Content of the article: "Go Play Dark Sun: A DM’s Guide to Running the Greatest Post-Apocalyptic Role Playing Game Ever Made"
It came like a mote of ash on the wind. It soared over the scrublands, over the sand wastes, into Eldaarich with its windowless walls, into the deepest pit of black Giustenal, to the apex of the ziggurat of Draj and even to the City of Doom in the uttermost east. News, like none that had been heard for ten thousand years.
”Kalak is dead! The King of Tyr is dead! Tyr is free!”
And even as old powers stirred from their slumber, as great engines began to turn and vast intellects were directed at the Free City, so too were eyes uplifted from the barren world to gaze at the far-off horizon, beneath the Dark Sun, and hope was in the wind, like the lake-breeze of long ago.
Dark Sun: Go Run It
Dark Sun is a campaign setting introduced for 2nd edition in 1991 by TSR. It was unique among tabletop products at the time in that it was the first product where artists and writers worked side-by-side to develop the vision and direction the product would take. In particular, Dark Sun is heavily inspired by the incredible paintings of masters like Frank Frazetta, whose work on the Conan books basically sold the character to millions of people.
Dark Sun itself takes place on the ruined planet of Athas. Once, it was a paradise. Humans killed it. Almost all of the known world is now a blasted, desolate desert environment. What few pockets of civilization remain are ruled over by bloodthirsty, domineering Sorcerer-Kings that are the closest this world has to gods.
Players will find themselves thrust into a world that is actively hostile to all life. Water is more precious than blood, metal is more precious than water, and wizardry is grounds for immediate execution. It’s a perilous place, but that might be why I love it so much.
It’s my belief that everyone should run Dark Sun. I hope that with this post, I can convince you to do so.
The Main Conceit
Like any good campaign setting, Dark Sun has a few constants that should be taken into account.
The World Is Ancient. Athas is built upon the ruins of ancient civilizations stretching back for tens of thousands of years. Go deep enough underground, and you can find treasure troves of magic and material that have lain untouched since the forgotten waterworld age of the world. The Sorcerer-Kings themselves have ruled for so long that only immortals now remember a time without them.
There Are No Gods, Only Masters. Whether killed off by the Primordials or simply absent, there is no divine power on Athas. That doesn’t mean that divine magic no longer exists, of course, but it is changed. Every cleric on Athas is connected to one of the four Elemental Planes, using its respective element as a divine source of power. The Sorcerer-Kings also can channel the power of the elements, enabling them to grant their templars a measure of divine magic and cementing their godly status in the eyes of the populace.
Magic Is Evil and Hated. Arcane magic defiles the land, killing it slowly each time it is used. While some arcane magicians can produce magic without defiling, the Sorcerer-Kings have outlawed all arcane magic as evil and destructive. If a wizard, sorcerer, or other arcane magician is discovered, they will be torn to pieces by the mob.
Psionics Are Common. In the absence of arcane magic, psionics have grown to dominate everyday life. Almost everyone can do a little psionic magic, and every adventurer starts with at least one power. If a magical device isn’t powered by defiling, it’s powered by psionics. And if you find a monster, there’s a good chance its claws aren’t the only weapons at its disposal.
Metal is Scarce. The Free City of Tyr notwithstanding, almost all of the metal on Athas is in the possession of the Sorcerer-Kings. The weapons and armor that most people use are made of bone, stone, ironwood, or obsidian. A suit of steel plate armor could buy you a township, if you could survive other people knowing you possess such a kingly object.
Water Is Life. Living on Athas eats away at your body. Survival mechanics are extremely important to the fantasy of Dark Sun. Therefore, water is worth its weight in ceramics, and Water clerics are almost universally beloved.
The Orcs Are Dead. Before the current age, the Cleansing Wars resulted in the genocide of many semi- or demihumanoid monstrous races. On Athas, there are no more orcs, trolls, goblins, gnolls, pixies, lizardfolk, or gnomes. I may be missing one or two others. These creatures do not even exist in legend, and their artifacts are lost in lightless tombs deep beneath the sand.
Civilization Is Barbaric. The slave trade thrives in the settlements of Athas. Gladiators duel to the death in every city, and corruption and brutality are a fact of life. The Sorcerer-King of Nibenay keeps a templarate made exclusively of women, the highest-ranked of whom are also his consorts. The king of Draj cuts out hearts and hurls them from a ziggurat to remind the people of his godhood. The society of Dark Sun is one built upon death, and death permeates every facet of existence.
If you’re running a Dark Sun game, it’s important to be aware of one major thing: What the players know, the characters do not. The nature of the Sorcerer-Kings is a major component of Dark Sun (which I will discuss later) that 90 percent of player characters will have no reason to be aware of, and even a player character wizard will hide their spells behind a veneer of clerical invocation except around their most trusted friends. Thus, information about the true nature of the world becomes a treasure almost as precious as ceramic chips and iron armor, and knowing the right secret can be the difference between a bitter enemy and a bitter ally.
For all of Dark Sun’s great qualities, there are a couple of things that a lot of people will find annoying.
First, psionics. Original Dark Sun uses 2e psionic rules, which are garbage. If a psionicist encounters another psionicist, they will enter a psionic confrontation, in which both characters will be locked out of acting until one of them is dead. 3.5e definitely had the most unique and interesting psionics mechanics, but there is no official Dark Sun content for that edition, although Athas.org does contain a free-access version unofficially sanctioned by Wizards. 4th edition psionics were almost as good as 3.5e, and the Dark Sun content for 4e was very good, but nobody plays it. 5th edition psionics were universally panned when the Mystic UA was unveiled, and ever since they’ve been under wraps. If you want to play 5e Dark Sun, you’ll need your own psionic rules.
Second, the metaplot. Unfortunately, TSR fancied they could concoct their own Legend of the Five Rings situation with Dark Sun, in which the story evolved over time as more novels were published. This resulted in the Prism Pentad books, in which a gaggle of heroes free the city of Tyr, kill most of the Sorcerer-Kings, and pretty much save the planet from its eventual death. All of these changes were added to the base game in rules updates. This was very bad for campaign freedom, and despite 4e’s retcon introducing every campaign immediately following the liberation of Tyr and the death of the Sorcerer-King Kalak, to get a complete picture of Athas means darting between multiple editions’ sourcebooks, none of which agree on the continuity. I would advise a Dark Sun Dungeon Master to decide their own point in the continuity – the 4e kickoff point still works very well, which is why the thing I wrote at the top of this post describes it – and force every sourcebook they draw from into this paradigm.
Finally, the halflings. Halflings in Dark Sun are the ancestors of all sentient beings. Given that most D&D players disregard halflings, this was a very controversial move on the writers’ part. In their modern form, Athasian halflings are bloodthirsty forest cannibals, which is pretty fun. I personally find the idea of halflings as the source of all sentient life frustrating, but it’s part of the wonderful weirdness that makes Dark Sun unique.
Fortunately, the good bits of Dark Sun far offset the lousy bits. Here are a few of my favorites!
Let’s start with the most important part: you can be a dragon. Even if you don’t
have a scaly fetish like dragons as much as I do, that’s seriously awesome. Granted, it’s only available at the highest levels to a specific class combination, and in 2nd edition the process can kill you outright, but that’s a small price to pay for dragonation.
The second most inviting part of Dark Sun are the incredible themes. Dark Sun is a game about power disparity, about class struggle and liberation, and about environmentalism and the dangers of letting climate change and the machinations of the ruling class slip by. Dark Sun is the only campaign setting I can think of (except d20 Modern and Eberron) in which a character or NPC quoting actual political philosophy would be completely in-theme for the game. If you’ve got a more cerebral table, Dark Sun is the right fit for you.
Another great part of Dark Sun is the variety of stories that can be told in it. Dark Sun is the only campaign setting built from the ground up to facilitate an evil campaign, but it can also facilitate classic heroic adventure stories and Star Wars-like rebellions. Even a mercantile game can work in Dark Sun, thanks to the rules for caravans, overland travel, and wilderness survival.
Speaking of wilderness survival, Dark Sun is a great setting for it. The original 2e rules included stipulations on how much water a person had to consume in different environments, and the module The Valley of Dust and Fire even included rules on how different flight options would respond in different wind conditions. (The Valley of Dust and Fire is also the most deadly module ever made.) If you want to do a hex-crawl, Dark Sun is fantastic for that.
Finally, Dark Sun gives you freedom to adapt. With the Prism Pentad books no longer considered for part of the continuity of most games, every Dark Sun game can be unique. And massive areas of the planet still remain unexplored. South of the Tyr region (the main region of the setting) is a vast plain of obsidian, but what lies beyond it? Past the Silt Sea, is there anything besides the Valley of Dust and Fire? What about the North? Almost nothing is known of that region. In addition to regional secrets, large areas of the Tyr region remain unconquered and unexplored, with stories so-far untold by official content. Even most of the modules from 2e have adventures that can be completely ignored to focus on the new environments they add. More so than any other official edition, Dark Sun lets you and your players leave your mark on the map.
Getting Started With Dark Sun
The main challenge of Dark Sun is finding the sourcebooks and collating them into a document your players can find helpful. If you’re playing 5th edition, you also need to find or make homebrew rules for weapon breakage, psionics, defiling, and elemental domains.
The best place to start is Athas.org, the unofficial, freely-available 3.5e Dark Sun that was tacitly endorsed by Wizards when it came out. All the sourcebooks for a basic game are out already, letting you pick it up immediately if you want that edition. The books also come with a ton of lore and background info that you can use in games for other editions, and there are Athas.org exclusive looks at areas like the Athasian North if you can’t be bothered to write your own lore.
For 2e and 4e, Wizards has put all of the sourcebooks on the DMs Guild. They’re not overly expensive – you can pick up every book you need for both 2e and 4e for less than the cost of a 5e Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide, and certainly less than the cost of those and a campaign module – and they’ll serve you well.
Finally, 3.5e’s “official” rules for Dark Sun can be found in Dragon Magazine issues #319 and #339. These are the “official” race, class, weapon, defiling, and Athasian Dragon rules. Unfortunately, the only way you can buy these are second-hand, as far as I’m aware. However, there are ways in which silt polers on the Tyrian coast obtain the things they need from the giants of the Silt Sea. So if you end up getting your hands on these two magazines, you can mix and match between the rules in Athas.org and Dragon to suit your preferences. (Also, the Dragon rules are the only way you can play an Athasian Dragon in 3.5e without using homebrew.)
Onboarding Your Players
Convincing your player group to try Dark Sun can be a difficult endeavor, but it’s well worth it. Particularly, the edition restrictions and/or necessary homebrew can turn off the majority-5e audience of D&D.
For a player to be invested in a Dark Sun game, it’s my belief that their character should have goals. More so than any other setting, Dark Sun games live and die by the whims of the players. Sorcerer-Kings cannot be overthrown, armies cannot be raised, and dragons cannot be born unless the players choose to do so. Even a simple “become the biggest merchant” goal is extremely motivating in a Dark Sun game. And if players find themselves swept into this or that conspiracy to overthrow this or that Sorcerer-King at the whims of the DM…well, some people might like it, but I find that kind of thing lazy.
To make it easier for players to prepare for Dark Sun, I would create a player guide. This is a simple document describing the basic layout of the setting from the perspective of the people living there, as well as how to create a character and the setting-specific rules that players should keep in mind, like weapon breakage, defiling, and survival mechanics.
If I get a chance later, I will edit this post to include a link to a player guide example for 3.5e Dark Sun.
Finally, Dark Sun does feature some concepts that may be upsetting to some people, such as slavery, genocide, and all the depradations and decadencies of supreme rulers. Make sure you know what your players are comfortable with. If they’re not aware of what they’re getting into in a Dark Sun game, there is no reason for them to want to play in your game. In fact, this rule applies to every D&D game.
(As a side note: I have heard some conversation in the D&D community that Dark Sun does not suit the modern identity of D&D, because concepts like slavery and genocide are mentioned and depicted. This is nonsensical. Dark Sun never fails to depict these evils as just that, and nobody can compare the pervasive racial and cultural tropes of fantasy demihumanoids to the themes of class struggle and oppression that give Dark Sun its particular magic. In fact, I believe the modern D&D community is more suited to Dark Sun than ever before. Just make sure your players are mature enough to handle them.)
Dark Sun. Go play it. Seriously.
My hope and dream, the one I whisper to the spheres every night, is that one day Wizards stops publishing Magic settings and puts out a Dark Sun sourcebook for 5th edition. Until that time, I hope I have convinced at least some of you that Dark Sun is worth the time and effort to get started and get your players engaged with the game.
Like what I wrote? Mad at me for some reason? I welcome all constructive criticism and praise!
- Know what kind of campaign you’re running, and know your players.
- Homebrew setting vs homebrew mechanics
- Unpopular Opinion: Adding restrictions to classes and races for setting/lore reasons leads to more creativity, not less
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