I am just about to start my first Dark Sun Campaign in 20 years and I’m really looking forward to it. Already this forum has helped a lot and now I’m back for more advice.
I find that in adventures out in the wilderness on Athas its fairly easy to descibe the landscape, heat, weather condition, strange creatures in a way that the players get the Dark Sun feeling.
But my campaign will start in a city, in Tyr to be more precise. It starts in FY 3. But as I write the adventure and the different encounters I fell that it soon gets very similar to any city adventure in a more generic D&D setting.
So my question is; how do you best let your PCs feel the uniqueness of Athas while they are in the cities?
BTW, we are using the Pathfinder rule set.
First, have them feel that entering the city you will have a nice templar looking for “bribe” if you wish to enter… Otherwise, feel the slap of his half-giant bodyguard.
Second, depending in which city you are, but hey, your choice of ambiance. Use arabian music style.
Third, be sure to have them visit the city emporium (central open marketplace). Dont forget to put a lots of elves there (and remember, elves aren’t like in other setting, they are not the incarnation of virtues).
My DM has chosen to take the stance of being somewhat antagonistic and unforgiving towards the players in order to get across the harshness and uncaring demeanor of the setting. No fudged dice, all villains will have the Evil Overlord’s Handbook, player stupidity equals character death, and so forth.
No fudged dice
This is high on my list. I roll in the open, in a DS game, and – generally – PCs have no “plot armor”
This is a setting, after all, that had players create four different characters – in part to be able to play whichever one was appropriate at the time, but also to be able to reasonably recover from any one character’s death.
Grain of salt: this was also in an era when players were generally expected to start over at 1st level, regardless of what level the party was at otherwise. Also, wildly mixed level parties were not quite as unsurvivable as they became in later editions.
The last book of the Prism Pentad was an execise in fudged “dice rolls”. That’s why I hold the history of Athas from the Prism Pentad as canon, but the events that took place are only one possible future among many. An unlikely future at that because there is no way that they could take down the sorcerer kings and Rajaat that easily.
I think that in order to create the feeling of uniqueness of any city-state on Athas, you first must complete thorough research of the particular city-state you have your PC’s in. This gives you complete knowledge of the inner working of what and why is happening there. There is a bunch of this information provided to DM’s in various publications.
Second, you should remember, and continually impose to the player’s that 1) Athas is a desert world (lots of sand and heat, lack of metal, magic and water), and 2) it is a severely brutal world - even (and sometimes especially) inside the city walls.
The mechanics of having the PC’s in a city must be harsh - no bluffing rolls, enforcing the use of skills, etc… They MUST be street smart or else they are taken advantage of, robbed, manipulated, or even simply killed. Every encounter within a city-state should be treated as a barter, a bribe, a negotiation, or a matter of life and death.
Some of the novels written for the Dark Sun setting are good at describing the ‘feeling’ of city-states - ‘Cinnabar Shadows’ and ‘The Rise and Fall of a Dragon King’, both by Lynn Abbey do a great job at this, and one of the newest novels, ‘Death Mark’ by Robert J. Schwalb does an amazing job at describing typical city scenes, and where “for most people, life is a choice between struggling to survive in the wasted wilderness and trading freedom for the relative safety of the oppressive city-states.”
As silly as it may seem, try just closing your eyes imagine the city-state and start describing what you see, smell, hear and feel. Then add the mechanics for the PC’s to play with.
Without investing too much time id start by noting down a few key basic impressions that they experience while walking around within the city. Things such as what they smell, feel, hear and see, explained in short, but not expanded upon as much as making these things separate encounters or incidents. A market smells sweaty, the air is somewhat cooler (if there is cover from the sun), people constantly get in your way or pump into you, voices from hundreds of people blend into each other etc. Then expand upon this with a few minor incidents, like a pickpocket running past you, elves scheming, a Templar and a noble walking around with a half giant cohort etc.
Start small, with basic sensual impressions that you logically would experience in an environment such as an athasian city state. Then expand upon this with small encounters that are enough to give players a feeling of the area but not as much as to necessarily engage them or have them interact. Make a short list of sensual impressions and small incidents, perhaps with a separate list for the noble district, the market, the slave district etc.
I also think it’s a good idea to populate the city with stereotypes; make nobles haughty, Templars corrupt and hostile, slaves close minded and subdued, gladiators dumb and seeking trouble etc. This will of course grow boring, eventually, which is when you change it up and introduce an NPC that does not fit the stereotype.