – even if you don’t systematize it, you can easily poll your players for their feelings on those and figure out who wants to throw some dice and who wants to have a compelling story.
Of course, you want your DARK SUN game to have fearsome challenges and horrible consequences, but if you’re going to have players take center stage and play characters that aren’t simply going to fall over dead at the drop of a 1, what do you do? Let’s take a page out of a software design method called critical path.
Critical path design is a really a management technique. Basically, you figure out what order you need to follow to complete various tasks, and you figure out the minimum time to complete each task, then add them up to determine how much time you should book for the whole sequence. Taking a riff on that idea for your campaign, you want to figure out what events are key to your story, what events are side challenges, and figure out where the characters are actually going to have to go – and, therefore, where they will get into real trouble!
Here’s an example. You have a group of characters who’re just outside of Nibenay pursuing the stygian lance, a bone-tipped enchanted lance that was supposedly once carried by a great war leader who served Dregoth, the dead sorcerer-king. (Of course there’s no legend of “Stygia” on Athas, so this naming convention is a little weird, but you get the idea.) You know that you want the characters to get embroiled in a conflict with a templar along the way, and you want to have a trip across the Great Ivory Plain – but you don’t want the trip to kill the characters; you just want it to be memorable and dramatic. Based on this, your critical path is: Start in Nibenay; push the characters out via a conflict (probably involving templars); engage destination encounter for the stygian lance. Your non-critical path involves facing hazards on the Great Ivory Plain, which could be two or three different challenges.
Your critical path challenges are where things matter. This means these are the places where the characters are in peril: They are in danger of dying if they’re not careful, because the stakes are high enough that even heroes (and scoundrels…) might not survive! Your non-critical path challenges are tension builders. Traveling across the Great Ivory Plain won’t kill the party; there’s not a lot of drama or fun in dying because you rolled a bad skill check and got lethal heat exhaustion. Instead, these challenges create problems that handicap the party as they move into their next critical encounter. If the party does poorly while crossing the Great Ivory Plain, they may arrive at their destination fatigued, injured, dehydrated, and generally in pretty bad shape when they have to throw down with the owner of a powerful and dangerous magical weapon!
A useful tool for imagining this is to build out your path outline using index cards. (Some writers do this when they’re plotting scenes in books; it’s the same principle.) On each card, jot down the central challenge of the scene, and whether it’s critical to the story or not. If it’s not critical, the challenge should have some kind of hindrance that comes along if the party fails. If it is critical, the party has to succeed or die trying!
Your story cards would then look like this:
…of course, depending on your needs, you can also rearrange them, or you might have tracks that split off depending on the players’ choices, or you might shuffle a bunch of story ideas together (sandstorm, thri-kreen raiders, belgoi nighttime attack, gith assault, strange hermit) and draw them as the party travels in a sort of random encounter fashion. This way, the cards help you keep organized about which encounters are critical to your plot (and therefore ones that should be really challenging and potentially lethal), and which ones are there to complicate things for the party so that their later story-critical challenges are tougher and more memorable!
This also means that you’ll want to vary your challenges for your combats appropriately. In the D&D game from 3rd edition on, you’re encouraged to set up encounters based on the Challenge Rating of foes, with the presumption that a CR equal to the party’s average level is a modest challenge to a party of that level. This, however, is not a dangerous challenge, just one that will cause the party to expend some resources. For your side encounters, you want your challenge to be slightly below this rating, so that your opponents may cost the party some hit points and spell usage, but it’s not immediately fatal. For your critical encounters, you want to swing above this rating, so that these fights are really difficult and require the players to give it their all!
(The latest edition also has a neat “group skill” mechanic, whereby everyone in the group makes a skill check and if at least half of them succeed, the group succeeds. This is fantastic for things like making Survival checks in the desert and trying to see if the group is able to find enough food and water for everyone.)
A final piece that has come up in some recent games is the idea of “failing forward,” the notion that even if the characters fail, they still move toward their ultimate goal. Depending on how you roll, this may or may not suit your game group for DARK SUN. Failure can be memorable, and it can certainly be a motivator – if a defiler kills two of the party members and escapes, the other party members have a really strong motivation to hate that magician, and this means that you potentially have a villain that will resonate powerfully as an element of your game! As described above, though, failure in DARK SUN doesn’t mean you just kill the PCs; failures can introduce new complications, hinder attempts to reach an ultimate goal, or even precipitate intra-party debates and arguments based on practicality of the situation or ethical concerns. For players who invest heavily in their characters’ motivations and personality, these moments provide opportunities to explore why they do what they do, and to see how the character reacts when stuck between two difficult choices. Those kinds of choices are often compelling and satisfying to the player because it’s a chance to really figure out what a character wants and then commit to a particular course of action on the basis of what the character believes in. Plus, if a few fall by the wayside, it makes the final victory – should that day ever come – all that much sweeter!