Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Setting Review III: Dark Sun

Having reviewed some oldies in Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk, the time has come for a setting from the 90s.

The early 90s saw TSR embark on the most ambitious period of setting creation that hasn't been matches before or since, releasing no less than seven settings in boxed sets with full support in five years. One of them, developed under the working title of "War World" as a setting meant to support the Battlesystem rules, was Dark Sun, released in 1991.

Dark Sun has a special place for me personally. It was the first setting I bought that was brand new when I picked it up. Settings like Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance all had history by the time I discovered them, but Dark Sun I got to explore from the beginning of it when I picked up the original boxed set at my local game store.

Grognard retrospectives typically argue that this period was the start of the nadir for old school gaming as sandbox exploration, resource management and deadly encounters set in picaresque post-apocalyptic sword and sorcery settings gave way to epic fantasy, story archs and player character fetishization  - Dark Sun however, took the old school virtues and genre nods and dialed it up to 12.

Quick intro to the setting

Dark Sun is post-apocalyptic Sword & Sandal setting taken to the max. An area of seven city-states ruled by despotic sorcery-kings (each taking their cultural inspirations from Egypt, Greece, Mesopotamia/Babylonia, India, Khmer, central africa and the Aztecs), exist in a scorching desert wasteland that is a mashup of Mad Max, Dune, Tekumel, Planet of Adventure and Barsoom, where everything is trying to kill you in the name of survival.
Dark Sun, more than any other D&D setting, is a world where simple survival and resource management takes centre stage - Because it is so scarce. Water in particular remains a concern even at high levels when you roam the desert. Getting rich as you advance is not a given, as everyone is out to get you. Hell, even just getting your hands on some steel weapons or armor is a big deal. But really, to get the setting there is only way to do it - the artwork of Brom:

The Dragon of Tyr

Further detail

I previously blogged on how a properly realized setting should have its own monster book, magic book and classes. And Dark Sun is a great example of this. All the classes and races get their own twist to fit the setting - Clerics get their powers not from gods but the four elements. Wizards directly impact the environment by draining life from the soil around them. Bards are basically assassins with a social cover identity. Elves are long distance running nomads. Halflings are feral cannibals. You can play a four-armed insect. Only 36 monsters from the monster manual actually exist in Dark Sun, the rest are unique to the setting. there is only one dragon (pictured above) who is the baddest defiling wizard in the game. And pretty much everyone have psionics, including all PCs. Even plants have psionics, so they can better kill you to survive. Playing in Dark Sun feels different to other settings - and the rules all help establish that..

That Dark Sun is a game of survival is emphasized not just by the harsh survival rules and lack of resources available to players, but also with the "character tree", a method for having a folder of PCs you can swap in and out and advance somewhat in tandem. Basically telling players that yes, they should expect their characters to die but at least with this they don't start from scratch every time.

Publication History

The good news is that all you really need is the original boxed set and maybe the Dark Sun monstrous compendium. You may have some tinkering to do with rules to suit your system of choice, but you will never be in doubt about how to run the setting. What the supplements can offer you on top of that is really not that much.

The original boxed set was basically one of the best sets TSR ever made. The Wanderer's Journal booklet in it may be the best guide to a setting ever written - A 1st person narrative that strikes a perfect blend of being evocative and stirring to the imagination, murky on the details a DM would want to fill in himself and terse enough that it doesn't try to be a novel. Its 80 pages of content have no gaming content, can be read fairly quickly and truly immerses you in the world under the Dark Sun. This book alone places the original boxed set as the definitive guide to Dark Sun that all should start with.

The setting had good support with supplements and adventures from the outset, with books like Dune Trader, Slave Tribes and Veiled Alliance offering detail on aspects of the setting you'd want to focus on, without changing anything about the setting itself as many setting supplements end up doing.
We also got Dragon Kings for crunch, the most bad-ass gonzo high-level sourcebook you will never use, giving rules for how 20th/20th level spellcaster/psionicists can become 'advanced beings' (dragons, magic butterflies and elementals) and start casting 10th level spells, whilst fighters amass giant arms and rogues.... become higher level rogues. Pure psionicists also gain the high level feature of being sought out by even higher level psionicists telling them to stop using their powers, or else. But overall, a much better take on high level play than anything else TSR and WoTC ever managed.

A fair number of adventures were published for Dark Sun - all of them can be skipped without missing anything. The intro-adventure in the original box is probably the best of the lot and that doesn't say much. Most of them are rail-roady and/or tie into the novels to advance the metaplot (see below) and cast the PCs as big damn heroes, rather than the picaresque survalists-of-fortune that the setting is basically shouting at you to play. Really, the best way to run Dark Sun is as an exploration-based sandbox, with city intrigue on the side, with a focus on episodic tales rather than evolving story archs.

And then there are the novels of course. Pure bullshit. Within a trilogy or two, more than half the sorcery kings are dead, so is the dragon. They were all apprentices to Sauron the biggest evil sorcerer ever who was brought back to life and then killed by a sorceress who got cheat codes to wizardry we never knew existed before mary sue needed them. The environment is now changing for the better and democracy is on the rise! In other words, Rose Estes on Greyhawk levels of completely missing the point of the setting. It genuinely boggles the mind that Troy Denning was co-creator of a brilliant setting in the original set, then proceeded to fucking wreck it with his novels. How can a guy fail so utterly to get the point of the very world he helped create? A total clusterfuck and one so bad that when WotC released Dark Sun for 4th edition, they simply retconned it out of existence - something they have never done before or since to any other setting.

We got a second boxed set off the back of the novels to reflect the massive changes there and also expanding the world to now have savannahs out west and a sea full of dolphins somewhere up north - basically more bullshit. They changed the logo for this as well, which means there is a nice rule of thumb for what to pick up. If it has this logo:
Then you are good to go. If, on the other hand, it has this logo:

It's gonna by infected by the bullshit WotC had to retcon out of existence later on.


Dark Sun is easy to sum up as a recommendation - It is a the only D&D setting where simply staying alive is an accomplishment in itself and the only D&D setting that truly departs from medieval fantasy in favor of the more exotic. If you think this sounds cool and you like the artwork pictured above, Dark Sun is going to be awesome for you. If neither is true for you, you won't like it.

Appendix: Riffing on Dark Sun

I do love Dark Sun, but it does shine through at times that it is a D&D setting made to order, where the additions and conforming to D&D tropes get a bit stale. Some things are just not quite as thought through as they could be. And much of the 'canon' established in novels and later publications just utterly fail to capture the tone and genre of the original boxed set. So I do think it needs a bit of riffing to realize its true potential. Here is my take on how to do it.

Basic Assumption: The original boxed set is mostly core. Dune Trader and Dragon Kings likewise. The rest mostly bullshit. Novels are total bullshit. No Rajaat, no "champions", no blue/green age yadda yadda, no mary sue sun sorceresses and no dead sorcery kings.


Here is what we, and the PCs, know, from the original boxed set:
"...we know from the sheer number of their chronicles that most city-states are thousands of years old. The same sorcerer-king rules over the city for spans of hundreds of years, sometimes for more than a thousand. There are even cases where the current sovereign is credited with founding the city."   
"Who has not heard a bard's sonorous voice the marvels of the world before ours? The lyrics speak of a land of plenty, with grass on every hill and water in every draw... ...however, there may be a kernel of truth to the ancient lyrics and ballads. " 
"...I have accepted as true: Athas is a barbaric shadow of some better world. Like men, the elves, dwarves, halflings, and all the demihuman races are but brutal descendants of worthier ancestors. The dragon, the lions, and the other great beasts are horrible abominations of their noble progenitors... ...The essence of every living thing, from the highest to the lowest, has been warped in some grotesque way that makes it more vicious, more cunning, and more terrifying than its forbearers." 
"I have no idea what caused this atrocious transformation. Perhaps it was the law of nature, for in a savage land, only the savage will survive. Perhaps it was the influence of a sinister power, as yet unknown and unseen. Perhaps, as some say, the dragon itself is at the heart of the matter."
Here is my takeaway from that:

The current age, the Age of Sorcery Kings, is old. Go back 5000 years and Athas would look much the same, just with names and people changed (maybe 5000 years ago, there were some more pockets of green and civilization, maybe even a few cities not yet fallen to sorcery kings. Maybe a bit more historic memory and sliver of hope, albeit fading, that it was not too late to turn things around somehow).

Athas, as worlds go, is orders of magnitude more ancient than any other published D&D settings. Think Jack Vance's Dying Earth. There are countless ages and eons buried beneath the sand. Most of them utterly unknown to the present. This is why guys like Nibenay end up spending centuries in his library - because there is still untold swathes of lore about this world that even the sorcery kings do not know of.
And there's no real over-arching theme to any of it. There was no singular event, no main villain, nor specific series of events, that lead to the current state of affairs. More like a series of ages that lead to this. What Athas suffers from most of all is basically just the slow attrition of planetary age.

DM meta-musings on history:
In a godless world, a recurring theme for the ages has been apotheosis (in Dark Sun - becoming an advanced being) and the means for attaining it. Most of the violence done to this world has been in the name of apotheosis. This age, at the dying stages of the world, is in the grip of those who attain apotheosis by means of helping along the death of this world: defiling - the path of the dragon kings.

Secret History:
Here is what is known to a handful of rare scholars and suspected by a fair few who care to speculate:

  • The discovery/invention of defiling magic, and with it a fast-track to power (and thus apotheosis) ushered in a period of conflict that lead to the current age of blasted wastelands and sorcery kings ruling over the remaining scraps of fertile land and civilization.
  • Muls and half-giants were created and bred for war during said period of conflict.
  • Psionics came into existence after this (somehow it entwined itself with the path to apotheosis as well). Is it a kind of immune response from the Gaia of a dying world to the powers that have slowly killed it? A seed of regeneration to a new aeon for a dying world? or a corruption seeping in from alien dimensions? As DM, I am leaving myself undecided on that at this point.
  • The "grotesque warpings" of the natural world the Wanderer describes happened pretty much in tandem with the advent of psionics in the natural world. Again, immune response or outer corruption is undecided (not all such warpings are from this time though - elves have been long-legged nomads for ages prior to that - their original homelands were long forgotten by all by the time psionics came around. And halflings have been feral for almost as long).
Here is what is not really known to anyone, but that I might riff on later:
  • There was a time where Athas had a lot more inter-dimensional cross-fertilization than it currently has (again, bear in mind that Athas is so ancient even the current Planescape cosmology was not around back in its heyday - Athas is literally a relic of a former cosmological order/multiverse that was not the same as the cosmic sandbox other D&D settings swim in).
  • Humans are not native to Athas. They arrived as planetary invaders in a former age.
  • Defiling magic is not a discipline native to Athas (humans are a candidate for bringing this with them, but might well be someone else. Maybe the Gith. Or maybe some other extra-planar assholes who just want to watch the world burn).
  • The sun turned dark well before defiling magic hit Athas. The people of the prior age knew well that Athas was already dying of old age. By then, it was already a fragile and hot age of steppes and savannahs with limited pockets of jungle and water. When defiling magic came in, it was basically a small step to push Athas over the edge.
  • I am thinking that among the last handful of ages in this dying aeon, there's been a druidic age, an elemental age and most recently a preserver age - All reflecting which path to apotheosis was dominant in that age, which in turn reflected on the state of the world. The elemental age fucked up a lot of things (probably clerical assholes was who drained the oceans) that the preserver age (a last hurrah of civilization) then tried to contain, before getting fucked up by defilers.
  • The dearth of iron and metals is basically just a function of the old age of Athas. It was depleted in the former ages mentioned above as well - The preserver age was pretty good at harvesting and making sensible use of the remaining metal reservoirs, although that got fucked by the defiling wars that came after.

Tablelands & Beyond

Let's start with the boundaries defined in the Wanderer's Journal in the original boxed set:
"The Tablelands are encircled by the various ranges of the Ringing Mountains. These ranges all run north and south. To the east and west of the Sea of Silt, the mountains form solid walls separating the tablelands from the unknown regions beyond. To the north and south of the dusty sea, they form a series of parallel ribs. The deep valleys between the ridges lead away from central Athas like a series of long (and hazardous) corridors. 
In every direction, beyond the mountains lie the Hinterlands. We have little knowledge of what abides there. Many men have set out to explore the depths of this unknown region, but I have never met one who returned. During the one journey that I undertook to view just the edge of the Hinterland, an invisible braxat carried off my companions, a tribe of halflings tried to eat me, and a silk wyrm hounded my trail for over a week. It is a wonder that I returned at all. "
... ...
"Mountain ranges encircle the Tablelands, each running north and south. To the east and west of the Sea of Silt, they form great wall-like barriers separating the Tablelands from the unknown lands beyond." 
"To the north and south of the Sea of Silt, they form a series of parallel ribs. The deep valleys between these ribs lead away from central Athas like a series of long corridors. 
I have visited only the mountains lying west of Tyr, so remember that my comments reflect experiences there. These mountains more or less separate the Hinterlands from the Tablelands, whereas the mountains north and south of the Sea of Silt form long passageways connecting the Hinterlands and the Tablelands... ...In the northern and southern regions, the mountains are like funnels that guide travel between the two areas along certain rigid tracks. "
This description of the ringing mountains and hinterlands is awesome and terrifyingly evocative. Who forgot to play this up later on? I am tempted to add volcanoes to this just for further intimidation factor. What lies beyond the Hinterlands is unknown and, so we are told, was as big a hindrance to the ancients as it is to the people of the current age:
"I ran across little sign of the ancients in the Hinterlands. Apparently, the Ringing Mountains were as much a barrier to them as they are to us."
"The Sea of Silt is surrounded on all sides by the Tablelands, a band of relatively flat terrain ranging from less than fifty miles wide to more than four hundred. This is where the civilization of the ancients flourished, at least if we are to judge by all the ruins they left. It is here that the remnants of civilization cling to a few verdant oases today."
A note about the dragon of Tyr at this point - None of the "I have my own city, collect a levy of slaves and am the jailor of Rajaat" bullshit exists in the original boxed set. What we know of the Dragon is that he is the apex predator of the Tyr region, even among sorcery kings, and does what he wants while roaming the Tyr region as the defiler supreme. He has no city cause he needs none of the resources they can offer. He is what the other pretenders dream of becoming. Some of the sorcery kings speculate the dragon may even be old enough to have partaken in the defiling wars that began this age and that the Tyr Region is basically his spoils of that war. But no one knows, except the dragon, and maybe Nibenay.
Furthermore, the Hinterlands are home to the few raging dragons on the mid stages, who seek to avoid the dragon of tyr and the sorcery kings who might band together to kill them. The Hinterlands are a fucked up place in all ways.
All this also tells you what is most likely on the other side of the hinterlands - The domains of other fully matured dragons who are in turn the apex predators among a squabbling bunch of pretenders ruling over the remnant oases of fertile land. Probably. Because no one really knows.

Things I want to do more with:
  • Undead - A world as old as this, it seems to me that the dead should in some ways have a more sizeable presence than the living. I am not sure how to play this out yet, but I am thinking skeletal armies from lost ages spontaneously waking up in the desert and marching on the city-states is not an unknown phenomena. Besides being nice justification for the rule of the sorcery kings to save people from such terrors, it also adds to the warlike character Dark Sun is supposed to have (I always found it difficult to envisage who all these armies were fighting). But generally, necromancers have it really well on Athas. They are also the ones with the best link to the ancients as they go digging through the ruins of the dead looking for ULTIMATE POWER. Obvious plot hook for a band of Conans to go and stop them.
  • Elemental lords and wrathful spirits of the land - The ascended advanced beings of former ages, they are going to have some stake in how all this plays out. They are probably mostly angry assholes.
  • Elemental clerics and preservers are kind of overlapping the same niche of 'eco-friendly caster' without going full druid. I'd like to distinguish them a bit more. Elemental clerics are just a bit weird really, even if the theme is cool. What's their link to their element? What interest do elementals have in Athas? Why aren't they hunted as eagerly by sorcery kings as preservers?
Nuggets I'd want to drop in here and there:
  • Druids are fucking feral and not your friend. At best, you can bargain with them for safe passage. To most city-dwellers, druids are eco-extremist maniacs who have gone off the deep end of seeing sapient races as mortal enemies of 'nature'.
  • The veiled society actually has originating links back to the previous age and have preserved knowledge from back then. Only the highest in the society know this - Their self-awareness is that they are the last hope of restoring the former age at some point in the far future. What they don't know is that the knowledge they have preserved has become severely distorted over the millenia - To a preserver of the previous age, their lore would be recognisable, but absurdly mis-interpreted and fragmented to the point of being nothing like what it was.
  • And generally play on this theme of distorted fragments of history shaping the culture of the present in the form of odd customs and beliefs. Show them in play, then drop hints of how it really was like back in the day when the PCs go digging through old ruins. Whilst also playing up the general theme from the original boxed set that knowledge is generally rare, hard to obtain and likely to get you killed if the wrong people know you have it. Knowledge is a deadly competitive game on Athas.
  • Races - I am unsure here. Early in the design process, the designers actually wanted to ditch all the classical races to underscore the alienness of Dark Sun, but were told this was a step too far, so they went and re-flavored them for the setting instead.
    On one hand, I like the conceit that Dark Sun was once a D&D world much like any other.
    On the other, there is also something to be said for giving it the Talislanta treatment to play up the exotic nature of the setting. I really like what they've done with Elves though, who are basically the Fremen (Dune) of Athas. Halflings are also kinda neat. Athasian Dwarves are pretty lame though and add nothing to the setting.
Themes I'd want to steer clear of:
  • let's kill a sorcery king - you can try, but don't expect much success unless you are all high level and have armies behind you, and preferably another sorcery king back your bid.
  • Let's make the world green again. Not possible. At best you get to carve out a slice of it for yourself where things can be tolerable.
  • I want to play a paladin. f*** off.
Themes I'd want to make perfectly clear:
  • Your character will die. That's the f***ing point of Dark Sun. Don't get attached. That's why we have character trees and why this should be run with a system with quick chargen and little emphasis on the charop mini-game. 5e is around the tipping point for this. Scaled down, such as with Into the Unknown or the Basic rules, it could work though.
  • As per above, rules for basic survival and exploration will be emphasized and ruthlessly enforced. Yes, your 12th level character can and will die of thirst. That's the f***ing point of Dark Sun.

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