Dark Sun: The Vault of Darom Madar

I wrote in a previous post that I’d like to prep a series of “backpocket” adventures for days when my home group is unavailable.  Get some published adventures, prep them, then put them on a flash drive for a rainy day.  Since we’re always doing Forgotten Realms, I figured go for Eberron, Dark Sun, and Planescape.  Dark Sun is toughest of these three to find a low level one-ish shot adventure for.  There are two adventures for 2nd Edition D&D, “Freedom” and “A Little Knowledge.”  But both of them begin and heavily lean into the PCs starting as slaves.  While that’s normal for the Sandals and Sorcery atmosphere of Dark Sun it’s not really something I want to bring to my a table without consent from the PCs.  It could be cut from “A Little Knowledge” but I don’t really like that adventure.  It’s a confusing mishmash of vignettes that don’t really work together.

More suited to my objective is “Vault of Darom Madar,” an adventure from Dungeon Magazine for 4th edition D&D.  It is technically a sequel to “Sand Raiders,” a short set of encounters not really an adventure from the 4E Dark Sun Campaign Setting.  It’s a series of three combat encounters as the PCs trek out into the desert to find a lost wagon and captured drivers.  Not really any plot to speak to beyond those bare bones.

Vault of Darom Madar has a backstory but it’s thin.  Two ancient trading houses, Madar and Tsalaxa, fought for wealth and power.  Tsalaxa, being the evil house, hired assassins to wipe out the Madar family.  Prior to this, the Madar hid all their wealth in a secret Vault.  Go, there’s your adventure.

Your hook here is, again, thin.  Your patron could be literally any NPC.  In the adventure it’s a dwarf trader from one of the city states.  He heard a rumor that this ancient vault lies within a canyon near another city-state.  In exchange for the PCs doing all the work they get to keep a portion of the treasure.

This adventure features what I think are the notorious Travel Skill Challenges that Dark Sun featured in all its 4th edition adventures.  This one is better than I remember.  I remember 4E Skill Challenges being, “This requires Persuasion, the person with extremely high persuasion rolls 6 times while everyone else does nothing.”  This one isn’t like that.  You need to use 3 specific skills, Endurance, Perception, and Stealth, you need to use them all at least once, player’s choice on which you don’t use.  I think this would work to convert to 5E because the benefits and costs are very clear cut.

One thing I might change is that if you fail with Stealth you get a combat encounter.  In a system that uses combat to determine XP, this is a reward for failure.  In a system that doesn’t, you’re taking away the player’s D&D time for failure which seems overly punitive.  I think this was a bigger problem in 4E when a combat encounter never seemed to take less than 30 minutes.

After this skill challenge there are supposed to be two fights in a row.  One is a throwaway fight against some bandits which you can collect a bounty for.  The other is a fight against Tsalaxa assassins, the first of their several attempts to slay the PCs.  You’d probably want to cut these since they really don’t have much to do with the adventure.  This is kind of how 4E rolled.  Many fights.

The PCs first stop of the adventure is Silver Spring Oasis.  In addition to being a necessary stop for supplies your patron also believes the Elf Chieftain here can give directions to this canyon.  Fortunately, at the start of the adventure the PCs are given a message to deliver to him which they can try to decipher.  If the PCs don’t decipher the message, correctly or not, the expectation is that they have to bribe their way to see him.  Why is their patron, the Professional Trader, not bribing his way in to see this elf chieftain.  It makes sense that the PCs are expected to do all the fighting but the trade captain ought to be negotiating right?  I would write this that the Trade Captain has a feud with the elves that they “forgot” to mention previously.  There is little risk of failure here.  If the PCs fail the Elf Chieftain still tells them where this canyon is.  If they succeed he still tells them but they get some additional benefits.

After the Oasis the PCs come to The Canyon.  This is another skill challenge, the third of this adventure so far.  This one is series of “Group Checks.”  Each failure is meant to symbolize another day of fruitless searching.  The PCs stand a real chance of failure here but the penalty is “you don’t find anything, there is no adventure.”  But what’s the better way to right this? An extremely deadly combat encounter and if you beat THAT you find the tomb?  How do you make “find the ancient ruin” a better adventure when the obvious possibility of failure is “you don’t find the ancient ruin.”  What I might do is take one of those combat encounters from the start of the adventure and put them in here.  You find the ancient ruin but you ain’t the first to find it.

So let’s assume the PCs find the tomb for the sake of argument.  This place is undead central because the final battle between houses Tsalaxa and Madar claimed all involved.  They came back, as one might expect.  Two fights follow with these undead followed by yet another Skill Challenge to open the door to the final chamber.  This is the kind of skill challenge where your most skilled player can just slap down the d20 requiring 12 successes before 3 failures.  Other skills can undo failed checks.  If the PCs fail, the door locks for one day. Final encounter is a fight against the most powerful tomb guardian of all.  One thing I like about this adventure and the last one is that they both take into account that the PCs might just kill their patron and keep all the treasure for themselves.  On exit the PCs are once again attacked by assassins.

Next step is to get the loot back to civilization.  The adventure has a mechanic to determine how the random background NPCs on the caravan get killed in the background.  The adventure expects you to have at least two fights here.  The PCs either do or don’t and that’s the end of the adventure.  The adventure has some good hooks for followup as the PCs have made an enemy of this trading house or maybe someone from this family whose ancestral tomb they robbed comes forward.

This adventure bears the hallmark of 4E, way way way too much combat with too little point.  The plot is pretty straightforward, the PCs find a tomb, they loot it.  I remember thinking this adventure had a ton of RP back when it first came out and it does for 4E.  It relies heavily on skill challenges which are pretty well done here.  There are too many plot bottlenecks here but I like how the adventure acknowledges they exist.  The adventure has at least something approaching a plan if the PCs fail.  That plan is rough on them but it’s something.

Of the adventures I’ve read so far this one would be the hardest to convert.  5E doesn’t really have this much combat at low levels.  This is a level 1 adventure and in 5E no fight at level 1 is ever too easy.  This adventure also gives out a shitload of magic items which are much rarer and less powerful at low levels in 5E.  The pacing of everything is just different.  It would probably be a better use of time to reskin a different low level 5E adventure like “The Black Road” to Dark Sun rather than make this work.  I remember this being a great adventure in 4E but it’s just too different from 5E beyond the broadest of strokes.