Sunday 22 November 2009

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.


Brett said...

Thanks for this series of posts, Wert! I'm a total world-building nerd, so I'm always fascinated to hear about fantasy worlds and the like.

Jamie said...

I was a massive fan of Dark Sun when I was a teenager; I loved how different the setting was to most D&Dcampaign worlds, and I have to say, the changes to the basic races and classes were one of the key attractors, especially with the encouragements to roleplay your character appropriately (xp awards were set out for each race and class).

I agree paladins are an utter no-no, although there was a variation on the bard class; they were essentially entertainers on the outside, and assassins, spies, poisoners, and/or alchemists covertly, selling their services as they see fit. I liked that twist, and hope they keep it.

Putting the dragonborn and eladrin in the setting would be wholly inappropriate, gods forbid... it's not as if there aren't plenty of races in Athas to choose from (from the second edition we had humans, elves, dwarves, half-elves, half-giants, halflings, muls, thri-kreen, pterrans, and aarakocra - surely enough for anyone!).

Jim Ryan said...

Thanks so much for this wonderful retrospective on Dark Sun. It's always been one of my favorite settings even though I never got the opportunity to play it either! Hopefully that'll change when the 4E version comes out.

Unknown said...

I don't believe Paladin's will be an issue considering they aren't of the Lawful Good-Only variety any longer and could just as easily serve one of the Sorcerer-Kings.

All classes would be fine and the Eladrin would work if Athas is connected to the Feywild, though I would like to see it just remain with the Grey, Black and Elemental Planes.

I think Wizards will do whatever they can to make it fun as they can for fan-boys while keeping players that are new to the Table...lands in mind.

Oh and my Thrikreen dont speak Common =P

messy said...

you seem to have overlooked david noonan's third edition update of dark sun in dragon magazine #319 and dungeon magazine #110. fine work, as i recall.