Degree of difficulty should probably count for something. Dune Trader, by Anthony Pryor, is less good than the previous Dark Sun books, and I have to figure that a contributing factor is that it's attempting something more difficult. The Complete Gladiator's Handbook and Slave Tribes were largely about the victims of Athas' powers that be, and Dune Trader is largely about collaborators.
Most of the dynastic merchant houses have a positive working relationship with the sorcerer-kings. Isn't that nice. A true testament to the Merchant Code's oath of neutrality. "I would trade with the dragon itself if it wished" - that's not actually something to be proud of.
So it's kind of uncomfortable that we're talking about introducing merchant houses into a campaign, and most of them deal in slaves. And of the ones that don't, all but one use slave labor to run their business. Some of these guys are clearly antagonists - like the militarist House Stel, that openly attacks its rivals, or the sinister house Tsalaxa, which dabbles in assassination and blackmail. Player characters are probably meant to start their own enterprise, using the rules in chapter 5, or associate with House Wavir, which was founded by adventurers, refuses to associate with defilers, and absolutely hates slavery.
Yet all of the major houses have an "opportunities" section, which describes the sort of jobs someone might be able to get with the organization.
Maybe I'm just being a prude about the slavery thing. If you remove that element, none of the Houses is really beyond the pale when it comes to playable villain behavior. Oh, no, these fantasy merchants are willing to resort to all sorts of shady schemes to get their goods to market, that doesn't sound like fun at all.
Who am I kidding? I'm already twirling a virtual mustache imagining my rival sitting across the table, forced to come to me for aid after my agents have left their business in shambles. "It was never personal. It's just business."
However, slaves are on the trade goods table. We know the relative demand for captured labor in all the major city states of the Tyr region (though, the chart has an error, because the book is set post-Road to Urik, and thus slavery is outlawed in Tyr). I wouldn't say it goes full on into endorsing slave-trading as an intended mode of play, because it doesn't give a concrete price, but it does have a footnote saying "Cost varies greatly. DM makes decisions for final price."
That is . . . not as much discouragement as I would have liked. It would have been a good idea to at least touch on the subject in the chapter about "Trader Campaigns," but it might be for the best that the book didn't try. It repeatedly calls halflings "savages" and I'm nervous to think what advice we might have gotten.
Other than this single, fraught issue, Dune Trader is a very respectable workhorse of a book. It can sometimes get a little list-heavy, like the part where it describes the dangers posed by raiders and then gives a species-by-species breakdown of typical tactics, or the obligatory 3 forts and one village that are in every major house description (they each have a situation associated with them, but those situations are pretty boilerplate: "frequent target of raids by trade rivals and elf nomads" doesn't really tell me all that much).
Still, the lists are useful for emergency ideas, if nothing else, and the stuff between the lists is good. Each of the major Houses has its own distinct identity and can support subtly different types of campaigns. The minor houses are even better, probably because they only have a few paragraphs to pitch their most compelling idea. I especially liked House Lamnos, which is a small, agile operation that is constantly pissing off the big guys by flying their flags on Lamnos caravans. The book is unclear about whether this is deliberate trademark infringement or just protective mimicry, but both possibilities intrigue me.
The chapter on elvish merchants was probably the best in the book, giving us a diverse and vibrant elvish culture that does not collaborate with the sorcerer-kings, even as they rely on the city-states for survival (by running fly-by-night black markets). I wonder about potential overlap with the upcoming Elves of Athas, but that's a future problem.
Overall, I liked this book. I think it's fair to say Dark Sun is on a streak.
Ukss Contribution: The Decanter of Endless Water. It's owned by an elf. Its inclusion is technically a mistake, because the boxed set explicitly calls it out as an item that does not exist on Athas, but I'm not choosing it to be backhanded. I just like the item. It would likely have been a candidate next time I read a DMG. It's so practical, but somehow it also feels properly mystic and symbolic, like a good magic item should. Plus, you can't help considering its possibilities as a piece of civic infrastructure, and goodness knows I'm a sucker for infrastructure.
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