Dark Sun Campaign Setting – First Impressions

2010 August 2
by Dante

As many of you know, Stupid Ranger and I are participating in D&D Encounters which is currently taking place in the Dark Sun Campaign Setting of Athas.  Many of those participating in our encounters group remarked that the Dark Sun setting is bleak, less fun, and doesn’t “feel” like D&D and I must say I agreed with them until getting my hands on the Dark Sun Campaign Setting book.

Face it, the world of Athas does not seem fun.

Metal is scarce, the landscape resembles Tatooine in July, all that fun magic that you’re used to using actually makes the landscape WORSE and they’ll kill you if they catch you using it, and there are terrible monsters behind every sand dune.  That nice elf that you met actually just stole the 10 meager ceramic coins you were able to collect and to make matters worse the Gods all got overcome by primordials so even they won’t be able to help you out much.

D&D Encounters focuses primarily on… well… encounters, so you only get a sense of the brutal landscape when it constantly degrades your ability to fight by throwing a sandstorm in your face, baking you in the sun, and then making you fight terrible sand creatures at a frantic pace until you all drop over from exhaustion.  For this reason, I think the gaming group gets treated to what is essentially the worst that this setting has to offer.

Character Themes make all the difference

After reading through the books, I must say that I didn’t give Athas enough of a fair shake.  The plot and setting is made FAR more interesting by details surrounding the races, character themes, and backgrounds presented.  The more I read, the more I saw Athas portrayed as a place of inequitable castes full of interesting political and geographic intrigue.  The races, while considerably more savage than other incarnations of D&D, are very interesting and provide a discordant counterpoint to their equivalents in other fantasy realms.  Most races are painted as slaves, nomads, or outcast magic users.  There are traders, gladiators, and nobles as character themes and paragon paths.

As an aside, I am a sucker for gladiatorial combat.  I love that it is such an intrinsic part of the world of Athas and the classes presented around this theme are fleshed out very well.  These classes and the notion of gladiatorial combat contrasted with some political intrigue would likely be one of my first stops if I were running a Dark Sun game.  I also found the prominence of psions and psionic power to be an interesting avenue for adventure-creation.  I am currently playing Jarvix (a psion) in D&D Encounters and I am enjoying him greatly.

Give Athas a chance

If you’re at all like me, you may come away from the initial preview chapters of the Dark Sun Campaign Setting a bit discouraged.  I strongly encourage spending some time reading through the character themes and some of the plot hook ideas presented a bit further in the book, they are truly what took me from thinking “wow, how could this possibly be fun” to “wow, this could really be fun”!

To me, I would plan to treat the unforgiving world of Athas like you were creating a scenario akin to “Planet of the Apes” or a Conan the Barbarian movie.  Instead of focusing on the bleak, brutal environment you should use this as a savage canvas and use character interactions to make a three-dimensional story supported by (and not defined by) the landscape.

The authors do a great job of giving you the resources necessary to paint a truly enthralling picture with the characters and themes provided.  If you choose to make a game where your players all starve to death and die of Sun Sickness before the end of session one, you’re focusing on the wrong things!

8 Responses leave one →
  1. August 2, 2010

    I went to this last week’s encounters, and I can understand why someone might not give Athas the fair shake it should get. The people who were originally suppose to run the game didn’t show up and the individual who did GM didn’t seem to know much about the background. There was little role playing which makes it difficult to differentiate from any other Controller, Striker, Leader & Defender from another unless you look directly at their powers.

    I chose Jarvix, because I was the last to get there and felt that I should let the others choose first, and the only role that hadn’t been filled was Controller.

    Most of the other players had only played in home games and one had never played before, so it was basically combat and then done after my character triggered the trap.

    One of the characters found what we were looking for and the GM closed the map and said “We’re done.”

    It was nice meeting new players but it was frustrating because I was expecting more.


  2. Dante permalink*
    August 2, 2010

    Just to be clear, I don’t explicitly think that its a fault of the DungeonMaster (at least not the one for our group) for my feeling this way about Dark Sun.

    I think it’s the thin slice of the environment that you can see from battle that is the culprit. As I explored the books more, I realized that there is much, much more to Athas than that.

    Thanks for the feedback on Encounters, I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one feeling that way. 🙂

  3. August 2, 2010

    I’ve played D&D off and on for over two decades, but I’ve never seen or played in any of the settings until very recently. I’ve not heard anything about Dark Sun until now, and I think that I actually might like it.


  4. TheTransient permalink
    August 2, 2010

    Before I started the Dark Suns Encounters group I read the Wiki on world (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dark_Sun). The story content is actually quite developed. It is really just a matter of WOTC effectively converting the material to 4e.

    What I realized is that it is basically a post apocalyptic world in a D&D setting…think Mad Max with a Vorpal Blade and a Twin Turbo Super Charged Dromedary. The D&D world you know has been used up. The different beings have been transformed from gentle folk to creatures that make survival their prime motivation, which gives you cannibal halflings, thieving elves, mul halfbreeds, gladiatorial arenas, slaves and rampant predation to gather limited resources. It is a fantastic way to enjoy a new environment with out having to learn a new system. It is just familiar enough to wonder what the hell happened in Atahs to make it go so wrong. I think that is a pretty good hook.

    The problem with Encounters is that Wizards was so anxious to release the product that they failed to design it properly. There is really only a smidgen of Dark Sun flavor on it with only a 2 of the new races that were provided and sun sickness. It could easily be a desert setting in the regular D&D world. Maybe they didn’t give them selves enough time to develop this Chapter of Encounters. I don’t know, but I do think this could be a really fun world in which to play.

    I am really anxious for the full release. I want to see character builds, feats, powers, and paragon paths. I want to know more about the world, locations and back history.

  5. August 2, 2010

    My only direct exposure to Dark Sun so far has been through the Free RPG Day adventure in the Dark Sun setting. I was lucky to have a DM who was REALLY into the setting, and he knew all about it from the old days. I think this means I got a pretty fair exposure to what it’s all about from someone who cares about it.

    And I’m sad to say that I didn’t like it at all. I get it – it’s a brutal, post-apocalyptic sort of world. But I guess I’m just a fan of “high fantasy” Tolkienesque settings for my RPG play. The DM had some monsters in the final encounter of the day (remembering that this was a one-shot with pre-generated characters) coup de grace two of the player characters because hey, “It’s Dark Sun!”

    Dark Sun isn’t to my taste, but I’m fine with that. There’s plenty of material already out there for the types of settings that I enjoy!

  6. August 2, 2010

    I played Dark Sun back when it was a 2nd edition campaign setting. Don’t blame your negative impression on the 4th edition version or your DM. It’s the campaign setting. It’s supposed to be dark, gritty, dirty, and – frankly – depressing. It’s tough to get psyched when your character starts with a -1 bone weapon. It’s as different from Forgotten Realms as Forgotten Realms is from Greyhawk.

    My thoughts to those who say Dark Sun doesn’t “feel” like D&D is that they need to realize D&D is a rule set, not a campaign setting. To say it doesn’t feel like D&D is like saying a milk shake doesn’t taste like McDonalds because it doesn’t have a bun.

    I found this cool Wikipedia page listing all the official D&D campaign settings over the years:


    I think I’ve played 8 of them.

  7. Gnomeicecream permalink
    August 3, 2010

    I am one of the DMs for the Dark Sun Encounters, and so I thought it would be benificial to throw in my two cents.

    I feel like this is a settling for people who are looking for more challenge then the traditional fantasty setting provides. But then, there is a differance between challenge (You are fighting in a sandstorm with traps rigged all around you and you only have so long to get through before you are burried benith the sands) and impossible (You are fighting 12 fire elementals double your level with flamable leather and bone weapons) and the DM needs to strick the right balance to make the players feel they have overcome the odds and become mighty heros because of it.

    Now, specificaly to the Encounters. The feel is that it was rushed on stage before she got a chance to put on her makeup, so all the flaws are appearant. The first chapter was very poorly done from a character perspective. You are in the caravan, but then they entire world opens up to you but only one path is presented that you have to follow. The obstacles were static and unchanging, and the weekly encounters seemed a little tacked on and unnessisary. I’d like to think my players managed to have a good time though, and got a feel for thier characters and the setting.

    Now we are into the second chapter and its getting a little bit more interesting. Things seemed to have had more time to develop, though there are a few “durh” moments. (Crystals full of pycic power that add plus 5 to damage? Thanks! Oh wait, the room is full of minions. Doh!)

    So, overall, I think any DM can take what they are given and craft a epic story out of it.

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