Friday, 25 June 2021

[OSR Review] Dark Sun boxed set (AD&D reprint)

Dark Sun


AD&D Settings

As much as I hate AD&D2's ruleset and its inform bunch of heterogeneous rules (where there is no rules without an exception, or an interdiction to mix this and that), the settings developed by TSR back then have earned a lot of praise.

I have been for a long time a fan of the Birthright setting, but it is the only TSR setting that I have read.

I really started D&D with the 3rd edition and its lovely unified mechanics, and fell in love with Eberron, but was already done with the typical "vanilla fantasy", having had my cup of that in the end of the 90ies, in a long campaign where i had mixed modules for warhammer, D&D, stormbringer, basically any fantasy module i could get my hands on with my very limited funds (Magic was taxing my teenager purse, too).

4th Edition came and flopped, it was not my cup of tea either, but suddenly appeared this strange thing: The OSR movement. Even though I was not a fan of the older rulesets  (to be honest, because of AD&D2, I didn't really know them, and they are far better than I thought... But were not available unless in original and really pricey).

Now 5th edition is here and Wizards publishes mainly revamped versions of older campaign, mainly set in the Forgotten Realms. Still very high fantasy, not my thing.

Curse of Strahd's success demonstrated the appetite of the gamers for the mythic settings and Print on Demand started to get really good...

Available again

Wizards was able to offer reprints of their old settings, not in the original box format, but at least in Hardcover and color. To a price that is much cheaper than what the boxes get traded for on the secondary market.

So it is possible to get those renown settings for a price that is actually under the price of a new setting. So, in January, I decided to close a gap in my RPG culture and order two of these mythical settings:
Planescape and Dark Sun.

I thought that Planescape would be more something for me, but I have not yet been able to get deep enough in the book to find anything that tingles my sense of wonder and triggers my imagination (to be honest, i never liked alignments, which is a big deal in Planescape)

Having Dark Sun at home, it somehow fell on my "to read" staple and it surprisingly appealed to me, probably because it's clearly a post-apocalyptic fantasy world, and that's not very common. On top of it, it's a hard world, with really borderline subjects (survival at all cost and slavery)


I decided to do a review chapter by chapter, booklet by booklet (they are all printed one after the other in the reprint), mainly because most of what i liked can be found in one book and most of what i did not like in another

Rules Book

Character creation (chapter 1-5)

This is the part that i liked the least in all the boxed set. As I said, I don't like the AD&D2 ruleset. I had to force myself to read it through, but there were enough tidbits of the universe to make reading this part interesting. The "new take on races" praised on the cover was really kind of new. Not well written, but definitely new. I really hated how most races are untrusting towards other races, how elves are completely described as loners (good luck with your group, if you have someone playing an elf in the group, whose player wants to follow the guidelines of the rules book). It's not that it's badly written, but the game design behind the race creations is... Let's say outdated to stay polite.
I understand that in the early 90ies, they were only starting to introduce the "role" part of roleplaying into D&D, the whole "character centered" hype, induced by Vampire and the rest of the World of Darkness, had not yet happened, and there was not a lot of pre-existing theories or even books that had gone in that direction before. So that's why I say outdated instead of crappy. At least they were experimenting something different to get D&D out of the "dungeons only" style of play.

Money and equipment (chapter 6)

During this mysterious apocalypse, metal disappeared. Not completely, but metal is really scarce. The books tells you so like 8 times during the whole text of the boxed set. Still, that is a very interesting chapter, going over the alternatives to metal (for coins, they use ceramic instead of copper, which would be much more valuable, and all other metals and metallic objects cost a hundredfold - XP in measured in copper, instead of gold), but also describing a lot of the material needed to cross a desert.

A good chapter in my opinion, even though the AD&D stats were boring and the way "suboptimal" weapons (made from bone or obsidian) is just a -x to hit, which is also kind of lame. But it works...

Magic (chapter 7)

Very interesting chapter too, presenting a very different magic system corresponding to new and modified magic classes. The setting is very well expressed through these differences in the way that magic works.
I wonder whether the Templar class would not be better emulated in 5E with a warlock reskin, bound to one of the sorcerer-kings, or as a fallen paladins.

Psionic abilities are also something difficult to emulate in 5E, but i'm sure the internet has already brewed a solution for this...

Experience, Combat, treasure, and encounters (chapter 8-11)

Not the most thrilling chapters to read if you're not gonna use the AD&D ruleset.
In a nutshell:

  • Combat in the heat is exhausting. The Arena disciplines / types of entertainment are well written and inspiring, at least.
  • There are experience rewards for playing your class/race the right way (which I find often working against group cohesion, the same way as the races were described)
  • Metal is scarce and therefore worth a lot - forget that plate armor...
  • There are a few specific magical objects, related to desert or psionics, described, but most important is that the gauntlet of ogre power NEED to be named differently because there are no ogres in Athas (doh!)
  • The encounter chapter just lists which creatures of other settings also exist on Athas (very boring and devoid of interest, badly presented on top of it)

NPCs (chapter 12)

2 pages on how to use the classes as NPCs, particularly the druid and templars. Most of the information there is a repetition of what was said earlier, but one table listing duties of templars related to their level is really interesting.

Vision & Light, Time and movement (chapter 13-14)

Vision and light gives rules for fighting in a sand tempest. Forgettable. You'd be better off with a ruling than these rules.
Time and movement covers also the Athasian Calendar (some people love other calendars, this one is well done, at least), overland travel and vehicles, and dehydration.
The part on overland travel and vehicle brings a lot of information on the world and is really well made.
The rules on dehydration are hash, like really harsh, but well thought of to illustrate the importance of water in a desert setting.

Spells (chapter 15)

New spells and modification to pre-existing spells, for example with spell that create water: They create much less.
Short chapter and interesting, even when not using AD&D

The Wanderer's Journal (DM's guide)

All in all, the most interesting part of the boxed set, but with its problems. Most of the stuff is really good but suffers from repetitions (quite a lot is described twice of thrice, if relevant to more than one chapter) and lacks in details, barely scratching the surface (liberty for the DM, my ass, there is nearly nothing playable without putting a lot of effort in developing around the described crumbs of setting).
The Atlas of the Tyr region was my favorite part, describing the city-states, but also all places where water can be found and where the interesting ruins are.
The metaplot is not described here, neither is any explication for the apocalypse.
The monsters that are described are interesting and illustrated (B&W and old school).
Actually, I should have spent more time of the review on this booklet, which is the real meat and really interesting, even with some slight defaults. This booklet makes me want to read more on Athas (which I will)

A little Knowledge

This booklet in a smaller format is in two parts. The pages were not scaled to the size of the book, so half of the surface (around the page itself) is just blank. That's a bit lazy on the part of the editor... I'm sure that scaling it to 90% of the page would have looked better without being to much troubles.

The booklet starts with a short story set in the world of Athas, which I found quite OK. It's entertaining and delivers the tone of the setting quite explicitly and relentlessly. You know Athas is dangerous after reading this.

After that, there is an introductory adventure in 2 parts, one for the DM, and one for the players with images to show them. The adventure is extremely directive and really bad written. Couldn't get myself to read it until the end, that's how bad it is. The player's part is cool too, and the images very evocative. So the author HAD TO MAKE SURE YOU'D HAVE TO USE THEM ALL. Therefore letting no room outside of his diktat of a scenario to do anything. Felt more like roll-playing than role-playing to me. To me this is by far the worst part of the box. I don't think that TSR kept this idea for other settings and i can understand why.

Review of the Print on Demand

I've bought a hardcover version of the boxed setting and it's quite good. The paper feels a bit cheap, but the colors are nice and the paper is thick. The ink does not stink. The binding is good. It's really a nive object and I'm happy to have bought it.
Only minus points are the maps, printed on 8 pages (but I did not expect that to be any other way) and the smaller folio that was kept in original size with immense margins.
I was really enthusiastic about the overall quality of the PoD books. Enough to order Spelljammer.

Reading Next

I've also bought the PoD of the 4th edition Dark Sun book, dreaming of a more detailed setting. I'll compare and tell you then


Don't refrain from sharing your thoughts in the comments, I normally validate the comments quickly.
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Wednesday, 19 May 2021

[OSR] Real places in RPG [8]: Majlis al-Jinn cave

 Majlis al-Jinn

Staying in the "desert mood", I want to present you the second largest cave on earth, the Majlis al-Jinn.

It means the "gathering place of the Djinns". How could we leave out this place ­čśŐ?

This gigantic cave under the plateaus of the Oman desert is a single chamber measuring about 310 metres by 225 metres (over 6 soccer fields of base surface!)

From above

It actually looks like 3 black holes in the ground, nowhere anybody sane would like to get it (unless a loved one was falling down)

The smallest hole is about 2 meters wide, while the biggest (on the middle of the image) could easily swallow 3 cars at the same time...

From the top, it's difficult to make anything out in the cave, 120 m further down


Once inside, it's another matter completely: The sun comes through the 3 holes, in fierce rays of light...

Photo by Yousef Tuqan: DSC_17
Photo by Yousef Tuqan: DSC_17

There the ambient light is in the yellow tones, because of the reflection on the walls and floor.
All sort of animal bones litter the ground under the holes, these having not survived the 120 m drop.
You can see on the photo how small humans are in comparison, one is under the left ray of light.


After a heavy storm, some water can be found in the cave... If the climate outside was more temperate (or at least rainy), this cave could be an extremely big water reservoir or underground lake. No hole leads out, but one might exist, caved in under tons of rubble, allowing excess water to seep through.


In most Arabic legends, free Djinns live in this kind of gigantic caverns.
It is easy to imagine that a magic force has created these caves, because of their majesty, eerie size, and awe-inspiring proportions.

Typically, Djinns grant wishes, but for a price, and often interpret the wish in the worst way possible. Only the craziest and most desperate persons would seek their help.

1D12 reasons to seek a Djinn

Desperate times call for desperate measures. If you want your player characters to meet a Djinn, you need to prepare them for the encounter:

  • have an NPC tell them where to find a Djinn and how dangerous they are
  • Put the characters in a very bad situation (see table)
  • Apply pressure until they have no other choice left ("there are times where all choices are bad choices"). Have their allies arrested, or obligated to lay low. Attack their finances (you don't have  to take their finances away, just make them temporarily worthless, like coins from an enemy kingdom). Have the authorities and the sultan's men track them. Don't let them sleep or heal their wounds. Let them go to daddy-Djinn...

D12Reasons to seek a Djinn
1A character in the group died, and no clergy will or can perform a resurrection
2The love of your life has been kidnapped and no one else can find out their location
3A curse has been bestowed on a party member and its state is worsening by the hour
4A ransom for someone important to the party has been issued, but how should they find that much money?
5An important object was lost in Aether by the destruction of a bag of holding. Who else could locate it?
6A character caught the Sandplague. Their heart will soon start to turn into sand, if not cured...
7A dangerous cult think you are the perfect sacrifice to their dark deity. You need a new identity
8A party member killed the beloved Sultan's son by mistake. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide 
9A caught spy gave your names as its accomplices'. And you thought he was just a resourceful guide
10The captain of the ship that brought to the city is accused of piracy. You arrrrr now hunted as pirates
11Someone paid a big bounty to have the best assassin in the known world chasing your party
12You need passage to the City of Brass, where many Djinns & Efreets live

What could the Djinn want from you

A Djinn will not give you three wishes, only in Disney does that kind of thing happen...
Not only will the Djinn try to corrupt your wish with a technicality, he will want from you something in return. Something you'd prefer never to lose.

D12Compensation for a Djinn's service
1The fiery part of your soul. You can't be resurrected without it
2Your ability to love 
3Your reputation. You will always get defamed ever after
4Your firstborn. Beware of the Djinn's wrath if you made a vow of chastity
5All your good memories of your parents. You keep the bad ones, though
6Kill someone very near to you in the future, when asked for it
7A quest to set free an innocent spirit. But, can an Efreet really be innocent ?
8Kill a minor god of a small pantheon and bring back their divine essence 
9Bring them back the heart of the Emir's young daughter, literally
10Give away some of your life experience (yeah, you'll loose levels)
11Give away 33 years of your life expectancy (or considerably more for longer living races)
12Your ability to read and to ever be able to learn it again (not proposed to barbarians)

What else could the cave be?

If you're not into Djinns & Efreets, the cave could also be:
  1. The mating ground of sandworms / sand dragons
  2. The pit in which all the dead are thrown - a necromancer's wet dream
  3. The entrance to the tomb of Pharao-King Psamtik 66th
  4. The Hall of grievances of the Wraith-King of the desert (only appears when the full moon shines vertically over the main hole)
  5. A refuge for the sand giants, before they disappeared
  6. The antechamber to a circle of teleportation, hidden under the rubble
  7. the brooding ground of a serpentkin race
  8. A ruined stonelift to the underworld
  9. The place of worship nearest to the body of a slumbering non-euclidean chtonian entity
  10. An abandoned Mythril mine. Maybe there's ore left?
  11. The nearly depleted quarry for the bood-stone pyramid
  12. The temple where all the known true names of demons where engraved in the walls


Don't refrain from sharing your thoughts in the comments, I normally validate the comments quickly.
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Real places in RPG post series

Tuesday, 11 May 2021

[OSR] Real places in RPG [7]: Izadkhast Caravanserai

Izadkhast Caravanserai


70 kilometers north of Abadeh next to Izadkhast city, in the Iranian Desert.

This place is on a road that has always  fascinated me: The silk road. This was a network of mainly land trade routes going from China to western Europe. It's by no mean only one road, lots of branches have been created during its centuries of existence, with the rise and fall of powers along its tracks and the ever changing taxation on the goods going along that road which have dictated its course...

Recommended music to read this post: Prince Of Persia OST - A Fight Of Light And Darkness

File:Izadkhast Old Caravanserai Iran.jpg

"File:Izadkhast Old Caravanserai Iran.jpg" by Alireza Javaheri is licensed under CC BY 3.0

Why Iran?

I know most of you probably have some prejudices against that country, but its situation on the silk road and relative war-free recent history lead to a country full of historical and cultural treasures, but few tourists at the same time (which is important if you're searching for images).


Etymologically meaning a "palace for caravans", a caravanserai was a roadside inn where travelers and merchants could rest and recover from the day's journey. They supported the flow of commerce, information and people across the network of trade routes covering Asia, North Africa and Southeast Europe, at which point most caravans and merchants continued on with their travel using the sea ways of the Mediterranean sea.

You can compare them to the fortified Inns of medieval Europe, because they served the same purposes:

  • protecting travelers, merchants, and caravans from adverse weather (sand storms, flash-floods, storms)
  • offering a nightly refuge in security from marauding bandits and wild animals
  • serving as a place of exchange for wares, rumors, and information
  • Trading place between local farmers and artisans with the passing merchants

The network of these palaces was tight enough that you would normally not have to sleep in the dangerous wilderness.


File:Neyestanak Caravanserai Inner Courtyard 2007-01-01.jpg
"Neyestanak Caravanserai Inner Courtyard 2007-01-01" by Kaveh Hosseini (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Typically, after stepping through a fortified entrance portal, you would enter into a spacious court, around which niches and roofed accommodations can be rented. These were somewhat spartan, and meant as well as stables for the beasts of burden.
Some richer caravanserai would also offer access to a public bath, and access to a mosque (with a place for ritual ablutions)
Some of these palaces were also situated in towns, but their court would be much smaller, but the buildings much higher, offering lodging for the town population in the higher floors (an independent stream of income in case of bad times for commerce). These are then named Khan, Funduq, or Wikala.

Fantasy Economics

Unless you have a very developed network of cheap teleportation circles, or a very advanced technological level allowing advanced sea travel or railways, you'll need this kind of inn networks along the most commonly used trade routes of your fantasy world.

These inns are an excellent starting point for a new campaign, even though they might not be different enough from a tavern for the most experienced readers.

I recommend reading what you can find on Oleg's trading post, a renown fortified inn with a central role in the start of the "Kingmaker" campaign. But if you're playing in an Arabian Nights setting or Dark Sun, you're gonna want to read more on caravanserais.

It's worth mentioning that import goods, particularly those that come from far away, have to cost a lot in a medieval setting, because transporting them takes a lot of time, is dangerous, and wares often get taxed along their transport. This is why silk was so expensive back in the days where nobody knew how to make it in Europe.
You have to wait for Louis the 14th's economical policies to start royal workshops (the beginning of the industrialization in Europe) and his economical espionage forays, to see silk production in Europe.

Adventure seeds around the caravansarai

I hope these adventure seeds will help you give life to this place and you'll want to include it in your campaign (as a fortified Inn or Caravanserai, both would work)

D12 Adventure seed
1 A group of bandits is ambushing the caravans & needs to be dealt with
2 A group of bandits attacks only the wealthiest of merchants. Who is informing them?
3 A feud between the local lord & the next on the road makes travel unsure. Can you help find an arrangement?
4 When you enter the courtyard, everyone & all animals were slain, & the wares destroyed. Was it the whim of a Djinn?
5 The Caravanserai is quarantined, but the merchants met the day before were not sick. Poison or malediction?
6 A thief posing as a merchant robbed another one blind and disappeared on a secondary road. Can the wares be recovered?
7 A dangerous cult infiltrated a few caravans and prepare a mass sacrifice of merchants to invoke a bloodthirsty Abomination
8 A sandstorm has been raging on the sarai for abnormally long. Can the PCs find the mischievous air-magic-user? 
9 A troop of the Sultan is bringing a dangerous Felon to the capital. Their accomplices will try to free them tonight
10 The Sarai fell under the control of mercenaries that racket the caravaners and use the inn keepers as slaves
11 The Sarai refuses to pay its dues to a local guild. The guild has build a siege around the building.
12 Last night, the religious shrine was desecrated and a minor relic was stolen. It must be retrieved


Don't refrain from sharing your thoughts in the comments, I normally validate the comments quickly.
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Real places in RPG post series