Aeryn’s Archives: The Lost Cistern of Aravek

In this week’s installment of Aeryn Archives we journey to the scorched world of Athas and the first Dark Sun adventure I wrote for 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons, “The Lost Cistern of Aravek”. I’ve been a fan of this particular campaign setting for twenty-five years and the chance to write official material for it is one of the highlights of my tabletop RPG career.

Cover Illustration by Wayne Reynolds

So what is Dark Sun and why is it cool? Way back in 1991, TSR, the owners of Dungeons & Dragons at the time, were releasing scads of campaign settings, boxed worlds with various flavors you could set your D&D game in. One of those campaign settings took place on the scorched, post-apocalyptic planet of Athas, a brutal desert world where metal was scarce, water scarcer, and everyone and everything was out to kill (and usually eat) you. It was a huge departure from the standard fantasy settings that had come before it both in tone and lethality, and I fell head-over-heels in love with it.

Fast forward to 2010. I’d been working with Wizards of the Coast as a freelance game designer, and I’d written a handful of adventures and articles for Dungeon and Dragon magazines. One day, in February of that year, I got an email from Chris Perkins, then Creative Manager for Dungeons & Dragons at Wizards of the Coast. (Chris is still there, by the way, and still doing all kinds of cool stuff with D&D). In the email, Chris said he’d been talking to Chris Youngs, who ran D&D Insider, and whom I’d been working with for Dungeon and Dragon articles. My name came up as a possible fit for a freelance assignment that would be part of the 4E launch of the Dark Sun campaign setting. Chris Perkins offered me the assignment, and, well, I was over the fucking moon. I mean, the chance to work on Dark Sun, the campaign setting I’d loved for 20 years? Yes, please!

The assignment was to write a short 16-page Dark Sun adventure which would be released as part of D&D Game Day, an annual promotional event where WotC supplied game stores with a special adventure and pre-generated characters to run in-store. Chris Perkins gave me the basic details for what they wanted and then let me come up with a story outline. The idea I came up with was fairly simple and focused on one of the main problems players face in Dark Sun: water scarcity. Essentially, the players are hired to track down some ancient wind-trap technology that could solve a lot of the water issues in the area. Of course, this is Dark Sun, so that technology is guarded by terrible monsters, coveted by merciless brigands, and generally incredibly damn dangerous to find, But, hey, that’s what makes it fun! Long story short, I wrote the outline based around the premise above, it was approved with a few tweaks, and then I wrote the adventure that became “The Lost Cistern of Aravek.” It would be the first of two Dark Sun adventures I would write. The other, “The Vault of Darom Madar,” was released in an issue of Dungeon magazine (we’ll cover that one too at some point).

You’ll notice I’m not providing a link so you can go buy this adventure. That’s because “The Lost Cistern of Aravek” was a Game Day adventure and a special giveaway, so it was never for sale and as a result it’s kind of rare. I see it go for around seventy-five bucks on Ebay from time to time. That’s pretty neat, and I’m so glad I held on to my authors copies (still in the shrinkwrap). 🙂

Aeryn’s Archives: Dungeon Magazine #171

The next project from my personal professional vault is one of my favorites. I’ve been a lifelong Dungeons & Dragons player, and what you see below is the first time I got to work on the official game, and in Dungeon no less, a publication I’d been collecting for years. (Still got boxes of them around here somewhere.)

My contribution to Dungeon #171 was a short adventure for 1st-level characters titled Stick in the Mud that pitted heroes against, uh, frog people called bullywugs. It was part of The Chaos Scar, a small campaign setting on the border of civilization chock-full of monsters and bad guys. Perfect for adventurers looking to make their mark. It was a call back to classic D&D adventures like Keep on the Borderlands and a real hoot of a location to run an old-fashioned D&D game.

How did I get the gig? Well, the short version is I, uh, asked for it. Kind of. The longer version goes something like this. It was early 2009, and I was already working in the RPG industry, mostly with Goodman Games as a freelance writer and editor. Part of my duties was as editor-in-chief of Goodman’s inhouse quarterly magazine Level Up. The magazine brought me into contact with a number of folks from Wizards of the Coast, including Andy Collins, the RPG Development & Editing Manager for WotC at the time. At some point, I mentioned to Andy I was available for freelance work on D&D. I actually can’t find that email, but I remember it being a quick, BTW kind of thing. I never thought anything would come of it. Then, three months after that conversation, I got an email from Chris Youngs, the editor-in-chief of D&D Insider (who was then producing digital versions of both Dragon and Dungeon magazines). That email started with “Andy Collins passed your contact information to me, and mentioned you might be interested in some 4th Edition design work.” I was overjoyed that not only had I NOT shot myself in the professional foot by asking for a gig, but my “pitch” led to a chance to work on the game I’d loved for decades. Anyway, that email from Chris Youngs eventually turned into Stick in the Mud plus more adventures and articles to boot (I’ll cover some of those in later installments).

If you’d like to check out Stick in the Mud, this issue of Dungeon is still available in PDF at DriveThruRPG. Click the link below or the big-ass cover illustration above. 🙂

Dungeon #171

Aeryn’s Archives: Vault of the Dragon Kings

This is the first in a series of posts where I’ll talk about the projects I’ve written and worked on over my professional career, from fiction to RPGs to tabletop war-gaming stuff. I’ll try to add insights into how the project came together and maybe an amusing anecdote or two. Anyway, with over 400 writing, editing, and development credits, we could be at this a while, but I’ll try to restrict my posts to the more interesting projects. 🙂

Let’s kick things off with my very first professional job in the tabletop gaming industry way back in 2005: Dungeon Crawl Classics #30: Vault of the Dragon Kings. 

For the uninitiated, what you have here is a module or adventure for the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game. This is not an adventure produced by the publishers of Dungeons & Dragons,  Wizards of the Coast, but a third party product created under license by Goodman Games. The lead writer on this one was Jason Little, and my role was as a stat editor and monster creator (I was credited under Stat Blocks & Creature Development and Additional Writing & Development). This essentially means I checked a lot of math and created some monsters for the adventure. That’s not the interesting part of this gig, though. How I got it is.

When Wizards of the Coast released the third edition of Dungeons and Dragons (often just called 3E) back in 2000, they created a version of the game that was more versatile than any before it. The rules let you build characters and monsters in a clearly defined way that allowed for endless customization. In addition, they opened up the game to third party publishers to produce material through something called the Open Gaming License (or OGL). I won’t go into the specifics because it’s mostly a bunch of math and legalese and stuff, but this new system sparked a creative fire in me. So I started making monsters, mostly by taking existing D&D critters and upgrading them with the new rules system. I also wrote little backstories for my creations and posted them on a popular Dungeons & Dragons message board. In some ways it was similar to fan fiction, though the OGL made it more commercially viable. (I also actually wrote fan fiction, but that’s a story for another day).

My creations earned me a small following from D&D players who frequented that message boards, and a few of those folks turned out to be publishers as well. One of them, Joseph Goodman of Goodman Games, liked what he saw and reached out to see if I’d be willing to work on a module in his very popular Dungeon Crawl Classics series. Needless to say I was thrilled for the opportunity, and thus began my career in tabletop gaming. Better yet, it also started a great professional relationship that’s lasted nearly fifteen years, and I still do the occasional job for Goodman Games to this day.

Oh, for you old school gamers, you might recognize the cover artist on this one. Yep, that’s a piece by the incomparable Erol Otus.

If you’d like to check out this module up close and personal, it’s still available through Goodman Games via the link below (or the giant cover illustration above):

DCC #30: Vault of the Dragon Kings