One of the benefits of working here at Wizards is our extensive game archive and the ability to check out old games for reference. Some of these games have quite a long history—and so after poking around, I’m now sitting here with the 1991 Dark Sun campaign setting, stamped: TSR Library/201 Sheridan Springs Road, Lake Geneva WI 53147. That’s about as far from the desert world of Athas as one can get. For those of you who never played through this original boxed set, it contains The Wanderer’s Journal, a rules book, and the adventure "A Little Knowledge."
Quite a bit of goodness is coming out this month, including Psionic Power and the Castle Ravenloft board game; however, we’ve covered psionics and even Count Strahd von Zarovich in previous installments. So this month, we turn our attention to Athas—and ask some of the R&D staff involved with the original campaign setting and its forthcoming release to give us their thoughts on surviving the desert wastes, both then and now.
The Horse’s Mouth: Dark Sun’s Origins
I first asked Steve Winter if he had any tales of Dark Sun’s genesis; he dutifully struck me over the head with a copy of 30 Years of Adventure: A Celebration of Dungeons & Dragons. Right there inside, Steve had already written the exact essay I wanted. Without reprinting it in its entirety, I’ll call out the following sections:
"In the nineties, when my two sons first started getting interested in playing AD&D, I got a lot of mileage out of telling them that Dark Sun was my idea. For some reason, that seemed to impress them a lot more than everything else I’d done at TSR over the years. In truth, my contribution was the suggestion during the first brainstorming session that the world be a ravaged, dying desert world built on the crumbling ruins of a long-lost civilization. At the time, I’d been reading a lot of fiction by Clarke Ashton Smith and DEN comics by Richard Corben. My contribution to the creation of Athas began and ended with that one notion. As everyone knows, ideas are cheap. The people who created Dark Sun are the ones who actually did the work, not the guy who tossed off a nebulous remark like "make it a desert." Still, even a scrap of glory has appeal, and I’m not letting go of that one.
"Dark Sun was a revelation when it was published in 1991. It took AD&D to a type of setting where it had never been before and made it darker, more threatening, even more relevant with its undercurrent story of a world in ecological collapse. It was the richest and most original setting to come from TSR to that date. It was in Tim Brown’s words, 'as ground-breaking as a new AD&D campaign world could be.' We turned the game on its ear and had a hell of a good time doing it.
"As the team originally envisioned it, Athas would feature none of the standard AD&D races or monsters. There would be no elves, dwarves, dragons, or orcs. It was a world of humans, muls, half-giants, and even more exotic species. That notion eventually made the marketing department very uneasy, however, because it left the setting with nothing familiar to draw in players and readers. The designers relented and added dwarves, elves, halflings, dragons, and a few other familiar shapes back into the mix. Each was subtly or radically twisted in some way to give it a characteristically Athasian quality. Tim recalled that ultimately 'marketing’s objection took us in a whole new direction that we might not otherwise have gone, and Dark Sun was stronger for it.'"
Dark Sun and Battlesystem
Still rubbing my head (30 Years of Adventure is a fairly thick book), I went to Rich Baker:
"Dark Sun came out right about the time I started at TSR, which means that the work was all done months and months before I arrived on the scene. When I started, I was assigned to the New Worlds product group in R&D, which meant that I was part of the team that focused on the Dark Sun product line following the boxed set. Tim Brown was the leader of the New Worlds team. I worked on several Dark Sun products in my first year or two at TSR, including the Valley of Dust and Fire sourcebook, the Merchant House of Amketch flip-book adventure, the Dragon’s Crown mega-adventure, and The Will and the Way psionics sourcebook. I also pitched in with some outlining and freelancing coordination on books like Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. (Funny, to this day my fingers want to type Earth, Wind, and Fire there.)
"I ran a short Dark Sun campaign shortly after starting at TSR. The players included my wife Kim, Thomas Reid, his wife Teresa Reid, Wolf Baur, Tim Beach, and Colin McComb. The heroes took on a nasty bandit-lord sort of fellow, and rescued a high-ranking family member of a merchant house. Tim Beach and Wolf Baur played thri-kreen: Ka’Cha the druid, and Tik-tik the ranger. Tim wound up doing a lot of work on them over the next couple of years because he really liked the race, and I think the name Ka’Cha surfaced once or twice in thri-kreen source material. I remember that Tik-tik was the only character I killed in the campaign, stung by a giant scorpion. I think Wolf’s still a little sore at me about it. I built my own civilized area for the game, which I called the Urd Region; I put it on the other side of the Sea of Silt from the Tyr Region.
"One thing I noticed about the setting early on that seemed to have fallen by the wayside: the mass-combat elements. Tim Brown was a big fan of the Battlesystem rules, and I think he always meant for Dark Sun to be a world where fantastic armies clashed all the time. The early sourcebooks included a lot of Battlesystem stats and conversions, but I don’t think very many players out there in the audience were interested in those aspects of the setting (or in Battlesystem at all, really), so those elements vanished as the line matured. I suspect that a lot of the initial city design and political set-ups were intended to create the diverse factions and conflicts you’d want to see in order to support large-scale miniatures battles."
Battlesystem, for those not familiar with the line, involved rules for miniature wargaming. Reinforcing Rich’s assertion, Dark Sun initially had the working title of "War World," meant to tie-in with the Battlesystem rules. Yet, as Steve Winter elaborated (over the cube walls, this time), part of the problem was in a lack of minis available for full Dark Sun battles, save for a limited line of Ral Partha minis suitable for individual characters.
Looking back at the original Dark Sun, Rich continued: "Character trees are something else that got a lot of attention in the original boxed set, but quickly disappeared. (Editor’s note: Character trees meant having multiple, inactive characters waiting in the wings—what might otherwise be termed a stable. A sidebar discussing multiple characters later appeared in the Dungeon Master’s Guide 2, page 35.) I think a lot of people experimented with them at first, but the concept ran into a simple problem: Folks didn’t need rules for what they were doing anyway. The vast majority of DMs out there would allow someone whose character got killed to bring in a replacement at party level or maybe one level down anyway. I suppose that some players enjoyed bringing in a replacement character that was already "pre-storied" for the campaign, but I hardly ever saw it used myself.
"One last thing," Rich said. "My biggest difficulty with Dark Sun as a designer was that you had to work with a small subset of monsters to feel like you were doing a good job and respecting the Athasian ecology. Between that and a general lack of conventional dungeons, it was hard for DMs to come up with Dark Sun adventures. For our 4th Edition Dark Sun, we worked hard to be inclusive about monsters, and our adventure design 'tech' these days is a lot more friendly to open-air adventuring. DMs should have a much easier time building adventures for the setting this time around, or so I hope."
Beyond the RPG: The Prism Pentad
When it comes to Dark Sun, many folks not only ran campaigns in that setting but fondly recall Troy Denning’s series of novels set there as well. Astute readers might have picked up on Dark Sun’s return in our 2009 interview with Phil Athans, where he mentioned editor Fleetwood Robbins working on the line.
The Prism Pentad books rereleased soon after. As Fleetwood describes it, "The Prism Pentad follows the story of the revolution in Tyr and all that happens in its aftermath. In the power vacuum created by the absence of the sorcerer king Kalak, there is a struggle for control of the city between Tithian, a megalomaniacal nobleman with designs on absolute power, and a council of citizens led by another, more altruistic Nobleman, Agis. Other players in the revolution were the preserver Sadira and the slave gladiators Rikus and Neeva. Denning takes this as a set-up and runs through a series of dangers, from the dragon Borys to the first sorcerer Rajaat, who threaten not only the continued freedom of Tyr, but ultimately the entire existence of Athas.
"We did not change anything with the rerelease of Troy’s series because we felt that it should represent one possible course of events for Athas following Tyr’s revolution. Troy goes so deeply into the mythos of the world, visiting so many characters and so many scenarios, that we felt it should remain as its own piece of work. It’s truly epic in scope."
Of course, with the Dark Sun setting coming back, it’s time for new stories to be told. To that end, Jeff Marott’s City Under the Sand debuts later this year:
"With the new Dark Sun novels, we wanted to keep the action on a more heroic level while at the same getting a glimpse of some of that brutally majestic power of the crimson sun. So, with City Under the Sand our main characters are a mix of "everyman" and the nobility, templars and their cronies. The idea is that a trading caravan, largely lost in a sandstorm, has discovered the ruins of a city near the Sea of Silt, not too far from Nibenay. In that city is a tremendous cache of metal, enough to equip an entire army. Needless to say, that would be an incredible boon to anyone with the resources to haul it out and forge it into weapons. Unfortunately, those left in the caravan don’t have those resources. And what’s more, there is something else in the city that no one could ever have known or understood.
"The story follows the expedition commissioned by the Shadow King to retrieve the metal. It’s filled with action, suspense and more than a little intrigue."
And with that, folks, we bid a farewell to Athas. We thoroughly hope you’ve been enjoying Dark Sun gaming in this season of Encounters as well as at the August 21 Game Day. If you’d care to listen to Dark Sun games in action, we’d also direct you to our podcasts with the folks from Penny Arcade, PvP, and Tweet Me Harder.
As always, happy gaming!