Dawn of the Dark Sun

Back when I reviewed The Complete Psionics Handbook, I noted that part of the problem psionics faced was that most official D&D settings had been designed without really making much of a space for it, so we were left without a model for how it could be used in a game and integrated into a setting that also had clerical and arcane magic. The Dark Sun setting, on the other hand, was designed with an eye to providing a world that could tie into the major supplemental additions to the AD&D system – as well as psionics, it was also supposed to rely a lot on the Battlesystem mass combat rules, though poor sales of that meant that its significance was dialled back considerably in the released version of the setting.

Within a mere four years of its release, Dark Sun‘s possibilities would be exhausted due to an ill-advised decision to let setting co-creator Troy Denning resolve all its major conflicts in a series of novels, but the early Dark Sun material reveals not just an impressively equal-opportunity display of rippling thews, but also a refreshingly original campaign setting. Here, I’m going to review the core setting and the major supplement releases of its first 20 months or so.

Dark Sun Campaign Setting

The original Dark Sun boxed set is a masterfully flavourful presentation of what was, at the time, the most unusual setting released for D&D (if you don’t count Empire of the Petal Throne, which used an eccentric variant of OD&D). The world of Athas is a godless place, where clerics derive their spells from contemplation of the elemental planes, and it is a psionically gifted place, where all characters at least have a psionic wild talent. But its greatest cosmological difference from mainline D&D worlds is in the way wizardly magic works – and how it’s utterly reshaped the setting.

The implication in the boxed set is that once upon a time Athas was a very standard D&D world, until the rise of defiler magic. All wizardly magic in Athas involves drawing on the energy of the ecosystem around you; preservers are wizards who observe the proper precautions so that they can do this without causing unintended harm. Once upon a time, someone seems to have discovered that you could take a quick and easy route to magical mastery simply by not bothering to learn the precautionary bits and gobbling up power from your surroundings in a non-sustainable fashion. (This is quite cleverly implemented by having Preservers follow the standard wizard experience level table for 2E, whilst the Defiler experience table is substantially more generous and you need much less XP to level up as a Defiler.)

Defiler magic results in the death of plant life in a radius around the caster, depending partly on the potency of the magic and partly on how densely packed the life in their vicinity is – in a forest full of plant life you don’t have to reach out for power as far compared to if you are in a desert. The propagation of defiler magic caused ecological devastation; the area of Athas that the campaign materials focus on, the Tyr region (named for a significant city-state of the area) is mostly desert, and exists on the shores of a vast sea of fine silt. Many of the cultures of the world, including the ways of the various demihumans, ended up radically transformed by the collapse. It is a harsh world, inhabited by harsh societies. The people of Athas know full well that magic is to blame for the state they find themselves in; Defilers are reviled for what they have done to the world, and are almost universally killed on discovery.

The “almost”, however… that’s the catch. There are a select few Defilers who have, so far, proven too powerful to oust. The greatest of these is the Dragon, an entity of vast intellect and terrifying power that sometimes appears in the Tyr region on its own inexplicable errands. The Dragon’s defiler magic is so powerful that when it casts spells, plant life won’t do – it takes its power from animal life.

Second in power to the Dragon are the sorcerer-kings, the men and women who act as the despots of the city-states of the Tyr region. Some are so ancient as to have been the​ actual founders of the cities in question, each retaining their youth and potency thanks to their magic. They jealously guard their personal monopoly on magic use within their sphere of influence; as well as going after Defilers, they also foster an air of mistrust and misunderstanding about Preserver magic so as to turn public opinion against it and justify their persecution of Preservers, who in turn have set up a network of mutual defence societies called the Veiled Alliance to provide a safe harbour for themselves. So all-powerful are the sorcerer-kings that their Templars, the enforcers who work for them, actually get cleric spells as a result of venerating their masters.

So, what we have is a harsh world with an aesthetic reminiscent of the odder sword and sorcery/sword and planet/planetary romance stuff, with dictatorial slave-owning city-states and hidden desert gangs of escaped slaves and roving traders (including elves, who fill the “nomadic traders who also tend to be criminals” niche that are usually reserved for Romany with the serial numbers filed off in fantasy settings), fine. What else is there? What are the current conflicts? Well, the boxed set gives you a potted description of all the city-states, each of which has a distinctive aesthetic and character riffing on the quirks of its sorcerer-king or queen, but the fact that the part of the world we’re interested in is called the Tyr Region nudges us to look at Tyr. What’s the deal there?

Well, Tyr is special partly because it has extensive iron mines – metal being extremely scarce on Athas, this not only gives Tyr a major trade resource but means that its armies could conceivably hold their own against numerically superior forces thanks to having metal equipment. As a result of needing to work the mines, Tyr has proportionally a very large number of slaves compared to the free population.

But the other striking thing we are told about Tyr is that its sorcerer-king, the mighty Kalak, has been getting… peculiar. Specifically, he has pulled all of the slaves out of the mines and setting them to work making an enormous ziggurat, which he claims is supposed to protect them against the Dragon for some reason. Pretty much nobody bar his most zealous Templars is happy about this, because he’s utterly trashed the economy for the sake of building this folly.

In short, Tyr is ripe for revolution, with slaves, free citizens, and nobility alike all having plenty of reason to want rid of Kalak. Moreover, with a large number of slaves and a major resource in the form of the iron mine, Tyr has an excellent chance of becoming the wellspring of a new way of life in Athas – of becoming a free city, where slavery is abolished, people are rewarded for their work, and the dictatorship of self-serving Defilers is opposed. Gosh, such a city-state would have all sorts of need for adventurers to help defend it against threats!

So, yes, the boxed set does a nice job of flagging where the metaplot of Dark Sun is about to kick off – and make no mistake, Dark Sun has a very specific metaplot. The early products I’m reviewing in this article came out alongside the Prism Pentad, a five-volume novel series depicting the overthrow of the sorcerer-kings, and the second version of the core boxed set for the campaign setting was set after the events of the Pentad and tried to establish new stuff happening in the world to replace the resolved core theme of this box.

That, I think, is a mistake. I don’t mind setting the game a little way into the metaplot to allow campaigns to start out at a point with a bit more scope for adventure; Kalak biting the dust is pretty much the first metaplot development, happening so early that it’s reflected in all the early supplements I’ll be reviewing here. It’s more or less the only metaplot event integrated into them that I can spot, and I’m fine with that – were I to run Dark Sun I’d have him fall during or just before the first session, because there’s so many opportunities and potential conflicts that arise when the slaves take over Tyr. Wizards of the Coast, in fact, seem to agree on this point, because when they did a 4E take on Dark Sun they set that just after the fall of Kalak.

Going further and integrating the rest of the Pentad is, as far as I’m concerned, where TSR dropped the ball with the setting. The problem with that is that it solves the central conflict that the entire setting is designed around, and what replaces it feels a bit arbitrary and uninspiring. It’s like a colouring book that has already been coloured in, but has some black-and-white doodles added into the last few pages – sure, you can still colour in the new additions, but someone else already covered the best bits.

The original Dark Sun box, though, is justifiably regarded as a classic, an excellent example of how the D&D rules can be adapted to support something different. The slightly different spin on the races and classes here gives them all a distinctive aesthetic suited to the world, and rules additions are kept light and flavourful. The setting material here does a great job of not overloading you with information whilst giving you enough to feel like you have a handle on the material in question. The prepackaged adventure, presented in two different spiral notebooks – one for the GM, one for player handouts – is a bit linear for my tastes, and suffers from the lack of an overview giving the GM a summary of what to expect, but otherwise the boxed set comes highly recommended.

Dragon Kings

This hardcover rulebook provides rules for taking characters up to level 30. Dark Sun is pitched as a high-powered world, reflected in the fact that​ PCs start out at level 3 as standard, but this isn’t just about giving PCs new toys – it’s also about conveying secrets about the most powerful NPCs in the setting, and giving a rules basis for deploying those NPCs.

The big reveal here is that the Dragon was once a person, a Defiler who reached level 30, and the sorcerer-kings are all Defilers of at least 21st level who are beginning their transformations into Dragons like a pack of Francis Dolarhydes. The way this is explained is quite cool: apparently, if you can get to level 20 as both a Defiler and a Psionicist, you can use your psionic capabilities to reshape your own mind to make it better at doing magic. That unlocks level 21 of Defiler for you, and as you progress after that you become less human (or demihuman) until you become a Dragon.

As rules for NPCs, this is quite nice – as well as providing a basis for really major exercises of power by them, it instantly creates background and plot for them. The Dragon clearly wants to keep the sorcerer-kings at the level they are at because fuck having competitors; individual sorcerer-kings may or may not be happy with that, and may have different understandings of the nature and desirability of their transformations. That opens the door to all sorts of conflicts between them, which in turn can help make the politics of the setting seem dynamic and active and full of possibilities for enterprising PCs to snatch a victory of their own out of the chaos.

As a thing for PCs to potentially do… Eh. The problem with the prerequisites is that D&D campaigns lasting long enough at high level to allow someone to get to level 20 in two different classes are likely to be extremely rare; I know some campaigns have been grinding on for decades, of course, but how many of those have kept going to higher and higher levels with the same player characters throughout? Although Defiler is probably intended as an NPC class, there’s an equivalent transformation for Preservers to become Avangions, which given the need for the proto-Avangion to hibernate in a big crystal case for a time as part of their transformation I guess is part of the Prism Pentad major plot, but it would still seem like a huge chore to actually play through all that.

Aside from clerics getting to transform into elementals, the other classes tend to be poor cousins here. It really feels like the Dark Sun team came up with the idea for Defilers to become Dragons, really liked it and made it very central to the setting, then felt obliged to tack on something for Preservers and clerics, then felt further obliged to give high-level stuff to other PC classes, and found their reserves of imagination increasingly tapped in the process.

Personally, I think the value of Dragon Kings is what it offers in the way of presenting the Dragon and the sorcerer-kings as being absolutely beastly threats, on a scale where even high-level characters can’t just trashroll them. It means you have a system basis for these NPCs to perform major, dramatic spells and otherwise throw their weight around, and so if a player decides to bravely sacrifice their PC by confronting a sorcerer-king personally as a distraction, you can play through the encounter to see how long they survive and what awful fate befalls them.

But I wouldn’t use the rules for other classes, not even the other transformations – the Dragon is cool, but making an anti-Dragon to beat it feels a bit trite. And actually playing through becoming a Dragon explicitly takes you into NPC status once you hit the level when you go animalistic for a time and go rave in the wilderness, only returning to your senses and your control at a higher level. With speed bumps like that, they may as well have said “this is for NPCs only” and have done with it.

Slave Tribes

This slim but very effective supplement – the first in the DSR series – offers an in-depth discussion of the various slave tribes of Athas – groups of escaped slaves who, fleeing from the city-states into the desert, have established their own little communities. Offering examples of existing tribes, pointers to the DM on designing your own tribes, and pointers on how players can establish their own, it’s equally useful as a source of NPC ideas and as a potential alternate model for a Dark Sun campaign, since obviously “main protectors of a community of escaped slaves” is just as good a campaign concept as “troubleshooters for a newly-free Tyr”.

One thing which strikes me about the supplement, and about the Dark Sun setting in general, is how it provides further evidence in support of the idea that TSR had semi-abandoned the infamous “code of ethics” it had adopted in the late 1980s in response to the Satanic Panic. The authorities and cops in Athas are brutes who should be overthrown, the society depicted is reliant on slave labour to function, and in this supplement there’s even a direct statement that some slaves are used as concubines. That’s really very hard to reconcile with the Code of Ethics in many respects, and suggests to me that whilst TSR were keen to enforce it on fan sites (as the link shows) and on their core materials, they may have figured that a product like Dark Sun was esoteric enough to fly under the radar of the moralists.

That said, despite the surprisingly equal-opportunity bare flesh on display in Dark Sun artwork, Dark Sun is not quite a full-on Gor setting for the game; there’s an awareness throughout the supplement that slavery is deeply troubling as an institution, and whilst sexual exploitation uses the coy term “concubine”, it doesn’t pretend that this a consenting or romantic thing. The underlying assumption of the supplement is that freedom is inevitably a better deal for these people, even if it means a hardscrabble life in the blighted desert. It’s basically Chaotic Good: The Supplement.

Dune Trader

A more neutral subject is offered here: the merchant houses of Athas, who foreswear citizenship in any of the city-states so that they may move between them trading items and information. Once again, this is a mashup of NPC details and a potential campaign premise; as well as trading rules to allow player characters to get involved in inter-settlement trade, it also details the significant trading houses of the Tyr Region. As you might expect, NPC alignments tend towards the neutral here, though some houses lean a little Good or Evil here and there. It certainly adds another layer of nuance and depth to the setting, but I’m not sure that many people really look to do trading-type campaigns in D&D – this isn’t Traveller, after all.

Veiled Alliance

This gives the Dune Trader treatment to the Veiled Alliance, detailing the Alliance organisation in each of the city-states of the Tyr Region and providing ideas of how they operate and how to use them. Far from portraying the Veiled Alliance as being a goody-two-shoes set of boy scouts, the supplement has a clear-eyed view of the often harsh methods such an underground secret society has to resort to in a society as harshly policed as the city-states, and the code of conduct of the society – in which its secrecy and self-preservation is the primary priority, with opposing Defilers being priority number two – nicely means that even if players do engage with the Alliance, they’ll have work to do if they want to convince them to be more proactive and stick their necks out.

Out of the first 3 DSR modules – Slave TribesDune Trader, and this one, I kind of think this and Slave Tribes are the most useful since both cut directly to core conflicts in the setting – slavery vs. freedom in the case of Slave Tribes, and Defilers vs. Preservers here – whereas Dune Trader feels a bit less directly related to those. (Then again, that does mean that if in your campaign either of those conflicts get resolved, Dune Trader will remain useful and important, whilst either of the other two may become irrelevant.)

Valley of Dust and Fire

The fourth and final DSR supplement is a bit of an oddity, since rather than describing a location it describes a location – namely, a hidden valley in the Silt Sea. You see, the Silt Sea is made, as the name implies, of loose silt, which is obviously tremendously difficult to travel through. (Giants can wade through the shallow bits, but everyone else needs some pretty decent power and resources to do much travelling in there.) Deep in the Silt Sea there is a great barrier of storm winds, and if you somehow are able to get through there you find the Valley.

Now, what’s at the centre of the Valley… in principle, that’s meant to be a big secret. But frankly, I think it deserves to be trumpeted much more. It’s such a good feature of the Dark Sun setting that it needs to be an open secret; not necessarily a place that PCs can easily go, but like Kadath in the Cold Waste or R’lyeh it should be a place people mention, look in the general direction of, and shudder, a place which true legends could potentially aspire to visiting only to discover what fools they were to come once they arrive.

That place is an honest-to-goodness hidden city, Ur Draxa, ruled over by none other than the Dragon itself. And far from the fearsome physical surroundings leading up to the city may make you think, far from the Dragon’s alignment with environment-shattering Defiler magic may imply, it isn’t some hideous hellhole – it’s a verdant paradise for its inhabitants, who mostly consist of powerful, privileged bickering noble houses who compete for the Dragon’s favour.

The idea of the Dragon having worked its terrible devastation on the Tyr region simply to preserve the cushy lifestyle the citizens of its headquarters enjoys is delicious, and the ecological parable therein too fun to ignore. That’s why I think this is too fun to be secret. If anything, the city should be the very peak of the local power structure, with mysterious emissaries from it appearing from time to time to make dire threats that even the sorcerer-kings must pay at least some heed to.

On top of that, it’s nice to see the Dark Lord of a game world being part of an actual community, rather than just having a tower full of soldiers they sit in, and having that community having an actual culture and internal politics and whatnot. Player characters who go to Ur Draxa with the intent of actually assassinating the Dragon are going to get massacred; player characters who plan on slipping in whilst the Dragon is off doing its business (perhaps doing spells and rituals it doesn’t want to do in Ur Draxa because too many people will die) and messing with the internal politics of the factions so as to disrupt things have hit on a much better plan, but they’d have a job ahead of them getting their head around how the city is organised and where the faultlines are. (The book even suggests how you could run a campaign where the PCs are natives of Ur Draxa, for a really wild variant.)

The Ivory Triangle

The last product I want to put a spotlight on here is 1993’s The Ivory Triangle, a rather nice boxed set depicting the only forest in the Tyr Region (as you might expect, it’s a verdant, murderous hellhole), along with the two city-states that exist within it. Having full booklet-length descriptions of these individual city-states is quite nice, and it’s a bit of a shame that the 2E line never managed to give the same treatment to all of the city-states (though Tyr got a whole supplement to itself later).

Had the Dark Sun campaign setting continued in the vein of the DSR series, with the occasional box like The Ivory Triangle to push the boat out and the metaplot not advanced much beyond “Kalak is dead and the status quo is shunted out of equilibrium”, it could have had a much better run, but unfortunately its early years would prove to be its high water mark; two years after this came out, the revised campaign setting would offer a bleak, unforgiving landscape of utter blandness.

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