Thursday, September 22, 2022

(Dark Sun) Road to Urik

 Oh, man, I was not a properly responsible steward of this book. I suppose I had no way of knowing at fourteen that my fun new toy would one day become part of my future self's collecting hobby. There are penciled-in notes on some of the pages and I actually removed the preconstruct characters from the spiral binding. It was a physically painful thing to witness. Yikes.

Still, the unique, two flip-book Dark Sun-style adventure was mostly intact and still entirely useable, so I guess have to just accept that maybe it's a miracle that it survived my childhood at all. Then again, most of my other D&D books from this era are still in pretty good shape . . . except for my first Player's Handbook, Monstrous Manual, and Complete Psionics Handbook, which all disintegrated and had to be replaced. Survivorship bias, maybe?

But this is a very personal and not-at-all-relatable experience, let's talk about the actual text.

It's a little weird to read a completely normal adventure from 1992. It's ambitious. It puts the PCs at the center of Tyr's military mobilization against invasion by the neighboring city-state of Urik by presenting a series of non-linear encounters where you interact with the Tyr's various factions, persuading them to contribute to the war effort, and then uses the mass combat rules to allow the PCs to make a fair, objectively determined contribution to the actual battle. It's big on social interaction, in-character problem solving, and using reasonable consequences to give meaning to player agency. So maybe it's even better than a normal adventure. David "Zeb" Cook knew what he was doing.

Yet it was also from 1992, so it could be a little weird about it. The introduction warns us about the strange nature of this adventure:

This adventure does not follow the progression used in many other modules. The characters do not spend all their time journeying or exploring an underground setting. . . Instead, player characters are involved in a swirl of events . . .You cannot simply describe what is waiting behind the next door: you must create situations, conflicts and sometimes interpret your players' unstated desires to fashion an exciting adventure.

Whoa, really? The PCs are going to get "involved" in "events?" I'm not sure I can cope with such a radical idea.

Okay, sarcasm is fun and all, but what is not sarcastic at all is the visceral, full-body clenching I felt upon reading this line: "Allow the players ample time to make their plans, up to as much as a full gaming session: remember that their characters have four or five hours to plan."

No, no, no, no, no! I understand that the early 90s were a different time for rpgs. People had different expectations. You had to spell out that they were allowed to interact socially with NPCs, but . . . real time planning of imaginary military operations? Did people really do that? I'm thinking about various Shadowrun session where huge chunks of time were lost to excessive planning driven by player risk aversion and I'm aghast that anyone would try to cultivate that on purpose.

But if you filter out the weird early AD&D stuff, Road to Urik is a solid adventure. The plot is thin - recruit your army, march your army, fight with your army, but in theory you could spin off the related-but-independent recruitment encounters into a whole huge story about the city's politics. Sequel potential - where the PCs are popular military heroes who must deal with the jealousy and ambition of Tyr's aristocratic class - is through the roof. And the whole thing is early enough in the Dark Sun line that it's not hopelessly bound up by canon. There's actually a suggestion that the PCs might screw up so thoroughly that they put King Tithian's throne in jeopardy.

In the end, there is some table-setting for the novels. It just outright states that people interested in continuing the war story should read The Crimson Legion. It's pretty mild as far as metaplot railroading is concerned, but it's clear to me from reading this book that Dark Sun is going to be a pioneer in the genre.

Overall, though, my assessment stands that Dark Sun is AD&D at its best. Road to Urik, with few modifications, could be published today and it would still feel like a bold attempt at something outside the norm (though mostly for its high degree of player agency and tier-straddling aspects, rather than the fact that it tries to tell a coherent story). It's enough to make me bitter that my copy looks like total garbage.

Ukss Contribution: This one is tough, not because the adventure was boring, but because it was so basic. The locations are a market and a villa and the desert. The NPCs include an aristocrat who's jealous of your growing popularity and tries to sabotage you to further his political ambitions, a templar-turned-general whose gross incompetence becomes a military liability, a hot-headed gladiator whose eagerness to fight causes its own set of problems.

Stock characters, basically. It wasn't bad, and I have to consider the possibility that using stock characters was as new an innovation in adventure design as "involving PCs in events." But they bring basically nothing to a new context.

So I'm going to go broad and take the entire city of Tyr. That is not a stock location, and actually does something that you rarely see in fantasy - it is a fledgling democracy. Popular organization is still slapdash, ineffectual, and corrupt, but that's because no one knows how to properly do it. Plus the city is saddled with the lingering problem of being in the aftermath of an especially bourgeois revolution. One of the grievances against Kalak is that he commandeered slaves, and maybe that did mobilize the landowners against him, but preserving the slaveholding aristocracy intact, even in the face of emancipation, is going to cause trouble down the line (trust me, as an American, I speak from experience here). 

It all makes for some fascinating internal conflicts that serve to elevate the entire adventure just by being in the background. I imagine it will work similar magic in Ukss.

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