Friday, June 25, 2021

Dark Sun: Tumult in Tyr

In the Dark Sun campaign setting, the city-state of Tyr is presented as on the brink of some drastic change. The Sorcerer-King Kalak has confiscated the slaves of the nobles to build his ziggurat, is taxing the people unmercifully to pay for it, and is neglecting his trade obligations to neighboring states. Kalak's reasons for doing this and the results of his actions for for his city play out in the novel The Verdant Passage and in the module Freedom.

In canon, revolution comes to Tyr as Kalak tries to bootstrap himself into dragonhood, and he's thwarted and killed. These events are reflected in the descriptions of Tyr in the revised campaign setting and the 4e Dark Sun setting book.

There are a few other interesting tidbits regarding Tyr. It has the only iron mines in the region. It has a Senate made up of the city nobles that are marginalized and at odds with Kalak's templar bureaucracy. Kalak keeps the still-living, severed heads of former allies Sacha and Wyan around to advise him, and they live on blood. (There is some discrepancy about who Sacha and Wyan are/were. Verdant Passage has Kalak claim they were chieftains that helped him conquered Tyr, and Sacha is presented as the progenitor of the Mericles noble house. In both later novels and rpg material, they are fellow "champions of Rajaat" killed by the dragon.)

Metaplot aside, resolving "Tyr as powder keg" too quickly in the line feels like a misstep to me. I would drag this out, let PCs get involved with the interplay of the factions. Even if they have no desire to become revolutionaries, there's a lot of interesting gameplay that could be wrung from this, whether the players approach it like Yojimbo or just work to avoid it.

I would ditch the name "the Senate" (too much Roman association) but keep the oligarchy as a faction, maybe remaining it the Council or Supreme Council (which the chief governmental body of Carthage was called) or even "The Mighty Ones" (the literal translation of the council advising Phoenician kings).

I love Kalak's plan to jumpstart himself into a dragon, so that has to stay. I also think the severed head advisors are a great touch. I would borrow a bit from Clark Ashton Smith's "The Empire of the Necromancers" and say that Sacha and Wyan (I would change those names, too) were sorcerers and colleagues of Kalak who all came together to the village of Tyr, which at that time was in a small, marshy, wetland amid the ruins of a more ancient city. The three built the city, perhaps with undead labor, but eventually Kalak betrayed and killed the other two.


JB said...

I'm not a fan of the up-front, baked-in metaplot. When I get a new campaign setting I want something to explore (with the players) a bit, rather than something teetering on the precipice. New heroes (i.e. 1st level PCs) should be introduced during a lull in the action, not in the thick of it before they have a chance to get settled in.

That is, if you plan on running anything longer than a one-off or a handful-of-sessions-story-arc.

I've never had this kind of thing work at the gaming table.

Trey said...

Plot to me implies the outcome is known. I wouldn't characterize presenting an unstable situation in a place as plot or metaplot--that's just situation.

JB said...

Yes, I agree. There is a distinction.

Even so, there’s a difference between throwing a new batch of PCs into a situation with “conflicts” (a rival city-state over the hill, factions among local political powers) and putting them on a powder keg that’s already had the fuse lit. What you describe as the state of affairs in Tyr seems to be the latter situation. No, it may not be a “plot” pet se, but can the PCs do anything to keep chaos from erupting in the town? Are they *expected* to do anything (and will they face repercussions by inaction?)? If the answers to ANY of those questions are “yes,” then I’m going to say it’s a little heavy handed (and lacking in player agency) for my taste in a campaign setting.

As a one-time adventure? Still could be okay. But for the time investment needed to run something as off-the-wall as DS, I’d prefer a long-term game.

Trey said...

I feel like you are making assumptions that things are a certain way which doesn't conform to what I actually wrote.

I'm a bit confused by your first question. You say if the player's CAN do anything to keep chaos from erupting in the town, then it lacks player agency? Surely, fixing things so that the PCs CAN'T do anything to effect events would be more particularly imperiling to player agency.

Your second questions is actually two questions: Are they expected to do anything? Expected by whom? The DM? I would say no. It's up to them to choose to do something or to ignore it.

But now that second question: Will they face repercussions? If you mean the DM will punish them for not doing what they wanted them to, no. But it would be silly if a city descending into revolution or civil war was inconsequential for the players. There will undoutably be repercussions of their choices. That's what it means to make meaningful choices.

Anne said...

For some reason Kalak strikes me as a Silicon Valley tech bro type, desperately trying to "go public" with his startup (ie, turn himself into a dragon god who draws magic directly from the support of his believers) before the venture capital runs out. Meanwhile, he's got a terrible burn-rate, and everything about the launch is behind schedule.

"The Mighty Ones" (love that name!) are of course his investors. They're getting antsy because they can see the cash pool ebbing lower, there's some reason to fear that Kalak has rigged himself a golden parachute (ie, he'll still become a dragon, even if he doesn't become a dragon GOD), and they're starting to suspect they might not be about to join a pantheon after all.

So Kalak is both sympathetic in his problems and odious in his personality, and his investors are somehow even worse than he is.

Dick McGee said...

FWIW, I always felt that TSR chose to "start" Dark Sun's timeline where it did in large part because Kalak's recent fall gave the PCs one (and only one) city-state that could act as a "home base" that wasn't under the thumb of a sorcerer-king. Whether it would stay that way was inevitably going to be partly decided by the PC's actions going forward simply because they're the point of view characters and RPG tradition kind of calls for them to get involved in bigger things.

Whether that was really a good choice on the company's part is debatable (as is the value of metaplots in general) but given how powerful and flat-out evil the SKs are giving starting PCs someplace relatively free from their influence (at least for a while) seems a good idea. You could maybe get the same "safehouse" effect by just starting the party in some tiny settlement out in the middle of nowhere, though.

JB said...

@ Trey:

Yeah, I probably am (making assumptions, that is).

Usually, there's an expectation that PCs starting a new campaign will begin in a bit of a "safe" space: a place of relative stability, where they can rest and resupply between adventures. While I grant that DS is an unusual campaign setting in MANY ways, to me that is an indication that stability for starting PCs is even MORE important. After all, even experienced players are going to need some time to come to terms with the new bits in its strange setting.

Putting the players in an unstable position right from the get go (which is what I'm inferring from this post) is shaking the starting line, preventing the players from getting their feet under them. They're already dealing with thri-kreen, psionics, corrupting magic, and a lack of steel and water (not to mention crazy iterations of what might consider "normal" D&D races)...and now they can't even count on their home town to not explode? Huh, ok.

To me, it feels like TSR at the time was anxious to "get to the storytelling" in this Strange New World. It's not enough for them to come together as adventurers and find some way to make money/earn XP. Let's throw them in the thick of the action! Even if they aren't "feeling it."

Can we just leave the town? Can we find a different town than Tyr to make our safe base rather than deal with the drama (and inevitable fall out) that is occurring? Or is this something we're expected to "get involved in?"

I.e. are we supposed to take up the role of the plucky heroes in this stage play, a la Dragonlance?

What was TSR supporting at the time? I ask because I don't know. I have only an incomplete box set of the original DS setting, and I haven't read it for a few years and honestly can't remember much. I may have NOT read the thing, being disgusted when I found I'd purchased an incomplete copy of it.

Trey said...

I hear what you are saying. I am less interested in what TSR of the era intended than I am with what can be done with what they gave us.

The concern about a safe place to come home to is valid, but it assumes (1) the adventure is outside the city rather than the the city itself being the site of adventure like Fafhrd & Gray Mouser or the Conan story "Tower of the Elephant"; (2) it assumes simply because the city is unstable in the longterm, that it is not a safe base for PCs in the near turn. I'm agnostic as to when the powder keg of Tyr is going to blow or even if the tensions can't be relieved with smaller explosions.

At the end of the day, though, I find it sort of amusing that having badass PCs (DS PCs start at 3rd level) reside in a situation not dissimilar from one normal (non-levelled folk) have inhabited not infrequently historically is somehow not playing fair.