I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Dark Sun - 10 house rules for 5e (part II)

Here is part I.

Last part was easy. Here come the hard choices. But hey, that is what role-playing is about!

No gods! No healing!

The fluff: the burned world of Athas is, quite literally, a godforsaken place. Did the gods abandon the people of Athas, or was it the other way around? Doesn't matter anymore. There is no one to hear your prayers, no one to bind your wounds, and no one save your soul.

The crunch: there are no active deities in Athas, but, traditionally, Dark Sun allows the sorcerer-kings and the elements to be worshiped instead of actual gods, so you still have cleric-like classes. The main difference is that healing magic is uncommon in Athas. The easiest way to do that is to ban healing magic from the spell lists (trade them for something appropriate), and disallow some features that restores hit points ("lay on hands", etc.). Using the "healing surges" option in the DMG (page 266) is a good idea to balance things out. Any optional rule to raise an stabilized characters to 1 HP after combat would also be useful (just make a DC 10 medicine check or use a healing kit, as long as you're not in combat).

No class!

The fluff: as you might have guessed, some classes don't make much sense in Dark Sun. Traditional clerics and paladins do not fit. Sorcerers, warlocks, and druids must also be adapted to the setting. Some races simply do not exist.

The crunch: personally, I don't like banning classes outright. Warlocks make decent templars, and clerics can worship the elements with the appropriate domains. Sorcerers feel a bit redundant to me, and wild magic is certainly too much if you're using random defilement rules (although you can certainly consolidate one single table and create a new "pure defiler" class from there). Monks make some sense thematically (unless you're using the mystic), although there were banned in 2e Dark Sun. Even paladins can be refluffed as templars, ascended champions of the sorcerers kings (I love the idea of a paladin of vengeance gaining dragon wings or causing necrotic damage whit lay on hands!), or even inspired zealots of forgotten gods. Druids must choose appropriate animals; bards might be assassins with an adequate background. There are enough choices an options to fill a whole book on the subject. Fortunately, there are already some good ideas online. Here is one example.

No races!

The fluff: the original version of Dark Sun forbids some of the traditional races and introduces new ones - some of which aren't available in 5e.

The crunch: you can always re-fluff the the races like you did with the classes, but some options will be inadequate, especially the ones that can cast spells by default. You have enough races in 5e to cover most of the races that are characteristic of Athas: Aarakocra are already oficial, you can use goliaths for half-giants, some variations of dwarf (or orcs!) for muls, etc. The Thri-kreen are trickier, but not much: natural armor, claws, reduced sleep, etc. already exist in the official races. As for the extra arms, my favorite option is saying they can do whatever they want with the extra armas, but no extra actions! A two-handed weapon with a shield and a crossbow? Sword and board AND torch AND knife? Sure, why not!

No metal!

The fluff: Dark Sun is the most metal of all D&D settings, but actual metal is scarce in Athas. This means most weapons are made of obsidian, bone and flint. It also means the may break.

The crunch: coming up with an elegant solution that doesn't penalize fighters with multiple attacks is not easy, but there are a few options. My favorite is that some weapons (slashing and piercing) can break if you roll a natural 20 AND deal maximum damage in the first two dice. This makes breakage rare, but creates some tension when you roll a natural 20.
For example, if you're attacking with a 1d8 weapon, a critical hit would let you roll 2d8; if you roll 8 on both dice (16 damage), the weapon breaks from the impact. Greatswords break if you roll 6 in the first two dice (ordinarily, you roll 4d6 when you crit with a greatsword).
Making metal coins 50 to 100 scarcer also creates interesting situations; now the "price" column in the weapons section finally means something, and you have good reason to use a greataxe or maul.
I also did "no armor" in the first post, but if you want armor just make it heavier and more expensive. Encumbrance becomes relevant again - specially when you notice you will die of thirst before reaching the next city.
High level warriors should get their hands on magical or iron weapons, but there should be other ways of fixing weapons (the mending cantrip, artisan’s tools, etc).

No psionics! No psionics?!?

The fluff: psionics are extremely common in Dark Sun, across all races and classes.... and even in animals and plants! On the other hand, psionics are extremely uncommon in 5e.

The crunch: this is the toughest one. 5e's psionics system is unfinished; all we have are a few classes in the Unearthed Arcana (i.e., playtest material). Which isn't nearly enough for a setting where everybody can have psionic powers. The simplest solution here is spells. Not the most elegant or creative way out, but it is the one the Monster Manual officially uses. And 5e is full of magic by default. So, psionics is (mechanically) just magic with no components and no possibility of defiling. There are other subtle differences: psionics are probably invisible, for example. The "spell list" for psionics should be significantly shorter, and "full caster" classes should be reserved for actual magic. All characters start with a random (psionic) cantrip. Again, not the fanciest solution - but it will do until WotC releases official material for 5e.

No rules!
I admit - this is rule #11 in a top ten list, and feels out of place in a list of, well... rules. But it might be the most important one. I do not treat anything in Dark Sun as canon, mostly because not all Dark Sun canon is good. Back in the day, I used to think the characters in the books did all the cool stuff, so there was little left for the PCs to do. 4e did a decent reboot, but I am not a fan of eladrin in Athas, among other things.
Another reasons is that I like to add stuff from other sources: Tékumel, Carcosa, Zothique, etc. Talislanta is a cool source that I failed to mention (the thralls, pictured above, are more interesting than the muls in some aspects), but any source that works for you is fair game.
In short, my favorite version of 5e is the one I fix - and my favorite version of Dark Sun is the one I make.

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