Archive for July 28th, 2012


dark sun meets ACKS

in case you were wondering

Kalak, the mad tyrant of Tyr and the most notorious sorcerer-king of the Dark Sun Campaign Setting, probably weighs in as a Level 10 Magic-User in Adventurer, Conqueror, King (ACKS).

I may not be doing the math right, though.  I’ll show my work in a minute, but I want to blither about Dark Sun for two sections.

(Disclaimer: several of my friends–Tavis, Paul, Chris H., Chris N., and Tim–have worked on ACKS in one way or another.  I apparently was an unwitting playtester.)


what’s dark sun about?

With some of our indie games wrapping up or on hiatus, I’m thinking about running some D&D that fits my work schedule and is distinct from the other New York Red Box offerings.  “Hey, maybe I’ll do a domain-level end game using 2e in Dark Sun!”

Digging around on Dragonsfoot revealed dissent about what the setting was “all about.”  Granted that the only material I ever cared about was the original Dark Sun Campaign Setting by Troy Denning, I’d say the setting involved three core elements:

  1. Brom’s pictures of a fantasy world gone horribly wrong.
  2. Kirby-ish social commentary about environmentalism and politics, a sort of Sword & Sorcery meets Green Anarchism thing.
  3. Weird mods to the D&D 2e rules, like 4d4 +4 for ability scores, new races, new classes, a huge dollop of psionics, and monsters with embarrassingly dumb names.

This may not hold true for the later supplements, but it’s my take on the original boxed set.

i want my masochism without so much fun, please

In 1992 the changes to the rules seemed exciting and x-treem.  But twenty years later, as I sink into middle age, the changes mostly seem like a headache for little net benefit.

You’ll likely have a higher Strength score, to hit more often for greater damage – but your weapons are mostly made of bone or obsidian, so they’re less accurate and weaker, which probably zeroes out.

Most items are sold at a 99% discount – but copper pieces have replaced the gold piece as the standard medium of exchange, so that zeroes out too.

But mostly my gripe about Dark Sun is that the psionics muddy up a perfectly fine metaphor.  The key setting detail in Dark Sun is that the irresponsible use of magic as a route to political power has led to an ecological catastrophe.  That clearly sets up a conflict between the corrupt Defilers and the benign but somewhat inhuman Druids.  Introducing a third source of supernatural power, one which has no bearing on the central conflict of the setting, seems unnecessary at best.  (Plus, 2e psionics make monsters a bit harder to run, because of unfamiliarity and bookkeeping.)

So my idea shifted from, “Let’s run Dark Sun out of the box” to “Let’s simplify Dark Sun a bit.”

  • Ditch psionics, because it doesn’t add much other than gonzo
  • Ditch the elemental Clerics, at least as PC’s, because they aren’t very interesting
  • Replace the Athasian Bard with the 1e Assassin, which may have been the original intent
  • Merge the Templars with the Defilers; thematically Sorcerer-Kings are just “big” Defilers
  • Replace the Templar/Defiler types with Necromancers
  • Give the monsters a good once-over and maybe a redesign
  • Ah hell, get rid of most of the non-human races (because marathon Elves and workaholic Dwarves are dumb)

And then I realized, “This removes everything that is gonzo and crazy about Dark Sun.  Plus the whole idea was to avoid extra work.  I’m an idiot.”

But the idea would have been to run some 9th level guys struggling to keep Tyr together in the aftermath of Kalak’s death, scheming against ambitious aristocrats, suppressing slave revolts, exterminating Thri-Kreen raiding tribes, and bringing war to neighboring city-states.

what’s this about ACKS again?

What follows is some demographic analysis under the ACKS system, to figure out what the Tyr region looks like under that rules-variant.  The upshot is that the Sorcerer-Kings, far from being world-conquering bad-asses, are more like speed bumps to the mightiest adventurers from more heavily populated worlds.

Behold the Tablelands, the “campaign level” map of the Dark Sun setting, by Diesel.  It’s 120,000 square miles, weighing in at “kingdom” size per ACKS.  Assuming a relatively sparse 30 people per square mile, that would be 360,000 people in the Tablelands as a whole, at the very lower bound of the “kingdom” band.  This population figure is probably rather high: much of this map is uninhabitable.

A kingdom has enough space, and enough people, to support up to six “principalities,” and there are seven city-states in the Tablelands.  Close enough!  Maybe a city-state is a principality?  If so, Kalak, the tyrant of Tyr, is probably around 12th level in ACKS.

Except, a principality in ACKS means a certain amount of territory and people under your control, and the city-states likely come in much smaller.  Here’s a hexographer map of the Tyr region at 6-mile hexes, based on Diesel’s map (I made a few approximations).  Tyr, the city in the center, probably asserts a claim to all of this territory, but (per the text) its actual sphere of control is much more limited.

This map contains approximately 300 hexes, of which about half are either sand dunes or the ungovernable jungles beyond the Ringing Mountains, leaving about 150 available.  If you figure Tyr controls about half of those, it would hold sway over about 75 hexes.  Or, just eye-balling the map, Tyr obviously controls everyting within a 2-hex radius; let’s be generous and say it’s a 4-hex radius instead.  (It likely wouldn’t be a perfect circle: Kalak might cede some of the mountainous territory to control the scrubland to the southwest.)  That works out to just under 1600 square miles, about 70 hexes at 22.5 square miles per hex.  So we’re in the neighborhood of 70-75 hexes.

Let’s say the area around Tyr has about 250 families per 6-mile hex, or 8 families per square mile.  At 70 hexes, that’s 17,500 familes, or 87,500 people.  This territory and population is just at the lower bounds of a “duchy” in the ACKS rules, which is smaller than the principality-sized domain I’d discussed a few paragraphs ago.

What about the city of Tyr?  With 17.5K families, the largest settlement would normally be a large village.  However, ACKS has some rules for adjusting this based on population density.  Societies in Dark Sun tend to be urbanized due to the dangers lurking in the wilderness, and the city-states are highly centralized, so that probably shifts Tyr into a “small city” of about 1250-2500 families.  This matches up pretty well with Kalak’s personal domain of 1500 families, if he’s running a duchy.

What level is Kalak?  Well, he rules a “duchy” of just under 90,000 people.  ACKS suggests that puts him somewhere in the Level 9-10 range.  And if Tyr were a starting city, situated within a populated realm, the minimum level of its ruler would be Level 10.

Level 10 seems a little weak for a world-shaking bad guy like Kalak, but

  • Relative to maximum level, Level 10 in ACKS (capped at level 14) is probably like Level 15 in Second or Third Edition (capped at 20)
  • Dark Sun is a fallen world, where the great achievements of the Green Age are forever lost.  This could mean that there simply aren’t any truly high-level adventurers around any more.
  • Kalak enjoys a lot of infamy, but really, he owns a dying city in the middle of the waste land, in a tiny section of the planet.  He might boast about his power and everyone lives in fear of him, but in objective terms he’s simply a local warlord with a (literal) cult of personality.

If you really want to power him up, you could say that Kalak is a leftover from the time when Tyr really was a principality and had the population (and high-level adventurers) that comes with it.  This would put him around Level 12, a few levels higher than almost anyone in the present era could hope to match because the economy has tanked so hard, largely due to the ecological ruin brought on by Kalak and those like him.  In that sense, the Sorcerer-Kings’ history makes a lot of sense: rise to power, and then completely destroy the economy so that no one can ever rival your might.

is there anything useful I can take from this?

Yeah, maybe.

The assumptions of Dark Sun–D&D 2 tha xtreem!!!–aren’t necessarily a great fit for ACKS, which strives for internal consistency.

ACKS achieves that self-consistent goal impressively well.  Since consistency isn’t Tavis’s strong suit as a GM (indeed, a delightful inconsistency is his watchword), I assume Alex Macris and Greg Tito did the hard work, with help from many editors like Blizack.  The system is fairly easy to use, and everything looks plausible and workable.

The themes in Dark Sun are actually accentuated by this treatment: under D&D’s instrumentalist ethics, genocide and ecological ruin are bad because they make it harder for you to level up!

Being level 10 (or, I guess level 12) is awesome enough to start a cult that worships you (your henchmen, their henchmen, and your apprentices), conquer a city, and force its inhabitants to live in fear.  And maybe make plausible claims to have destroyed the world.  If you’re approaching level 10, Kalak is one of your peers.

Past Adventures of the Mule

July 2012

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