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.

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AD&D 2E’s Little Brown Splats

Although White Wolf turned the splatbook into a central plank of their 1990s business model, they weren’t the first major RPG publisher to hit on the idea of pushing products aimed specifically at players rather than GMs, each themed around a different type of player character. That accolade goes to TSR, who followed up the publication of AD&D 2E’s core books with a series of class-focused books with chocolatey-brown cover art, with the line soon branching out into race-specific books as well as more offbeat entries like The Complete Psionics Handbook and The Complete Book of Humanoids.

The idea of selling books of player-facing material divided by class was in principle a good way to meet demand and to produce products which, whilst designed for 2E, were compatible enough with 1E and added enough that was novel that you could still sell the books to people who hadn’t migrated from the earlier edition. The downfall of the line is that there doesn’t seem to have been much oversight and cross-product co-ordination, with the result that some splatbooks ended up adding more power creep than others. In addition, some of the books seem to have struggled to come up with sufficient material to meet the page count – they often resort to sections of variable length on generic roleplaying advice dressed up as advice on roleplaying the classes in question but frequently amounting to universal platitudes, for instance.

The Complete Fighter’s Handbook, for instance, pads itself out with some extra weapons and a lot of waffle about investing your sword-swinger with a personality, whereas the Thief’s Handbook includes a bunch of waffle about how Thieves’ Guilds are run which is sometimes interesting but should probably be referee-facing, and the Priest’s Handbook incorporates rules for designing religions and cosmologies which should definitely be for DMs to use rather than players under most circumstances. The Wizard’s Handbook, however, commits the ultimate sin of presenting a player-facing supplement: throwing out a bunch of new spells which a referee may or may not be happy with including in their campaign, but which by being put into a player-facing supplement creates an expectation that if a player’s spent their money on the book the referee should at least consider including the stuff – beginning the tendency towards bloat that many complained bitterly about during the 3E era.

One common strand among the class and race handbooks is the inclusion of kits, which provide a new aesthetic skin, a bundle of proficiencies, and some special bonuses and weaknesses for your character class. This is one solution to the age-old problem of members of classes tending to feel alike, but a problem soon becomes evident when you compare them from book to book – the kits range from desperate scraping of the bottom of a barrel (is there any reason a jester should be that different from a regular bard?) or riffing on the same general theme from book to book. (For instance, lots of classes have an amazon-themed kit, a peasant kit, an aristocratic kit and so on.)

Ultimately, I think 5E Backgrounds are much better and more elegant solution to the same general problem, and they have the advantage of not being arbitrarily divided up by class in a bid to fill out splatbooks. And that’s really the main barrier to me embracing a take on 2E that incorporates all of these splatbooks; to get the best out of them you really want to use kits and proficiencies, but 5E covers all the same bases those subsystems cover in a much more robust and adaptable way; were I to play or run 2E these days, I’d advocate for trimming back most of the optional rules, which would make this line rather useless.

Finally In Full Bloom

Green Ronin’s Blue Rose struck me, back in its original run, as one of those games which is more talked-about than actually read or played. Promoted as an RPG based around “romantic fantasy”, it feels like it wanted to position itself as a potential entry point to RPGs for an audience that the market hadn’t previously catered to, though I suspect that by being sold as a big RPG rulebook and distributed and marketed through standard RPG channels meant that most romantic fantasy fans never realised it existed. Still, despite that, it undeniably targeted a fantasy subgenre which had been poorly served (or flat-out not served at all), which turned heads even if it put off people who either actively dislike romantic fantasy or who unthinkingly write it off because it’s got the word “romantic” in it.

Dig deeper, though, and there was more to talk about than just its chosen genre. For one thing, Blue Rose saw the debut of the True20 system, which provided a welcome lighter take on D20 than mainline D&D and most of its derivatives were offering at the time along with some novel system tweaks of its own. For another, it offered a laudably broad-minded take on what sort of romantic relationships could be front and centre in a campaign, in keeping with the best of the romantic fantasy subgenre: the setting it presented was overtly supportive of LGBT characters and themes, and also made a major effort to be inclusive and diverse in the characters depicted in its artwork.

In its time, though, the system and setting also had its detractors, as any game will. As you might expect, if you looked about you could find grumpy conservative sorts who found the inclusion of gay, bi/pan, trans, nonbinary and polyamorous characters in the setting on equal terms offensive (or, if they were being a bit more subtle about their objections, talked about it as being “too political”, as though assuming that a completely invented fantasy world would have no such people or have the same demographics and prejudices as Earth weren’t just as political).

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A Capstone and a New Foundation

The 2E era of D&D is known for having simultaneously the greatest emphasis on distinctive settings in the game’s history and the greatest downplaying of the classic dungeon-crawling mode of play on the part of the game’s publisher ever seen. This makes sense given the general ethos of the era.

For one thing, in gaming circles it was fashionable to run down playstyles you considered less sophisticated, and dungeon crawling was considered to be nonsense for babies who hadn’t grown up to do something more oriented around exploring a distinctive setting or playing through a GM’s preplanned story; whilst I don’t think TSR’s management at the time paid attention to such things, I could believe that their designers did. Another factor, which I think would have been much more on the mind of the Lorraine Williams-helmed board of directors, was that a large chunk of TSR’s D&D-related profits arose not from the game itself but from the various ranges of tie-in novels based on the various settings that had emerged ever since Weis and Hickman had turned the Dragonlance trilogy into an unlikely hit.

Infamously, it was the novels that put paid to TSR. They were published through an arrangement with Random House, who handled the process of getting them into the distribution chain and as such were the link between TSR and the major book shops. This had the advantage of being able to leverage Random House’s much better connections in the world of traditional book shops (as opposed to hobby stores), putting the novels and other TSR products in front of an audience other game publishers could only dream of.

The disadvantage of the arrangement, of course, is that TSR was keeping the book stores at arm’s length, and as a result they were less able to keep an eye on how many of the books were being returned unsold by the stores. The way the publishing industry worked at the time – I have no idea whether it still works the same way in these devastated post-Amazon/ebook years – was that unsold books would get returned to the publisher by distributors in return for a full or partial refund. This means that a problem could arise – as it did for TSR – if you ended up shipping far more product to the distributor than they and the bookstores they serve were actually able to sell, and especially could be a problem if the end-of-year returns from a distributor ends up being much larger than you expected.

That’s exactly what happened to TSR: Random House returned a massive amount of stuff to them at the end of 1996, and presented them with a huge bill for it. This wrecked their cashflow, in turn meaning that they couldn’t afford to print new runs of the material which was selling, making business impossible, and in 1997 Wizards of the Coast bought out TSR.

Wizards kept the old branding alive for the remainder of 2E’s run and then retired it, releasing 3E under their own name. Whilst 3E is sometimes held up, not without justification, as seeing a new embrace of dungeon crawling as a legitimate focus of play, at the same time if you take a close look at Wizards’ output after acquiring TSR you can kind of see that ongoing gear shift in process. The two supplements I’m going to be reviewing for this article include one of the last really great releases put out by TSR, and an early Wizards contribution to the game line; they form a two-book set which between them offer both the peak of the 2E ethos and the beginnings of 3E’s back-to-the-dungeon movement.

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A Psychic Second Try

The history of psionics in D&D is a bit patchy, partly because in some settings it feels basically rather redundant. Supernatural powers are supernatural powers, and a pseudoscientific explanation for one set as opposed to a mystical or theological explanation is just a different flavour of fig leaf over them, as far as I am concerned. Especially once you have the idea that (in some settings at least) clerics can cast spells through the sheer force of belief in something, including an abstract idea, I’m not seeing much conceptual difference between a psionicist and a cleric who gains spells from their sheer belief in the power of their mind.

Still, the difference seems bizarrely important to some people in the D&D fan community, to the point where Psionics Totally Isn’t Magic is an article of faith to some people even though if you dip into the broader history and philosophy of either there really isn’t much of a gap between them – “psychic powers” is just what pseudoscientists call the act of changing the world through sheer will, which in turn which is how lots of occultists define magic these days, and in general seems to be an idea which only really makes sense in a post-Enlightenment context which sits awkwardly with a magical land of dragons and gods and pixies.

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One OGL To Rule Them All

D&D and Middle-Earth have had a rather complex history. On the one hand, Gygax admitted to not enjoying Tolkien as much as more sword and sorcery-esque fare, and that certainly comes across in the more mercenary assumptions of early editions. At the same time, Gygax knew what was popular. Part of the motivation for Gygax’s original fantasy rules to Chainmail that gave Dave Arneson the seed that became the original Blackmoor campaign, which went on to spawn D&D once the feedback loop passed it through Gygax again, was a desire to pander to a desire to do Tolkienesque battles that had been percolating about in the wargame scene. The balors, treants and halflings of D&D were originally named as balrogs, ents, and hobbits until the Tolkien estate caughed and asked them to stop.

Following that, decades passed with no official meeting of D&D and Middle-Earth, despite some sort of Middle-Earth RPG existing for much of that time span. ICE’s MERP was based off Rolemaster, Decipher’s heavily movie-based Lord of the Rings RPG used their CODA system, and of course Cubicle 7’s The One Ring is a bespoke system made specifically for that game.

However, let it not be said that Cubicle 7 are blind to an opportunity. They have the Middle-Earth RPG licence, Wizards put out a pretty functional OGL for 5E, all the tools were there for them to make a legal, commercially viable Middle-Earth adaptation for D&D, so that’s exactly what they have done in the form of Adventures In Middle-Earth, the rules for which are presented in the Player’s Guide and Loremaster’s Guide.

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A High Water Mark of the OSR

Kevin Crawford has, through his materials published under the Sine Nomine Publishing label, established himself as being rather excellent at providing toolkits to support sandbox play in his various games and settings. Working mostly in an OSR context, he’s bent, folded, and mutilated TSR-era D&D into all manner of interesting, unexpected shapes – like Scarlet Heroes, a bid to support one-on-one play with a D&D-like engine, or D&D takes on Traveller or Exalted with the serial numbers filed off.

As well as standalone games, Crawford has also produced settings for existing games. Red Tide is just such a setting; it’s statted out for the Labyrinth Lord retro-clone, which really means that it works perfectly with any variant of Basic D&D (B/X or BECMI), would probably work with minimal changes with OD&D, can be massaged to fit either edition of AD&D easily enough, and would need a little time but not much brain power to deploy with 3.X or Pathfinder or 5E. 4E you could make work if you put a lot of effort in, but probably enough effort to completely miss the point of this book – which is to provide a robust setting for sandbox play with supportive enough tools that you can just wing a game without doing any prep beyond that which is personally entertaining for you.

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