Welcome to the latest in a short series on the various campaign settings from Dungeons and Dragons. In this series we plan to outline the origins and details of the various campaign settings, the related products and whether they are still in use or not.
Next up is Dark Sun, a sadly short-lived setting that had some unique features that stood it apart from the others
Athas for the Bold
Dark Sun was designed and produced when TSR was on a downward turn but still had serious financial and creative clout. A crack team was assembled, initially with the brief to create a campaign setting full of weird and exotic monsters and none of the familiar races. After some consideration, the team balked at the idea of no elves or dwarves, feeling that this could prove to be a major barrier to new players.
There was a range of inspirations for the design of the setting and whilst eventually dwarves, elves and halflings arrived, they aren’t the Tolkien refugees from other classic campaign settings. The team also took cues from other post-apocalyptic settings like GDW’s classic Twilight 2000 or FGU’s
Aftermath. There’s also a dash of Roman Empire and Mad Max. It’s a heady brew and Athas is not for the faint of heart.
What is It
Athas is a blighted desert world where wild magic has devastated the eco-system. The players enter a world of nine city-states ruled over by the oppressive Sorcerer Kings, a powder keg on the verge of a slave rebellion.
The players can play as humans, elves, halflings, dwarves and other staple races. These are certainly variations on the traditional formula, halflings not being the pushovers they were in Greyhawk for instance. There are some other unique Dark Sun races, including the strange bird-like Aarakocra, the insectoid Thrikreen or the powerful half-giants.
Magic is uncommon in Athas with two opposing schools of magic battling over the spirit and health of the planet. That being said, psionics are far more common and the setting makes a strong use of those kinds of powers.
Due to the environmental disasters, many materials are uncommon and a typical player will typically find weapons made from wood or bone which do less damage than bronze ones. Added to this is the strength of some of the monsters, which are eye-watering at times. Indeed, in early Dark Sun
campaign guides they suggested players start as 2nd or 3rd level characters.
There were other dangers in Athas, with the blazing suns and the parched deserts providing their own challenge, where a party could be waylaid by a shortage of water rather than an attack from the ferocious desert elves!
Athas remains one of D&D’s most unusual and striking settings but, despite debuting to positive reviews and praise for its originality, Dark Sun was dropped by TSR and Wizards without much fanfare. The sales had been promising without being blockbuster, but the setting had always done well in reviews and had a growing core of fans.
Dark Sun retained supporters in the ever present Athas.org website and was supported by supplements released under the Open Game License. Eventually it was brought back into the official fold by 4th and 5th edition and has a range of supplements and sets to support it.
Dark Sun was supported by a range of comics, novels and a trio of video games, though Dark sun never quite received the breadth of support as settings like“Lords of Waterdeep” or “Baldur’s Gate”.
Dark Sun is one of the most exciting, unusual and striking D&D settings. It stands apart from many of the others due to its sheer strangeness and harshness, both in its visuals and the story (not to mention the oppressive nature of the sun, the heat and the risk of thirst).
Dark Sun’s range of interesting player races and the use of psionics means that a game plays out quite differently to its cousins. It couldn’t be much more different to Forgotten Realms and that can be a double-edged sword.
The unusual feel and stark setting could be exciting or off-putting and, to
new players, finding elves that are savage and violent rather than sullen tree dwellers can be a bit of a shock and could present a bar to brand new players. Equally psionics can often be a bit confusing to those without experience.
However, Dark Sun offers a truly epic story, an opportunity to play a part in bringing down the tyranny of the Sorcerer Kings and freeing the people of Athas, which is surely enough to get a group of bold players together to brave the suns and the heat!