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5E Darksun player backgrounds

Coroc

Hero
Yo guys I am brainstorming about a darksun 5e campaign using mostly the 2e material. The campaign shall start out in Tyr with Kalak still in Power, I want to use the official adventures (starting with freedom) although maybe the timeline altered a bit. I also got access to the City of Tyr accessory (which for fluff is really great).

Assume the players have some clue but not much about darksun and maybe once played a cameo in a crossover long ago
Now my problems: How do I justify that the players

  • are in Tyr (and how much do they know about the city)
  • have just arrived (where do they come from then?)

My preference would be that they somehow grew up in Tyr, but otoh I do not want them to have many resources and contacts there right from the start. How do I justify this? Make them all simple laborers? I did use the "You are all orphans who became war refugees when you arrived together at Greyhawk" approach with my current Greyhawk campaign, so I want to use something different now.

- What general knowledge do they have? Only what comes up during the game, aka wing it? (I prefer this for more flexibility)

Since in freedom they are all thrown into the pits quite railroad I do not care to much about their worldly possesions, since they will be (unretrievable) confiscated.
How do I resolve if someone wants to play a cleric or a preserver?
With clerics, they can manifest a holy symbol by gating in a tiny amount of their element, for preservers I was thinking about spellbooks taking the form of tattoos, or knots in various distances for the hairstyle off the preserver, but how do I resolve if he has to fight in the arena? Will people instantly notice if he uses spells?
I though about making the whole slavepit / working site for the pyramid / arena area a null magic zone.

Any input of you guys is highly appreciated. Please take my "grognard to the extreme " attitude into account,
 

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I'm not quite as familiar with Dark Sun, but I did play a 4E campaign of it. There was a good list of backgrounds in the campaign book, IIRC, and it was set pre-novels. Putting them in the pits is a good starting setup, since it forces them together to survive (a common theme for Dark Sun), but it does create a few issues. Something to be aware of, at least for 5E, is that clerics don't really need a holy symbol except to use Channel Divinity (or to cast a spell that specifically uses a holy symbol as the material component)... they just need the listed material components.

As for a wizard/preserver... this is tricky. We had a DM that ran us in a slave campaign during 3E, and it didn't go well for the wizard. We were told about the campaign setup in advance, so it was the player's fault, but it still made him unhappy for the campaign (which tragically ended on session 4 when we made a break for it and were slaughtered). Another option for the wizard than tattoos would be runestones (if he has a sling, people will think they're for it, even if he never uses them that way).

I have no idea about how people can tell the difference between spellcasting, preserving, defiling, and psionics. As I didn't play in 2E I'm just not familiar with it, while 4E deliberately glossed over it for gameplay balance. Making the slave quarters magic null would be a good idea to prevent escapes, but the area itself should only limit magic from escaping. Such abilities make for a better show, and it also prevents the spellcasters from feeling worthless.
 

humble minion

Adventurer
Some possibilities for PC backgrounds:
  • PCs might have been born and raised slaves in Tyr. The probably haven't been out in the city much, they have very few resources or allies of their own because, well, they're slaves.
  • PCs might have been Tyr residents but who somehow fell foul of Kalak (who is a profoundly petty and grasping tyrant). All their possessions were confiscated, perhaps in the service of building Kalak's ziggurat, and the fact that they were Out Of Favour became widely known and now most of their acquaintances avoid them because they don't want to be tainted by association in the eyes of the sorceror-king.
  • PCs might have been from a small village outside Tyr. Perhaps they're in the city on one of their occasional trading journeys, perhaps the village was destroyed by monsters or sandstorms or something, and they've got nowhere else to go other than go to the city for whatever work they can find

But to be honest - make the players do the work. Lay out some rough guidelines, then say "find a reason why your PCs know and trust one another" or "find a reason why your PCs will be in place X at time Y"

Re general knowledge, i'd put together an 'info pack' cribbed from (for example) the old DS boxed set and bits of the tyr sourcebook, and dump it in front of the players, and say 'this is what you know about Athas' just to give them the basics of city-states, sorceror-kings, templars, athas is dry and horrible, slavery and gladiator fights are big deals, arcane magic eats life, if a halfling and a kreen ask you to dinner don't go, and so on and so on. Handle the rest on the fly. Tyr is a big place, you'll inevitably need to make stuff up anyway. If anyone comes up with really well-informed PC concepts (lots of knowledges etc) then make the info pack bigger for them and them only. Also, give this to them BEFORE they come up with character concepts, and if you're using house rules, tell your players nice and early. Athasian characters are inevitably different, and the restrictions on them are what makes the setting feel unique. You don't want them turning up to session 1 with a half-orc wild magic sorceror, a jolly gnome bard, a tiefling spellsword, and a noble knightly paladin in shiny steel full plate armour and then have to cheese them all off by knocking back their character concepts first thing.

As for clerics - yeah, just go with it. Elemental clerics are pretty well known on athas, and in the cities they're frowned upon (if not actively persecuted) cos they are a way around the templars' monopoly on divine spellcasting. Seeing a cleric in the arena isn't going to surprise anyone. And in the pits, earth and air should be easy to come by. Fire and water are a bit harder, but perhaps some guards with torches etc?

Preservers are a tougher prospect, and that's deliberate. It's a bit easier to be a spellbook-less wizard in 5e because you only need your spellbook to change prepared spells rather than prepare them at all. So you can certainly feel ok in taking your PCs spellbook away for decent lengths of time. Hiding the fact he's a wizard will be much harder - I'd suggest if you have a PC who wants to be a preserver, you talk about this in advance so the player can plan and (at the very least) take Deception or Sleight Of Hand to help disguise spellcasting. Perhaps the PC might have a cover already prepared, as a But really it's mostly the really unnatural stuff that'll give your PC away as a wizard (plus all the plants etc dying if he/she lapses and does a bit of defiling in extremis...). A wizard who focuses mostly on enchantments (and who disguises the chanting, gestures etc) can pass for a psionicist, one who mostly casts fire spells can probably pretend to be an elemental cleric for short periods of time at least. But it won't be easy and it SHOULDN'T be easy. Athas is a hard place to be a wizard. But the flip side of that is - most NPCs will simply have no idea of what a wizard is capable of, they might be terrified of him out of proportion to his actual power, they might not even realise that (for example) illusion spells were a real thing so they're more likely to get fooled by relatively simple minor images etc. Athas can be hostile to wizards, but remembering this sort of thing once in a while can even things up a bit and make the wizard PCs player feel less picked-on.
 

Coroc

Hero
....
You don't want them turning up to session 1 with a half-orc wild magic sorceror, a jolly gnome bard, a tiefling spellsword, and a noble knightly paladin in shiny steel full plate armour and then have to cheese them all off by knocking back their character concepts first thing.
....
As for clerics - yeah, just go with it. Elemental clerics are pretty well known on Athas, and in the cities they're frowned upon (if not actively persecuted) cos they are a way around the templars' monopoly on divine spellcasting. Seeing a cleric in the arena isn't going to surprise anyone. And in the pits, earth and air should be easy to come by. Fire and water are a bit harder, but perhaps some guards with torches etc?
...
Thank you for your detailed post!

About those two items (see cite) :

Of course I make sure they do not get any misconception on allowable races and classes, I do that in all of my campaigns. That is the most easy thing for me :p

With clerics I might handle it differently since I plan to put Templars in as warlocks (technically of the tome since neiter demonic familars nor a n easy magic weapon does appeal me much for Athas). The token could be an actual lawbook or maybe a seal ring or some necklage of status, the patron of course is the sorcerer king/queen.
So the clerics would be wanted for their "divine " capabilities but not be of high status. For me a cleric in Athas comes more like some elementalist wizard with minor access to healing spells (I intend to limit healing spells to 5th level max.)
 

humble minion

Adventurer
Yeah, there's a few possible ways to emulate Templars in 5e. I get that the warlock flavour fits in some ways - the whole concept of making a pact with an evil power, plus it avoids the weirdness of getting cleric spells granted by someone who can't cast them him(or her) self. But on the other hand, I like sorceror-kings as dominant in their own domain, and there's things clerics can do that warlocks just can't. Healing, creating or purifying food/water, curing disease, etc etc, that'd all be very popular and necessary in Athas (and pretty thematically apt for sorceror-kings like the Oba). If Templars can cast these spells, then it strengthens the sorceror-kings' hold on their city. If they can't, the elemental clerics would have a lot more in-universe influence and pull. So I personally prefer the cleric option, but it's really a matter of interpretation. Plus, in all the background and novels, templars are often head-breaking oppressive thugs. It's a lot easier for a cleric to fill that archetype than a warlock...

However, it's not either-or. It may make a lot of sense to put some of these basic cleric utility spells on a sorceror-king pact warlock's spell list, or else make some custom incantations that granted them, and then bang, problem solved.

As for the 'tome' - if you haven't read Lynn Abbey's Dark Sun novels, I'd really recommend them. She's got a great take on templars. A templar's medallion is actually a minor magic item that allows a templar to contact their sorceror-king (though attracting the attention of one's ruler is a profoundly hazardous endeavour and it'd better be for a REALLY good reason...) and for the sorceror-king to gain some awareness of what the medallion's wearer is up to, if he/she decides to pay attention (again, this is often bad news for the templar). A medallion CAN be a cleric-templar's holy symbol (or a warlock-templar's tome, in that interpretation) but it's not limited to that. The templarate as an organisation is composed of individuals who might not all be of the capital-T Templar class. There's psionicist templars and fighter templars, even a druid templar. But because they all carry medallions, they're all members of the templarate.
 

jgsugden

Hero
I think the start of Freedom is an excellent jumping off point for a Dark Sun campaign - but I would advise against using the modules. They were written to be such a railroad set of adventures that it is hard to actually play a character. Any deviation from the desired path is snuffed out by the design of the adventures, or if the DM allows it, they have no real path to get the PCs back on path to continue with the adventures. The PCs end up on for the ride, but not driving the bus.

That being said, I will not run Dark Sun until they release the setting as I don't want to be halfway through the campaign and have WotC release a new book that works different than my psionics, my templars, my earth priests, etc... Psionics plays a huge part of my homebrew rules, but I intentionally make it rare and mysterious so that when a new edition is released, I can hide it in the shadows while awaiting official rules for it... and it has been a long wait this edition.
 

Coroc

Hero
Yeah, there's a few possible ways to emulate Templars in 5e. I get that the warlock flavour fits in some ways - the whole concept of making a pact with an evil power, plus it avoids the weirdness of getting cleric spells granted by someone who can't cast them him(or her) self. But on the other hand, I like sorceror-kings as dominant in their own domain, and there's things clerics can do that warlocks just can't. Healing, creating or purifying food/water, curing disease, etc etc, that'd all be very popular and necessary in Athas (and pretty thematically apt for sorceror-kings like the Oba). If Templars can cast these spells, then it strengthens the sorceror-kings' hold on their city. If they can't, the elemental clerics would have a lot more in-universe influence and pull. So I personally prefer the cleric option, but it's really a matter of interpretation. Plus, in all the background and novels, templars are often head-breaking oppressive thugs. It's a lot easier for a cleric to fill that archetype than a warlock...

However, it's not either-or. It may make a lot of sense to put some of these basic cleric utility spells on a sorceror-king pact warlock's spell list, or else make some custom incantations that granted them, and then bang, problem solved.

As for the 'tome' - if you haven't read Lynn Abbey's Dark Sun novels, I'd really recommend them. She's got a great take on templars. A templar's medallion is actually a minor magic item that allows a templar to contact their sorceror-king (though attracting the attention of one's ruler is a profoundly hazardous endeavour and it'd better be for a REALLY good reason...) and for the sorceror-king to gain some awareness of what the medallion's wearer is up to, if he/she decides to pay attention (again, this is often bad news for the templar). A medallion CAN be a cleric-templar's holy symbol (or a warlock-templar's tome, in that interpretation) but it's not limited to that. The templarate as an organisation is composed of individuals who might not all be of the capital-T Templar class. There's psionicist templars and fighter templars, even a druid templar. But because they all carry medallions, they're all members of the templarate.
Love the medallion thing, did not know about that. I will use this for sure. Some of the medallions will be more powerful than others😁
 

Coroc

Hero
I think the start of Freedom is an excellent jumping off point for a Dark Sun campaign - but I would advise against using the modules. They were written to be such a railroad set of adventures that it is hard to actually play a character. Any deviation from the desired path is snuffed out by the design of the adventures, or if the DM allows it, they have no real path to get the PCs back on path to continue with the adventures. The PCs end up on for the ride, but not driving the bus.

That being said, I will not run Dark Sun until they release the setting as I don't want to be halfway through the campaign and have WotC release a new book that works different than my psionics, my templars, my earth priests, etc... Psionics plays a huge part of my homebrew rules, but I intentionally make it rare and mysterious so that when a new edition is released, I can hide it in the shadows while awaiting official rules for it... and it has been a long wait this edition.
Yes i realized the railroad aspect. I will try to counter that by maybe having the pcs hang around tyr a bit after its liberation.
 

Marandahir

Crown-Forester
Yeah, there's a few possible ways to emulate Templars in 5e. I get that the warlock flavour fits in some ways - the whole concept of making a pact with an evil power, plus it avoids the weirdness of getting cleric spells granted by someone who can't cast them him(or her) self. But on the other hand, I like sorceror-kings as dominant in their own domain, and there's things clerics can do that warlocks just can't. Healing, creating or purifying food/water, curing disease, etc etc, that'd all be very popular and necessary in Athas (and pretty thematically apt for sorceror-kings like the Oba). If Templars can cast these spells, then it strengthens the sorceror-kings' hold on their city. If they can't, the elemental clerics would have a lot more in-universe influence and pull. So I personally prefer the cleric option, but it's really a matter of interpretation. Plus, in all the background and novels, templars are often head-breaking oppressive thugs. It's a lot easier for a cleric to fill that archetype than a warlock...

However, it's not either-or. It may make a lot of sense to put some of these basic cleric utility spells on a sorceror-king pact warlock's spell list, or else make some custom incantations that granted them, and then bang, problem solved.

As for the 'tome' - if you haven't read Lynn Abbey's Dark Sun novels, I'd really recommend them. She's got a great take on templars. A templar's medallion is actually a minor magic item that allows a templar to contact their sorceror-king (though attracting the attention of one's ruler is a profoundly hazardous endeavour and it'd better be for a REALLY good reason...) and for the sorceror-king to gain some awareness of what the medallion's wearer is up to, if he/she decides to pay attention (again, this is often bad news for the templar). A medallion CAN be a cleric-templar's holy symbol (or a warlock-templar's tome, in that interpretation) but it's not limited to that. The templarate as an organisation is composed of individuals who might not all be of the capital-T Templar class. There's psionicist templars and fighter templars, even a druid templar. But because they all carry medallions, they're all members of the templarate.
I would imagine that a Sorcerer-King Pact (Dragon-Pact?) Warlock would have healing spells, akin to that of the Celestial-Pact Warlock. Either way, they're clearly defilers, and elemental clerics should be a type of Druid, instead, with the cleric (and paladin) class missing altogether from the setting.

For a Dark Sun game, I'd actually repurpose and/or homebrew some EGW/MOT-style Supernatural Gifts to grant each player, or else give them a bonus feat, to emulate that "Athasians start at 3rd level" schtick from 2e (would also be similar to the heroic themes from 4e that were introduced for the same purpose in that edition's Dark Sun Campaign Setting).
 

I think you need a page or three of prep material for the players. And it should have two sections, common lore their character know. This will give them a feel for the setting and should be written like an Intro to Athas. This way they know about water, defiling and some of the social norms. You might be able to find this from a previous book you can just use. Then you need a second part, a metagaming / OOC discourse that explains that their are very real in-game consequences that will happen regularly if they chose certain builds. This will outline racial predjudices, and their in-game consequences. It will make explicit that if a character if a preserver, they will be persecuted and perhaps killed just because. That magic is a secret they must keep close and if they openly use magic it might just bring the entire city down upon their heads (even if they use it for 'good'). And when the players outline their characters, raise these points to them again.

Then let the game play as it will.
 

Coroc

Hero
I would imagine that a Sorcerer-King Pact (Dragon-Pact?) Warlock would have healing spells, akin to that of the Celestial-Pact Warlock. Either way, they're clearly defilers, and elemental clerics should be a type of Druid, instead, with the cleric (and paladin) class missing altogether from the setting.

For a Dark Sun game, I'd actually repurpose and/or homebrew some EGW/MOT-style Supernatural Gifts to grant each player, or else give them a bonus feat, to emulate that "Athasians start at 3rd level" schtick from 2e (would also be similar to the heroic themes from 4e that were introduced for the same purpose in that edition's Dark Sun Campaign Setting).
Yes I will not allow feats nor human variant, but every player gets a psi talent from UA Mystic3 (I will use this one for the psionics, specifiacally only the subclasses Awakened Immortal and Avatar and their sciences)
For ASI the players will have the choice between regular ASI and getting an additional psi talent.
 

Coroc

Hero
I think you need a page or three of prep material for the players. And it should have two sections, common lore their character know. This will give them a feel for the setting and should be written like an Intro to Athas. This way they know about water, defiling and some of the social norms. You might be able to find this from a previous book you can just use. Then you need a second part, a metagaming / OOC discourse that explains that their are very real in-game consequences that will happen regularly if they chose certain builds. This will outline racial predjudices, and their in-game consequences. It will make explicit that if a character if a preserver, they will be persecuted and perhaps killed just because. That magic is a secret they must keep close and if they openly use magic it might just bring the entire city down upon their heads (even if they use it for 'good'). And when the players outline their characters, raise these points to them again.

Then let the game play as it will.
Yes that is about the way I intended to do it. I will use UA Mystic3 for the psionics, and write a little essay about the main features of Athas (Desert, need of water, inferior weapons and armor, lack of metal, psionics, preserving/defiling, elemental clerics, city states, templars and sorcerer kings)
 

How do I resolve if someone wants to play a cleric or a preserver?
I have no idea about how people can tell the difference between spellcasting, preserving, defiling, and psionics.
I played Dark Sun in 2e and ran a campaign in 4e. Because 4e had different power sources, I highlighted the differences between those, much to the enjoyment of the players.

Everyone had some psionic ability, even if minor (and this was reflected in the mechanics). So, this attracted no attention.

Preserving and defiling were different aspects of spell casting that used the Arcane power source. I did like how the mechanics worked - preserving was the default but defiling granted you a bonus. I don't recall the exact bonus (Advantage IIRC), but it had the cost of very obvious effects like withering plants or draining life force from (damaging) allies. People could feel it when arcane magic was used. I house ruled even larger bonuses to tempt more defiling, but it would attract attention (especially Templars and SKs) like a Jedi would if using force powers in the Rebellion era.

Divine magic was non-existent. 4e had elemental clerics as a theme but no divine classes. The only remaining main power source was primal, which I spun as the antithesis of arcane magic and very rare.

How do I justify that the players
  • are in Tyr (and how much do they know about the city)
  • have just arrived (where do they come from then?)
My preference would be that they somehow grew up in Tyr, but otoh I do not want them to have many resources and contacts there right from the start. (snip)
- What general knowledge do they have? Only what comes up during the game, aka wing it? (I prefer this for more flexibility)

Since in freedom they are all thrown into the pits quite railroad I do not care to much about their worldly possesions, since they will be (unretrievable) confiscated.
I have the Tyr boxed set and would lay out the map when they were in the city. My campaign also began pre-Freedom and in fact, that never actually occurred. It evolved toward the PCs trying to overthrow Kalak (but alas was never achieved, as the group dissolved for IRL reasons).

PCs could simply start in Tyr, which as a city-state was a big place to accommodate multiple backgrounds and classes. PCs had a basic understanding of the city and how it worked but resources were minimal as SKs and Templars would want to keep the population under their control.

You will have to decide on how to treat clerics if you use 5e rules, perhaps reskinning divine magic to elemental magic.

Finally, one thing you will have to decide is how SKs and Templars and the public treat spell casters and the role the Veiled Alliance plays in your world.
 

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