Friday, December 9, 2016

A Different Dark Sun: Races, Part Two

It's been very rewarding reading through old Dark Sun books again. They are, in general, quite well done for the era in which they were designed, an era not always defined by what we would consider good and balanced gaming. But of course, that's part of the fun, isn't it? Sometimes you find that race/class combo that makes your character stand above expectations. I don't think this is strictly a bad thing.

Other times though, you get the 2E thri-kreen. And I'll get to that lovely confluence of madness near the end of today's entry.

First up, though...

The Athasian Dwarf

The dwarves of Athas, like most of the other non-human races, suffered terribly at the hands of those who would later become the sorcerer-kings. A vicious war of genocide claimed many of Athas's races in distant, forgotten epochs -- the dwarves nearly counted among them.

Athasian dwarves are cagey and quite different from their counterparts in other setting worlds, adapted to their environment in some harsh ways. You won't generally find dwarves on Athas with huge beards and faux-Scottish accents. Rather, many dwarves shave both face and scalp to deal with the searing daytime temperatures, frequently trading with the people of the city-states without a true culture to call their own. There is no dwarven homeland, no ancient underground citadel to which they might return.

They are quite stubborn however, so they have that in common with other dwarves, at least. Dwarves on Athas frequently devote themselves to a single goal, a focus, that they pursue with single-minded fanaticism. Once a dwarf focuses on something, it's easier to extract ore from rock with one's bare hands than it is to change that dwarf's mind.

The dwarves of Athas are identical to the mountain dwarf of the Player's Handbook, but I will be replacing their armor proficiency with the following:

Focused Mind. You have advantage on saving throws against being charmed by spells and effects.

I can already feel angry glares through the Internet. You nerfed the best combat-focused race from the Player's Handbook ever-so-slightly! How dare you! Tear up your books and flush your dice! All fun is binary!

Frankly, I don't see it come up much and I've been running this edition since its inception. If you're playing a mountain dwarf, chances are high you're already picking a class proficient in light and medium armor anyway. While I have fond memories of my breastplate-wearing mountain dwarf rogue, heavier armor types are hard to come by on Athas -- and owning a suit of metal armor just paints a huge target on your back.

I wanted to play up the dwarf's focus attribute without forcing a vague mechanic into it. Arguments around a table regarding whether a situation is related to one's focus to get a special buff just don't sound like fun to me. Focuses are best left to the dwarf's roleplaying and decisions rather than some wishy-washy system.

The Athasian Halfling

One of the first things Dark Sun aficionados say to folks who ask them about the setting is, "Dude, they have freakin' cannibal halflings."

And that is true. But not all halflings from the setting are like that, and it shouldn't be their defining trait. At the same time though, there's some lore from Dark Sun that is kind of weird regarding everyone's favorite diminutive race (unless you're one of those people who like gnomes*), and I alluded to it in the previous entry.

*My dislike of gnomes is legendary. PC races that are historically used for disruptive "trickster" behavior in my gaming past don't rate very high on my list. But on Dark Sun, they are all dead, so I merely steeple my fingers and make quiet "mmyes" noises. If you like gnomes, I don't judge you. Much.

What all modern-day Athasian halflings do have in common, though, is an aptitude for surviving the rigors of the world and a savagery that belies their stature. Halflings were touted as the only race that might eat a thri-kreen -- the other notable cannibal of the setting -- and that alone was enough to make the mantis warriors uneasy.

They also have a rich culture of art, storytelling, and reverence for the natural world (such as it is). Their racial bonuses should reflect that. To wit, they get this in addition to the base halfling stuff:

Ability Score Increase. Your Wisdom score increases by 1.
Nature Tender. You know the druidcraft cantrip.
Tribal Knowledge. You choose to be proficient in one of the following skills: History, Nature, Performance, Survival.

It lacks the super-stealthiness of the Lightfoot halfling, but has more of a tribal shaman vibe. I thought at first to give them any druid cantrip, but I feel like that would come down to only two "real" options; produce flame or shillelagh. The inclusion of druidcraft gives them a folksy sort of mysticism that reinforces the halfling character without just giving them a flat combat power buff.

The Athasian Dragonborn

There actually isn't anything to change here, as I see it. The dragonborn-as-PC-race on Athas only came about in 4E, and they were a re-skin of an existing Athasian race, the dray. It was the backstory of the dragonborn, in fact, that saw the most change. Stock dragonborn (at least, as inferred in their flavor text) tend towards goodness and virtue, while Athas's dray are pragmatic and devious.

The dray are the spawn of a sorcerer-king that was betrayed by his fellows. They are powerful and sly draconic humanoids twisted by dark magic into their new forms. Dray PCs in my conversion will belong to the Wayward Clans -- dragonborn cast out of the ruined city of Giustenal during an uprising. Statistically, there isn't much that needs to change from the dragonborn of the Player's Handbook, though I'd probably encourage all of them to be fire-based for consistency.

Some homebrew lore that will only make sense to people who know the setting:
"In year 36 of the calendar of Free Tyr, the city of Giustenal erupted in a storm of psychic energy invisible to all but the most accomplished students of the psionic arts. Several days after the event, packs of the mysterious creatures known as the dray poured from the shattered ruins of the city in apparent flight from an unseen danger.
"The truth of the event became known when small clans of these dray sought asylum in the city states of Nibenay and Gulg. Their fallen creator, the undead dragon king Dregoth, attempted and failed to bind a heinous psionic entity in the ruins of the city. The fallout from the event shook the faith of even his most ardent worshipers, and a rebellion erupted within the tunnels beneath the devastated landmark.
"The losers of this struggle, the Wayward Clans, were forced to flee from the city or risk destruction by their master and his loyal servants. With them came the terrible truth -- the dragon king, long thought destroyed by his contemporaries, lived still.
"With the Dragon of Tyr and several of the sorcerer-kings slain by a reawakened Rajaat, the remaining monarchs stayed their hand at a second attempt to destroy Dregoth. Were they fearful that the dragon king had achieved the mightiest stage of their terrible transformations and thus was beyond their ability to destroy? Or was it that they sought to make amends for their betrayal and gain a new ally in the struggle against the other city-states?
"The truth is not yet clear, but what is known is that Giustenal lives still, and both Dregoth and the psionic entity with which he fought make any forays into the ruins the most absolute of follies.
"The Wayward Clans that now wander the Tyr Region make their living as traders and mercenaries to the people of the city-states. Distinct subcultures have arisen within the clans, who sometimes feud with one another over territory and contracts. They keep their distance from most other races, however, due to their monstrous draconic appearance."

The Thri-Kreen

Hoo boy, here we go.

I love the thri-kreen. I also hate the thri-kreen. They are one of the most unique things about Athas and their inclusion as a player race was, and is, a wonderful idea. I would call you an excuse-making liar (I mean, politely and in good humor, of course) if you tried to make a case to me that they were at all balanced against the other player character races at the time they showed up as a PC race in 2E.

Compared to a starting player of any other race and class, thri-kreen had a host of powerful advantages, and they grew in power as they went. Most outstanding and abused was the fact that they have four arms, each capable of holding an object. Before sanity took hold in later editions, this led to anyone with a modicum of rules knowledge to begin coming up with any justification, rules-supported or otherwise, to become a quad-weapon-wielding murder blender.

They were also crazy-fast. And have chitin that was the equivalent of chain mail (AC 5, in 2E terms) in a world with extremely-rare metal armor. And they got paralyzing bites and absurd leaping capabilities as they went up in levels. And could make their own equipment with some sand and a gob of their own toxic spit. And they don't sleep. And can dodge missiles.

Oh sure, they had "disadvantages" if you want to call them that. Can't wear armor? Who cares, your Dexterity score probably gives you plate-level AC.

They were not balanced. But holy crap were they fun to play and came with a host of extremely enjoyable roleplaying hooks and quirks. You see, thri-kreen have a physiological compunction to bond with groups. There are two terms they use to describe this mentality.

First is the tokchak, or "clutch mind" in the thri-kreen language. Kreen bond in two types of groups, packs and clutches. Packs are large groups of multiple clutches, kind of like a human's extended family, though these packs aren't always biologically related. Clutches are small groups, immediate family or close allies. Kreen that don't bond in these ways are considered "broken" in a way; it is anathema for a thri-kreen to want to wander alone.

The tokchak is an instant roleplaying hook to get a thri-kreen to join an adventuring party. Kreen actively seek groups to which they belong, even if those groups are not themselves thri-kreen. There's no stigma to having a non-kreen adventuring companion; so long as the companion is useful and pulls their weight, they are as worthy as any thri-kreen. There's that whole sleeping thing though...

Second is the tikchak, or "hunter mind" being the translation. Thri-kreen are pack hunters, and have an intrinsic need to move around and sustain themselves. Packs wander the wastelands of Athas, hunting and taking what they need to survive in a world to which they are supremely adapted. The tikchak also drives them to work together with their clutch to accomplish goals and ensure all are cared for equally. This isn't (always) just altruism -- a clutch is only as strong as its weakest member, so it makes sense to share with all who are pulling their weight. If someone isn't pulling their weight, the thri-kreen makes efforts to help them improve. If they cannot, they are no longer fit to be in the clutch.

Sounds like the perfect adventuring companion, right? Loyal, won't actively try to screw you over, shares their treasure equally, and is a sleepless night-shift-watchbug with a stomach to rival any hungry halfling? Hmm. Hungry hungry halflings should be a party game.

So as great as these thri-kreen are, they also have to be brought down a peg. Their incarnation in 4E did just that, but at the expense of a bit of their flavor. They also endured a substantial change to their basic physiology -- 2E thri-kreen, like 2E half-giants, would be Large creatures in today's terms. They were physically similar to gigantic mantises, complete with a large abdomen and upright thorax. Now they're a lot more "humanoid" in appearance, though still very much inhuman.

Compare and contrast the 2E (left) with the 4E/5E thri-kreen:

This isn't all bad. Old 2E thri-kreen outright couldn't wear armor or many of the things that PCs find in their travels. Their shift to a slightly more familiar shape opens up some possibilities.

So I want to take a crack at them. Some people are very protective of their thri-kreen, so I expect divisiveness. That's okay. There's plenty of other homebrewed/DM's Guild variants out there. I just didn't like 'em much, personally.

Ability Score Adjustments. Your Dexterity score increases by 2. You may choose to increase either your Strength or Wisdom score by 1.
Age. Thri-kreen mature quickly and are able adults by the time they are 7 years old. They rarely live longer than 30 years.
Size. Your size is Medium.
Speed. Your base speed is 40 feet.
Carapace. Your base AC is 13 plus your Dexterity modifier. You cannot benefit from the protection of any armor that grants you an AC of 13 or lower. Due to the shape of your body, armor must be custom-made for your form and costs twice as much.
Desert Adaptation. You require only a half gallon of water each day to avoid exhaustion from dehydration. You do not sleep, and can gain the benefits of a long rest while performing only four hours of light activity.
Powerful Leap. You can perform a running leap to travel a number of feet straight forward equal to three times your Strength score. You can perform a standing vertical jump up to your Strength score in feet.
Multiple Limbs. You possess a second set of arms below your primary limbs. These limbs can hold objects and weapons, but cannot be used to perform more attacks than you normally have at your disposal based on your class and your fighting styles.
Natural Weaponry. You possess sharp claws and a painful bite. In lieu of any other attack you make, you can substitute a claw or bite attack to inflict 1d4 points of slashing (with claw) or piercing (with bite) damage.
Languages. Thri-kreen know their own language and the Common tongue of the Tyr Region.

It's a pretty big list of racial traits compared to most, but I think this fits without making them either sucky or overpowered. There's some things missing, though; what about that poison bite?

No bones about it, I love the idea of racial feats. I thought they were good when I first saw them in an Unearthed Arcana that included svirfneblin, and I like using them to add traits and powers to races. Here's one for thri-kreen who work to develop their poison glands.

Venomous Bite 
Prerequisites: You must be a thri-kreen.
Effect: Your bite attack becomes venomous. You inflict an additional 1d4 points of poison damage with your bite attack, and victims must succeed on a Constitution saving throw or be poisoned for one minute. The DC for this saving throw is equal to 8 + your proficiency bonus + your Constitution modifier. If a creature succeeds on their saving throw, they are immune to your poison for 24 hours.

I could make other racial feats for things like the missile dodging and such, but those are class abilities and I think it's verboten to trod on those. The race doesn't need to be any more powerful than this, though I don't promise that this is perfect. As always, these are the first drafts. I'd love to hear some feedback on it. It could suck royally and I'm too close to it to see.

Whew! Long entry. Hope this is of interest, as I'm having a blast writing and converting for Dark Sun. Next time I'll go over either some class bits or do a flat lore post about my homebrew version. Not sure which yet. Till then! 


  1. Venomous Bite makes a thri-kreen monk very good, but ultimately I don't object to this in exchange for a feat. All of their unarmed strikes become (unarmed strike die) + 1d4.

    I like what you've done here. =)

    1. Hmm, not sure I like that. I wonder if the solution is to add "once on your turn" or something to the beginning of that line of the feat entry. That way you can still do it, but you don't have a flat, persistent +1d4 damage as a thri-kreen monk.

      Which, in my mind, is a really great way to play a thri-kreen with the appropriate flavor.

    2. Thinking about this a little more...

      How does this bite attack intersect with the TWF rules? "In lieu of any other attack you make" isn't rules language with clear precedent, so I would take it to imply that a thri-kreen armed with a gythka (wielded two-handed) could use a bite attack as a bonus action, treating it as their off-hand attack. This isn't right or wrong design, I just want to make sure it's intended.

      As it stands, whichever way you go on Venomous Bite, it might only be worthwhile for monks (who naturally scale up their bite damage) or subclasses that have a unique interaction with poison damage (none currently attested, but they could be created). Paying a feat for the right to make 1d4 + Str jump to 2d4 + Str (once per round or always-on) probably isn't high priority, in the sense that weapon-using classes can find some way to kick out that much damage or more without spending a feat.


    3. Well, the monster entry for the thri-kreen states that its multiattack lets it make two attacks, one with bite and one with claws. The vampire, by contrast, makes two attacks, only one of which can be a bite attack. The latter is more along the lines of what I had intended, though the entry above doesn't quite reflect that.

      Perhaps it is smarter to make it say, "As a bonus action on your turn, you can make a single melee attack with either your claws or your bite. Your claws inflict 1d4 points of slashing damage, and your bite inflicts 1d4 points of piercing damage." That way you're only ever getting one extra attack, some classes won't need it or would have it be redundant (monk again, with its flurry of blows), and you can make the bite stronger with the feat (the poisoned condition is pretty gnarly in the hands of PCs).

    4. You know, I actually skimmed and missed that it imposed the poisoned condition for a minute. Mea culpa! That does make it way more badass.

      Do you intend the claws or bite to be usable with Dex, or only with Strength? It's fine either way, but it makes a big difference in which classes would bother making that attack.

      Letting thri-kreen monks use their claws for their unarmed strikes - the only effect of which is to give them the option of slashing damage or bludgeoning damage - seems worth keeping to me.

    5. They should probably be listed as finesse weapons so they could be made by a high Dex thri-kreen, which most will probably be.

      I could also put in a proviso that they can replace any attack they make with a claw attack provided they have one hand free.