Welcome back! So far, so good: I’m keeping up on my retrospectives about the RPG adventures I worked on over the years. This week I’ll be looking at my second Dark Sun adventure, Merchant House of Amketch.
In other news, I’m pleased to announce that my Primeval Thule Campaign Setting will go on sale in hobby retailers next month (April). Thule is available in Pathfinder and 13th Age versions; we also have some 4th Edition versions leftover from our Kickstarter, but if you want one of those, you’ll need to send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m very happy with how the book turned out; our printer did a great job with high-quality paper, vibrant color, and top-notch production values all around. I think I can say without reservation that me and my fellow Sasquatches managed to publish a book that is fully the equal of anything industry leaders such as Wizards of the Coast or Paizo Publishing normally print. Our sales partner is PSI Inc., which works with most major hobby distributors. Make sure you tell your FLGS you want your Thule!
Speaking of WotC, keep your eyes peeled for Princes of the Apocalypse next month. This is the giant adventure book for the Elemental Evil campaign, the second of WotC’s campaign arcs for 5e D&D. Sasquatch Game Studio designed this adventure for Wizards, and we’re pretty proud of how it turned out. I personally wrote big pieces of the book, including Rivergard Keep, the Sacred Stone Monastery, and the earth and water temples.
Okay, time to return to the burning sands of Athas!
#3: Merchant House of Amketch
My third published adventure, Merchant House of Amketch was the second title in the “DSM” adventure series—the second adventure arc of the Dark Sun product line. (The first arc was the “DSQ” set, which closely paralleled the story of the Prism Pentad novels.) The DSM adventures represented something of a start-over point; our assumption was that after playing the Freedom series and finishing up in Dragon’s Crown, DMs would want to be able to start another campaign arc from the beginning with low-level characters. Unlike the previous series, there wasn’t really any common storyline or continuity between Black Flames, Merchant House of Amketch, and Marauders of Nibenay. This was a more episodic set of adventures, and the only linking element was the set of sample PCs who leveled up through the series.
(Two of those sample PCs were actually drawn from a short Dark Sun campaign I ran for fun while at TSR. Ka’Cha was Tim Beach’s character. And Rowan was based on the character briefly played by my wife, Kim. Kim has never been a gamer, but every now and then she played a little to socialize with friends and humor me. The moral of the story is that if you play in the group of the guy writing the adventure, your character may be immortalized.)
(We also decided that all Dark Sun dometic animals were named for the sounds they made. So kanks simply said “KANK!” and erdlus said “erdl-erdl-erdl-oooo!” and mekillots said “mek mek mek mek.” That’s the one thing my wife remembers about that campaign.)
Merchant House of Amketch was presented in one of the most unique physical formats of any adventure I ever worked on: the Dark Sun “flip-book” format. The main part of the text appeared in two 5 by 7 spiral-bound booklets, one for the DM and one intended for the players, in a slip-case. There was also a standard-sized self-covered 16-page booklet used to present a short story (in this case, “The Gambit,” by Simon Hawke). I will say this: The flip-book format was frankly about the most difficult and limiting adventure presentation I ever had to use. It was terrible for presenting keyed descriptions of areas unless you’re willing to commit to a page per room. And figuring out how to present an adventure that gave the players relevant material in the same page count that the DM had was really challenging (although I will admit it was okay for the “you now see THIS” type of encounter or room description paired with an illustration).
One other weird thing about Merchant House of Amketch: The editing completely vanished. When it was published, I looked carefully and found only one word of my original draft that had been changed (a word I spelled correctly had been altered and misspelled). Back in the day we used to joke about the “spellcheck, grammar check, paycheck” school of editing. Merchant House of Amketch was the one book of mine in which I saw that happen—most of the time my editors did great work. Fortunately I’ve always tended to produce pretty clean turnovers, and Amketch turned out okay.
As for the adventure itself . . . For some reason I was not yet satisfied with gimping psionics in Dragon’s Crown, so I went and did it again six months later. I don’t recall if I did that deliberately or if I was perhaps steered that way in the concept meeting. Looking back on it now, I find it strange that the only Dark Sun story I could come up with was, “What if somebody did [stuff] that threatened PSIONICS?” That said, Merchant House does it in a fun way: parasitic beetles that are being smuggled as contraband. To solve the mystery, the PCs have to go undercover and join up with a merchant house so that they can find out where the beetles are coming from.
I think Merchant House does a couple of things pretty well. It’s one of the few Dark Sun adventures that spotlights the giant mekillot-drawn caravan wagons and the trading house culture. It presents plenty of intrigue and story, but doesn’t railroad the party. Part Three offers plenty of coverage for the possibilities of a party that has been captured, that has evaded capture, or that includes some captive PCs and some free PCs. I think my favorite encounter was Mothgar, in Part Four. He’s a giant who’s been hired to track down and kill the PCs, and he carries a heavy ballista that he uses like a crossbow. (Mothgar fancies himself a sharpshooter.)
So, overall, I think Merchant House of Amketch is pretty strong. I wish I hadn’t gone back to the psionic-threat theme so quickly, but I think that part of the reason is that I was one of the very few designers at TSR at the time who was familiar with the psionics rules and willing to feature them in an adventure. I like the mix of intrigue, detective work, colorful villains and interesting NPCs, and of course action. So I think I’d give myself a solid “B’ on this one.