Dark Sun

August 20, 2008

A week ago i picked up the old Dark Sun boxed set and finally started looking at it. There’s a lot of neat, and weird things about it- and I get why it’s both one of the most clamored for, and low on the list, of campaign worlds for folks to update.

What makes it different and unique is also what makes it not fit in so well with the rest of D&D’s extra bits- which is also kind of key for WOTC to sell more books. It’s not very dungeon crawl-centric, few of the monsters are really going to fit, and pretty much the only extra set of rules it seems well suited to sell are the psionic ones (which, generally don’t see common play throughout all their versions.)

Dark Sun takes 2E’s idea of different classes get rewarded XP for different things and gives it even more spin, and then includes in demi-human races- rewarding them (or even taking away XP) for following certain behaviors. While this is not expecially strange these days, the fact is that the behaviors seem somewhat at odds with the idea of a party, and probably changes the focus of the game to “Why am I hanging out with these weirdos?” Actually, a lot of the demihuman cultures seem like they’re set up to interact with each other and humans tangentially, which kind of increases the effect. Though, the half elves getting points for trying to fit in both with humans and elves is a great touch.

There’s a neat setup for multiple characters- with the understanding that the setting is lethal enough that you might need extra PCs ready so you don’t end up not-playing for hours on end. Though, I’m curious how that is much different than any low level D&D (“Carrion Crawler, RUN RUN RUN”), and whether it’s an encouragement to more ruthlessness on the part of the DM?

Finally, there’s also the idea that most weapons and armor are not made of metal- this actually gives a pretty good incentive to specialize in quarterstaves and other wooden weapons- or at least knives, you’re not likely to be able to afford real metal weapons anytime soon, and the penalties for using other materials makes it rarely worth it.

It also sets up an interesting way for characters to wear less armor and not be woefully underprotected- yeah, you’re wearing lighter armor, but your opponent has a penalty to hit and a penalty to damage since he’s using an obsidian axe.

The magic/ecological aspect is the most interesting to me. It’s cool that magic can literally rip away the life force of the planet, though, it has a big chart of how much vegetation turns to ash which doesn’t really tie into any kind of larger sense of scale for the amount of effort you put in. In many ways, to actually track what kind of damage that means in the big scale would be more effort than any GM I imagine is putting in.

Color-wise, it’s very Brom, very 80’s, very european comic fantasy (most of which, we only see in Heavy Metal out here in the US). Imagery-wise, it’s a bunch of white folks in the desert, women who have 80’s hair styles and weird pseudopunk gear, oh, except the Athasian Giants, who fit the black brute stereotype in image and are the sketchiest thing in the books.

In many ways, I feel that the kinds of conflicts beyond “survival in the desert” would probably be best served by another game system- Shadow of Yesterday or In a Wicked Age spring to mind. Maybe even HeroQuest.

It’s an interesting setting, and in it’s difference, it highlights very well a lot of the issues of D&D setting logic (as well as other games that ride the supplement treadmill, Palladium I’m looking at you). As a smart business decision, you want as much of your products to encourage the customers to Pokemon collect’em all. Products which are narrow in what they work with in your product line, are not so good for that.


  1. Dark Sun is one of those settings I’ve always wanted to come back to with a system that does it better.

    Funny, considering how very 80s most of it is, how well the psuedo-green message fits with current politics.

  2. A couple years ago on story-games, we came up with a pretty neat idea for the basis of an alternate system for Dark Sun, focusing on the contamination/green aspect of the setting.


  3. You’re going to make a bead system out of everything aren’t you? 😛

    From a gameplay point of view, I’m still thinking hard about how I’d run NPC abuse of the world vs. PC abuse of the world- whether it should run on the same metric or differently, as I’d want the players to have a bigger hand than the NPCs in whether things survive or come apart.

    I do like the uncertainty factor though for sure.

  4. See, I’d sort of want to run it so that the PC/NPC line blurrs a little.

    I mean, I don’t want to keep track of the ecological badness of many NPCs, too much time in that. However, the ways that PCs push and influence NPCs makes an important community/effect on the world thing that I don’t want to discount either. PC actions being important is cool, but I don’t want to set up the “green heroes who will save or damn us all” as part of an ecology theme. Its important, to me at least, that the actions of the whole determine the state of the world in that regard, rather than just the actions of a few four-color heroes.

    Random thoughts in that direction would be a Wicked Age drift where everyone has access to a “defiler” particular strength. Get too face stabby and maybe people start reaching for it more? Which may make an odd sense in WA, with its emphasis on the conflict, but it could also do something interesting in looking at the ways that conflicts drive the perception of necessity.

    A sliding scale of world influence like a few superhero games have tried (I think there was one in the Mutants and Masterminds GM’s book, and there was one in Wild Talents, kinda, and another in… was it Battlelords? I can’t remember now) where you track everyone at once, rather than tallying points for individuals. PCs can spend specific points to slide it one way or the other, but their points alone may not change the whole world.

    I think one of the things I’d have to do to figure this out is look a little deeper at the whole cycle. Why do people chose to defile? Because they’re bad isn’t a good enough answer. Greed is a better one, but still simplistic. What about power? Global conflict? Feeling endangered? For that ever looming specter of safety and security?

  5. Right. I’d have to look closer at the rules, but the Preservers seemed a bit of a cop-out to me- I thought it just meant you use your magic less, so as to burn less stuff to dust.

  6. Yea.

    Unless… I almost might be tempted to let the place where the PCs can really make the “heroic difference” be in discovering preserver magic. They’re the ones that are learning ways to make hybrid cars and such, and come up against huge push back from all sorts of sources.

    But I’m totally against preserver/defiler as a class type split. You either chose to waste for power, or you chose to be less powerful but less destructive to the world around you.

    (There is also a bad part of my soul that wants the Preserver ability to be an unattainable Holy Grail — at least in the absolute. You may try and try, but you will never take all the harm out of magic. The best you can hope for is to lessen the impact to the point at which the damage is manageable. But what everyone wants is as much magic as they can use, with no cost at all, and that they’ll never get.)

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