Bone, Stone, and Obsidian

Robert Adducci and Jesse Heinig talk about Dark Sun from every angle, Dungeon Mastering, Playing, Races, Classes, History, Sorcerer Kings, City States, you name it. It's about survival on the sands of Athas on this show so grab a d20 and get ready to enter the arena.

Episode 27: Black Flames

In this episode now at our new home at Cast.Athas.Org Jesse and Robert discuss the Dark Sun adventure Black Flames.

Show Notes

Dark Sun News!

### News

There’s a new Resources menu that includes the Timeline, Distance Calculator, Magazine Index, and the new Files section. * Under the Resources menu there is now a Files section on the site that features a ton of stuff to download. If you haven’t looked lately you should. There are: * A ton of maps, including VTT maps * Character sheets * Handouts * Full fan supplements like City-State of Urik by June Soler, * In Kalak’s Shadow an adventure by Daniel Bandera for AD&D 2e. * Dark Sun Fonts * Mark Hope’s Excellent Traveler’s Guides to the Cities of Athas and Cities of Athas DM Summaries. * Adam’s been posting the old Expanded Random Encounters, Athasian Survey Projects, and Sands of Athas netzine articles * I posted a Mindscape Combat for Any Edition article.

Actual Plays

  • BlueboxRPG is playing “Dark Sun” on Twitch, Tuesdays at 3pm Pacific. If you’re a Dark Sun fan you don’t want to miss this.
  • Owen Edwards: Dark Sun - “Mysteries of Athas”
  • June Soler has run a few of his AthasCon Excursion weekends. If you haven’t yet you should check them out. The next one is in a couple of months since June will be at Origins and GenCon running a ton of Dark Sun.

Black Flames

## What Makes a DARK SUN Adventure * Environmental hazards—To underscore resource scarcity and show off the austere landscape of Athas * Sword & sandal—Enemies use ad hoc weapons and improvised armor, relying on spears & stones, while swords and metal armor are all uncommon * Unique monsters—Many monsters feel like mutations or alien entities, and psychic powers are common even among what would otherwise be animals * Grim circumstances—Often dealing with problems that involve people in distress due to corruption or lack of resources and you don’t always have a good solution; you can’t always save the day, sometimes you just have to settle for surviving to fight again later. Corruption is rampant, you can’t always trust your allies, and heroism is less about fighting dragons for their treasure and more about individual circumstances of survival * Fewer dungeons—DARK SUN specifically has less of an emphasis on dungeons, so there’s a lot of overland travel, city adventure, and sometimes politics * Grandiose setpieces—DARK SUN adventures sometimes feature ruins from older civilizations, the towers and ziggurats of sorcerer-monarchs, ancient castles, and wars with armies clashing. The scope is designed to evoke the battles of classical antiquity with colossal statues, soaring columns, massive pyramids, and remote rulers looking over squalid cities from their lush private gardens. These create a contrast with the personal level of struggles that characters face

Digging into a specific adventure: Black Flames

First, the facts: * Black Flames dates to 1993, making it midway through the Dark Sun release cycle. * It was written by Sam Witt: * He has written a ton of stuff, several D&D products (Spelljammer & The Shai’irs Handbook, lots of Earthdawn, MIdnight, a ton of D20 stuff. * If you want to read along you can get the Black Flames PDF on DriveThruRPG: * DMsGuild (Print and PDF) * It’s also available there in a softcover format. * The adventure can be purchased as a watermarked PDF for $4.99, as a softcover standard color book or as a bundle of both for $12.99. * It’s billed as an adventure for four to six players of levels 3 through 6. * It is part of its own module set, the DSM set, for “Dark Sun Missions.” As DSM1, it’s the first in this set of unconnected adventures. * This means it’s not tied to the metaplot of Freedom and Road to Urik. * The adventure centers around the ruins of Yaramuke, which were presented in the original DARK SUN boxed set as a city that was destroyed in a war between sorcerer-monarchs in an earlier era. * Physically, the adventure comes in the envelope-box and flip-book format, so it’s a slim box with two books and one pamphlet inside. * The flip-books are the usual player’s book and Dungeon Master’s book, while the pamphlet (the “story book”) has fiction by Lynn Abbey (a story of a Urikite templar who comes to serve an avangion) and a few monster stat blocks for some of the encounters in the adventure proper. * On the cover of the players’ flip-book it says “Yaramuke, City of Black Waters,” so perhaps the adventure name was changed during development? Most DS adventures have pretty short names, e.g. “Freedom,” “Arcane Shadows,” “Dragon’s Crown.”

What’s the premise of the adventure?

  • Black Flames involves digging in the ancient ruin of Yaramuke. This could provide an opportunity for characters to experience some part of the old world, something that was destroyed by Hamanu, and to learn about the war from that time.
  • Like many DARK SUN published modules, it’s very directed. The players are pushed into completing a set of tasks and then try to escape with their lives.
  • To motivate the players, they’re pushed by both the infamous Curse of Black Waters and a powerful NPC, the would-be dragon Farcluun, to investigate the ruins.

How does the adventure proceed?

Like many of the DARK SUN boxed adventures, it’s fairly short. * The adventure assumes that the PCs are traveling from Urik to Raam. There are a few incidental encounters before they’re hit by a magically-summoned sandstorm. * The sandstorm basically forces the PCs off course and also incidentally ruins all of their food and water. * Once the sandstorm subsides, Farcluun makes his appearance with a group of undead servants disguised as a nomadic group. The dragon makes his pitch and either the PCs accept or they get beaten down and forced to work for him. * Part of the adventure here hinges on the PCs drinking the cursed water, which Farcluun’s group offers to them. This implies that you can carry the water from Yaramuke some distance and it still keeps its curse! Could a PC keep a few skins of this water and then use it to put the curse on people as an assassination tool, by serving it or contaminating someone else’s drink with it? Never answered. * Based on the rules for the curse of Black Waters in the pamphlet—which the DM is instructed to make sure the PCs get—the team has less than a day to complete the whole adventure! Otherwise, the curse makes them head off to find food and water, which they can’t keep down, and eventually turn into undead monsters. * This means you can’t rest! You are supposed to do the entire adventure in one shot! * Farcluun at least has the good sense to offer the party some supplies for their mandatory expedition, including a few magic weapons, some armor, and some rations. * A ration of food weighs one pound here! This is pretty amazing because the 2e Player’s Handbook doesn’t give any weight for rations. * The waterskins are one gallon each, instead of the half-gallon kind in the PHB, but this doesn’t really matter. But it’s one of the signs that attention to detail was not keenest in this adventure. * Once equipped, the team travels 15 miles with Farcluun to the ruins of Yaramuke. * The adventure suggests that the characters will have to camp once, because the hike starts at midday. But they already have the curse of Black Water! They can’t afford to waste the time! * At Yaramuke, the PCs discover “the Wall,” a magical barrier that prevents powerful beings from entering and using their abilities. This is a plot device to explain why a dragon like Farcluun needs the low-level PCs to do this delve for him. They literally have to lead him around by the hand!

Now you basically have two parts: the exterior of the city and the interior. * The city exterior literally includes a visitor’s center! * It’s like a Disney animatronic that’s designed to show the PCs how to proceed. * The PCs have to get two items, an Eye and an Orb, and put them in the right places to unlock the magic that lets them enter the palace. * Along the way they’ll find a barracks, a museum, and possibly the lairs of some monsters—gith and silt runners. * Part of the puzzle is that the Eye is supposed to be in a tower that is long since ruined, so you have to hold it 40 feet up in the air. Hope you have telekinesis! * Once the PCs unlock the entrance, Farcluun uses sands of time to roll back history and rebuild the palace of Sielba so that you can search it for Sielba’s research notes. * The palace interior is not very large and it’s mostly empty rooms with one- or two-sentence descriptions. * The goal is to descend into the palace vaults and find Sielba’s magic lab in the basement. * Along the way there’s a ton of treasure! Three rooms are described as having “hundreds upon thousands of coins of all types,” and Sielba’s bedroom is described as having a huge bed “surrounded by an ankle-deep layer of metal coins.” Presumably the DM is supposed to use Farcluun to keep pressure on the PCs so that they don’t have time to loot the place, but if you don’t come out of here with a handful of coins and gems, you missed out. Seems like a lot of loot for a low-level adventure, especially since you can always come back later once you’ve finished the adventure. * Once you hit sublevel two—and there’s nothing stopping you, so it’s kind of just “you’re walking, and you’re walking, and then you go down and now you are in a magic lab,” the PCs find all of Sielba’s old research texts and implements, including her obsidian orbs, research books, and the scroll of black waters. * Each room in the lab has a short description and then takes many, many turns to search. The library of spell theory, for instance, takes 60 turns to search—that’s ten hours if the party splits up! You can run out of time from the curse without ever finding the scroll. * The adventure proceeds on the assumption that the PCs find the scroll (‘cuz if you don’t, the dragon Farcluun kills you), and then you have a brief dance where the dragon slaps the PCs around a bit before Abalach-Re shows up. Then it’s dragon-vs.-dragon while the PCs run away. * Abalach-Re monologues in this fight so that the PCs at least know that they need to use the scroll to lift the curse of black water at the oasis. * Ok, so the PCs have run away from the big dragon fight. Now, if they didn’t find and deal with Abalach-Re’s spy earlier, they have to also fight their way past the gith and silt runners who’re unleashed on them by the t’chowb. * In addition, Abalach-Re brought a bunch of undead, so now there are fights all the way out through the city. At the same time, a bunch of ancient golems animate in response to the invasion. The general feeling is total chaos while the PCs try to run away. * Once the PCs get out of the city, they presumably head straight for the oasis to lift the curse. * The module suggests doing a slog through a bunch of undead at this point, as the PCs meet some cursed dead (intelligent zombies that just want release) and hungry bodies (evil zombies that want to eat your brains). * Finally you get to the oasis and you have to convince the druid there to use the scroll to lift the curse of black water. Then you have to fight through more zombies and the module suggests that while you should pull your punches, you (the DM) will probably kill a character heroically. * Next there’s a min-LARP scene where the module suggests using props as you get the central black flames when the curse is lifted and the evil magic driven out of the PCs. The module actually suggests using a strobe light and house fans to set the atmosphere! * The ultimate battle happens once the curse is lifted: The zombies are released, but Farcluun shows up for revenge. The dragon is terribly wounded but wants to vent his anger on the PCs. The PCs—who are 3rd to 6th level—are supposed to kill this 21st-level dragon! * The end is a little wrap-up with the druid as the PCs head off to wherever they go next, and a look at how these events might cause further problems for the PCs in the future.

So what goes wrong?

This adventure has a lot of little detail problems. Let’s look at some specifics. * To get into the palace, you need an Eye and an Orb. According to the DM’s book, the Orb is in room 8 in the museum. But according to the map, there is no room 8 in the museum! * You have to arrange some other location for the Orb in the museum just so that the PCs can find it. * There’s a section of the museum that is literally abstract modern art that “resemble bizarre puzzles to be fitted together.” So your PCs are on a timetable, and you have a mostly-empty ruin, and you want them to waste time pushing around pieces of abstract art instead of getting to the heart of the adventure? And then discover that what they were messing with was meaningless? This feels bad. * Early on there are very few encounters, and later, many of the encounters are really setpieces. Abalach-Re and Farcluun fight against each other in Sielba’s lab, but the PCs are just trying to run away. Undead fight golems while the PCs run away. The major fights are against a scorpion, a dwarf banshee, and maybe against the silt runners and gith. The whole complex feels very empty—there’s a lot of “it’s another desolate room with some broken furnishings. You move on.” * To enter the palace you must place the Eye 40 feet in the air at the site of a former tower. But if nobody in the party has a spell like levitate or the psionic power of telekinesis, you might have no way to accomplish this. With the curse of black water, you don’t have time to build a huge tower just to put the Eye up there. No alternatives are suggested! It’s a problem that has one fixed outcome and just says to let the players be clever about solving it. It would’ve been nice to have some additional possible tools or avenues to approach the problem scattered around the ruins. * Once you get to the palace, Farcluun is supposed to use sands of time on it to make it become un-ruined so that you can explore it and find Sielba’s library. The adventure says that he only has one instance of the spell prepared, but it’s not a problem because he brought a bunch of scrolls. But the plot widget that makes him require the players—the magical Wall—means he can’t see! How can he read the scrolls? * Ok, so, in the history, Hamanu killed Sielba over trade disputes. Sielba’s body is never found. Inside of the palace are many of her personal effects, including her obsidian orbs. No spellbooks, though. (I guess that would be too convenient for a PC wizard.) You might run off with a bunch fo dragon-embossed research books, but no description is given for what’s in them. Can you use them for spell research? Transformation research? Coffee table discussion? No idea! * Perhaps most disappointingly, this adventure is a sort of glimpse into the past to a now-dead city-state. The queen fought against Hamanu and lost. Yet we learn almost nothing about the city-state and its queen in the course of the adventure. * In the story book it says that Hamanu cast the curse of black water as a warning, to prevent other people from crossing him—which raises questions like, how come the solution to the curse is in Sielba’s library and not Hamanu’s? * Sielba has barracks, coins, libraries, but there’s very little detail given about anything. What was Yaramuke like? What did its people do? What kind of idiosyncratic policies did Sielba have? None of these are answered. It’s like an elaborate setpiece, where the adventure happens to be set in Yaramuke, but really you could just put it anywhere because Yaramuke itself doesn’t impact the adventure in any way. * The adventure is super-railroady. You have to be traveling between Urik and Raam, but then you get caught in a magic sandstorm that was invented and conjured by Farcluun, so you wind up in Yaramuke regardless—so why say that the PCs have to start in a specific place? Then the DM is instructed that the PCs must agree to work for Farcluun, must get infected with the curse of black water, must lead the dragon around the city. There’s only one way into the palace, and once you get in, it’s mostly empty. You just go through decorative rooms until you trigger the cutscene battle of dragons, in which you don’t participate because, hey, you’re like level 5 and that’s a pair of dragons. * Speaking of dragons, why the heck the need to introduce a new dragon who isn’t a sorcerer-monarch? What does it add to the adventure? The PCs are supposed to kill the dragon Farcluun at the end (I guess it’s a “gimme” if you decide he’s out of spells and hit points and you let them just stab him once with a dagger). But how many other dragons are out there? Where did Farcluun learn his transformation magic? It’s like he’s thrown in there just to have a really dangerous NPC to bully the PCs around and make them do things. * Ok, the wrap up. The PCs give the scroll to the druid of the oasis, the curse is lifted, the oasis becomes Cool Springs instead of Black Waters, everyone is happy. Except… why wouldn’t you just stay here now? The undead are gone, the druid is your friend, there’s plenty of water, there’s an entire ruined city nearby to explore. (Though we already established that it’s mostly empty… except for rooms full of coins of various kinds.) There is no reason for the PCs to leave the area, except maybe the possibility of Abalach-Re descending upon them again to destroy them in vengeance for taking the scroll. Otherwise, it’s now a perfect oasis spot to defend and build a village. * Overall, this adventure just feels rushed. Missing rooms with critical items, railroad plot, and setpiece battles that PCs can’t really affect feel like you’re being pushed through a hollow shell with some standees, rather than an exploration of the history of Yaramuke, the circumstances of the curse of black water, and the way that it fits into the world of DARK SUN.

So what do you do with this?

My heavily rebuilt version didn’t just have the PCs open the palace—it presumed that the entire palace was inside of a time bubble, and “opening” the palace meant that the PCs were able to go back in time to the time when the palace was originally destroyed. That put them in the middle of the war against Hamanu! The PCs got to meet Sielba, help defend the city from the Urikite army (because they needed time to find the scroll), and then figure out how to get the heck out. Sielba got away with them and vowed to rebuild her city, which meant they couldn’t just hang around! This also meant there was no need to add a setpiece battle with Abalach-Re, because they had already been in the middle of a fight between Sielba and Hamanu. In this version, Sielba is the one who made the curse of black water (so now it makes sense that the scroll is in her library!), because she was poisoning the land to prevent Hamanu from taking it. The limited information about the Urik–Yaramuke war indicates that it was probably a trade war that Hamanu turned military, which implies that Yaramuke had a prosperous trade center. With its local oasis, it clearly had plenty of water. The existence of statues, local art, and a highly-developed automated visitor’s center shows that they were a prosperous city. Why wouldn’t Hamanu take it over, turn it into a vassal state, and install a templar in charge of it? Because Sielba “salted the earth” by making the water cursed. In this version Farcluun isn’t even a dragon, just a defiler who’s looking for Sielba’s lost knowledge. He gives the PCs just enough information to let them decide that searching the city is a good idea (and the PCs had already gotten the curse on their own, so they had plenty of motivation).

I don’t recall what I did with this adventure back in the day, but when researching for this show I found a cool alteration that I thought really gives more gravity to the situation. On the Arena forums at “RedKing” gives a more detailed background for Farcluun that ties him more in more deeply with Abalach-Re. It’s a great backstory and well worth the read. And in the replies folks have stated him out for 3rd edition.


Robert Adducci (@Raddu76, Patreon) Jesse Heinig ( @JesseHeinig ) Bone, Stone, and Obsidian ( Credits Treasure Hunter by Ross Bugden Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License Edited by Robert Adducci