Jesse Heinig (trekhead) wrote,
Jesse Heinig

Running Dark Sun: Making Interesting Settlements

The DARK SUN setting comes with several built-in settlements: the various city-states of the sorcerer-kings. This gives you plenty of options when you're running a city-based game, with characters hustling, avoiding and bribing templars, looking for patronage from the noble houses, and running small-time operations. Characters who head out of the city into the wastes—pretty much a requirement at some point in any DARK SUN game, if only because at some point you'll cross the wrong templar or be framed for a serious offense—will probably run across various small settlements out there in the desert landscape. While the core DARK SUN setting includes a few villages and tribes, the books also note that transitory settlements pop up from time to time, lasting only a short while before they're wiped out by monsters, the environment, or internal strife. This means that even characters familiar with the wastes might find themselves surprised by coming around a bend and discovering a tiny settlement huddled around some natural feature! Play their cards right and the adventurers might have shelter and a hot meal—or possibly an entire mob of angry villagers chasing them . . .

Desert Village Pictures | Download Free Images on Unsplash

If your player group decides that they're just going to haggle for some supplies and be on their way, you don't have much work to do; but, if you want the settlement to be memorable, or possibly to serve as a new temporary base of operations or as a story lynchpin where players can get attached to the locals before you threaten them with your devious plots, you'll want to put a little bit of thought into it. Settlements in a DARK SUN setting are much like settlements in any other game world: People need places to live, and they gather together in groups for safety and mutual prosperity.

When creating a new transient settlement, avoid the temptation to make everything unique, unusual, and strange. The DARK SUN setting is already full of unique, unusual, and strange things. Having one element that stands out can be a hook that players remember for the location; having too many strange elements just makes it noisy and confusing. With that in mind, here are some questions to consider when you're building a settlement for your adventurers to encounter in DARK SUN.

* What natural feature anchors the settlement? It's rare for people to just put down a tent somewhere in the middle of the desert away from everything. The obvious choice is an oasis, but this isn't the only possibility. The settlement might abut a cliff face, have a large sinkhole of silt along one side, sit among cactus plants, or be festooned with chunks of basalt from an ancient volcanic eruption from an earlier age. It could lie in a natural arroyo, sit atop a mesa, or be dug into a ruined remnant of an older city. The inhabitants will make use of the feature for defense or resources. This also tells you what might get them to leave: If the locals rely on the natural cactus plants to create a thorny barrier that keeps out predators, a defiler's magic that destroys a ring of the cacti might cause them to flee the locale, since it is no longer defensible.

* How do they get their food and water? The basic survival questions central to DARK SUN apply just as much to settlements in the wastes as to any traveler or city-dweller. The typical answer is that the settlers have a small oasis -- maybe a mud flat, a spring, or a salty pond. Other settlements might get their water from cacti, from trade, from raiding of other nearby caravans and villages, or from exotic sources like a magical device or alchemical distillation of kank nectar. For transient settlements, it's possible that the water or food source is seasonal. It may be tempting to go afield from the usual "small oasis" answer, but it's not necessary; many settlements will make do with whatever small water source they can find, and a small, temporary oasis is a perfectly viable answer to that question, especially if you want the settlement to seem relatively normal and have its unique characteristics come from something else.

* How many people live there, and what are their relationships? A settlement could be a tiny gathering of inix-hide tents, holding a single family, or it could be a lone psionic master and his students, or perhaps even a band of soldiers who decided to sack the caravan they were guarding, escape into the wastes with the goods, and set themselves up in a remote location for a while. If the settlement is small, the players might be tempted to confront the people there, on the premise of overpowering them; similarly, a small settlement usually appears of limited utility—there's not a lot to trade if there's only a half-dozen people there—unless one or more of the villagers are something more than just a survivalist out in the desert. A slightly larger settlement, though, may tempt the players to stay there as a new base, especially if they can make themselves useful. Depending on the direction of your game, this may or may not be desirable. After all, if you want the characters traipsing around in the desert themselves, you can't give them a safe place to be homebodies!
The relationships of people in the settlement are important because these give you your adventure hooks and drama. Consider the classic movie Yojimbo (you might've heard of it as A Fistful of Dollars). When the stranger arrives in town, two sides are warring, and he profits by getting in the middle. Not every settlement in the Athasian desert needs to be a peaceful place. Villagers might have any number of reasons to dislike each other, and hostilities might be kept from boiling over only by the desperate needs for survival. A village might revile a local magician but be too scared to confront him or her, and the adventurers could find themselves in trouble if they try to curry favor in hopes of acquiring new magical spells. Or the villagers might consist partly of slaves and partly of ex-templars, who have avoided killing each other only because they need to band together to stave off the attacks of monsters of the desert.

* What threats does the settlement face? Monsters, water sources drying up, sandstorms, raiders, nearby city-state templars, slave-takers, the Dragon, defilers, angry elementals, angry druids, starvation, ancient curses, disease—pick one or two. This will give the adventurers problems to tackle (or, possibly, a reason to high-tail it on to the next destination in a hurry).

Feeling stumped by these questions? Fear not, in the vein of the ancient lore from days of yore, here are some random tables that you can use to generate some answers!

Roll 1d20 for each table.


  1. Cliff face

  2. Quicksand

  3. Silt estuary

  4. Cactus field

  5. Obsidian field

  6. Mesa

  7. Cave

  8. Ruin

  9. Intersection of trails/animal runs

  10. Defiled ground

  11. Oasis

  12. Geyser(s)

  13. Mud flat

  14. Boulder field

  15. Colorful sand/rocks

  16. Hardy vines/root plants

  17. Tar pits

  18. Lava pools

  19. Shattered psionic crystals/enchanted fragments

  20. Roll twice


  1. Oasis

  2. Spring (roll 1d6: On a 5-6, hot springs)

  3. Kank herds

  4. Erdlu herds

  5. Small lizards and mammals

  6. Raiding

  7. Trading

  8. Local cleric

  9. Bird flocks

  10. Bat flocks

  11. Stores from previous location (taken when fleeing/from a caravan/from former home)

  12. Succulent plants

  13. Honey bees

  14. Edible flowers/native fruit-bearing or leafy plants

  15. Well drilled into aquifer

  16. Rain-catches and cisterns

  17. Sand/rock crustaceans (crabs, insects)

  18. Worms/vermin

  19. People

  20. Roll twice


  1. Small family of 1d4+1

  2. Large family of 2d4+2

  3. Extended family of 3d4+3

  4. Small mercenary group of 1d6+2

  5. Large mercenary company of 2d6+4

  6. Small group of escaped slaves, 1d4+2

  7. Band of former slaves, 5d6

  8. Explorer and hired help, 1d6+1

  9. Cleric and acolytes/followers, 1d10+1 (Roll 1d6: Para-elemental on 6, elemental otherwise)

  10. Psion and apprentices, 1d8+1

  11. Magician and apprentices, 1d6+1 (Roll 1d6: Preserver on 6, defiler otherwise)

  12. Nomadic community, 5d6

  13. Split community of former slaves and non-slaves, 6d6

  14. Split community of magician (and possible apprentices), 1d4, and suspicious villagers, 3d6

  15. Split community of former merchants, mercenaries, or nobles at odds, 5d4 on each side

  16. Small band of hunters & herders, 4d4

  17. Dwarves with a shared focus, 1d6+2

  18. Travelers who got lost, 4d4

  19. Miners/treasure hunters/resource exploiters, 4d4

  20. Roll twice


  1. Limited water supply

  2. Limited food supply

  3. Resource shortage (tool-making materials, clothing, fire fuel, etc.)

  4. Disease

  5. Poisonous plants

  6. Dangerous plants (razor vines, needle-shooting cactus, psychic strangler vines, etc.)

  7. Obsidian shards

  8. Sinkholes

  9. Gith

  10. Belgoi

  11. Thri-kreen

  12. Slavers

  13. Raiders

  14. Templar or templar group

  15. Giant(s)

  16. Angry elemental(s)

  17. Unknown thief

  18. Other nearby settlement

  19. The Dragon

  20. Roll twice

Happy hunting!
Tags: dark sun, game design

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