Children of Dust is adventure module from PondStrider Games to be played in fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons set against the backdrop of the Deadworlds campaign setting, also by PondStrider Games. It is an adventure designed to introduce a new party of level 3 adventurers to a setting in which the world has, through some great natural or designed cataclysm, become a wasteland where people fight for survival and basic resources more than wealth and glory. So let’s look at it and break it down:
The Setting: What it Means When the World Has Died
Children of Dust is explicitly set in a medieval post-apocalypse. The world is inherently hostile to its inhabitants, culling the weak and leaving only the strong to survive. As the introduction of the module explains “simply surviving to adulthood requires the grit, skills and luck that are normally only found in members of the adventuring professions.” Encounters are meant to be difficult and deadly, and heroes who are too proud to run will inevitably find that they were too proud to live as well.
With the grim nature of the setting there is also the expectation of darker stories full of loss, mourning, and vengeance. In a world where the death can come on the back of even small misfortune for the common person it is likely that everyone you meet will have suffered a tragedy that has left them damaged or made them dangerous. Anyone could be hiding a dagger waiting to strike, and because of that it’s pretty safe to assume that everyone is.
Dead worlds also change the value of things. Food and water hold exceptional value while rare gems might fetch far less because of their lack of a practical value. This has some interesting effects on the value of certain classes, but we’ll get to that later. For now, what I’ll say about it is that it definitely gives the GM room to be creative in how they run the local economies within the world and what gives not only an item, but also a person within a community, value.
The Adventure: A Village in Turmoil
The story begins with the heroes coming upon a village called Redrun. Redrun is on the edge of several different warlords’ territories, which means that despite its geographical position and valuable water source the town’s inhabitants live in relative peace. Bandits and raiders are reluctant to force the hand of local warlords and the warlords themselves all lay a verbal claim to the area, but if one of them tried to enforce that claim he would risk war with all of the others. The village maintains a tense peace with a race called the Zarraak, reptillians who hunt and gather along the frontier but avoid contact with the village itself. Or at least they did.
Children in the village have been disappearing, sending the town into a panic, and witnesses have claimed that it is the Zarraak coming in the night that have taken them. The town’s Sheriff, Blade, does not have the resources to leave town to investigate and stay back to protect the village and keep order at the same time and so the heroes are recruited to find the Zarraak camp and get to the bottom of what’s going on.
I won’t much deeper into the details of the adventure to avoid spoilers but it does a good job of balancing combat with other skills like stealth and diplomacy to create a solid, well-rounded adventure.
Mechanical Breakdown: How does it work?
Children of Dust includes an extra mechanic called “defiling,” wherein spellcasters blight the area around them as a side effect of their casting. From a flavor perspective, defiling is pretty cool but it is also makes closing into melee with a spellcaster more dangerous as the blight deals damage to creatures equal to 1d6/spell level, with no save listed. I think this is intentional, since the extra risk associated with fighting a spellcaster can easily be considered par for the course in a dead world, it is also something that should be considered when defining the challenge rating of your enemies.
The module does not shy away from the fact that the sitting is supposed to be high-stakes and deadly. Player characters can easily die, especially during the climax, and it is important to remember that in this setting it is acceptable and even, at times, encouraged that the heroes flee. The module is clearly intended to be deadly, but I didn’t find anything that I would call mechanically unfair.
Quirks in the World
Before I start making suggestions for where to take the party after this adventure module, I want to address some quirks that come with using the D&D rule set in a dead world. These quirks aren’t necessarily bad, but I feel like a GM should keep them in mind when creating the details of their setting.
A cleric can create ten gallons of water with a first level spell. This spell is also available to druids, who can also create enough food to feed ten people with a first level spell (Goodberry). At higher levels Clerics can also create food and water for large groups with a third level spell (Create Food and Water). Druids can use the plant growth spell to enrich plants to make them provide greater food yield for harvesting. This means that organizations like church’s and druid groves would be very powerful.
Fighters, barbarians, rangers and rogues are likely the most common classes in the setting and are also the ones most likely to have to step outside of their class abilities to gather any power in the world. If a warlord has all of their levels in a physical combat class, they must also have some exceptional leadership abilities or be exceptionally high level to command such a high level of loyalty.
Then there are wizards. Wizards don’t have a lot of spells that would give them value to a community and it might actually make sense for them to be feared since they are the most likely to be hindered by preserving the land around them rather than defiling it (preserving applies some significant penalties to combat related spells). This inherently gives arcane casting a darker flavor in this setting, and makes wizards and sorcerers more likely to be grim figures who practice an art considered by many to be very dark.
So where will your players go after this adventure? Well, the module suggests that they may use Redrun as their base of operations, in which case they may wish to secure resources for the town or otherwise help it thrive. They may look to unseat one or more of the local warlords and build their own empire. They may wish to explore the frontier and see what lies beyond the Zarraak campground. Children of Dust does a good job of positioning the players for further adventures after this one is done, whether those adventures happen within Redrun itself, in the surrounding areas, or far off into the distance.
If you’re interested in a post-apocalyptic fantasy adventure, Children of Dust definitely deserves a look. It’s a well-written adventure that will give you the high-stakes tension of playing in brutal and unforgiving setting, but it is still written to be an adventure where the players can be heroes. It’s dark, but it doesn’t forget to be fun. If your group is looking for a change of pace from the standard fantasy setting, I would definitely give this a go.