Combining Themes & Backgrounds

My next campaign is set in Dark Sun, so I’ve been looking at the Dark Sun Campaign Setting to decide what materials from the book I want to use. I’ve been spending most of the time thinking about themes and backgrounds. In my previous campaign, I encouraged players to write up character backgrounds—anything from a short paragraph to several pages. This time, I decided to try something different, especially given that the campaign includes three people who have played D&D only once or twice before.

As a player, backgrounds have been of limited to use to me. Usually, my character’s background is the first thing I create. I might use the backgrounds from a book for inspiration, but more often then not, I’ve already got a background in mind. The introduction of themes adds an extra complication, since it has mechanical weight and requires consideration during the character background creation step. To reconcile these two ideas, I took some of the Dark Sun backgrounds, expanded them, and tied them into themes.

The next step is to present a random background to each player. These backgrounds have more weight than normal backgrounds. They include specific names, suggested themes, and an item unique to each background. Each player receives a background and can choose to take another one or accept the one he or she received. Of course, each player can still choose to develop his or her own unique background. This system isn’t intended to stymie creativity. I want to help encourage roleplaying through backgrounds grounded in concrete details that will relate directly to the campaign story arc.

Each player’s background will be secret to the other, so if you’re one of the players in my Dark Sun game, stop reading now. After each character has his or her background, I’ll conspire to create a first session the bonds all the characters together. Although I see value in having a party that has backgrounds that tie together, I prefer to have characters with disparate backgrounds and motivations. In a setting like Dark Sun, I think this is even more important. If characters die later, then I’ll look at ways to tie new characters into the story. Until then, I want to see what happens.

The following section describes the guidelines for my Dark Sun game. You might notice that I’ve limited the number of available races and classes. I chose to limit the number of options partly to ease my positions as a DM, but also to simplify things for some of the newer players. I want the game to feel uniquely Dark Sun, and I think it’s easier to achieve that by limiting the options. The only psionic class I’m allowing is the monk. I like psionics as a backdrop for a campaign setting, rather than a central element. With the exception of the wild talents, psionics will remain strictly a feature reserved for monsters and NPCs.

What You’ll Need to Play:

  • Rules Compendium
  • Set of Dice
  • Either:
    • A subscription to D&D Insider (
    • Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms (for rogue, fighter, or wizard) or Heroes of the Fallen Lands (ranger, druid, warlock) and the Dark Sun Campaign Guide.

Not usable in this game:

  • Book releases prior to Heroes of the Fallen Lands (see Available Classes below)
  • Content from Dragon or Dungeon Magazine (with the exception of the slave theme from Dragon 390).

Before you get started with character creation, refer to the sidebar on page 8 of the Dark Sun Campaign Setting.

Available Races:

  • Mul
  • Thri-Kreen
  • Elves
  • Half-Giant (Goliaths)
  • Halflings
  • Humans
  • Dwarves

Available Classes:

  • Rogue
  • Druid
  • Fighter
  • Wizard
  • Ranger
  • Warlock
  • Paladin or Cleric (discuss with me)
  • Monk, Barbarian or Bard (discuss with me)

Welcome to Athas

The sun rises and falls on the sands of Athas, and its residents live and die with the same ruthless rhythm. In the Tyr region of the wasted world of Athas, the few hold the power, and the many must suffer under their tyranny.

The story opens with the characters in Tyr, the Free City. The characters have made their way to the city, which is ruled by king Tithian, after being released from the tyranny of sorcerer-king Kalak. The heroes come for a variety of reasons. Some characters’ interests may align; others may collide. Yet fate will throw them together and shape them into heroes, the likes of which Athas has never known.

What brings you to the Free City of Tyr? (Themes & Backgrounds)

Spy Without a Name: Word has reached Androsinis, the sorcerer-king of Balic, that Tyr’s sorcerer-king, King Kalak, has fallen to rebels. You are a spy, and Androsinis has dispatched to investigate the situation in the city-state of Tyr and find out whether he might be able to turn the situation to his advantage. Are you loyal to Androsinis? Or do you chafe under his rule and see this opportunity as one to bring him down? Perhaps you were a spy implanted in Balic long ago by Kalak, and you now have an opportunity to return home for the first time in a decade. What are your feelings about the rebellion? Whatever the case, you’re now preparing to make contact with an informant in Tyr’s Caravan District named Hugen. He should have more information on the situation. Before you left, Androsinis bestowed you with a powerful artifact of escape called the Coin of Recall, to use if you should find yourself in need of escape.

Unique Item: The Coin of Recall

Suggested Theme: Athasian Minstrel, Noble Adept, Templar

Kalak’s Killer: You killed Kalak. There’s no getting around it. Although rumors are flying about his death, you were the one responsible. Were you a trained assassin? Or an upstart slave or gladiator? Whatever the case, you’re now a hunted person. Few know the truth about who killed Kalak, but those who do are powerful: Tithian, the new king of Tyr, Rikus, the mul ex-gladiator who leads the Crimson Legion, Shoshana Beryl, matriarch of the powerful Beryl Manor. Who do you count as allies? Or are all your enemies? Some might seek you to use as a banner, a sign of power, while others might see profit in your death. Did you kill Kalak for glory, money, morality, or some other reason? Your next move could be to move affairs in Tyr to your liking, or you might simply be trying to escape. Regardless, you’re going to need help.

Unique Item: A mysterious metal dagger give to you to kill Kalak.

Suggested Themes: Gladiator, Veiled Alliance, Slave (Dragon 390)

Accomplice in Kalak’s Death: You might not have struck the killing blow, but you helped facilitate Kalak’s fall, because you have something they want. Sorcerer-kings are thought to be near-immortals—the closest things to the Dragon or the fabled “gods.” So naturally, the thing you have that they want is the key to immortality: a scale from the Dragon. No sorcerer-king would trust a lackey to recover such a valuable object, so used rumors of the object to draw him out where the killer could do his/her work. You don’t know much about the actual assassination. Your job was to provide the bait. Do you have your own agenda, a personal vendetta against the sorcerer-kings or King Kalak? Or were you working for a powerful person or organization? Perhaps the Veiled Alliance, or another sorcerer-king, like Hamanu, the leader of your home city-state of Urik, where you received the scale? You know that Urik would benefit from the death of other sorcerer-kings. Is this just the beginning for you? You still have the scale, so do you intend to continue your work and move on? Whatever the case, you’re scheduled to hand it back over to the mysterious figure who gave it to you in the first place.

Unique Item: A scale of the Dragon.

Suggested Themes: Veiled Alliance, Templar, Primal Guardian

Ruin Gleaner: You grew up in the wastes. When you were young, your grandma used to tell tales of the Green Age, before the land was devastated and left it barren. Inspired by these stories, you began seeking out artifacts of the Green Age, hoping to find relics from a time when things were better. You have an advantage over most other treasure-hunters: You are literate. And the thing you seek is nothing short of an explanation for why the Green Age ended. Sure, there are rumors that it was the Dragon, or the sorcerer-kings, but know one knows for sure. Do you seek an answer out of idle curiosity, or do you look to fulfill some distant hope imparted on you by your grandmother. Do you hope to restore the land, or are you jaded and more interested in selling off the item at great profit. Has someone blackmailed you to find this text for their own sinister purposes? Before leaving her, your grandmother gave you a very special map—an item she called the Destiny Map. It seems to show where your future lies, and right now, that place is Tyr.

Unique Item: Destiny Map.

Suggested Themes: Wasteland Nomad, Primal Guardian, Elemental Priest

Calmec Scribe: Your family belongs to one of the scholar clans of Draj—sometimes called the calmec clans. You have studied writing, history, astrology, and theology. Few calmec scribes wander far from Draj, but you discovered warnings of a dire catastrophe to come in the horoscopes you cast. The event is said to be hearkened by the death of a sorcerer-king. You have heard of King Kalak’s death, and you believe that the time of the catastrophe is upon you. The members of your clan did not believe the portent. Were you cast out in shame and determined to prove the truth? Or did you leave willfully, intent on revealing the truth. The tablet you found is vague about the nature of the catastrophe, or whether it can be averted. You tried to go to the moon priests of Draj, but they denied you as well, and threatened you with death. Now, you’ve come to Tyr, hoping that the freedom spreading there might allow you to find someone literature to help you decipher the rest of the tablet.

Unique Item: Tablet of the Two Moons (So far, it reads “When the first of the Seven dies, the doom of Tyr shall rise on the horizon.”)

Suggested Themes: Veiled Alliance, Noble Adept, Dune Trader

Judaga: You were a headhunter, an esteemed warrior in your community in the city state of Gulg. Because warriors make up the noble class of the dagadas, you enjoyed great freedom and lavish luxury. All warriors must undergo the Forest Walk, wherein they encounter forest spirits after depriving themselves of food and water. In the forest, you came upon a glade containing a water spirit named Kara. She told you that the sorcerer-queen Lalali-Puy was not the goddess that her people believed, but rather, she was as foul as all the other sorcerer-kings—a defiler. When you returned to your people, you confided to your betrothed what you had heard. He/she reported it to the other judagas. Because you had not acted on what you had learned, you were not killed outright. Instead, they forced you to walk through the exile’s gate. They told you that you could not return, but you might still achieve an honorable death. Now, you’re seeking a way to kill sorcerer-kings. Do you still heed the word of Kara and intend to kill Lulali-Puy, or is it your intent to earn an honorable death by killing other sorcerer-kings. Do you resent your banishment, or feel you deserved it? Whatever the case, you have come to Tyr to investigate rumors of King Kalak’s death.

Unique Item: Kara’s Tear, a blue topaz given to you by the water spirit.

Suggested Theme: Templar, Elemental Priest, Primal Guardian

Symbiotic Psionic: You were a student in the Monastery of the Exalted Path back in your home city-state of Nibenay. The monasteries of the Exalted Path teach their students to accept authority and endure its excesses, for to do otherwise places too much emphasis on the self. One should deny the individual and embrace one’s place as part of a larger whole. You subscribed fully to this doctrine until you discovered something in the depths of the monastery. There, you heard a creature spoke to you from the darkness. When you approached, it came at you. You fell unconscious, and the next thing you knew, you awoke with a second voice in your head, and knowledge of events stretching back to the Red Age. The creature inside you calls itself Bodach. Under its tutelage, you began to throw off the oppressive doctrine of the monks, until eventually they attempted to kill you for your defiance. You fled. Bodach told you to go to the city state of Tyr. It believed you could find answers there. Strangely, it suggested you go there even before Kalak’s death. Now that the sorcerer-king is dead, the creature is increasingly quiescent about the topic of Tyr. You have come seeking answers, both the questions the Bodach has, and your own questions about the creature inside you.

Unique Item: Bodach (you gain two extra wild talents).

Suggested Theme: Wilder, Noble Adept

Orphan: You grew up in Raam, but you are an orphan, so you have no notion of who your mother or father is. During your youth, you discovered you had unusual psionic talents. Eventually, these talents landed you in trouble when you “accidentally” lit a young man on fire who was harassing you. The person turned out to be Jarle M’ke, the son of the head of the powerful house of M’ke. Rather than executing you, the house claimed the Right of Enslavement. For years, you languished as a slave or a gladiator under the House’s rule. Recently, you were struck by a strong urge from somewhere inside you for Tyr. You worked hard to gain the privilege to accompany a House M’ke caravan going there. At your fortune, Kalak died while you were in Tyr. Tyr abolished slavery, you were freed as well (maybe not technically, but you weren’t about to miss the opportunity). In the chaos, you escaped House M’ke’s caravan, taking with you the item they’d been transporting to Tyr—a beautiful mahogany box containing a lush golden fruit. Now, you find yourself in Tyr, without a master, with House M’ke’s valuable fruit, and with questions about what it was that brought you to this place.

Unique Item: Golden Fruit of House M’ke

Suggested Theme: Wilder, Slave (Dragon 390)


12 thoughts on “Combining Themes & Backgrounds

  1. “Not usable in this game:
    Book releases prior to Heroes of the Fallen Lands (see Available Classes below)
    Content from Dragon or Dungeon Magazine (with the exception of the slave theme from Dragon 390).”

    You’re such a purist! 😛

  2. If you’re interested in trying out a home-grown `Essentials’ Bard, Battlemind, or Monk build, I might be able to help you out. 🙂

    I’ve been thinking about the Dark Sun backgrounds recently for some Ashes of Athas stuff, and would love to chat with you about them sometime…

  3. Cool ideas. In my DS home campaign I ditched backgrounds, instead planning on giving out similar benefits over time. Themes seem a lot more interesting and I found the backgrounds in DS to be very specific to locations. This did not fit with the campaign concept. And, to add to what Chad says, we would dig seeing you at D&DXP at the Ashes of Athas tables. You might aim for your PCs to be around 3rd level at that time…

  4. Interesting ideas here, particularly involving prompting new players to explore backgrounds.

    But I have a few questions:

    “Kalak’s killer”? What level are you starting the PCs at if one of them has recently murdered a sorceror-king?

    Why are Cleric and Paladin in a different class entry to Barbarian, Bard and Monk? Both are listed as (discuss with me) but not in the same entry. A typo, or something deeper?

    1. I don’t really worry too much about what their level means with respect to the story. If it creates an interesting story, then I’m fine with a level 1 character having killed a sorcerer king. (Plus, I plan to dlvl the sorcerer kings to level 10ish, since I’m only doing heroic tier).

    2. Oh, and the distinction between the divine classes is something different compared to the barbarian, bard, or monk. The monk, barbarian, and bard have warnings, because I don’t want new players jumping head-first into relatively complicated classes. On the other hand, the divine characters have more complicated issues with the story.

  5. This sounds really fun. I’m about half way through a Dark Sun novel, City Under the Sand. Between the novel and the previous season of D&D Encounters, Dark Sun is becoming my favorite D&D world. Have a great time!

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