In 1991 TSR released the Dark Sun Boxed Set, a new campaign setting for AD&D. It introduced Athas, a post-apolyptic sun-scorched desert world, where sorcerer kings ruled supreme. Is it time to return to Athas?
Dark Sun is one of my favorite settings for D&D. It’s unique, extra-ordinary, brutal and extremely dangerous. It differed greatly from the ruling settings of that time, Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance and Greyhawk, and was one of TSR’s most successful releases.
Designers Timothy B. Brown and Troy Denning were instrumental in creating Dark Sun along with the fantasy artist Brom. They set out to design a world where resources, such as water, was hard to come by and to get by was a constant struggle. Many traditional fantasy races were gone, e.g. gnomes, orcs and goblins, due to the Cleansing Wars, and many character races and classes were altered. Arcane magic was dangerous, reviled and looked down upon, since spellcasters drew power from the fragile nature, which was the cause for the planet’s deprived state and ecological fragility.
So, gone were your Arturian knights in shining armors, Tolkienesque tree-hugging elves with their composite longbows or white-bearded wizards in flowing robes. Instead you had half-naked muscular Mul (offsprings of humans and dwarves) gladiator, armed with obsidian spear and the ability to conjure forth bullets with its mind, battling a four-armed insect-man, armed with assortment of exotic weapons made of bones, overlooked by a mad Sorcerer-King, master of both sorcery and psionics and the sole ruler of the city-state. Basically, Athas was were Conan the barbarian met Mad Max!
What made Dark Sun even more interesting (as if this wasn’t enough) was the fact that there were no gods on Athas! There were no clerics moving from town to town preaching the tenets of their deity, no churches or shrines devoted to this or that goddess. The few clerics that braved the dunes and burning sun were devoted to the elements, i.e. water priests, fire clerics etc. But there was another class that received divine spells, i.e. the Templars of the Sorcerer-Kings, which were devoted followers of a particular city-state ruler.
AD&D and Psionics
Dark Sun was originally published for AD&D. It introduced three new player races, the insectoid Thri-Kreen, the half-dwarven Mul and the Half-Giant. TSR also published the Complete Psionics Handbook at the same time, which added a new class and a new system to the game.
The Way (or Psionics) was a huge part of living on Athas. Not only were the sorcerer-kings powerful psionicist, but many monsters also had some psionic abilities and even the ordinary people could also have some wild talents. Although magic was forbidden, psionics were in abundance and important part of the setting.
The Complete Psionics Handbook introduced a new system for AD&D, i.e. the use of power points and Power Score rolls instead of the ordinary spell and spellslot system in the PHB. Although many other roleplaying games had used similar power point system for magic users, this was a new addition to D&D and made the psionics more complicated than before.
Dark Sun was very popular and TSR published many modules, campaign expansions and revisions along with many source books. Two new classes were later introduced to the setting, the gladiator and the dune trader. In the sourcebook Dragon Kings, which was published in 1992, rules for leveling beyond 20th level was introduced, i.e. characters could become epic level!
Dark Sun had a strong metaplot and was the first setting were TSR published matching fiction and modules to engender and advance metaplots. The different ages and the Cleansing Wars played a pivotal role in why Athas was in the post-apoclyptical state it was and explained why the Sorcerer-Kings had accumulated both wealth and power, and why so many ordinary D&D races were extinct on Athas.
The Prism Pentad novels by Troy Denning were dominant in the settings narrative and two modules, Freedom and Road to Urik, followed the same story line as the first two books of the series, which also introduced many changes to the setting. TSR followed up on these changes with the source book Beyond the Prism Pentad and, later, a revised campaign setting. Many changes made in the revised edition didn’t sit well with many Dark Sun fans, especially the source books Mind Lords of the Last Sea and Windriders of the Jagged Cliffs, which were by many thought too sci-fi-like.
The metaplot was both a bane and a blessing to Dark Sun. A strong metaplot can easily enhance and enrich a setting, but just as the Dragonlance Chronicles novels did for the Dragonlance setting, the Prism Pentad series determined heavily in what way players and dungeon masters envisioned Dark Sun. The original setting, which was focused on the Tyr area, dramatically changed in the novels, and the published modules followed the same story line. Although the metaplot was interesting and fun to explore, I can imagine that many dungeon masters might have had a hard time figuring out how to fit their own narratives into it.
It’s impossible to talk about Dark Sun without mentioning the artist Brom. His vision of Dark Sun, the look and feel of his artwork for the setting had great influence on how players envisioned the setting. The sculpted and toned muscles, the brutal and nasty looking weapons, the oozing testosterone and the burning heat. Dark Sun, at least the way I imagined it, was Brom’s Dark Sun.
Later Brom revealed that the setting had in a way been designed around his paintings, for he’d show his sketches and paintings to the designers, which in turn wrote the characters in the images into the setting’s story.
There were many modules published for Dark Sun, some of which followed the Prism Pentad series and expanded upon it. But there were other modules as well, i.e. Marauders of Nibenay, Forest Maker and Black Flames. Most of these modules were aimed at mid or high level characters. TSR also published some boxed sets for Dark Sun, i.e. Black Spine and Ivory Triangle, which included modules and source material. Many of these modules were great and offered players superb chance to explore and experience everything that Athas had to offer.
There is one module (or in fact a boxed set) that I think is absolutely awesome – City by the Silt Sea. It’s not only a great module, which pits the PCs against one of the most powerful sorcerer-king on Athas, but also a great addition to the setting. I love modules where players have to use more brains than brawn, and City by the Silt Sea offers that and so much more. It has some great encounters, superb roleplaying opportunities and exploration of not only fabled and dangerous ruins, but also has everything that a great Dark Sun module has to offer. The last time I ran it, in the final encounter, I had all the players standing at the table, shouting orders at each other, celebrating every successful roll like a soccer team, and mind you, the players were all in their 30’s and veteran roleplayers! If you haven’t read City by the Silt Sea, I fully recommend it.
WoTC didn’t publish any 3rd edition material for the Dark Sun Setting, although the company published both the Complete Psionics handbook and the Expanded Psionics Handbook, along with the source book Sandstorm, which had rules for desert settings. Instead players that favoured this edition could find game material and rules on Athas.org, which through OGL published material for Dark Sun. Athas.org’s edition was set 300 years after the events of Prism Pendat. Paizo, Pathfinder’s publisher, was involved with this edition of Athas.
WotC did however publish three books for Dark Sun, one of which was a revised campaign setting. In it the metaplot was changed and the events of the Prism Pendat series weren’t mentioned at all. The setting returned to the time when Tyr had just become a free-state. The changes to the setting were many and in some way you could feel 4E things were being shoehorned into the setting, e.g. defiling was an at-will power (instead of defilers being a special class of spellcasters) and elemental priests became shamans, just to name a few. Still, you could easily use 4th edition to play Dark Sun and in a way, since the metaplot was changed somewhat, it opened up a bit, although I missed the feel that the AD&D version had.
Return to Athas?
Recently WoTC asked players in the D&D survey what setting they would like to see next for 5E and you could choose Dark Sun. I think that is a great idea, but I believe that in order to re-create the same atmosphere, look and feel, as the AD&D setting had, they need to make sure that both psionics is available and that the constant struggle for survival is integral with the setting.
I would love to see Dark Sun brought to live for 5E. I believe that it was one of the best setting ever designed for D&D and it would be awesome to be able to play it again using the 5E rules.