City by the Silt Sea by Shane Lacy Hensley is one of my favourite campaigns of all times. It tells the story of dangerous ruins on the edge of the Tyr Region, where an ancient evil stirs. It’s time for heroes.
Something awakens beneath the ruins of ancient Giustenal, the City by the Silt Sea. Many have tried to discover the secrets of this forsaken place, to plunder its legendary treasures. Few have returned from its shadowy embrace. Did they run afoul of savage raiders in the desert wastes? Did they lose their way in a sudden sandstorm only to sink hopelessly into the blowing, shifting silt? Perhaps they heard the psionic voice of the Caller in Darkness and succumbed to its mesmerizing summons? Or did they meet the true master of the ruins, a being as old as the Dragon – and just as terrifying?
My two favourite D&D settings are Dark Sun and Ravenloft. Each has their own character, Ravenloft is a gothic-horror setting where the published modules are for most parts safely tucked into the bed of familiar tropes of the genre (where Strahd is Dracula, Adam is Frankenstein’s Monster and so on) and you always know what to expect. Still, despite this, Ravenloft can be so much fun to play, especially when run by a game master that knows how to deliver kick-ass horror sessions.
Dark Sun is more original. It is inspired by post-apocalyptic films like Mad Max but there’s more to it, the setting is in my opinion one of the most interesting one out there. It has more flavour than your average Tolkienesque-Gygaxian setting, where things are pretty standard from a fantasy point of view. The elves aren’t arrogant tree-huggers, the dwarves not your standard blacksmithing-types and even the world itself is deadly, that is, survival is the name of the game. Wizardry is shunned, there are no gods, metal is rare and people use psionic powers to help them get through the day.
But what makes Dark Sun special to me is the presence of the Sorcerer-Kings and their relation to the setting. The Sorcerer-Kings rule each their own city-state, are at constant war with each other and fear the mighty dragon, Borys, whom they all wish and strife to replace as the next dragon. The rule their city-states with an iron glove, each with their own methods and scores of templars, which has in centuries taught the populace that self-preservation is the first and foremost skill that you need to learn.
Dark Sun isn’t a world where adventuring parties are formed to battle the evil horde of that lich, but where people form fragile and temporary alliances simply to survive. To make it through the hot day alive, because if the templars aren’t after you, something else is, even the oasis you just come across can try to kill you (Well, hello there, mr. Cistern Fiend, what a lovely day it is!).
Guistenal – City by the Silt Sea
Dark Sun is a game of survival, but it is also a game of exploration, where the player characters discover bits and pieces of the past ages of Athas, ruins of long forgotten and bygone times, where even races unknown in the present time once lived.
Guistenal is one of those ruins, but not quite as old as many of the ruins that date from either the Green or Blue age of Athas. The city was founded by Dregoth, which was one of the Sorcerer-Kings, and stood in all its glory by the Silt Sea, not far from the small village and trading post Cromlin.
Unknown to most (even to most of the population of Guistenal), Dregoth was using some of the inhabitants of the city in biomagical experiments. His aim was to create a “perfect” race, modelled on his own, increasingly draconic, form; a race he called the dray who were in 4th edition more or less just Dragonborn.
After the early generations of dray were created, Dregoth discovered a ritual that would allow him to complete his draconic transformation in a single step and become a dragon like Borys. This lead to the other sorcerer-kings to band together, fearing that Dregoth might both surpass them in power and go insane like Borys, and they attacked Dregoth and managed to defeat him.
Unknown to any, Dregoth survived the attack as an undead as his high Templar managed to raise him as such, and he dug out the underground city of New Guistenal under the ruins of Guistenal, where he plots and plans to find ways to summon an army powerful enough to conquer all of Athas. And that’s where some meddling PCs enter…
The Boxed Set
As with many products TSR published in the 90’s, City by the Silt Sea came in a boxed set that contained two books, maps, monstrous compendium appendix and references cards. The books, one campaign expansion book and one adventure book, detail the history of Guistenal, the many locations, both above ground and below ground, and has information on many different NPCs, Dregoth and the artifact, the Planar Gate.
City by the Silt Sea was the last publication for Dark Sun, before the expanded and revised edition of Dark Sun was published in 1995.
A campaign of deadly exploration and startling discoveries
There are two things that made City by the Silt Sea stand out as a publication. First of all, it is a boxed set where you have both a campaign expansion and an adventure. TSR had of course used this format for other boxed sets, such as Forgotten Realm’s Menzoberanzan, and continued to do so, like for the Spellbound boxed set. The set is laden with great artwork by Tom Braxa and the maps are beautiful and detailed. Each location, both in Guistenal, New Guistenal, Kragmorta and around the ruins, is fleshed out and you get a good feeling for the whole area.
The other part that makes City by the Silt Sea special is the adventure format. It is not your average lead-’em-by-the-nose story format or where one encounter leads to the next. The format is in one way similar to the encounter format used by other Dark Sun publication, which lays out each encounter with a setup, start, encounter, reactions, statistics, and outcome.
But the chapters of the adventure book correspond to the settings book and is more a list of series of possible encounters that would make sense in that locale. The encounters can be played in a mixed order, skipped, etc. The adventure book is designed to facilitate players simply exploring the region in and around Giustenal. The overarching quest is hinted at and it ties the story together, making it a complete campaign in itself.
A modern sandbox
The way that the adventure is presented makes it more like a modern sandbox than anything else. Your players can explore and investigate Guistenal the way they prefer, since the adventure isn’t presented in a linear fashion, but the encounters take place as the PCs investigate the ruins.
Running the campaign
City by the Silt Sea was published years ago and the setup of the books would probably be a lot different today. It needs much work from the game master to be run properly, especially if updated for earlier editions of D&D. It is also really helpful to have the Dragon Kings supplement and to read through the metamorphosis process of the Sorcerer-Kings.
Last time I ran City by the Silt Sea I used 4th edition rules. I had a group of great players and we decided to begin play with 1st level characters, but the campaign proper started at 5th level. The group started out from Tyr, eager to make money as traders and mercenaries and eventually found their way to Cromlin, where they heard about the strange ruins east of the village.
As they ventured forth and explored the ruins they started to hear the luring promises of the Caller in Darkness, which lead them even deeper into the ruins. There they made some new friends and fought strange creatures, and discovered that some evil reigned still below the ground.
A climax like no other
After more than twenty session the campaign came to a climax, where the PCs entered Dregoth’s Dread Palace in hope of destroying the Planar Gate. Once they had found their way into the hall where the gate stood, they faced not only a very angry undead Sorcerer-King but also with the problem on how to destroy the gate.
The players, as they figured out ways to close the gate, fought Dregoth with all their might and the tension was so high, it could’ve been cut with a knife. Each player stood by the table, shouted orders across it, celebrated each lucky roll and cried out when something didn’t go their way. The room smelled of sweat and I must admit that I have never seen so many veteran roleplayers as excited and invested as at that moment.
Once the group managed to close the gate the players all celebrated like they had just scored a last minute goal and shouted that they’d flee the palace, leaving Dregoth enraged. As they escaped the ruins they breathed a sigh of relief and fell back into their seats.
Merits and flaws
City by the Silt Sea is perfect for game masters that love to put their own flavour into things and want their campaigns to have a sandbox-feel to them. The players have much freedom and you need to be well prepared, know the setting quite well and be ready to go with the players’ flow. This is an exploration campaign first and foremost and the players need to know this beforehand.
This is the boxed set’s its main merit and flaw. I wouldn’t recommend that beginner game masters should pick up this box, since it needs a lot of work and preparation on the game master’s behalf. However, when done properly, I think this is one of the best campaign ever created not only for Dark Sun, but D&D as a whole.
It has a great villain, a superb threat, great locations to explore, fantastic story and is well thought out. If you like Dark Sun, make sure you play this one. If you like to read through good D&D campaigns and steal ideas for your own campaign, this is also a must-read.