Jesse Heinig (trekhead) wrote,
Jesse Heinig

How to run (or design) a game of Dark Sun.

I recently picked up and read the 4th edition D&D version of the ol' DARK SUN setting. DARK SUN is a Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting from 1991, set in a divergent fantasy world that is a sere desert filled with bizarre creatures and . . . oh, just go read the wikipedia entry.

DARK SUN as a game world has always resonated with me, partly because of its bleakness, partly because of its themes, partly because it does a wonderful job of tearing down and rebuilding many fantasy game stereotypes. I have avidly collected material from the game line for quite some time, so I hesitantly picked up the latest iteration of the setting, the 4th edition D&D books.

Unfortunately, the 4th edition version of DARK SUN veers heavily away from the elements that made the game so memorable. This is a shame because the heavy hand of marketing is clearly all over the books. It seems that marketing departments in game companies just can't leave development well enough alone.

The real problem that I have is that it is not hard to run a good DARK SUN game. The game has several prominent themes, many of which are explicitly called out in the game books. Promote these themes and you can have a great time in the DARK SUN campaign setting. Ignore them and you start to slide into a mish-mash of ideas that don't hold together.

1. Athas (the world of the DARK SUN campaign setting) is a world of resource scarcity.
Metal is very rare on Athas. So is fresh water or shelter outside of the forbidding city-states. Survival is a major undertaking. Low-level characters in DARK SUN games should be struggling to make ends meet. In the city-states, everyone already owns everything good -- metal, water, shelter. Outside of the city-states, resources are so rare that it's easy to get lost and die in the desert wastes. Characters struggle to procure the resources that they need, and along the way they may have to shank a few fools. When you get your hands on something really good -- a metal sword, access to a well, knowledge of a hidden oasis -- it's really worth something and everyone else wants to take it from you.
This theme also appears in the fact that characters in Athas are tougher than most other D&D setting characters. They have to survive on their own, with their own strength and toughness instead of magical trinkets and metal armor.

2. The environment in Athas is ruined as a result of bad choices and the evils of greed, corruption, and lust for power.
Arcane magic in Athas -- wizardry -- is inherently dangerous to living things, and used recklessly will ruin the landscape. The entire ecosystem is precariously close to devastation due to defiling magic. Anyone who uses arcane magic must make hard choices about whether to follow that same road, even when survival is at stake. Is one person's life worth the cost of further polluting an already denuded landscape? Players have a chance to be responsible in their use of magic, but there is always the temptation to slide into defiling. No arcanist is safe from this temptation. Similarly, those who reject arcane magic completely must still come to grips with the reality that the sorcerer-kings who despotically rule the city-states are masters of wizardry and likely can only be deposed with the help of wizardry in return.
Characters can set as long-term goals the restoration of part of the ecosystem of Athas, but even that route is fraught with peril; the ancient history of the world set it on its path to destruction due to misguided attempts to change the world's evolution.

3. The hostile environment is a backdrop for the heroes' perilous choices.
Environmental challenges, though they are rampant throughout Athas, are not key to the game. If you make 60 Constitution checks against dehydration and fail some of them and die, this is not compelling, dramatic, or heroic. Rather, the environmental hazards of the setting serve to heighten the tension of the dilemmas and challenges that characters face. A rampaging monster is even more dangerous if the characters have gone without water for two days already. A corrupt templar who controls the local well can extort the characters into doing awful things just so that they can get the water that they need in order to survive. The heat, sandstorms, and desert visages of Athas are a means to create a more dangerous setting for the hazards that the characters face.
In my own DARK SUN games, I give the players small blue glass beads to represent their water supply. When it's time to drink some of that water, the players have to give up the tokens. As the supply of tokens dwindles, people get suspicious. They get nervous about having enough water for the next day. They start to hoard their water and look greedily at other people's tokens. The immediacy of having that measure of survival right in front of the players heightens the tension.

4. The changes wrought in the environment are reflected in the creatures of Athas.
DARK SUN was novel in its conception partly because it turned many of the character types into barely-recognizable variants of their usual fantasy versions. Elves are insular, desert-running tribes of scoundrels. Dwarves are hairless and live in human cities. Halflings are cannibals. Each character type had a core piece of its identity intact, but altered by the harsh strangeness of the setting. The monsters, too, are bizarre and tend more toward reptiles and insects than the fantasy tropes of evil humanoids or legendary beasts. Everything uses psychic powers, just as a simple survival mechanism.
If you accept the fundamentals of the DARK SUN setting, you need to embrace these changes in theme and physical form for the characters and creatures of Athas. You can't tell players "Oh, those work just like normal, but we only changed the name." The world is a dangerous place filled with bizarre oddities, not a desert setting that is the home for the marketing department to plop down a few disparate critters that tested well with player surveys about what they liked in the Forgotten Realms setting.

These themes then give you the tools to build your DARK SUN campaign.
Low-level characters are concerned with survival. While they have formidable physical abilities and innate psychic powers, these are just to give them a chance to survive the hardships of the world. In an urban setting, everything necessary for survival is owned by someone else. Characters have to work as gladiators, miners, thieves, or scavengers in order to scrape by. All of this is overseen by a corrupt bureaucracy of templars who will line their pockets and exploit the characters with the threat of enslavement, fines, or mutilation -- possibly even execution. Characters who flee the city-states have a whole different set of problems; they have to find water, food, shelter. Any place that's habitable is already inhabited by someone or some thing. Gathering resources in the wild is incredibly difficult, and characters will constantly be challenged by monsters, slave-traders, and enemy tribes, all in the context of the harsh environment that makes facing these difficulties even harder.
Mid-level characters have earned their metal weapons and secured their ability to survive against the harsh backdrop of Athas. Now people will look to them for inspiration and guidance. Gladiators and fighters have become heroic figures, and people flock to their banners in hopes of following a great war leader to prosperity. Clerics and druids deliver the message of their elemental powers, but this message is a challenge to the authority of the templars -- a war of ideas; a charismatic priest will rally the mob and turn them into devoted followers. Preservers secretly advance their art by finding ways to communicate with others of their ilk, whether through the Veiled Alliance or through other underground channels. Thieves and bards establish a broad social network that helps to direct them to the best pickings and the wealthiest scores in the city, but this at the same time exposes them to the dangers of struggling against the nobles and templars who try to catch them. Psionicists start to teach other students to harness their innate psychic talents, or seek seclusion where they can further hone their talents without interruption.
High-level characters have moved beyond simple regional concerns and now try to reshape themselves or their world. Spellcasters try to repair the damage done to Athas' environment, often by undergoing radical personal metamorphosis in the process. (Evil magicians hasten the demise of the world in order to further their personal agendas.) Warriors lead great armies that have a chance of overthrowing sorcerer-kings. Rogues inspire entire tribes of slaves to seek freedom and personal determination. Psionicists pit themselves against the Order, fighting against other great minds to determine the proper role of the psyche in the world at large.

That's all there is to it. DARK SUN is not a hard game to run -- or to develop.

It's a damn shame that the 4th edition iteration dropped the ball. Perhaps the 5th edition (sorry, "D&D Next") will deliver on these old promises.

Tags: dark sun
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