Review of Marauders of the Dune Sea by Wizards of the Coast
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    Review of Marauders of the Dune Sea by Wizards of the Coast

    If you are finally getting around to running your own Dark Sun Campaign, then you might be looking for some introductory modules to help you kick off the campaign, or maybe to at least get an idea of what sorts of adventures are likely to stir the hearts of Athasian heroes!

    Thankfully, there is a bit of “free” material out there, starting with the introductory adventure in the Dark Sun Campaign Setting. But regretfully, Sand Raiders is only three measly encounters, and fairly basic ones at that. Another option is to use the free Game Day Adventure, Bloodsand Arena, which will help get Characters out of their first level... but then what? Where does a Athas-minded Dungeon Master look for more adventures?

    Well last month, Wizards of the Coast released a new Dark Sun module to provide more adventure content to the Dungeon Masters of Athas. Entitled Marauders of the Dune Sea, it is designed to take 2nd Level heroes all the way through 4th Level – assuming they survive the terrible dangers at the Face in the Stone!

    Marauders of the Dune Sea

    • Authors: Bruce R. Cordell
    • Cover Illustrator: Ralph Horsley (cover), Ben Wootten (interior)
    • Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
    • Year: 2010
    • Media: Soft bound (34 pages)
    • Retail Cost: $14.95 ($10.17 from Amazon)

    Marauders of the Dune Sea is an official adventure module for the Dark Sun Campaign Setting by Wizards of the Coast, and designed for 2nd Level Characters to amass enough experience to reach 4th Level. The adventure contains 15 encounters, three of which are skill challenges, and introduces a Heroic Tier artifact called the Crown of Dust, which can be used for later adventure hooks and plotlines.

    Production Quality
    It is hard to consider the production quality of Marauders of the Dune Sea higher than average to good, which is surprising given that this is an official WotC product. While the overall appearance, stat blocks, and writing style are as one would expect to see in a WotC release, there are some unfortunate setting gaffs which one would not expect to see in an official product.

    One major failing is in how some of the content - monsters and plot details - do not “fit” the campaign world of Athas at all (See more details later in the review). Another weak point lies with the maps and artwork. While the cover art is quite nifty, it does not feel evocative of any particular scene in the adventure, and just seems to be a “stock” Dark Sun piece. And beyond the cover, there are only a couple other “show the players” pieces of art which are nice to look at, but nothing else to speak of in the adventure.

    Then there are the maps, which stunned me by demonstrating how poorly this book was edited. The first encounter uses a poster map of a market, which was taken from a non-Athasian dungeon tile set, and includes horse drawn carts on it – an troubling feature considering that horses are rather extinct on Athas. The Game Day Adventure, Bloodsand Arena, had a perfectly good Athasian-style market square map in it, so I am unsure why that one was not reused in Marauders of the Dune Sea. Further, because the map-makers at WotC have all jumped onto the “dungeon tile bandwagon”, the adventure map of the Face in the Stone “lost” temple contains a stream of water flowing across it, which clearly has no place in a shrine dedicated to a primordial known as the “Mouths of Thirst”.

    Frankly, the editors should be ashamed of themselves for releasing an introductory adventure with production issues like these, and the typically praiseworthy production quality of an official release was seriously marred by some flagrant oversights.

    The author uses the introduction to set up the background story for the Dungeon Master, about a lost temple to a primordial. The shrine is called the Face in the Stone, and in addition to the characters’ expedition to seek it out, is also the goal of an evil warlord – Yarnath the Skull (as described in the Dark Sun Campaign Setting in the “The Tablelands” section). The adventure is described to be “played as a follow-up to the short adventure in the Dark Sun Campaign Setting.”

    However, the short three encounter adventure detailed in the Dark Sun Campaign Setting is set out in the Tablelands region around the town of Altaruk, and this adventure starts on the street of Tyr. And given that the mini-adventure in the DSCS is utterly insufficient in experience points to get newbie Athasian heroes to 2nd Level, Dungeon Masters will need to provide additional encounters to level them prior to running this module. Perhaps it is assumed that the heroes received the remaining experience needed for 2nd Level as they journeyed to Tyr in order to start this adventure?

    Interestingly, the aforementioned Game Day Adventure, Bloodsand Arena, would be a more appropriate precursor adventure to Maurauders of the Dune Sea. The adventurers start on the road from Tyr guarding a caravan, and are likely to return to Tyr where they started Bloodsand Arena, after quite a few more encounters than the adventure in the DSCS and will have some knowledge and experience of the town of Altaruk.

    Plot Hooks
    The author of Maurauders of the Dune Sea provides the Dungeon Master with three possible plot hooks to introduce the heroes to the adventure. What was odd about this setup is that two of the plot hooks grant a minor quest rewards for finding the Face in the Stone, while the third considers the same task to be a major quest reward and grants the adventurers 750 gold and 750 XP. Most bizarrely, the plot hook granting the greatest reward also requires that at least one of the adventurers is literate – a rarity among Athasians - as it involves receiving a note from House Shom to embark on the adventure.

    Sadly, unless the Dungeon Master uses the major quest from the House of Shom, the adventurers would also not have the vague clue, “Where the devil’s horn threads the tunnel in the sky, a stony visage rarely blinks its hollow eye”, which is used during the skill challenge to locate the Face in the Stone. I was actually partial to using one of the minor quest hooks, involving a relative of one of the heroes having strange prophetic dreams and visions. The vague clue revealed by House Shom could just as easily been related to the heroes by the nightmare-ridden prophet, but oddly enough, that is not how the adventure was written.

    The Encounters
    While it is true that Athas is a harsh and nasty place, and considered one of the most dangerous world setting released by WotC, it still does not explain why there are so many encounters written for Marauders of the Dune Sea which contain monsters well beyond a 2nd Level adventuring band to successfully defeat. In 3 out of the 13 combat encounters, the Athasian heroes are subjected to monsters which are level+3 to level +5, putting neophyte adventurers, possessing few resources, at a serious disadvantage.

    It begins from the very first encounter, in which a templar of Hamanu (7th Level Controller) attacks the adventurers on the streets of Tyr, while proclaiming his fealty to the lord of the city-state of Urik. He is accompanied by three 2nd Level Brutes, five 3rd Level Lurker Minions, and two 6th Level Skirmisher Minions. Needless to say, the author assumes the party of heroes will lose, but thankfully the monsters pull their final attacks and simply leave the party unconscious, while the templar brands them - in broad daylight - with the symbol of Hamanu.

    Unfortunately for the adventurers, the remaining encounters are not so forgiving, and are designed to be “kill or be killed”. As 2nd Level characters, the heroes will have to face challenges such as:

    • a 3rd Level Elite Brute (Leader) leading two 1st Level Soldiers, a 2nd Level Controller, and a 3rd Level Soldier

    • two 5th Level Artillery (with damaging auras and ongoing 5 attacks), combined with two 1st Level Soldiers and three 3rd Level Brute Minions

    Hopefully, the Dungeon Master will be giving out experience points on the fly, and allowing the characters to “level up” during the adventure. Otherwise, they will not have soared to 3rd Level when they encounter a trio of evil mercenaries: a 4th Level Elite Soldier, a 5th Level Controller, and an 8th Level Brute!

    As to the adventure design, the encounters are painfully linear, with only two encounters not following a lock-step sequence of events. Thankfully, the mercenary encounter, mentioned above, is one of those encounters, and a Dungeon Master can introduce the trio at any point during the adventure – although a merciful DM will simply throw it out or re-work it to make it realistically winnable.

    The treasure parcels are also an issue, and magic items, potions, and cash are handed out in quantities which runs counter to the Athasian design philosophy described in the DSCS. I was surprised to see a total of 6 magic items distributed throughout the adventure - including a Heroic Tier Artifact – but not any of the alternative treasure rewards described in the Dark Sun Campaign Setting, which were touted as being much more appropriate to the setting than mere magic items. Of course, all this assumes the adventurers survive the combat encounters to get away with their spoils of victory anyways – which is seriously unlikely.

    If the adventurers emerge triumphant every encounter (and that is a big IF), and solve every skill challenge, they will earn a total of 12030 experience points, which will be just shy of the experience needed to reach 4th Level.

    Overall Grade: C

    Given what amazing design work we all saw in the Dark Sun Campaign Setting and Dark Sun Creature Catalog, I am frankly stunned that Wizards of the Coast would follow those two successes up with the poorly written and executed adventure module we find in Marauders of the Dune Sea. The plot is linear and fairly dull, with several encounters that are so brutally over-powered that they go way beyond being merely challenging. Some of the encounter designs are interesting, with some unique hazards and terrain features, but most contain an over-abundance of soldier and brute monsters, which guarantee that even the most reasonable challenge will degenerate into a plodding and dull at-will slugfest.

    And the glaring non-Athasianisms, to coin a phrase, make me wonder if this adventure was destined for a desert land on some other world, perhaps Eberron or the Forgotten Realms. It feels as though it was hastily converted to the Dark Sun Campaign Setting, but without editing out those parts which abruptly jar players out of their “Athas experience”. Marauders of the Dune Sea is not going to assist any Dungeon Master in learning how to do anything but write a bad Dark Sun adventure, and I certainly hope that future Dark Sun modules are written with greater care and consideration for the setting.

    So until next review… I wish you Happy Gaming!

    Grade Card

    • Presentation: B-
    • - Design: C+
    • - Illustrations: B
    • Content: B-
    • - Crunch: B
    • - Fluff: C
    • Value: C-
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