My first Dark Sun post: a meditation on world building
To begin, I want to be sure that I clear up something. In a prior post I stated that I saw some efforts by others to re-imagine Dark Sun using Lamentations of the Flame Princess or some other OSR game engine and I said I didn’t like it. I don’t want to disparage the efforts of the authors. I think they are valiant efforts and I like some of the ideas, but I think the problem is that these game masters/designers made a mistake by starting with character generation. It is a logical first choice IF your world, campaign, or one-shot adopts the typical fantasy role-playing tropes of a medieval European world. That ain’t Dark Sun by a long shot. You need to start with the world and the mechanics that effect the game before you go into how characters mechanically function in that world.
Dark Sun’s world is called Athas. It is a world devastated by ecological disaster brought on by war and the misuse of magic. The result of which is that many (if not all) of the typical fantasy RPG tropes have been turned on their head, if not completely replaced. It is my position that, because of Athas’ history and backstory (it is a character in its own right, isn’t it?), we need to start with the fundamental rules that govern the world itself. These rules will make the post-apocalyptic desert more than just window-dressing in a description provided by the game master or referee. These rules will have a direct effect on the choices the PCs make for there will be both an in-game consequence, as well as a real world consequence that the player will have to contend with in terms of dice rolls, penalties, set-backs, etc.
I should also take a moment to interject and note that currently there are D&D 5e projects out there that have people jazzed about bringing Dark Sun into the brave new world of 5e. I have taken a look at several. The one at GM Binder looks fairly decent. It honestly appears similar to some of the choices I made when I tried to make a 5e version of Dark Sun back in 2015. I am not going to comment on it other than to say I think it will be suitable to your needs to play a 5e version of Dark Sun. The author has also provided some interesting rules options for flavor. But, as a game master, you will need to do a lot of monster stat conversions, find some psionic rules (I made my own…never play tested unfortunately), and figure out how to make survival “a thing.” Again, as per the first paragraph of this post, the author focused on character creation first. I made the same mistake with my 5e Dark Sun campaign. It was fun, don’t get me wrong, but there was something missing.
One of the reasons I want to look at a “retro-clone” of the earlier versions of D&D is that the current version of D&D makes the player-characters too powerful and game balance is decidedly in their favor. I do not think you can capture the flavor and tone of Dark Sun in a system designed for the players to succeed on average 60-75% of the time. Dark Sun needs to be hard and it is the hard that makes it great! That is why I think an OSR styled project is in order here.
At the time it came out, the D&D 2e resource materials did a fine job defining the world and provided alternative rules that brought the world of Athas to life. I loved it. No other campaign world provided such detail in terms of game mechanics. Thus, my disappointment with some of the stuff that is out there. WoTC’s 4E was an absolute joke (chitin plate mail? What!?) However, 2ed D&D, in general, was not without its problems…*cough* THAC0 *cough* Thus, using and/or designing my own retro clone is the way to go.
So, with all that said, I am going to turn to what every foray into Dark Sun starts out with: what makes Athas (and a campaign in Dark Sun) different.
- The World is a Desert – Survival under the hot sun is going to be difficult as water is scarce. There are no rivers or lakes. The terrain is treacherous (salt flats, deserts, etc.). Thus, rules governing weather, travel & encumbrance, supplies & resource management, as well as specific rules for water & dehydration will need consideration.
- The World is Savage – Life is brutal and short on Athas. Everything is about competition for survival. Whether your PCs are facing off with terror from the desert, a group of desperate and hungry dune raiders, or the minions of a tyrannical sorcerer-king, the PCs will have to fight and they will have to win. Thus, rules governing hit point loss, recovery, and combat will have to be examined. In my old game, I used permanent injury rules to make things even harder on the players. I am already considering doing away with initiative just to add to the ferocity of combat.
- Metal is Scarce – Due to the socioeconomic set backs created by the ecological disaster that is Athas, metal is just not available. Plus, there is a level of impracticality to walking around in 120-degree heat wearing a suit of metal. Thus, rules for alternative materials for weapons, armor, and other mundane objects are necessary. Weapon breakage was a big thing back in Dark Sun’s heyday. I will most certainly be utilizing something such as this.
- Arcane Magic Defiled the World – Magic is powered by the essence of life. Thus, to cast a spell, a magic-user would destroy the life around him. At higher levels, this could actually cause physical harm to non-vegetation. I think this treatment of magic fits nicely with the LotFP view on magic being dangerous and weird. I think I will shift away from weird, and hit upon dangerous and frightening. I also think this may be an opportunity to develop more than just how defiling works. Rather, how about devising a totally new magic system where a miscast of magic can cause even more disastrous results…?
- Sorcerer Kings Rule the Cities – The sorcerer kings jealously guard oases where their city-states reside. They also jealously guard the secrets that made them kings. Sorcerer Kings can be villains, quest-givers, or both. They are, at all levels of the game, beings to fear. Given that they rule through priesthoods and bureaucracies, I think a more robust social encounter system is in order. I think The One Ring and its 5e doppelganger, Adventures in Middle-Earth, did a nice job developing how a PCs background and social cast can effect how a ruler or lord would respond to a PCs entreaty. I am going to piggyback off this.
- The Gods are Silent – So there are no gods in Dark Sun. To me, this is one of the more profound deviations from typical fantasy worlds. There are no gods to worship. By the time 4E Dark Sun came around, the gods had been killed by the primordial elements. It is an idea I like and I ran with in my 5e game. Where I differed was to place the concept in an anthropological context. For the people of Athas, most of whom are slaves in some way, saw the primordials as slaves to the gods. They rose up and tore them down. In terms of game mechanics, this is really about clerics and what to do with them. The sorcerer-kings can grant power to those devoted to them–the Templars. This class would function very similar to the cleric. But, for those who worship the elements and/or nature, nature magic and an entirely new class will need to be generated.
- The Rise of Psionics – Back in the 2ed days, psionics wasn’t wildly used and I suspect Dark Sun was a means of bringing psionics to the forefront of any D&D gaming group. I will be doing it here as well. That will require development of an entirely new system, probably borrowing much from the 2ed game. I plan on working off the 5e home-brew supplement that I drafted which divided the metaphysics of psionics into three parts (Mind, Body, and Self). This allowed me to incorporate monks into a 5e Dark Sun game (theirs was a study of “Body”). I am going to use this to create a class that is versatile and captures the metaphysics of psionics.
- Fierce Monsters Roam the Land – The monsters of Athas were no joke. Small villages huddled around a puddle of mud they called an oasis could be devastated by a monster looking for food and/or water. Your PCs could be killed by a 25 hit dice wandering monster at 1st level. (A more memorable gaming moment as a player in Dark Sun comes from one such occasion…my brand new 1st level character didn’t make it!) Staying in the cities made a lot of sense. Dark Sun had its own monster manual, but I think I want to take a stab at creating my own. Given the backstory of ecological disaster, wild magic, and defilement, the PCs can encounter just about anything out there in the wilds.
- Familiar Races and Classes Aren’t What You Expect – Finally, after all of the above, we come to class and race. Because of the devastation and brutality, dwarves and elves aren’t the dwarves and elves of Tolkien. Halflings are wild and feral…although, they still have a fondness for cooking. Its just that what they cook tend to be humans. There are new races, such as the Mul (or half-dwarf) who is purposefully bred for slave labor. There are new character classes, like the gladiator or merchant. All of this is a direct result of the above world considerations. All of the choices a player makes during character creation must take the above into consideration. Everything is different. That is why I do not think it makes much sense to start here.
I like the idea of using the class system of the old D&D basic set where race and class are one. However, like Five Torches Deep, I may give each class an option or path to choose from so as to provide some player choice. I will probably add to the character generation process something to do with backgrounds for more choice. I think the 2ed skills system was a joke and cumbersome. I do like how Lamentations of the Flame Princess handles most common adventuring skills. I will probably incorporate something like that system, but with some tweaks.
Anyway…so there it is. The beginning outline of my next home-brew project. I can’t wait to really dig into this. I hope you stay tuned for updates on this. When it is completed, I am going to put together a hex crawl campaign for Athas. Maybe I will do live plays…? I don’t know. I do not want to get ahead of myself. But regardless, I hope you enjoy following along with me on this project, dear readers.
And always remember, whether you are making your way across a burning salt flat or a sea of endless dunes in Athas, no matter how thirsty you are, never trust an elf…