Monday 30 November 2009

The Worlds of D&D: Planescape

The Planescape logo, used between 1994 and 1999.

The History of Planescape

If there is one constant in these journeys through the Dungeons and Dragons campaign worlds, it is the apparent lack of the truly fantastical. Three of the settings visited so far are essentially secondary Earths, based on medieval Europe or other real-world analogues, whilst Dark Sun is effectively D&D interpreted by way of Mad Max. None of these things prevent these settings from being fun to play in or a viable setting for half-decent books, but at the same time we're not really seeing the truly fantastic on display here. D&D is sometimes used as a byword for 'bad' or at the very least 'unambitious' fantasy, and there is an element of truth to that description. However, hidden behind the Drizzts and draconians, there is one part of the D&D franchise that is truly interesting, original and home to some of the best stories ever told in the game.

The D&D multiverse developed over a long period in fits and starts. Gary Gygax wanted demonic entities, otherworldly beings and occasionally proud celestial warriors to show up who wouldn't reside on his campaign world, but would come from 'elsewhere'. This led to the creation of other dimensions and planes of existence. Over the lifespan of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 1st Edition (1978-89), many different writers and game designers added their own planes of reality, until the whole thing became somewhat unwieldy. Various print editions of the Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide attempted to streamline the confusing morass of parallel universes but it wasn't until 1987's Manual of the Planes, written by Jeff Grubb, that the D&D multiverse was finally codified.

The Manual of the Planes, published in 1987 for AD&D 1st Edition.

Grubb developed the idea of the Prime Material Plane consisting of various realities which were the already existing Earth-like worlds, such as Toril (home of the Forgotten Realms), Oerth (Greyhawk) and Krynn (Dragonlance). Around this swirled the Ethereal and Astral dimensions, then beyond them lay the Elemental or Inner Planes (of fire, earth, air and water) and the sixteen Outer Planes, which formed a 'great wheel' cosmology. These Outer Planes included places of great good such as Mount Celestia and places of fell evil, such as the Abyss, home of the Dragonlance goddess Takhisis and the drow god Lolth, where the Blood War between the baatezu and tanar'ri raged for all eternity. At the suggestion of another writer, Grubb also introduced the Plane of Concordant Opposition as a sort of neutral meeting ground between the various planes of reality.

This set-up was maintained, fleshed out a little in other products, until around 1993. At this time TSR were looking to develop a new 'unusual' campaign setting, based on the success of the offbeat Dark Sun and the horror-derived Ravenloft settings, and the feeling that between Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance and Greyhawk (then being briefly revived) the 'standard' fantasy setting was already well-covered. In addition the 2nd Edition of AD&D had been released in 1989, and a brief mention in the new Dungeon Master's Guide aside, no further development had taken place of the other planes of reality. Fan demand for an updated Manual of the Planes was strong. The need for more information on the planes and for a new game world naturally coalesced into an entire campaign setting revolving around the other planes of existence. Veteran game designer David 'Zeb' Cook was put on the job.

The Planescape campaign setting boxed set, released for AD&D 2nd Edition in 1994.

The Planescape campaign setting boxed set was released in 1994 and immediately caused a stir. This wasn't your traditional Dungeons and Dragons game. The game's artwork was like nothing seen before in the D&D canon, with muted pastels, striking imagery and unusual colours, apparently inspired more by Dave McKean's work on Sandman and Dr. Seuss than any of D&D's traditional inspirations. Opening the box proved likewise bemusing, with large maps of the entire multiverse and schematic diagrams showing the connections between the various dimensions. The books seemed to take delight in needling the player's incomprehension, referring to them as 'cutters' and 'berks' and that the secret of cracking this Planescape thing was 'getting a clue'. Being bewildered at the game's size and scope was natural and appropriate, as their characters would be bewildered and confused when torn out of their cosy Tolkien-lite secondary worlds ("Not that there's anything wrong with that,") and thrust into the teeming insanity of the cosmos. Whilst there was nothing stopping the players using traditional races like elves or dwarves, the setting strongly suggested using more interesting native races like githzerai, tieflings or bariaur was a better idea. Of course, this didn't quite work as intended, as more than a few players, after a few hours of struggling with the material, threw it under the stairs and went back to playing hunt the beholder in some dungeon instead.

For those who stuck with it, Planescape rapidly became the most rewarding and interesting roleplaying campaign setting ever published. The setting is literally infinite, with any type of game possible. Creative and offbeat DMs came up with some truly original and bonkers campaigns and gaming ideas. Groups of players, particularly those who favoured roleplaying and subverting expectations of the game and setting, enjoyed the game's unusual atmosphere and vibe and seized on the vast glossary of new phrases, colloquialisms and terms with glee. One of Cook's masterstrokes was to introduce the city of Sigil on the Outlands (the somewhat catchier new name for the Plane of Concordant Opposition), a neutral meeting ground where characters could meet or use as a base for their forays elsewhere in the planes. Sigil itself rapidly became one of the most iconic fantasy cities to emerge from the D&D game, to the point where players could spend entire campaigns taking part in intrigues between the factions of the city and ignoring the wider setting beyond.

In short, Planescape is D&D's answer to the New Weird, only it did it before China Mieville made it fashionable.

Planescape's fire burned brightly but also briefly. There was a gradual downturn of new material being released (not helped by TSR's financial woes) and in 1998 the final product, a third Monstrous Compendium book focusing on the setting's creatures, was issued less than four years after the original campaign setting was published. Whilst it had been an enormous critical success, winning multiple awards for both game design and its unforgettable artwork, it had not captured the hearts of the masses. It was perhaps too radical, too ambitious and too arty for its own good. Critics pointed out that whilst the planes were fun to visit for a break from orc-killing, you wouldn't necessarily want to live there, and a common complaint was that the 'infinite reaches of the multiverse' all too often meant lots of arguments between philosophy majors and not as much demon-crushing as might be desired.

The D&D 3rd Edition Manual of the Planes, released in 2001.

Later editions of the game largely revoked or retconned a lot of Planescape material. In 3rd Edition the new Manual of the Planes saw something of a streamlining of the D&D multiverse and the confusing removal of the various campaign worlds into their own, independent cosmologies, which proved headache-inducing for those DMs who had previously been using dimension-hopping campaign ideas. 4th Edition increased this confusion with new dimensions introduced and old ones disappearing. However, 4th Edition has also given rise to hope that Planescape will be revisited, maybe not as its own setting, but as part of the basic setting, as the Dungeon Master's Guide II book and yet another Manual of the Planes feature information on several key Planescape locations, such as Sigil. Whether this will come to anything remains to be seen.

The D&D 4th Edition Manual of the Planes, released in 2009.

There is one ironic twist in this tale. One and a half years after Planescape was effectively dropped as a D&D campaign setting, a computer roleplaying company named Black Isle released Planescape: Torment, using the Infinity Engine which had proven so popular in the previous year's Baldur's Gate. Torment saw the player taking on the role of an amnesiac, immortal warrior and having to guide him through Sigil and various parts of the multiverse looking for his memories and his mortality, accompanied by a number of complex and multi-faceted companions. Following the advice of the campaign setting itself, there were no traditional D&D races, monsters or weapons. Characters including a burning man, a bodiless floating skull, a mobile suit of armour, a fallen succubi and a sentient clockwork robot. It was extraordinarily good, easily the closest computer games have ever gotten to achieving real literature, and is now commonly cited as the greatest computer roleplaying game ever made. Whilst not as successful as the Baldur's Gate series, it did do respectably well and could have generated much more interest in the Planescape setting, if it hadn't already folded by the time the game came out.

Computer role-playing's answer to The Book of the New Sun.

The Worlds of Planescape

The heart of the Planescape campaign setting and normally the first stopping-off point for visitors is Sigil, the City of Doors, also called the Cage. Sigil is located at the very centre of the infinite multiverse (which is both impossible and also accurate), floating above a spire of infinite height (also both impossible and also accurate). The city is located on the inner surface of an immense ring, several miles wide and several miles across, resembling an immense tyre lying on its side slowly rotating above the spire. The city's permanent smog thankfully hides the site of the ground, the constant presence of which which would probably drive half the populace insane through vertigo over time. The city's architecture is a mish-mash of a million different cultures and times from across the multiverse, harbouring as it does representatives from dozens of planes and thousands of worlds. Some of the buildings would give M.C. Escher a headache and make Hieronymus Bosch feel inadequate.

The Outlands, featuring the city of Sigil at the centre.

The city is home to sixteen factions, including the Bleak Cabal, the Dustmen, the Doomguard, the Mercykillers and the Harmonium, all of whom espouse different philosophical and ideological viewpoints. Most Sigil campaigns are based around the characters getting involved in disputes between the factions. A 'faction war', one of the few meta-events in the setting, later ravaged parts of the city and saw several factions outlawed or destroyed. Sigil is also home to many portals or planar doors leading anywhere in the multiverse. Some are well-known, marked and open for public use. Others are 'locked' and can only be used by those with a planar key. Some doors are hidden in plain sight (as a normal doorway, for example) and will only teleport those of a certain race, sometimes only on certain days, or on a whim. Mapping the planar gates in Sigil is a keen past-time for some scholars and mages.

The Lady of Pain. She can eviscerate you with her brain.

The city is ruled by a bureaucratic administration who answers to the Lady of Pain, an inscrutable and completely enigmatic entity. The Lady is assumed to be a deity as her powers within the City of Doors are absolute, but since she refuses to answer queries and flays alive those who try to worship her, this question is difficult to answer. One theory is that if Sigil is indeed a 'Cage', the Lady is both its ruler and its prisoner. The Lady has a perpetually serene, untroubled expression on her face and travels everywhere by floating along several inches above the ground, and her head is surrounded by a mantle of blades. These blades have never been used directly (in the presence of anyone who has lived to tell the story of it, however), but occasionally beings trying to waylay the Lady have suddenly been torn apart by simply stepping into the shadow of the blades. The Lady normally does not favour this type of violence, however, and mostly simply 'Mazes' transgressors, banishing them to a pocket prison dimension consisting of a maze and various inventive and original traps. If the imprisoned one manages to escape, they are usually permitted to return to Sigil. The Lady can also bar, close or shut down any planar gate in the city at will, or open new ones (although she has never passed through one herself, or at least again not in the sight of others). The Lady's powers extend even to barring all the gods access to Sigil. In short, don't mess with her.

Beyond Sigil sits the Outlands, one of the seventeen Outer Planes. The Outlands are neutral ground where caravans of goods and travellers meet or simply pass through on their way somewhere else. At the 'edges' of the plane (although the Outlands, like all planes, are infinite, they also have an edge; go figure) are permanant trade towns and portals leading to the other Outer Planes: Elysium, the Beastlands, Arborea, Ysgard, Limbo, Pandemonium, the Abyss, Carceri, Hades, Gehenna, Baator, Acheron, Mechanus, Arcadia, Mount Celestia and Bytopia. These planes vary immensely in size (although they are all, of course, infinite) and composition. The Abyss is a vast chasm consisting of thousands of levels populated by various evil creatures, whilst Mechanus (also called Nirvana) consists of vast, thousand-mile-wide cogs and machines with cities and entire kingdoms sitting amongst gears and levers.

A map of the entire totality of reality in the D&D multiverse. Not to scale.

The Astral Plane, a sort of sea of unusual energy where the gods go when they die, links the Outer Planes to the Prime Material Plane, whilst the Prime Material Plane is also linked and surrounded by the Ethereal Plane, the home of various undead spirits and small demiplanes (the Demiplane of Dread, home of the Ravenloft campaign setting, is located in the Ethereal Plane). The Ethereal links the Prime Material Plane to the Inner Planes, which consist of various forms of energy and act as the power sources for spells.


The Planescape campaign setting eventually gave what a number of D&D fans had been asking for for a while: a truly original, fantastical campaign setting in which the traditional elves, dwarves, orcs and dragons were sidelined in favour of new (or previously-existing but lesser known) races and campaigns based around combat and levelling up were de-emphasised in favour of roleplaying and juggling factions and philosophical ideas.

Planescape: so awesome it even has robots.

It's both a good and bad idea. Good, because it encourages radical ideas and a different of gaming, and bad because unless the players are really into it, it can become a little gimmicky. DMs also tend to like the setting because they can take ultra-powerful player characters who are effectively the most powerful beings in their world and dump them in a situation where they are nobodies, whilst players are not always quite so keen on this approach. The setting's biggest problem is that finding and maintaining a coherent narrative plot strand in the vast infinity of the setting can be quite tricky, especially for an unwary or inexperienced DM.

However, for a party really in the mood for something different and a DM really willing to do something outside the box, Planescape is nothing less than the most impressive and versatile toolbox in the Dungeons and Dragons arsenal, and it is a shame it has been effectively on hold for all of 3rd and 4th Editions of the game. It'll be interesting to see if it does come back in a big way for 4th, and in what form it is when it does.

Sunday 29 November 2009

Robert Holdstock has passed away

I was very sad to hear the news that fantasy author Robert Holdstock passed away this morning from complications relating to an E. coli infection. He was only 61 years old. Robert was best-known for the Mythago Wood cycle of novels, starting with Mythago Wood and Lavondyss, as well as a number of stand-alones and the recent Merlin Codex series. His most recent novel, Avilion, was a continuation of the Mythago Wood cycle and he was in the early stages of planning and writing a sequel.

I met Robert on several occasions, most recently at this year's Gemmell Awards and this year's Gollancz party, just two months ago, when we talked about The Dark Wheel, the novella he wrote that accompanied the original BBC Micro release of Elite in 1984 and was almost certainly the first work of science fiction I ever read. Robert's last public appearance was at an event celebrating the classic computer game (now in its 25th year) and he read an extract from the novella accompanied by a choir from the Nottingham Trent University playing 'The Blue Danube' (the theme tune for the game).

Robert Holdstock was an awesomely talented author, one of our most important modern writers of fantasy and a tremendously decent guy. He will be missed a lot. Condolences to his family. The world of fantasy fiction is definitely a poorer place today.

Comments and tributes from SFFWorld, Michael Moorcock, Ansible, Locus, Kate Elliott, SF Signal, OF Blog, John Jarrold, Speculative Horizons, Graeme's Fantasy Book Review, Nextread, Neil Gaiman, Darren Nash at Orbit, the British Fantasy Society, Ian McDonald, M. John Harrison, Paul J. McAuley, Mark C. Newton and Alastair Reynolds. More responses on his blog.

Saturday 28 November 2009

The Arc of Truth: Part 1

Over the last fifteen years or so there has been a major change in how American drama television operates. The traditional model has shows mostly consisting of stand-alone episodes which the floating viewer can dip in and out of at will, which can be shown and re-arranged in any order without any problems and in which a reset button has to be hit so the show can return to the status quo at the end of every half-hour or hour, ready for the next week's hijinks. Previous episodes would only be referenced in the case of, say, a returning guest star or an old enemy.

That model has gradually been eroded in favour of the story arc format. In this format TV episodes have to be viewed sequentially and feature building storylines, continuous character developments and, in extreme cases, the idea that no episode can end with characters in the same places they started in. Storylines could build from unlikely sources, with a single line of dialogue from twelve episodes earlier suddenly proving pivotal to the resolution of a long-running plot, or a minor character established in an earlier episode suddenly becoming a major player.

"Right, so whilst this is chronologically our fourth appearance from the viewer's point of view, it's actually our fifth from within our internal timeline."
"Have you factored in the new post-2005 series?"
"Ah crap, wait whilst I figure that out..."

Story arcs are, of course, not new. Both radio and television soap operas stretching back to the 1950s or even earlier have been built on the same model, whilst in the 1930s serial movies like Tarzan, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers (all starring Buster Crabbe) pursued the same idea. Doctor Who, which began in 1963, was made up of serialised storylines, with each storyline typically running between three and six half-hour episodes in length (with outliers as short as one episode or as long as twenty-six), and minor storylines running between serials, particularly in the earlier seasons when each serial had an ending leading into the next and recurring enemies like the Daleks and Cybermen (and, to a lesser extent in Patrick Troughton's tenure, the Ice Warriors and Yetis) appearing with some regularity.

In American television an influential show for the development of the story arc was The Fugitive ("A Quinn Martin production!"). This was mostly an episodic story in which Dr. Richard Kimble is on the run from the police for a crime he did not commit, and as he fled the law he helped other people who were in trouble. It wasn't until the fourteenth episode of the first season that we learned what the crime was that he'd been accused of and what his ultimate goal was, of finding the 'one-armed man' who killed his wife and clearing his name. Also unusually, the series didn't just keep this as a remote goal on the horizon, but several times brought Kimble and his nemesis into contact with one another. Also, and this truly was and remains highly unusual, The Fugitive got a proper ending, in which after four years the one-armed man is apprehended and Kimble's name is finally cleared. The Fugitive's final episode in 1967 was watched by three-quarters of the American viewing public at the time, a colossal amount and arguably the result of people wanting to see how this story that had been unfolding for four years was wrapped up.

Still, the traditional arguments in favour of episodic television remained strong, and arguably even The Fugitive was still mostly episodic, with the 'anchor' arc episodes only occurring at rare and key moments in the series, with all the in-between installments still watchable in isolation on their own merits. In fact, even the utterly bonkers British genre series The Prisoner arguably only needed the first and last two episodes to stay where they were, with the rest of the episodes interchangeable in order.

The reason why episodic television was favoured in the States was due to the power of syndication, where TV shows were sold into constant re-runs after their original airings on the networks, and selling a show into syndication was often essential to turn a profit. The local channels carrying the shows on syndication were not particularly bothered about showing series in the right order, so making each episode stand alone as possible was a key concern for TV producers. Ironically, soap operas were able to overcome this influence by their very disposability (each individual episode costing peanuts compared to a weekly drama) and their sheer mass of episodes.

This 'syndication trap' was responsible for putting down even successful shows. The original 1978-79 Battlestar Galactica had a definitive opening story arc (the destruction of the Twelve Colonies and the flight of the survivors into space) followed by a series of stand-alone episodes, but these were punctuated by occasional shifts in format. For example, Baltar is captured by the Fleet in one episode and remains a prisoner for several weeks before staging a break-out, whilst one regular character established in the pilot dies three weeks in. Halfway through the season the battlestar Pegasus arrives and, although it doesn't stick around, several crewmembers (including a new regular) join the Galactica crew. The second half of the season also sees a building storyline in which mysterious alien spacecraft apparently made of crystal starts shadowing the Fleet, and at the end of Season 1 a hint to the location of Earth is discovered. BSG's cancellation at a time when it was still getting 15-20 million viewers a week remains baffling to this day, despite its enormous-for-the-time budget, but certainly the show's serialised storyline not being popular with syndication channels has been occasionally put forward as one reason why it was dropped.

Over in the UK, with no comparable phenomenon to syndication, this was less of an issue. Shows were typically shown once, maybe repeated a year or so later, and then disappeared for good, often literally as the BBC would wipe the video tapes for re-use (although thankfully they had abandoned this practice by the late 1970s). In particular, during the 1970s the BBC got into the swing of making 'event' mini-series based on books, such as their ambitious adaptation of War and Peace starring Anthony Hopkins or I, Claudius starring Derek Jacobi and John Hurt, and these serials would obviously include epic and detailed storylines spanning many episodes to some success.

In SF&F terms, Doctor Who was continuing and had flirted with a much longer form of storytelling in its sixteenth season in 1978-79, which consisted of one big meta-narrative called The Key to Time, divided into six sub-serials. This huge narrative, partly written by Douglas Adams, proved successful and for several seasons the show continued to pursue larger narratives, such as a 'trilogy' of serials two years later where the TARDIS was trapped in another dimension called E-Space (with the purpose and fate of E-Space then revealed in the season-ending, Doctor-replacing episode Logopolis).

However, an arguably more influential (and I'll explain why in a moment) SF TV series also debuted in 1978. Written by Terry Nation, the creator of the Daleks, Blake's 7 was, at least conceptually, a rip-roaring space opera, complete with a heroic crew of seven do-gooders fighting the evil forces of the Terran Federation. In real terms, the show undercut its own premise almost from day one. The show was, to start with, very heavily serialised. The crew come together slowly, with the full roster only being completed after the first four episodes. Their mode of transport, the alien starship Liberator, was only discovered in the second episode and turned out to be a threatening force in its own right, routinely threatening the crew with death through its defence mechanisms or the callous disregard of the ship's sentient AI for most of the first season. Blake would routinely mention a Federation military target he wanted to destroy and this would then show up as the next planet they visited a week or two later. Half the crew wanted to kill the other half. Often individual Federation personnel were revealed to be perfectly decent, good people just doing a job to feed their families and unaware that their role as cogs in the machine was causing greater suffering elsewhere.

Blake's 7 was brilliant, bleak and subversive, having more in common with Nineteen Eighty-Four and even The Prisoner than with matinee serial Westerns or other heroic stories. One of the reasons for its brilliance was definitely its story arc. Regular characters died, often with zero forewarning, and new ones joined. There was a recurring cast on the Federation side devoted to catching our heroes. Blake and Avon's relationship developed from mutual distrust to grudging respect only because Blake agreed to give the Liberator to Avon once his dream of a general uprising against the Federation had been achieved (a promise Avon calls on Blake to deliver in the Season 2 finale). Most of Season 2 was dedicated to one storyline as the crew desperately hunted for the Federation's central command and control centre, hoping to destroy it and plunge the Federation into anarchy from which a revolution could be launched. Then, at the last moment, a completely new threat dwarfing that of the Federation arrived. When the series finally ended in 1982, having lost Blake, the Liberator, most of the original cast and all but one of the recurring villains along the way, it ended on a jaw-dropping, mind-blowingly nihilistic and even cruel note that left the viewers completely bewildered and the show's place in the canon of TV science fiction forever secure, even if the show's profile would eventually decrease over time.

Ironically, of course, Blake's 7's 'revolutionary' approach to genre television was achieved mostly by accident. Nation planned out the slow introduction of the cast simply because it was too expensive and confusing from a production standpoint to introduce them all at once. The Season 2 story arc was planned out in great detail and depth and then promptly had to be thrown out when the writers couldn't get the scripts ready in time, replacing it with a less complex storyline. The show was supposed to end with the much neater and, at least relatively, happier ending of Season 3 and only came back because the head of BBC drama liked the final episode so much he rang up the continuity announcer whilst the show was still on the air and told him to announce the show was coming back the next year. The supposedly apocalyptic ending of Season 4 was actually just a 'normal' cliffhanger which the writers could overcome easily for the next season, in which they hoped to resolve the story more traditionally, but the show was cancelled instead, leaving that ending as the series' last word, which hadn't been planned.

Given that its storyline had unfolded as a happy accident, why was Blake's 7 so important and so influential on the gradual shift to arc series that followed, given than most people don't even know the name today? Simple. Two young Americans were watching the show at the time and taking mental notes. One was called J. Michael Straczynski and the other was called Joss Whedon. We'll catch up with them next time.

Friday 27 November 2009

Update on the new Encyclopedia of Science Fiction

Way back in 1979, SF critics and editors Peter Nicholls and John Clute released the first edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Weighing in at 730,000 words, it was the most authoritative reference work about science fiction ever published. The second edition of the book was released in 1993, clocking in at 1.3 million words and well over a thousand pages of tiny type, and was of a size and weight that would enable it to double as siege weapon with no major problems.

The 1993 second edition.

The third edition was announced several years ago as being a dual project, with a physical copy and also a constantly-updated online incarnation both in the offing. However, the size of the project now seems to have outstretched the abilities of physical binding science, with Orbit amicably parting ways with the editors of the new edition, who have mysteriously revealed they now have 'enthusiastic new backers' from 'outside the conventional publishing world'. Intriguing.

The size of the new book has now been revealed as a slightly staggering 2.465 million words clocking in at over 10,000 entries (compared to 6,571 in the 1993 second edition). 'Exhaustive' and 'definitive' would appear to be what the editors are going for here. Interesting to see when it finally arrives. Whereupon, no doubt, they'll be asked if they're going to do the same thing for a new edition of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (the 1996 first edition of which is probably still the most definitive overview of the genre, despite now being badly outdated).

Thursday 26 November 2009

Ending The Lord of the Rings

After seeing an interesting thread on SFFWorld about this, I thought it was an interesting point to explore.

For most people, The Lord of the Rings ends with Sam riding home to Hobbiton and saying, "Well, I'm back,". Both the movie and the main text of the novel end at this point. However, both the book and, much moreso, the movie get some criticism for having 'too many endings', with quite a few moments before then where it feels like the end credits/appendices should have rolled instead. The book mostly gets around this by having the thematically vital 'Scouring of the Shire' chapter at the end, featuring the final confrontation between the Hobbits and Saruman.

However, what is interesting is that the ending of the book would have been significantly longer if Tolkien himself hadn't actually edited several more sequences out. Something that concerned Tolkien during the latter phases of writing The Lord of the Rings was reconciling the book's darker and more serious tone with the earlier, somewhat more frivolous text of The Hobbit. A second edition of The Hobbit was issued which used the darker, more murderous incarnation of Gollum from Rings rather than the more amiable trickster of the first edition, but Tolkien also felt that the underlying premise of The Hobbit, that thirteen hardcore dwarven warriors would want or need the help of a Hobbit to help them out to kill a dragon, was somewhat odd. To account for this he wrote a chapter for Rings called 'The Quest of Erebor' in which Gandalf sat down with Frodo in Minas Tirith and explained to him how he found Thrain dying in Dol Guldur and recovered his map, then many years later met Thorin and arranged the quest and why he through Bilbo could help with the mission. However, during the writing of the chapter Tolkien realised it was going off on a massive tangent from The Lord of the Rings and set it aside, finished but not rewritten to his normal exacting standards. Many years later he went back to redraft it as one of several essays he was writing on the subject of Middle-earth, and it is this version which eventually appeared in Unfinished Tales.

Tolkien also wrote an additional chapter that came after the "Well, I'm back," moment and explained in some detail what happened to each of the members of the Fellowship after the War of the Ring, and ended with Sam listening to the sound of the sea washing on the shores of Middle-earth. Tolkien, suspicious of over-sentimentality, decided this wasn't really appropriate either and pulled it out of the book, although it was finished. Christopher Tolkien eventually included it in Sauron Defeated, the ninth book in the History of Middle-earth series and the last one dealing with the Lord of the Rings era of his father's writing.

A lesser-known fact is that at some point after Lord of the Rings was published, Tolkien actually started writing a sequel, which he called The New Shadow. Tolkien's idea in this book would be that evil would return to Middle-earth and engulf the kingdom of Gondor in the Fourth Age, creating a crisis that one of Argorn's descendants would have to deal with. However, this idea does not seem to have fired his interest, possibly as it would deal with purely human villainy (so as not to contradict Rings' ending which had most of the supernatural and non-human elements of Middle-earth slowly fading away to make room for the age of men), which did not interest him as much as more mythic elements and material. The few pages that survive eventually appeared in the final book of The History of Middle-earth, The Peoples of Middle-earth.

Then of course are The Lord of the Rings' lengthy appendices, which a lot of readers skip. The first appendix deals with side-elements, such as the story of Aragorn and Arwen's relationship, whilst the second is the most interesting to a general reader, featuring as it does a lengthy timeline of the history of the Second and Third Ages (Tolkien didn't include the First, feeling that it would spoil The Silmarillion, which he was still working on) and a detailed timeline of what events took place in relation to one another in the book. Peter Jackson laudably paid attention to this timeline when making the movie trilogy, which is why some events in the second and third movies are moved around to their chronologically correct positions. Unfortunately, this did also less laudably require Jackson to introduce some weak 'filler' elements in the second movie, such as a pointless side-trip to Osgiliath, to fill in the resulting diminishing of screentime for Frodo and Sam. The later appendices mostly contain information on the languages of Middle-earth and form probably the most frequently-skipped part of the book (possibly after the poems).

Interestingly, The Lord of the Rings' appendices (which take up well over a hundred pages of the published book) were supposed to be considerably longer and more detailed, and Tolkien despaired over their 'truncated' state. At one point he considered expanding them into a companion volume to the series and started writing a series of essays on various elements of life and history in Middle-earth, but did not get far with them before he passed away. However, many of these essays, on such fascinating subjects as the Blue Wizards, the Palantiri, the military organisation and history of Rohan, the (sadly incomplete and self-contradictory) history of Galadriel and Celeborn, and a detailed report of the Battle of the Gladden Fields (where Isildur lost the One Ring), were recovered and published in Unfinished Tales, which Christopher Tolkien published in 1983 as a sort of replacement for the mooted companion volume.

It is interesting that Tolkien did produce a lot of extra material for The Lord of the Rings which didn't see the light of day for some considerable time, and did eventually address a number of questions people had left over from the end of the book, so if you can't get enough of the original book there's still a fair bit of additional material you can track down.

A Different Kingdom by Paul Kearney

Growing up on an Antrim farm in the 1950s, young Michael Fay has an idyllic but hard-working life. However, he soon discovers that the woodland beyond the farm is a doorway to another place, a place of wonders and stark terrors which has a strange hold on his family and where he must travel to right an old wrong.

A Different Kingdom was Paul Kearney's second novel, originally published in 1993 by Gollancz. It's a stand-alone, although it shares a thematic link with The Way to Babylon and Riding the Unicorn in that it features a person from our world who is drawn into a fantastical one. Those more familiar with Kearney from his later work, such as the excellent Monarchies of God series or his recent accomplished fantasised historical, The Ten Thousand, will find the book a surprise and a revelation. This is a work that is steeped in earthy Celtic mythology and is riddled with the sensibilities of Ireland. During early sequences on the Fay farm you can almost taste the soda bread and buttermilk, whilst later sequences in the fantastical 'other place' are rooted in the earth, the musty smells of the forest and in the palpable terror of the hunted.

A Different Kingdom reaches into the same taproots as works such as Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood, a comparison most books would not weather well, but this novel stands up to it with gusto. It's extremely well-written, with Fay a troubled and complex central character, and features an unusual structure where the story proceeds in three different periods in Michael's life and the story moves between them as he has prescient visions of his future journey into the forest as a boy, flashbacks to it as an adult and then we see it during the present. There's an element of Heart of Darkness also at work, as Michael's journey into the heart of the forest to confront an elusive enemy also becomes a confrontation with his own soul and his desires to save a family member clash with the desire to stay with a beautiful woman he meets in the woodlands.

There aren't many weaknesses. The sequence set in the future when Michael is grown-up are somewhat brief and not as well-explored as the earlier episodes, but then it doesn't really need to be. Some may find the ending also to be a little abrupt given the novel's build-up, but it still worked well and was a thematically appropriate conclusion. I particularly like the way you can't really read it as a 'happy ending' or not, depending on your interpretation of the story.

A Different Kingdom (*****) is a rich, powerful and strikingly good novel. It's regrettably out-of-print at the moment, although second-hand copies are available via Amazon in the UK and USA.

Wednesday 25 November 2009

The GTA3 Trilogy

Back in 1997, Scottish-based developers DMA Design (best known at that point for the enormously successful Lemmings series of puzzle games) released a game called Grand Theft Auto, which likely would have not attracted more than minor attention until The Daily Mail (Britain's dominant right-wing semi-tabloid) posted a hysterical article on the game's corrupting influences on children, as per usual ignoring the game's '18' rating.

The game saw the player taking on the role of a criminal who could drive any vehicle in a large city (there were three cities included in the game, named Liberty City, Vice City and San Andreas, based on New York, Miami and San Francisco respectively) and carried out criminal missions for various bosses. At key points in the story the player would have to skip town to another city and begin all over again. The game was played through a top-down, overhead interface and was noted for its freedom, with the player able to pursue missions, do some random jobs about town or just drive around if they felt like it.

Grand Theft Auto went on to become a decent success, shifting hundreds of thousands of copies on PC and the original PlayStation. It also spawned an expansion, GTA: London 1969 and a sequel, GTA2, released in 1999 to a somewhat muted reaction. GTA2 took the action into a slightly more cyberpunk-esque futuristic world where the player had to appease various gangs and factions. The moving away from the 'real' world towards an SF one seems to have led to a lack of player interest, so DMA (then in the process of being absorbed into Rockstar Games) decided not to pursue that approach in the future.

An obvious move for the franchise was into full 3D, and with the arrival of more powerful PlayStation 2 console and a new generation of PCs equipped with more capable 3D rendering cards, this was now pursued for the third game in the series. Grand Theft Auto III arrived in October 2001 to surprisingly little pre-release hype. Whilst the first two games had sold satisfactorily, it was still a somewhat lesser-known franchise, especially in the USA, and it was also made under a tight budget with a limited marketing spend. However, reviews were almost uniformly ecstatic and sales soon picked up quite radically. Sony saw an upsurge in interest in the PS2 following GTA3's release and quickly signed Rockstar to an exclusivity contract so future games in the series would be exclusives for an extended period on the platform.

Playing Grand Theft Auto 3 (***½) in 2001 (or 2002 for PC gamers) was a major revelation. A whole city was laid out in full 3D, with dozens of missions scattered across numerous locations, with your (deliberately) silent, unnamed protagonist hired to work for different factions, sometimes getting in over his head in the process. The move to 3D made navigating the city much easier (the limited perspective in GTA 1 and 2 often had you running people over or crashing into other cars simply because you couldn't react in time to slow down) and was simply more immersive, helped by the addition of an in-game radio featuring several different stations (including the now-legendary talk radio station hosted by the hilariously cynical Lazlow). The PC version cunningly allowed you to port in your own MP3s so you could cruise the city listening to your own tunes. Graphically, the game was functional rather than attractive and looked rather flat compared to the graphically gorgeous Mafia which came out in late 2002 (although, as a linear mission-based game compared to GTA3's free-roaming action, Mafia wasn't quite in the same genre despite superficial similarities). Whilst definitely not the first 'sandbox' game, it was the game that popularised the genre.

Replaying the game now (or last year, to be accurate) it's surprising how much about it still works. The playing area is actually quite small compared to its sequels, but Rockstar made great use of the limited space to fill every nook and cranny with interesting locations. The game's length, much more akin to that of an RPG than other racing/action games, was also most satisfying. The dark sense of humour and the great voice acting (from the likes of Kyle MacLachlan, Michael Madsen and several Sopranos castmembers) still hold up very well, as do the great radio stations, with Lawlow's talk show still arguably being the best of its kind in the series. The story is solid, despite some narrative issues introduced by your character's Gordon Freeman-esque silence (which doesn't make much sense, since in Half-Life you never see Freeman so it helps keep immersion by not having him speak, whilst in GTA3 you see your character on-screen 100% of the time, so his lack of dialogue just makes him look like a mute), although the 'main' storyline introduced in the intro cut scene goes walkabout for the central two-thirds of the game as you get involved in other gang wars until it abruptly returns at the end.

The biggest problem with GTA3 remains the shoddy PC conversion for the game, which features an extraordinarily annoying bug where running down slopes can result in your character being hurled hundreds of feet through the air, which is usually fatal, although some careful use of side-stepping and jumping can alleviate this problem.

With the game a massive success, it was decided to put the sequel through a crash-release programme, with Grand Theft Auto: Vice City scheduled for release only one year after the original. Even at this time, the idea of a one-year development period for a game was highly unusual, and led to fears that the game might be rushed. However, Vice City turned out to be a much bigger, much more polished and considerably more compelling gaming experience than the original. Graphically it looked great, with new lighting systems giving the game a much-needed Caribbean atmosphere. New vehicles, including motorbikes and helicopters, were also added. The soundtrack budget was radically enhanced, allowing the licensing of real music tracks from the era in question (GTA3 was set in 2001, but Vice City is set in 1986), and there were improvements to the game's customizability and sense of freedom, allowing your character to change his clothes, for example. The game also had a much more impressive storyline, and your character was given a name (Tommy Vercetti) and a voice (played by Ray Liotta).

Vice City (****½) was heavily influenced by Miami Vice and Scarface, with your character following a different track from the original game where you were a dude just trying to get by. In Vice City you are building a criminal empire, acquiring allies, buying property, developing businesses (legitimate and otherwise) and working your way up the criminal ladder in a bid to become the city's kingpin. The game's morality was also considerably darker. Whilst in GTA3 you could play the game any way you wanted, as you didn't really have a character, in Vice City Vercetti is a mass-murdering lunatic with some missions requiring you to blaze a trail through hordes of innocent passers-by or carry out direct attacks on the police and army. It's one of the few computer games where you are actually playing a villain (with the caveat that your in-game enemies are often far worse than you are), and certainly one of the few where your villainy goes unpunished. Needless to say, the game also attracted vast swathes of attention from the more censor-happy parts of the media, and also needless to say, it went on to sell many millions of copies. Even the PC conversion was flawlessly good.

The third and final game in the GTA3 'trilogy' is Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, released in late 2004. Whilst still using the same engine as the two earlier games (albeit by now radically upgraded), it was a massive step up in scale and size. The game was set in San Andreas State, a California-esque location comprising three cities, named Los Santos, San Fierro and Las Venturas, based on Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas respectively, each of which is about the size of Liberty City in GTA3. In addition, a vast swathe of surrounding countryside around the three cities is featured, including eleven smaller towns, isolated farms, desert areas and so on. The game is utterly vast, taking considerable time to drive across at full speed on the freeways. The size of the game allows, for the first time, jet aircraft to also be flown as a rapid way of getting about the huge map. The setting is 1991 and the game derives a lot of its inspiration and flavour from the tensions in early 1990s Los Angeles, including the Rodney King riots.

The game follows the standard GTA template of carrying out missions for various factions mixed in with the freedom to just do your own thing, but it attracted a lot of attention at the time for being the first major computer game (well, probably not the first ever, but certainly the first triple-A title of its calibre) to feature a black protagonist. CJ is a much more decent figure than Vercetti from the previous game, and is generally presented as a decent guy (who is virulently anti-drugs, for example) caught up with a bad crowd. Whilst a positive step, it is also rather confusing if you decide to play the character as a nutter who spends his free time dropping bombs over a freeway bridge, for example, only to go off and do a mission which involves CJ having to avoid civilian casualties or lamenting the senseless killing of the gang wars.

San Andreas is vast and also very long, significantly longer than its two predecessors, although the number of optional side-quests feels a little lacking in comparison. Replacing this is a 'gang war' dynamic, where your gang controls an area of Los Santos and you can expand it (by attacking other gangs) or have to rush to defend a neighbourhood from attack by a rival gang. This is a neat idea, but eventually goes on for too long at the end of the game and is rather repetitive.

San Andreas (****) is a compelling, fascinating and vast game, but it's also somewhat unfocused, with a new RPG element meaning you frequently have to put missions on hold so you can rush down the gym to bulk up, which is a bit weird and makes playing the game occasionally feel a little bit too much like doing hard work. The game also gets rather silly. By the end of the game you control an airfield (complete with your own Lear jet, which mysteriously reappears on the airfield if you crash it somewhere), a music label, a mansion, dozens of smaller properties (including an RC model shop!), a garage and a casino, and you also have dozens of powerful allies (including some in the government). You even have your own jetpack! However, for some reason you then have to go and fight off the depredations of a corrupt cop (played with relish by Samuel L. Jackson) and fight lots of irritating little battles to expand your gang's territory, which feels a bit small-time by this point in the story. The game's great fun, but its division between keepin' it real on the streets and its sheer wackiness is somewhat jarring.

The GTA3 'trilogy' of games - whilst mostly stand-alone titles, they take place in the same fictionalised America and some characters recur in more than one title - were pretty ground-breaking when they first appeared, their mix of sandbox action and linear storytelling was pretty compelling and their borrowings from other genres, most notably RPGs, and taking the concepts to the wider audience was a good idea. They are fun games which, it is true, allow you to sometimes do some pretty disturbing things, but their imposition of penalties and consequences for those actions is also well-handled (although the way you can magic away your wanted status by getting a respray is rather silly). Most notably, the writing in all three is pretty good and the characters memorable. And they are funny as hell.

A series of companion games for the PlayStation Portable were also released (along with somewhat unsatisfactory PS2 conversions), namely Liberty City Stories and Vice City Stories (a San Andreas Stories was apparently nixed due to the impossibility of recreating the game's size on the PSP). More noticeably, Grand Theft Auto IV was released for the X-Box 360, PS3 and PC in 2008 and became the fastest-selling game of all time, until it was superseded by last week's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. The franchise doesn't look like it's going anywhere soon, and it'll be interesting to see where the next major title takes it (whispers keep saying outside of America to Japan or Europe, but I wouldn't rule out a whole new American city or a remixed Vice City either).

Monday 23 November 2009

Gerry Anderson's UFO coming to the movies

Gerry Anderson's excellent 1970 TV series UFO is heading for the big screen. The movie option for the series was bought some years ago and the project has languished in development hell ever since, but according to Variety the project is now being fast-tracked with production expected to begin next year, with Matthew Gratzner directing and former Dawson's Creek star Joshua Jackson (currently in Fringe) playing the role of Major Paul Foster.

The series was Gerry Anderson's first foray into the world of live-action television, having spent the previous decade making puppet-based shows such as Supercar, Fireball XL5, Stingray, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet. The show was set in the then-futuristic year of 1980 and saw Earth under clandestine attack from an enigmatic alien race. To confront the alien menace, the Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation (SHADO) is formed. SHADO headquarters is located under a film studio near London, from where it organises the interception of alien spaceships using Interceptor craft based on the Moon and Skydiver, a submarine whose front section breaks off and turns into an atmospheric fighter aircraft. Ground combat teams could also be deployed via massive tank-like vehicles. However, despite the impressive military hardware on show, some episodes also dealt with much more shadowy struggles between SHADO operatives and alien infiltrators, more along the lines of the Quinn Martin US show The Invaders.

UFO (pronounced 'you-foe' rather than the traditional acronym) was also rather unusual in that it was quite bleak. Our 'heroes' were somewhat morally ambiguous, and sympathetic aliens appeared from time to time who were remorselessly hunted down by SHADO. The aliens' motives are enigmatic and never fully explained, and even episodes where SHADO 'won' were usually undermined by the cost in lives and resources required to get there. The show was also unusual in that it had no central protagonist. Early episodes focused on new SHADO recruit Paul Foster as he learns about the organisation, but later episodes focused more on SHADO commander Ed Straker (Ed Bishop). Some episodes notably focused almost entirely on guest stars as they came into contact with the aliens, with SHADO personnel only appearing in background roles.

It was an absolutely terrific show, but sadly was not renewed for a second season. A few years later Anderson launched an attempt to get it back on the screen, re-focusing the premise on Moonbase and its staff there, and this eventually became a completely different (and rather inferior) series called Space: 1999, in which the Moon gets blown out of orbit around the Earth and somehow ends up crossing interstellar space. It was a very silly show that was intermittently entertaining in its first season and turned into a very bad joke in its second, despite the coolness of the Eagle spacecraft.

UFO's influence lived on, giving rise to the popular 1990s X-COM series of computer games (Enemy Unknown, Terror from the Deep, Apocalypse and Interceptor) which 'borrowed' much of its structure from the SHADO organisation in the series.

The new movie will apparently stay faithful to the original set-up, with a perhaps inevitable change of location to the USA (the new SHADO HQ is located under a Hollywood film studio, for example). Interesting to see how it turns out.

ULTRAVIOLET now available for free in the UK

The superb 1998 mini-series Ultraviolet is now available on YouTube via Channel 4 On-Demand. I haven't seen if it works for people outside the UK yet, but certainly those in the UK looking for an excellent SFF show, this is definitely one to catch.

The series stars Jack Davenport (Commander Norrington from the Pirates of the Carribean movies), Idris Elba (Stringer Bell from The Wire) and Stephen Moyer (Bill from True Blood) and depicts a clandestine war between a secretive government organisation and vampires on the streets of Britain. The series goes to significant lengths to downplay the sillier parts of the myth, with greater attention paid to the scientific side of the concept. The series is notable for its fairly grim tone and the extreme ambiguity of the characters, with it not being entirely clear which side is in the 'right', with the vampires claiming to have suffered religious persecution for centuries for just being different whilst the agency claims that vampires are evil 'leeches'. Of course, the agency is also funded by the Vatican...

It's a clever and tremendously well-written and well-acted show, and for this price is quite impossible to miss.

Sunday 22 November 2009

Some good Peter F. Hamilton news

Peter F. Hamilton has completed the writing of The Evolutionary Void, the third and final volume in The Void Trilogy. Publication date is currently tentatively scheduled for September 2010, although there are hopes that was just a placeholder date and this early finishing of the novel (a month ahead of schedule) may see the book brought up a few weeks. More news to come.

The book will also introduce a new cover artist, with Steve Stone taking over art duties from Jim Burns.

Hamilton's next project has not yet been announced, but his plan is to write an all-new stand-alone novel set in a new universe, followed by a return to the Commonwealth/Void setting for a new trilogy. Originally planned as a YA series, this new sequence will apparently now be more in line with his previous books and will be set wholly in the Void, but on a different planet to the one featured previously.

The Worlds of D&D: Dark Sun

The original Dark Sun logo, used from 1991-1995.

The History of Dark Sun

In 1990, with the Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms settings doing good business for the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons game and the newly-released 2nd Edition of the game doing well, TSR decided to create a new campaign setting for the game. With the 'generic' medieval fantasy fans well-catered-for, it was decided that this new setting would be considerably more original and would introduce new ideas and concepts whilst doing away with some of the more established ideas of the game.

1st Edition Dark Sun campaign setting, released in 1991.

To work on the new setting, TSR assigned designer Tim Brown and writer Troy Denning to brainstorm ideas with editor Mary Kirchoff, whilst AD&D artist Gerald Brom worked out a visual identity for the world. The idea of a post-apocalyptic society soon came up, a place where in the distant past the heroes hadn't managed to stop the evil dark lord and as a result the world was ravaged and destroyed. This was the genesis of Athas, the planet that became the home of the Dark Sun setting.

The first Dark Sun campaign setting was launched in October 1991 and immediately attracted a lot of attention for its highly unusual variant rules. Not only was the world a ravaged desert planet more akin to Dune than any other D&D world, it also saw a huge number of basic conceptual differences. The gods were either dead or sealed away from the world, so clerics instead worshipped elemental forces. Wizardly magic had become corrupted, so anyone trying to use it became a 'defiler', drawing energy away from his surroundings and making the land dead and lifeless and inflicting pain on living creatures. A small group of wizards known as 'preservers' worked instead to restore the world to its former glory, but were often mistaken for defilers and shunned or attacked. Far more common than magic was psionics, a new concept for the D&D game, which allowed players to use powers such as telepathy and telekinesis.

Troy Denning's Prism Pentad series kicked off the Dark Sun line of novels.

Changes were made to the core D&D races (who in fact were originally not to be featured at all, humans aside, until TSR insisted on it). The elves, largely removed from their more typical forest homelands, are less friendly and more surly. Halflings are savage cannibals and tend to dominate the few areas of woodland that are left. Rarer races in other settings such as the half-giants and thri-kreen are far more dominant in Dark Sun than many of the 'classic' races. New races such as the tarek and mul (half-dwarves) also appeared. Great emphasis was also placed on basic survival, with players have to ration their food and water supplies with care, and with numerous tables outlining the dangers of travelling the vast deserts or the great Sea of Silt surrounding the inhabited lands.

Another difference was that whilst the main continents and even some other landmasses for most of the other settings had been pretty thoroughly explored, the central region of Athas, the Tablelands, was actually pretty small, only a couple of hundred miles across, and the rest of the world was left a blank slate for DMs to detail or ignore as they saw fit. The explored lands were also pretty grim, with the nine major cities of the Tablelands controlled by evil sorcerer-kings and slavery endemic in the culture.

The Rise and Fall of a Dragon King is a solid novel, but later regarded as non-canon.

Like the other settings, Dark Sun was also driven by a series of novels, kicking off with the Prism Pentad by Troy Denning, which saw a major slave uprising successfully liberate the city-state of Tyr. Other novels included the excellent Rise and Fall of a Dragon King by Lynn Abbey, which was an exploration of the world from the point-of-view of one of the evil sorcerer-kings themselves. However, in contrast to the 200+ novels available for both Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms, only thirteen novels were ever published for the setting, and with some material in the later books clashing with the gaming materials only The Prism Pentad was eventually declared canon.

Over the next two to three years a number of expansions were released for the game, although compared to the likes of Forgotten Realms, this number was relatively modest. However, by late 1995 the setting had become big enough to warrant a make-over, and the second edition Dark Sun campaign setting was released late in that year. This second edition expanded the coverage of the settled lands of Athas to include more lands to the north and rolled the timeline forwards by ten years. Unfortunately, fan reaction was largely negative because the setting's dark and gritty feel was scaled back and a number of core concepts, such as the evil sorcerer-kings who dominated the lands, were removed. To a lot of fans, Dark Sun lost its edge and they either dropped it or simply ignored the developments in the second edition.

The 2nd Edition Dark Sun boxed set, released in 1995.

Unfortunately, Dark Sun, whilst a popular setting with its fanbase, never reached the sales of Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance, and with TSR entering severe financial difficulties around 1996, the decision was made to drop the setting. The last TSR expansion for the game was released in late 1996.

Whilst this lack of development means that the setting was never as detailed as some others, it also meant that a lot more of the world was left up to the DM's creativity to flesh out. Dark Sun fans also found it a lot easier to collect together a 'complete' collection of Dark Sun materials, with only 23 gaming products and nine adventures to the line's name contrasted to the many hundreds for Forgotten Realms or dozens for Dragonlance.

Wizards of the Coast bought out TSR and a 3rd Edition of Dungeons and Dragons was launched in 2000. Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk were resurrected and a new setting, Eberron, developed. Planescape was absorbed into the core of the game. Ravenloft and Dragonlance were licensed out to third-party companies to develop and less popular settings, such as Spelljammer and Mystara, were quietly dropped. However, Dark Sun remained in a rather odd state of limbo. Whilst not as popular as the 'big' settings, it was also not as obscure as the others and had a devoted fanbase. Eventually Dragon Magazine ran some articles on the setting and the fan group at was given official permission to develop the setting for D&D 3rd Edition. Despite this, no further game products in the line were released.

The new Dark Sun campaign setting hardcover book, due for release in mid-2010.

However, in August 2009 Wizards of the Coast announced that Dark Sun would be resurrected in the summer of 2010 (fourteen years after the last 'proper' release of new material) as the third campaign setting for the Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition game, which they hinted would ignore the less popular developments from the 1995 boxed set in favour of the grittier and more hardcore original setting, news that was welcomed by many fans.

Fanon world map of Athas, with the Tablelands located on the far eastern continent.

The World of Dark Sun

Thousands of years in the past, Athas was a green and verdant world until it was ravaged by a series of genocidal wars launched by the sorcerer Rajaat and his champions to wipe out all non-human races. In the magical conflicts that followed, the planet was stripped of most of its water and plant life, and many non-human races (including D&D mainstays such as orcs) were rendered extinct. Such was the effects of this cataclysm that Athas was sealed off from the rest of the multiverse, no gods were able to influence the world (though it remains unclear if Athas once had a traditional pantheon or not) and planar travel was made impossible. Rajaat's champions eventually rebelled against him, imprisoning him, and then ruled over the shattered remnants of the world through an uneasy compact.

The Tablelands of Athas, with the Tyr region in the centre along the mountain range.

The main setting for the Dark Sun campaign is an area called the Tablelands, a vast plateau extending for several hundred miles that is located several hundred feet above the surrounding lands: a vast savanna to the west, a dead wasteland to the south and the treacherous Sea of Silt to the east. The Tablelands are dominated by nine great city-states, the largest of which is Tyr, which typically acts as a home base for player-characters setting out to explore the world. Tyr is also in an uneasy state as its ruler was slain in a rebellion some years ago and the other cities are considering moving against it to restore the rule of the sorcerer-kings. Only their mutual distrust and lack of cooperation has prevented this from happening so far. In the meantime, the people of Tyr enjoy a relatively unusual level of freedom.

The world is parched and arid. There are very few open bodies of water left, and rainfall is all but unknown, certainly in the Tyr region. Metals are also incredibly rare. Ordinary metal weapons and armour have the status of major relics, whilst there are probably fewer than a dozen magical metal weapon or armour items on the entire planet. Armour and weapons are instead made of wood or obsidian, whilst ceramic disks serve as coins and currency. The lands are extremely dangerous, with even the relatively well-travelled regions around Tyr and the other big cities still prone to infestations of monsters, ravaging bands of savages and attacks by bandit groups. Due to the dangers of travel, trade is even more valuable and the opportunities for adventure are great. The world is also littered with the ruins of the ancient past, lost cities, abandoned temples to the elements and so on, and many secrets about the world remain to be discovered.


I quite like Dark Sun but regrettably never got round to playing it. The Mad Max/Fallout-esque vibe to the setting, mixed in with a bit of Dune, is great stuff, very different to the other, more traditional D&D settings. The idea of a post-magical apocalypse where the bad guy actually succeeded in blowing up the world is also compelling, something rarely explored in fiction (although Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy nods in this idea's direction), let alone gaming. Part of me does wish that the original idea to kick out all the elves, dwarves and traditional D&D races altogether had been followed through, but the changes to those races in this setting do work quite well.

It'll be interesting to see the setting's return as a 4th Edition game world. The psionic rules for both 2E and 3E were problematic and 4E's rules set-up does seem a much better fit for defiling, preserving and psionics. However, there are concerns that WotC will attempt to shoe-horn 4E's new races (the dragonborn and eladrin) and the basic classes (including the bard and paladin) into the setting where there is really no place for them. It'll certainly be intriguing to see how they handle these issues when the new book comes out in mid-2010.