Wednesday, July 13, 2022

(Dark Sun) Dragon Kings

 Dragon Kings puts me in a bit of a dilemma. I think it might be one of those books that's great, but not necessarily good. It has its good moments - customizable thief skills are a neat house rule, and spellcasting sensory effects would be a neat house rule if not for the unfortunate number of charts and modifiers - but it never quite comes together into a coherent whole.

The book's most obvious agenda is Timothy Brown trying to make good on his promise from the boxed set that high-level Dark Sun games would put players at the center of history and get them swept up in grand events that would affect the course of the setting. Nowadays, we'd call that transitioning the game to the epic tier, except that at the time, "tiers of play" weren't really an articulated concept. So, it's a guidebook for epic tier campaigns that doesn't entirely know what the epic tier even is.

And I don't want to undersell the vision here. It feels weird to say, "this is a sloppy epic-level handbook" in reference to what may well be one of the first epic level handbooks to ever exist. It obviously didn't invent the concept, coming six years after the BECMI boxed sets, but unlike those previous attempts at a tier system, Dragon Kings is beginning to grapple with the idea that high-level play is a narrative shift, and not just a mechanical one.

The most direct contrast is with the companion-level domain management rules, where it felt a lot like a community-sim minigame. It's possible, even likely, that the BATTLESYSTEM rules are just as rough and spreadsheet-number-crunchy as the Companion mass combat rules, but I wouldn't really know that from Dragon Kings because it mostly talks (in a desultory and too-brief way) about character motivations. A high-level fighter is someone whose reputation has spread far and wide, capable of great deeds, but only if he proves worthy of the stories.

The end-game plan for the caster classes is even bolder. It is now possible for them to become "advanced beings," peers for the sorcerer kings themselves, and it's all laid out in a level-by-level breakdown. (It's actually such a bold move that I felt disappointed when the book explained the process of granting Templars spells with irreplicable plot magic). Preservers get their own transformation, becoming a creature of light and life known as an avangion. Canonically, it's never been done before, so potentially, your PC will be the first.

I love, love, love that choice. Holding open a major setting milestone for a player character. Later Dark Sun books would undo this choice (if I recall - my understanding of the revised era canon is spotty at best), but for now it's a breath of fresh air - here's something that could majorly change the status quo and maybe even resolve its central conflicts, and we're just going to let the players make the call. The avangion is sort of the anti-Elminster.

Unfortunately, it all starts to fall apart when you try to put it all together. Fighters have a cool epic campaign, focused on war and politics. Spellcasters have a cool epic campaign, focusing on transhumanism and the ecological fate of Athas. Psionicists have a . . . possible epic campaign, focusing on the sinister machinations of an elite psionic organization known as The Order (the only things that really stop this from being great are the Order's bizarre ideology, which is basically just AD&D "neutrality" at its worst and the fact that psionicists don't get notably more powerful at level 21, making the few sensible parts of the Order's agenda seem pretty incoherent - "The Order is not at odds with the sorcerer-kings in any way . . . Since their psionics are inherently corrupted with magic, the Order does not perceive them as a threat to psionic purity.")

Still, if it were just a thematic clash, that could be resolved. It might even be pretty badass, to have all these disparate threads come together in the campaign climax. However, such a plan would be held back by the mechanical impossibility of running these games side-by-side. You need approximately 6-7 million xp to even begin the path of an advanced being (20th level spellcaster + 20th level psionicist). At similar xp totals, the other classes are already approaching level 30. Then, the advanced beings need another 6-7 million to max out their transformation.

In the time it takes an advanced being to reach max level, you could run a 1 to 30 campaign for the other characters twice. This could, in theory, be mitigated by exploiting the character tree - a would-be avangion could keep their spellcaster active all the time, and other players could rotate out (or maybe all PCs have both types of character, a la Ars Magicka's troupe play), but such options aren't really discussed in the book.

Also, we have yet to talk about the other classes yet - rogues get weak multiclassing features as part of their epic progression (A level 21 rogue has the same spells per day as a level 3 mage, which is kind of hilarious - "you've transcended lesser thieves in skill, demonstrating abilities that leave theirs far behind . . . low level illusion spells"). Druids get cool new powers that are only useable on their guarded lands, giving them a kind of anti-campaign. Templars aren't allowed to go past level 20 at all. And though Dark Sun is better about this than most of AD&D, given that everyone has unlimited levels in the psionicist class, there's still the issue of demihumans being left far in the dust.

What this book desperately needs is a discussion on upgrading the character tree into full-on troupe play (especially the frank discussion about unequal power scaling among the classes), so that players and DMs can dial in on epic-level Dark Sun's different genres. It needs seasonal play, so that there's a ready answer for what to do when your advanced being goes on retreat to build a power-focusing monument or slumber in the heart of a crystal tomb for 2d12 months. It needs to balance martial, magical, and skill characters, in spotlight if not in power. It needs, in short, to be an all-around more sophisticated book than TSR was capable of publishing in 1992.

But it comes closer than most of its contemporaries. It feels like a credible prototype of the sort of book it needs to be. That's why I'm comfortable in calling it "great."

Ukss Contribution: Also great: some of the spells and powers.  My runner up is the "Mysterious Traveler" telepathic devotion. Create an aura around yourself that makes you extremely memorable, except that no one can recall where you came from or where you're going. If someone's following you, they'll be directed to the four winds and you'll be nothing more than a local legend.

This is The Complete Book of Bards all over again. Dungeons and Dragons is experimenting with turning genre tropes into character powers, and it's hilarious and awesome, but it needs to be part of a more daring, self-aware game. It is absolutely on point for a telepath to be able to make an ability check to be mysterious, but why is it a power? Where do you go from there? Are you really going to build a telepath that doesn't have the ability to become mysterious at will? Why is there a character creation tax on such a basic bit of functionality?

Anyway, everyone else who has been making a game with telepathy has just been put on notice . . .

Actually, that technically includes myself, so Ukss will probably get something like this, just not now, because Dragon Kings has a spell that is even cooler: Storm Legion.

The way it works is a priest gathers up their followers and marches into a storm. Once the casting finishes, the followers are uploaded into the storm, disintegrating and becoming part of its substance. The caster joins them last and directs the storm to anywhere they want, at about 10-40 miles per hour. Then, when they reach the destination "the caster and army literally rain out of the sky. Descending as drops of blood, bone, and tissue, the fragments reassemble themselves in 10 rounds (ed note: "minutes") into the individuals they once were."

That is, without a doubt, the coolest bit of arcane travel technology I've ever seen. It's good to be reminded that sometimes D&D could be metal as fuck, and that Dark Sun has a higher concentration of that than average.

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