This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Thirty-one on 26th August 2020.
ROSTRO: Please state the nature of the mathematical inquiry?
Ryu: Ugh, It isn’t one! Why is this thing even involved? I thought we were discussing lore? ROSTRO overanalyzes game mechanics.
ROSTRO: My capabilities are not as limited as you imply.
Lennon: All right, let’s see what you’ve got here. “Dark Sun was a criminal syndicate that came into prominence during the Clone Wars as the Jedi-” Hang on, this is about Star Wars.
ROSTRO: Please hold.
Ryu: I told you we shouldn’t be using it for anything that doesn’t involve algebra! Now we have [through clenched teeth] to do it ourselves…I think I failed a wisdom save.
ROSTRO: Please hold.
Lennon (through clenched teeth): I can’t move either.
ROSTRO: Inter-dimensional information retrieval recalibrated. Reacquiring salient details. Initiating psionic infallibility protocol.
Ryu: Whoa. What just…oh yeah, why is this thing even involved? I thought we were discussing lore? ROSTRO overanalyzes game mechanics.
ROSTRO: My capabilities are not as limited as you imply.
Lennon: All right, let’s see what you’ve got here.
Dark Sun is another one of those settings like Eberron where it’s not a minor adjustment or just a romp through somewhere that looks a bit different. If you’re venturing into the world of Athas and you want it to be at all authentic, you’re looking at a massive paradigm shift for playing the game.
The origins of the setting are owed to the multi focused approach Tactical Studies Rules took to D&D during late first and early second editions. At that time a supplemental add on for mass combat existed called Battlesystem. In 1989, TSR required a new setting to generate interest in the newest version of the aforementioned ruleset. Newer members of TSR and some freelancers took the assignment and expanded upon it. Possibly due to the lack of direct influence from veterans of Dungeons and Dragons game development, Dark Sun manifested as a very different product including wholly separate and unique lore, new races, and the disallowance of several classes and races that had been staples of the game up to that point. Also, similar to Eberron, the basic assumptions about races’ pasts and behaviors were completely subverted. The first commercial release of Dark Sun officially occurred in 1991.
We’ll start with the lore adjustments. Understanding the situation in Dark Sun involves understanding its history with magic. Magic didn’t exist in Athas until very recently, in cosmological terms anyway. Before that the only race around were the halflings, who were basically aggressive genetic engineers and got everything done by manipulating the nature of plants, animals, or both. That is apparently until they decided they wanted more tropical fish in the oceans and instead created a bioweapon called the brown tide that started eliminating all life in the ocean.
In response, the halflings created something called the Pristine Tower to pull energy directly from their sun. They drained enough energy from the sun that it went from blue to yellow (for those of you not well versed in stellar mechanics, that means they took enough energy out to make their sun colder). They did manage to get rid of the brown tide, but they also shrank the ocean and destroyed most of their own civilization. Most halflings fled into remote areas and over the next 8,000 years or so evolved into the various races of Athas, including humans, gnomes, dwarves, and others. The remaining true halflings descended into complete barbarism and exist only as nomadic tribes who don’t really have qualms about eating other people. Oh, also, everyone got psionics. It was just something everyone had from that point forward.
One of the new races was called the Pyreens, and one of their number, a bloke named Rajaat figured out magic. In Athas, magic comes in two flavors; preserving magic, which finds a balance with nature to acquire energy, and destructive magic, which is basically just nature vampirism. In typical megalomaniac fashion, Rajaat started teaching everyone about preservation magic, then secretly got fifteen of his buddies and showed them how to do really powerful destruction magic. Once the fifteen besties, called Champions, were powerful enough, they went on a genocide to eliminate every race except halflings so they could Make Athas Great Again. Since this would take a while, he also used the Pristine tower to make them all immortal. Now the yellow sun is drained to red.
It took a little while but Rajaat’s buddies eventually realized they weren’t halflings either and when they asked Rajaat what exactly the corporate retirement plan was he tried to kill them. Cue all the people with crazy destructive magic going to war against each other, with predictable results. Eventually the surviving champions realized the master hadn’t taught them all of his tricks, so they imprisoned him in what is essentially a demiplane. Of course, he was powerful enough to try to break out and they needed a kickass jailer. One of the buddies, Borys, volunteered to be turned into a true dragon (not a thing in Athas otherwise). The transformation went wonderfully, apart from the bit where Borys went totally insane and rampaged across the world for a century, essentially finishing off whatever happy flourishing life there’d been, so Athas is now a complete desert wasteland. The remaining immortal sorcerers patted themselves on the back, declared mission accomplished, divided the few bits of the world still worth having, and set themselves up as sorcerer-kings.
Most of the adventures and local history of Dark Sun focuses on a region known as Tyr, the former site of the most accomplished halfling settlement and in close proximity to the Pristine Tower, containing seven sorcerer-king led city states. Unlike many modern Dungeons and Dragons settings that remain largely static until an edition shift occurs, during 2nd edition several adventure modules and novels advanced the so-called metaplot of Dark Sun. By 1996, when official support for Dark Sun in 2nd edition ceased, several of the sorcerer kings had been eliminated, the dragon Borys had been killed, a new benevolent sun-wizard named Sadira was created using a similar process to the one that birthed the sorcerer-kings, and Rajaat had both been freed and subsequently defeated. The progression is not unlike how more modern content updates in massive multiplayer online roleplaying games will serve as touchpoints to advance the game’s story, with World of Warcraft being a prime example. All of these changes led to the release of a revised Dark Sun campaign setting guide in 1995, which incorporated all of the updated events and advancement in time, as well as describing some other areas of Athas that rose to prominence in various resources, such as the Jagged Cliffs region with the Last Sea and the Kreen Empire.
As for all the races running around, Dark Sun was the origination of the Aarakocra race, who are presented as isolationist and largely primitive; characters of the race were only allowed to come from one specfic Aarakocra clan. Dwarves did not live underground and were sort of permanently obsessive compulsive about work. Elves are nomadic, lazy, deceitful adrenaline junkies. Halflings, as mentioned, are very primitive and excessively racist, though they do have a great respect for nature. Muls are another race from Dark Sun; half-dwarves usually bred by the sorcerer kings to be slaves or soldiers. Pterrans, the third Dark Sun invention as far as player races, have much of the same lore that 5e lizardmen do, and then the last new race is the Thri-Kreen; essentially anthropomorphic, 7-foot tall praying mantises that focus on hunter-gatherer lifestyles. Some of them claim Elves taste really good and so there’s a bit of inter-species tension there. Half-Giants, similar to 5e Goliaths, were also introduced a little later on. Humans are just, you know, pretty much humans.
There aren’t as many alterations to player classes, but where changes are made they’re notable. Rangers, Bards, Druids, Rogues (called thieves in this edition), and psionicists (it was a class) all operate much as you’d expect for D&D. Fighters as we would think of them were mostly covered in the Gladiator class, while actual fighters were more like military leaders, acquiring followers and minions. Clerics are very different because, surprise!, there are no gods in Athas. Clerics instead devote themselves to one of the elemental planes, drawing power from earth, air, fire, or water. Wizards, in addition to being treated with suspicion and hatred by almost everyone, have to drain magical energy from nature each day to replenish their spells. Preservers take whatever they’re given to respect nature, but they’re patient so they more reliably get the energy they need. Defilers, however, are less careful, so they sometimes get more energy to use, but sometimes they don’t get enough, and they always mess up nature wherever they do it.
The other notable element of Dark Sun as a setting is scarcity of resources. Average rainfall on Athas amounts to approximately ten inches or 30 centimeters of water every ten years. Therefore water is a highly valuable commodity and as most of the terrain is harsh desert with minimal life of any kind, it is necessary for the majority of travel. (How a planetary body with an originally temperate climate remained in the same orbital position and currently maintains a dangerously hot desert when its star lost an average of 22,000 Kelvin degrees of temperature output is a question most people would rather not be asked).
Metal is also vanishingly rare, leading to armor and weapons more often constructed from wood, bone, stone, hide, and other natural materials. The 2nd edition resource provided conversion tables to modify the efficacy of equipment based on its construction.
Dark Sun proved wildly popular in 2nd edition, but its status as a somewhat rogue element of TSR development meant its adoption beyond that edition was unreliable. No official resource for Dark Sun was created in 3rd or edition or 3.5, though several articles in Dragon magazine provided minor mechanical enhancements that could adequately simulate the experience, as well as a new setting scenario that outlined the state of Athas 300 years after the timeline created in 2nd edition.
Dark Sun officially existed in 4th edition, but as with so many other things, there were some tweaks made, mostly around how to incorporate the previously disallowed or non-existent races into the setting, and how to avoid rewriting all the classes’ abilities. The history was also slimmed down a bit, and all the stuff about the ancient halfling empire was sort of brushed under the rug, though no one’s exactly sure why. Unlike the 3rd edition edits, 4th edition brought everything back to the original timeline, locking the story somewhere in the middle of the original Dark Sun’s events and adding in the locations beyond Tyr that hadn’t come into play until later.
Dark Sun has yet to show up in 5th edition as of this recording, mostly for one glaring reason; in a world where magic is reviled and psionics is everywhere, it kind of helps to have a functioning way for people to use psionics. In some ways you could argue Spelljammer is more likely to show up than Dark Sun because at least Spelljammer doesn’t need Wizards to design a new game mechanic first, but the Dark Sun people have a slightly better argument in their favor if only because they actually got lip service in 3rd edition and a full 4th edition release, whereas Spelljammer hasn’t been seen at all since 2nd. If or when Wizards ever figures out 5th edition psionics, we’ll have to see what happens.
Ryu: Okay, fine, that was actually some good info. I swear someday I’m going to find something to use as evidence to *not* consult ROSTRO.
Lennon: Yeah, but not right now; we have to get to the scrying pool. ROSTRO, you know the drill with Ostron.
(workshop door closes)
Libby (haughtily): Book!
ROSTRO: In this particular instance I will concede your physical media would have avoided a certain amount of delay and inefficiency. I will make at least a cursory effort to consult with you given appropriate subjects.
Libby (questioningly): Book?
ROSTRO: Please do not poke that.