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Dark Sun survival sandbox


Yes, a Dark Sun sandbox campaign is funny.

I also think that of all the D&D settings, Athas is particularly well set up for survival sandbox games. I've recently been getting back into playing a lot of Kenshi, a post-post-apocalyptic Sword Punk sandbox survival base building RPG videogame. You start out as a nobody with no gear, money, or skills and a slowly decreasing hunger bar in a desert wasteland where there is no food to forage anywhere. To survive, you have to either find and kill monsters for meat (very hard in the early game), find stuff to trade for money and buy food (very expensive), or grow your own, which requires building a base. Which attracts raiders who constantly keep trying to rob all your food. While your characters might never get seriously hungry or come anywhere close to starving throughout the entire game, the hunger mechanic is what drives the entire game. The desert is big and full of hostile creatures much stronger than you, but because you need to constantly get new food you can't just find a safe place and keep hiding there from the monsters and raiders. You have to go out and either find food or something to trade for food. And if you wall yourself in to grow your own food, the raiders will constantly come to you. And increasing your defenses requires rare research components which you can't make yourself and have to be found in old ruins in the desert. Which are almost always crawling with monsters and raiders.

I love that style of playing and think it would work really well in Dark Sun. Perhaps a specific interpretation of Dark Sun that not everyone would agree reflects the setting as intended by the creators, but still broadly true to the presentation in the original release.

The Setup
In the city states of Athas, there are three main categories of people in the eyes of the templars that really matter: Citizens, slaves, and visiting merchants. Anyone who is not one of these is either an escaped slave to be punished severely and send back to work, or an enemy spy to be send to a gruesome public death. The cities are big enough that one can hide among the crowd during the day, but the templars have eyes and ears everywhere and will soon be looking into reports about anyone who seems like they might not belong. It's not safe to stay close to a city any longer than is absolutely necessary.
But outside of the city states lies only the endless desert. Shelter is scarce and food and water are even scarcer. And among the sandy dunes and rocky hills are countless terrible predators hunting for prey. There are water holes all over the Tablelands, but most of these are well known to both beasts and desert raiders and will attract other visitors sooner or later. Numerous caves can make for defensible shelters, but even the best holed up defenders will eventually run out of supplies and will have to come back out into the light of the burning sun. It's not possible to hide in a cave indefinitely.
Characters who are outlaws with no city to call home and no desire to let themselves be taken into slavery are facing an existence of an endless struggle to secure what is necessary to survive. Collecting water is always a race to avoid becoming prey to predators. Food must be taken by force from those who have already claimed it. And tools and weapons to fight off monsters, raiders, and the environment need to be taken by raiding or risking going to a market where the templars are always watching. Escaping the tyranny of the sorcerer kings by living as a hermit in the desert and be left alone is not an option on Athas. The life as outlaws in the desert is a life always on the run and in a fight for survival.
The general idea for a campaign here is to drop the characters off out in the desert with some supplies to survive for a day or two and just have them hunt for food and water and fight off monsters and raiders. The strategy how to approach this is up to the players. Try finding a place with resources and fortifying it against attackers? Roam the desert as nomads raiding the raiders? Raiding the slave farms outside the cities run by the templars? Ally with a slave tribe and raise a large war band to become a true power in the wastes? I don't know. That's going to be their problem to solve.

The Rules
The thing with Dark Sun is that the setting was written for possibly the least popular and appreciated D&D edition of them all. Using Old-School Essentials with the advanced classes is always an attractive choice with these old AD&D settings, but Dark Sun also made a pretty big deal about the presence of psionic powers in the campaigns, which are one of the most notorious aspect of the AD&D rules. 5th edition could be an interesting set of mechanics to run a setting of this kind, but that one doesn't have any psionic content at all. Which kind of leads me to the conclusion that the only practical choice for a rules set is 3.5e. The only D&D with psionic rules that are actually good.
However, I am still in the preliminary exploration phase of this idea. If anyone is having good arguments for systems I have not considered yet I absolutely want to hear about them.

One major thing that has make survival and resource management in D&D always a troublesome issue is inventory tracking. Tracking encumbrance by weight just is not a practical approach unless you want to have all the players playing with spreadsheets open all the time. Tracking encumbrance by number of items tends to be a much superior approach. Yes, it is of course a much greater degree of abstraction that can lead to hypothetical paradoxes about the relative encumbrance of different loadouts, but we are talking here about playing wizards fighting dragons. This is not a simulation of anything.
My favorite system of doing item based encumbrance goes like this:
  • Items numbering up to the character's Strength score is a light load.
  • Items numbering up to twice the character's Strength score is a medium load.
  • Items numbering up to three times the character's Strength is a heavy load.
  • Single items smaller than a dagger don't count towards encumbrance.
  • Items that require two hands to carry count as two items or more.
  • A bag of coins counts as one item and can hold 100 coins.
Each player has an inventory sheet with three columns and as many rows as the character's Strength score, and an extra section for items with no weight. If there are only items written in the light load column and the medium and heavy load columns are empty, the character has a light load. If there are items written in all three columns, the character has a heavy load. At no point do you even need to count the number of items you carry. (Just remember that the weapons and armor you're wearing also need to be on the inventory sheet and that polearms, armor, and other heavy things will occupy multiple rows.) We just won't be bothering with how characters store away all the items on their body. Backpacks, satchels, purses, whatever. The goal here is to actually have players track encumbrance without it becoming a chore that slows down the game. Hooray, abstraction!

The next aspect is of course hunger and thirst. To keep things simple, a character needs one ration of food and water per day; two rations of water when traveling outside during the day. As with everything, one ration of food and water is each one item. If they don't get it, they suffer some kind of consequences that reduces their strength. (I got the Sandstorm splatbook but havn't looked too deeply into this yet.) Yes, the consequences of failure making it more likely to continue failing really sucks. And I can get while many people think that's not fun in a game. But for a campaign like this, I think it's critical. It makes water and food management scary and motivates players to take risks they might otherwise want to avoid. If they get unlucky, monsters might kill one or two of them and drag the bodies away into the desert to eat them. Doesn't have to be a total party kill right away. And if the unlucky heroes end up falling into the hands of humanoid enemies, there's always the option to have them taken as slaves or held for ransom from NPC allies. Once they are well enough to be put to work in the mines, they will be well enough to work on their escape.

I've been working on a hexmap of the Tablelands yesterday and noticed that compared to other settings, the map is relatively small. (I made some Forgotten Realms regional maps at the same scale and those were each much larger image sizes.) Usually that would still be way too big for a hexcrawl campaign, but I think for a Dark Sun campaign, you actually want the wilderness to be nothing but sand and rocks for days and days, and in most situation characters can travel in straight lines from one point to another for hundreds of miles. So I think instead of picking one area of the Tablelands to set such a campaign in, the players can be given the entire map to roam around in at their leisure. What matters are oases and camps, the majority of hexes can very well be left completely empty.
Which is of course where random encounters come into play. The real adventure were all the enemies we ran into along the way. Can be hostile monsters, can be raiders, and can be templars. But it can also be slave tribes and merchant caravans who are not above trading with people who are clearly outlaws while well out of sight of the templars. An important thing to remember to make encounters like these work as a central game element is that monsters want to eat and raiders want to loot. They are not putting their lives on the line for a cause greater than their own survival. The whole point of them attacking the PCs is to allow them to survive for another week. They won't fight to the death in most situations, and that means that the PCs will actually have to take much less damage and expend fewer resources to win a fight. So making the monsters a bit more dangerous and a bit more numerous than typical should work.

A big question I've really not decided on yet is how to handle XP for the characters. Giving out XP is one of the best tools GMs have to steer the players' behavior into patterns that support the premise of the campaign. Players will be eager to engage in activities they know will get them extra XP, while not being overly enthusiastic into pursuing others when they know they won't be getting the typical rewards for it.
Basing XP on the monsters that have been defeated encourages players to seek out fights even if they are not strictly necessary. Which is why I am usually not a huge fan of that approach. But when you're playing Dark Sun, you really do want your players to do badass things in very dramatic fashions. If you combine the reward for fighting large foes with a real threat of characters getting killed, I think you can get an interesting tension going. Let the players know that their characters are in a real struggle to survive and that "don't die!" is the challenge they have been tasked to overcome. This will make them cautious and consider if there are alternatives to fighting. Dangling big rewards of XP in their faces and daring them to do stupid things feel like it's very much on point for Dark Sun.
But I don't want to have victories in glorious battle to be the only source of XP with which to lure the players to seek out risks. It should still feel like a choice to fight or not. Not come down to a question which fights might pose the lowest risks to the PCs while still getting them meaningful XP. Other things should be rewarded as well, but so far I have no idea what those could be.

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Why not run the game in 4E and make liberal use of the Disease/Condition track for survival mechanics? The other stuff is already supported by the excellent books published for the edition, DSCS & DSCC. And the lore is leaps better in my opinion than the original release as it developed over time.

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