Over the course of three years, I ran a 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign, “Dark Sun: Dust to Dust.” I streamed this campaign on Twitch at twitch.tv/wearefoxhound, and past episodes (as well as a story guide) can be found at the campaign’s homepage, wearefoxhound.com.
This campaign was both a fun time with my friends and a tremendous creative outlet. I put together the storyline, designed encounters, and rendered it all in real-time for the players each week. I also drew maps (both at the city-scale and the encounter-scale), constructed props, customized enemy miniatures, designed puzzles, voiced characters, arranged soundtracks, drew portraits of each of the player characters (and many significant NPCs), and designed dozens of one-off encounters for special moments and events.
Additionally, I navigated the technical challenges of recording six people in the same room each week on Twitch, hosted the broadcast, managed the campaign’s fan community, promoted each weekly broadcast, and prepared each episode for archival.
It’s been a ton of work, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Sharing my love for D&D with the world has been a joy.
If you’re looking for a catalog of my professional video game work, please see my resume.
A World of Dust and Fire
When I resolved to start a new campaign in 2014, there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to set my game in the world of Dark Sun. The desert world of Athas has captivated me ever since I first laid eyes on the Revised 2nd Edition boxed set in 7th grade. Set in the wake of a magical apocalypse, this world featured magical mutants, brutal gladiators, and sorcerer-tyrants that war over the desolate remnants of civilizations. I was determined to take my players on a grand tour of this wasteland as part of our 5th Edition campaign.
When it launched in 2nd Edition, this world featured special rules to highlight the unique setting. Encumbrance mattered, and so did water supply. Wizardly magic was more challenging to use – and clerics as D&D typically understands them didn’t exist. However, for this campaign, I decided to keep the rules themselves simple; my players were already having to learn the new 5th Edition rules. Besides, the mechanical differences of Dark Sun weren’t what had captivated me – it was the mood that these mechanics helped to evoke. The world of Athas is one of day-to-day survival, of no reliable law and order to be counted on in times of trouble, and of paranoia and distrust, particularly where magic is concerned.
Therefore, instead of including additional complicated rules, I resolved to emphasize the mood of the setting, taking pains to illustrate how Athas was different from a more traditional D&D world. This included such changes as:
- Arms and equipment must be scrounged, and are assembled from from bone, obsidian, rock, wood, and other scavenged materials.
- “Holy” clerics are absent in this godless world; divine power is channeled through the primordial elements of fire, water, and earth.
- Arcane magic is viewed as evil and heretical in the civilized world; spellcasters must hide their sorcery or risk arrest or lynching.
- Magical items were frequently just as dangerous to use as they are beneficial: many had a cost or penalty for their use.
- Finally, the world is, in general, more suspect of the players and their goals. Merchants, innkeepers, and other such folk could not be automatically assumed to be “on the players’ side.”
These small changes to things that the players would ordinarily have taken for granted created a distinctive tone: players found themselves facing a world that was ambivalent to their existence at best, and openly hostile at worst. In some ways, this hardened their characters a bit, making them more resolute and decisive in times of uncertainty – but it also elevated their goals, particularly those with noble ambitions, such as restoring the wasteland or resisting the sorcerer-kings’ rule. In the face of an uncaring world, their altruism – and the characters that their actions inspired –were that much more memorable for it.
One final wrinkle to this post-apocalyptic world: in a wasteland where anything could happen, where death waited around every corner and the players could often expect to be betrayed or otherwise taken advantage of, I wanted to make sure everyone was still having fun. To that end, I embraced the absurdity of the players’ circumstances routinely, using over-the-top moments and outlandish characters to take the edge off an otherwise brutal world. Enormous merchant lords, mischievous lizard men, and a gregarious wanderer from outer space helped bring a smile to everyone’s faces in times when things might’ve otherwise seemed dark.
Building the World
As a consequence of its post-apocalyptic nature, Dark Sun has relatively few cities, and the contact that they enjoy with one another is limited to the technology from the Bronze Age. From a design perspective, this is beneficial – each city can be hugely different from one another in terms of style and culture, illustrating how a different location has adapted to the challenges of living in the harsh desert. I wanted my campaign to be a “globetrotting” campaign of adventure, taking the players on the Grand Tour of the realm and highlighting the incredible places that the setting had to offer.
The world-in-ruin nature of Athas also offered the opportunity of having a huge number of hidden ruins, each of which could be filled with challenging encounters and lost treasure for the players to discover. As a big fan of “set-piece” design, I tried to make each dungeon crawl special in some unique way, making sure that the players felt like they were getting a new experience whenever they stepped foot into danger.
City Sample: “Balic, City of Sails”
When the players realized they’d need a boat to complete their journey, they headed to Balic, the only coastal city in Athas. As it happened, a new player had just joined the group, and we decided that her character had been living in Balic for a time, making her a convenient source of information for the established players. Through her connections, the party was able not only to make contact with a faction of rogue wizards, but also get themselves recruited as the sailing crew for an old captain’s last sailboat race.
Balic was a lot of fun to bring to life, as a Dungeon Master. As the most Greco-Roman of Athas’s cities, it purports a love for democracy and equality that sets it apart from the other, more visibly-feudal city-states. While Balic is, in reality, just as socially unfair as anywhere else, the idea of open mobility between classes made it more believable that the adventuring party could rub shoulders with nobles, patricians, and even the overlord of the city itself.
Dungeon Sample: “Lost Realm of Kalidnay”
Kalidnay was once one of the mightiest cities in Athas – until a dark ritual went awry, sending the whole city into the Shadowfell. When the players wound up in that dark realm themselves, I decided to give them a suitably creepy descent into Kalidnay’s grand pyramid.
Like other 3D dungeons that I built for this game, I used a combination of graph paper and foamboard to make a modular dungeon which the players uncovered as they navigated the halls, traps, and encounters that lurked within. Once the players arrived at the pyramid, they took an exterior staircase to the top of the pyramid, and began working their way down into the center of the monument from the inside. The players had to navigate grim undead and foul rituals left behind by Kalidnay’s pharaoh-king until they made it to the tomb at the very center.
One of my favorite puzzles that I created for this dungeon was a pyramid of royal seals – one for each of the kings of Athas. Attempts by the players to rank them according to their *actual* power level met with failure – it’s only when they realized that they should arrange them according to Kalidnay’s king’s biases (with himself at the top!) that the puzzle’s mechanism was activated.
Crafting Character Moments
D&D is, ultimately, about the player characters. Who are these people, and what are they doing? Why? I am incredibly lucky to have a tremendous group of players who created a diverse, compelling group of adventurers. As the Dungeon Master, I owed it to each of them to help deliver great character moments – to let the action be driven by them and their choices, and to give them interesting characters to engage with in the world of Athas.
Character Moment: “Prophecy of Hamanu”
About a year into the campaign, we had our first real dilemma as a group: A new character simply did not get along with a pre-established one, and it wasn’t in either of their attitudes to try and put aside their differences. In fact, a tavern brawl gone wrong seemed to drive the two even further apart. While the players expressed their willingness to get on the same page, we had a hard time figuring out a way to make it work in-character without being excessively hand-wavy.
A solution presented itself when the new player — whose character was a stubborn paladin — said that it would take an act of god for his character to work with the other fellow again.
Acts of god, happily, can be arranged. The next time the paladin knelt in prayer, he received a vision from his lord, the Lion of Urik, Hamanu himself, which I’d put together as a video in Adobe Premiere.
All of a sudden the paladin was determined to make things work with the other character, no matter what. In fact, the video wound up inspiring a fit of zealotry in the paladin which became central to his character, coloring his actions for the rest of the campaign. Additionally, it was a spectacular way to introduce the character of Hamanu himself – an evil tyrant, but one with a vested interest in the party’s actions, and one that would become an integral patron to their efforts for many more sessions to come.
Character Moment: “‘Obey Me’ by Tectuktitlay”
Much, much later in the adventure, the players met one of the final sorcerer-kings whose path they hadn’t crossed yet. In the distant land of Draj, their combat prowess got them an invite from the ostentatious lord Tectuktitlay, a character who I wanted to serve as another patron-but-also-villain that the players would need to contest with. It was important to me that Tec come across as a big personality in a relatively short period. I also wanted to make him distinct from the other sorcerer-kings: Tec, more than any other tyrant, lives for the adulation of others and wants desperately to be applauded and appreciated in his every waking moment.
This called for a musical number!
I took a song from the recent hit ‘Moana,’ found the instrumental version, wrote some lyrics that matched the pace of the song, and…
As the only sorcerer-king to have burst into a full song – complete with a rap break – he made an immediate impression. After a single session, Tec was already a crowd favorite, making the trials and tribulations that he would put the players through that much sweeter.
Combat is a core pillar of the D&D experience, and our campaign was no exception. Indeed, Dark Sun was a great opportunity to throw strange, unknown monsters at the players and watch as they learn the strengths and weaknesses of each. As a big fan of the concept of “boss battles,” I had a lot of fun spending time making setpiece encounters feel truly special, while striving to balance each one for the party’s power level.
Enemy Encounter: “The Beast”
Around the time the time that the players arrived in Balic, I wanted to reintroduce a villain that they’d thought they’d defeated much earlier in their careers. This undead sorcerer knew exactly what a challenging opponent the players were by this late stage, so he brought with him a very hungry guard dog – the Tarrasque. Dredged from another world, near-impervious to magic, and ravenously hungry, the “Beast” as the players came to know it became an ever-looming threat that chased after the players across the wastelands, and beyond, eventually cornering them as they tried to escape an exploding base on the moon.
Yes, the moon.
Once the players were finally left with no choice but to face off with it, I knew that I wanted an incredible figurine for this confrontation. Although there are plenty of “giant reptile” figures out there, I wanted something that had a vaguely humanoid shape with bits of bone and skull to represent the explosive growth that the creature undertook when it devoured magical energy. I decided to kitbash together my own character, starting from a McFarlane “Spawn” demon and grafting on a tail, spikes, and a skull before applying paint and varnish to complete the look.
Needless to say, it provoked exactly the right kind of reaction from the players – they were reasonably certain that death was imminent, until they manage to blast it out an airlock into the depths of space.
Enemy Encounter: “The Dust Kraken”
In the final confrontation of the campaign, the players came face-to-face with the dimension-devouring fiend known as the Dust Kraken. Taking a queue from 16-bit SNES RPGs, I wanted their final battle to take place in the “heart” of their world, in a place where the boundaries between time and space and between life and death were weakest.
I needed a suitably epic backdrop for our final confrontation. I edited a “flight through space” video with colors and blur effects to fit my vision of what an “interdimensional area” should look like, and then I looped this video on a TV screen over which I placed a grided sheet for combat miniatures.
On this platform, I placed the miniature I’d acquired (and waited a year to reveal!) for the Dust Kraken – a “Nightmares of Lovecraft” figurine of the elder horror, Dagon.
This had exactly the effect I wanted: the players really understood that this was the end, that this was the final confrontation that they had worked towards for the campaign’s three-year run. It was a marvelous showdown.
Broadcasting and Beyond
Any Dungeon Master running a regular game already has a lot on their hands. To add to this, my group began streaming our game on Twitch, which presented a number of interesting challenges.
The first and greatest challenge was actually capturing everyone on camera! I experimented with a lot of different camera arrangements, learning a lot not only about how best to frame people on-camera, but how USB Logitech webcams would (and sometimes wouldn’t) work with a computer. For example, it turns out a given USB board will only recognize a single webcam of a certain type – which means connecting multiple webcams to USB ports on the same board will result in only one of those cameras showing up in your feed!
The latest iteration of the camera feed features four Logitech c920 webcams in total: one each on opposite walls to capture one side of the table where the players sit, a third on the ceiling to capture the table map, and a fourth one on a mini-tripod for me behind the Dungeon Master screen.
Sound, too, was an ongoing challenge. Any DM knows that some players tend to be louder than others. Capturing my players’ diverse personalities – along with my own voice, and whatever audio I happened to be used – is still something I’m learning how to do. Our earliest streams were captured with a snowball microphone by Blue, a fantastic starter mic, but one that left players sitting further away the mic sounding pretty quiet. An upgrade to the audio-technica AT2020 mostly solved this in most cases, but still left my own audio lacking, since the mic was centered around the players.
I eventually evened out the audio by adding a Movo M1 lavalier mic for myself and combining the players’ audio with my own using a Xenyx Q802USB mixing board. This resulted in a better overall sound, which made it that much easier for everyone listening to hear what was going on – and to control the loudness threshold when things get rowdy!
Both of these fed into Open Broadcaster Software, a free tool widely used for sharing games on Twitch. Using the cameras as a base, I set up a layout that helped indicate who was who, who they were playing, and even included art work of their characters so that newcomers could quickly get a grasp on who each person was portraying. This was accompanied with a chat bot set up using mIRC, which viewers could access with commands (like “!dnd”, or “!players”) to get quick blurbs about the game, the rules, and individual characters.
For audience members that were completely new to the show, I accommodated by creating an episode guide, breaking the game up into distinct arcs that usually focused around a particular location in the game world.
Folks could also binge the entire adventure from the start, using our YouTube archives. From front to back, we wound up with over 271 hours worth of gameplay (!!!) for viewers to enjoy.
And how they enjoyed it! If I could’ve told my childhood self that I’d be playing D&D for an audience one day, I’d have never believed it, but I’m incredibly thankful that we started streaming when we did. We’ve been wonderfully lucky to have gained some really devoted, really passionate followers, and it warmed my heart whenever I’d see them ready for another game each week. Even more thrilling would be when I’d make a callback to some past event in the game, or allude to a Dark Sun element that hadn’t yet been revealed – the excitement among the viewers was real, and it in turn inspired me to deliver a great story for both them and the players.
The absolute best feeling, however, was hearing from people who said they’d started playing D&D after watching us play. More than anything, I wanted to use our game as a chance to demonstrate that D&D is for everyone – that anyone can sit down with their friends and tell a story, and that they don’t need to worry about anything else beyond them and their friends supporting one another and looking out for each other. That D&D is a great way to learn about one another, to learn about oneself, to create special memories that’ll stay with you forever.
Dark Sun: Dust to Dust is complete, but we’re beginning a new game soon! Join us Tuesday nights at twitch.tv/wearefoxhound for a brand new adventure: