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.

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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Monster: the Monstering

Although Vampire: the Masquerade popularised the whole “you play the monsters” thing, there’s been a tradition of that in RPGs for a very long time. In the 1970s Tunnels & Trolls variant Monsters! Monsters! cast players as dungeon monsters fighting incursions of adventurers, and of course back in Dave Arneson’s original Blackmoor campaign that yielded the seed of what Gary Gygax would wrangle into a commercially viable game product you had Sir Fang, a vampire player character who was so gamewreckingly unbalanced (Dave Arneson wasn’t very good at rules, go figure) that the cleric class had to be invented specifically so a Van Helsing-type could put Fang back in his box (which is a coffin because vampire).

More generally, the immediate aftermath of the release of Dungeons & Dragons involved a big wave of people cooking up wild homebrew stuff. The nice thing about OD&D is that in those three little booklets it gave you fairly clear formats for coming up with new content – it’s easy enough to set your hand to making new monsters, spells, and player character races and classes.

Over OD&D‘s lifespan a range of odd variants of the game developed as a result of that, ranging from root and branch revisions of the entire game like Warlock, interpretations on how to resolve some of D&D‘s ambiguities like the Perrin Conventions, flat-out unauthorised third party supplements like The Arduin Grimoire, and that’s just taking into account material that saw publication: there were also uncountable local micro-variants of the game, not least because each gaming table running OD&D would inevitably​ develop its own house rules simply because the core books have some areas where there’s no one clear, unambiguous interpretation available. Offbeat character races and classes were a regular feature of these variants.

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From Cook to Cook (or Planescape Revisited)

It’s interesting to me that whilst Gary Gygax gets ample credit for his custodianship of 1E AD&D, Dave “Zeb” Cook isn’t similarly celebrated by 2E fans – despite the fact that Cook was arguably the game’s “show-runner” in the early 2E period much as Gary was for the early period of the game’s existence and Mike Mearls seems to have become for 5E. As well as writing the 2E core books, Cook was also the primary author of Oriental Adventures (despite Gary being given the credit), which as well as being one of the more beloved of the post-Unearthed Arcana 1E hardbacks was also the book which introduced the idea of nonweapon proficiencies to the game – a system feature which would underpin a bunch of other distinctively 2E mechanics, like the “kits” offered in the line of brown splatbooks (ew) that acted like a fiddly, class-specific, not-really-very-balanced set of forerunners to 5E Backgrounds. Moreover, between the release of the 2E core and his departure from TSR in 1994, Cook helmed two out of the three major hardback additions to the system – the Tome of Magic and the Book of Artifacts. (Legends & Lore was penned by Jim Ward and Troy Denning, building on Ward and Rob Kuntz’ previous work on Deities & Demigods).

His last major contribution to the game was Planescape. In the 1E era Jeff Grubb had produced the Manual of the Planes, taking the Great Wheel cosmology as outline by Gary in previous works (notably the 1E Dungeon Master’s Guide) and stacking a whole bunch of dry rules detail on it. Interesting in principle, it was felt that it didn’t really support much in the way of adventure on the planes, and when 2E rolled around the idea started brewing of giving it an update with an eye to using the planes as a basis for campaigning in their own right.

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Overlooked Hardbacks of AD&D 2E

Among grognards of a certain generation the hardbacks of 1E AD&D are looked on especially fondly. At first they just consisted of the three generally-embraced core books plus Deities & Demigods (pushed as a core book by Gary Gygax himself when it first came out) and Fiend Folio, consisting largely of monsters submitted to White Dwarf by British gamers with all the wild and wacky variation in quality which comes from that. After Gary came back from his stint in Hollywood pushing for the production of a D&D movie in order to take the reins again and turn around TSR’s flagging sales, he made the periodic publication of new hardbacks a top priority. This process began with Monster Manual II, a decent monster supplement largely dedicated to providing a whole mess of lawful neutral, neutral good, chaotic neutral and neutral evil monsters, since those categories hadn’t been formally included in the alignment system when the first Monster Manual was being composed, plus further embellishing the ranks of devils and demons and other such monster categories; it then led to products with rather mixed receptions like Unearthed Arcana, Oriental Adventures, and the Manual of the Planes and by the end of the line the hardback series varied between putting out highly setting-specific stuff like Dragonlance Adventures and corresponding books for Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms on the one hand and on the other hand churning out poorly-received content-light books like the Wilderness Survival Guide and Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide, which aside from restating the proficiency rules introduced in Oriental Adventures really didn’t merit being presented as a major supplement.

Less celebrated or acknowledged is the way that the approach of putting out a series of hardback books with trade dress to match the core rulebooks providing major, central expansions to the system continued during 2E. Some of these books have been widely commented on; Legends & Lore gets attention as the direct 2E sequel to Deities & Demigods, whilst the Player’s Option books provided a range of extremely controversial alternate systems which many have characterised as the rise of a “2.5E” comparable to 3.5E, but the comparison there doesn’t quite work – not only am I not aware of anyone implementing all the Player’s Option rules (indeed, I think some of the options presented were mutually exclusive), but on top of that almost no subsequent products assumed that you were using Player’s Option, more or less guaranteeing that the proposed tweaks to the system would gain no traction.

For this article, I’m going to take a look at three hardbacks which to my knowledge haven’t been commented on that much – despite being interesting insights into the development and approach of early 2E and the system’s drift in the mid-1990s.

Tome of Magic

Compiled by “Zeb” Cook following on from his work producing the core 2E books, Zeb’s introduction talks about how he didn’t just want to produce a book which was a big list of extra spells, but for the most part that (along with a grab-bag of whimsical new magic items) is what the Tome is. That said, some of the new ideas that Cook throws in for good measure do help to flesh out the 2E magic system.

Although the infamous wild mage stands out here, additional options for wizards are also given. In particular, there’s guidelines on playing an elementalist, providing a nice showcase of how you don’t have to be limited by the standard division of spells into schools when coming up with specialist mages for 2E purposes. The book also introduces the idea of “metamagic” – subject of so much unfortunate power gaming and character build optimisation in its 3E implementation – but it’s moderated somewhat by the fact that metamagic effects arise not from some sort of Feats equivalent but by casting spells, so if you want to do a bunch of metamagic stuff you will need to devote some spell slots to the metamagic spells which allow you to modify other spells.

There’s also a range of nice new options for priests – new spheres are proposed and filled out with spells which will help anyone trying to round out a pantheon (the spheres of Law, War, and Wards are particularly appropriate and welcome in this respect), and guidelines are offered on Quest spells – off-the-scale priest spells of incredible power that are given out not on request like other priest spells but are bestowed under particular circumstances at the discretion of a priest’s deity. On top of that, the book introduces the possibility of clerics with a shared faith (or at least allied gods) coming together to perform group ceremonies of greater collective power than they could have accomplished individually, and provides appropriate spells to enable and support that, explicitly underlining that this is a special thing that priests can do but wizards can’t.

The really nice thing about these various additions is that they really help underscore the demarcation between wizardly and clerical magic, emphasising how one involves personal manipulation of occult forces (exemplified by the wild mage, who isn’t entirely in control of their own power, and users of metamagic who use their knowledge to modify their capabilities on the fly), whilst the other involves personal service to a higher power with its own priorities and agenda (Quest spells) and a faith shared with a wider community (collective spellcasting). I wouldn’t necessarily want to make all the options in Tome of Magic available at once – like any game supplement, I’d want to exercise a lot of discretion as to what features actually make the cut in my campaigns – but equally I think it’s a useful resource to have to hand.

Book of Artifacts

Another Zeb Cook contribution, this consists largely of a book-length treatment of the subject of magical artifacts. Taking in all the old favourites from the 1E Dungeon Master’s Guide and throwing in a bunch of new artifacts, in keeping with the general “context is king” approach of this period of 2E the individual entries not only concentrate a lot on the histories of the items in question but also throw in suggestions for thematically-appropriate ways to destroy the items in question. There’s also a good essay on how D&D artifacts are designed and what pitfalls to avoid and what to remember to include, as well as a detailed bit at the end describing how PCs can construct and recharge their own magic items – covering a bit of a disappointing gap in the 2E Dungeon Master’s Guide. Since the supplement spends a lot of time talking about general system-independent considerations in artifact design and in presenting the artifacts in question, this is a supplement which can find use in pretty much any edition of D&D, or any game in which powerful-but-perilous artifacts like those in D&D are thematically appropriate.

Dungeon Master Option: High-Level Campaigns

This came out in 1995, alongside the much more controversial Player’s Option books, and was written by Skip Williams who would go on to be one of the co-designers of 3E (and the one who had served at TSR/Wizards the longest out of the team of Williams, Tweet and Cook). The Player’s Option books were controversial mainly for offering a bunch of highly divergent options for radically changing major D&D systems, and are sometimes seen as being testbeds for experimental game systems – a way for TSR to test the ground for a prospective third edition of D&D. Many of their innovations didn’t make the cut, like the spell point system. Conversely, there’s a bunch of ideas in here which would eventually creep into 3E; for instance, Williams provides guidelines for assigning full PC-style ability scores to monsters, a shift which would become standard in 3E, and provides a replacement system for magic item creation which seems easier to handle, is less reliant on the DM feeling generous, and generally seems to make it a bit easier for PCs to craft magic items on a regular basis.

In principle, Williams is trying to address the issues of high-level play that make it difficult to handle. In practice, however, the results seemed a bit mixed. A lot of the advice offered consists of broadly good ideas which you should be applying at lower levels anyway, like crediting opponents with the level of intelligent they are supposed to have rather than playing monsters as utter idiots who don’t know their own strengths and weaknesses and don’t come up with sensible tactics and don’t have any sense of self-preservation. Other contributions seem to be counter-productive; if you want to convince DMs that high-level play is viable and won’t degenerate into the PCs utterly steamrolling everything, tacking on rules to take PCs up to 30th level and adding amazing new powers they get on the way there kind of isn’t the way to do it.

Skip Williams was, for a long time, in charge of the Sage Advice column in Dragon which would answer people’s rules queries. This, perhaps, ended up shaping his approach to design; for instance one section in the book consists of a bunch of what are effectively patch notes for existing spells from the core books and Tome of Magic, adding new constraints and details on them to deal with edge cases and potential exploits. This feels to me like the start of the “system as software” approach which would result in 3.5E emerging to patch perceived problems in 3E and, eventually, the endless rolling releases of errata for 4E – in other words, features of Wizards-era D&D which turned me off their versions and which 5E has thankfully dialled back on. Then again, this also seems to be an artifact of TSR apparently trying to have their cake and eat it when it came to the rollout of these Player’s/DM Option books, in that they seem to have not wanted to do a third edition but at the same time clearly want to make sweeping changes and tweaks to the game of the sort which you’d really want to roll out a new edition to implement.

Perhaps the most damning feature of the book is that, despite of all its talk about the necessary thinking behind running high-level adventures, it doesn’t really come up with a model for them that isn’t just a more garish and high-stakes version of the “adventuring party wanders around righting wrongs” model for lower-level play – which I suppose explains why so much of the advice is actually equally applicable to earlier phases in a campaign. The assumption that adventuring looks the same no matter what level you are seems to be axiomatic to Wizards-era D&D, but there’s fairly clear evidence here that the attitude was spreading in TSR even before Wizards bought them out.

What I find absolutely maddening about this is that up until around this point D&D actually had offered a range of propositions and models for how high-level play could work as a distinctive style from low-level play, both in the AD&D line and in BECMI, which this book almost completely ignores. There’s some redundant discussion of ascending to godhood which doesn’t really add much to what’s offered in Legends & Lore, but there is, so far as I can tell, absolutely no reference to domain management. Making your own temple, castle, or thieves’ guild and gathering a bunch of lower-level followers had been a feature of D&D since its original publication, but which ironically had enjoyed far better support in BECMI than in the Advanced line, so this was a golden opportunity to address that that Skip completely blows.

To be fair, it might not be entirely his fault. The same year this came out saw the debut of Birthright, a campaign setting specifically designed around and focused on domain management. However, the domain management rules there were extremely closely tied to the campaign setting (to the point where if I remember right players were expected to have the ruler’s supplement for their domain handy in order to play the game), and as such wouldn’t necessarily be appropriate for a straight port to, say, Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk. Given that this book is already extremely happy to revisit mechanics published elsewhere, you’d think that providing a more generic take on the Birthright domain management system for use with other settings would be a good idea, but perhaps management decided to keep that exclusive to Birthright.

At the end of the day, I rather think that if you end up playing 2E to the extent that you’d need to do to get characters up to these stratospheric heights, over time you would become versed enough with the system that you wouldn’t need a guidebook to tell you how to handle your PCs anyway; nor does Skip really convince me that the best thing to do isn’t to just retire PCs when they hit the level where they break the game and start over. This DM opts not to use this book.