Face The Brutality Of The Dark Sun Campaign Setting
  • Face The Brutality Of The Dark Sun Campaign Setting


    The world of Dark Sun existed as an eco-disaster with most uses of arcane magic burning life to dust. Steel exists only as lost treasure and iron is as rare as gold. Water gives life but is a rare commodity and even if an oasis can be found it is likely protected or may be the hunting grounds for some menacing beast. Heavy armor is not only rare but likely to bake its wearer beneath the brutal sun and lead to death even without a battle.


    Dark Sun is an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition boxed set and world. This review covers the original boxed set and not the revised version or the fourth edition hardcover.

    The boxed set includes a 96-page rules book, a 96-page campaign guide, a booklet titled "A Little Knowledge" (featuring a short story and a few Monstrous Compendium entries), a pair of color maps, a poster with Bromís art, and two spiral-bound flip books featuring an introductory adventure with art for the players to see.

    In this first boxed set, Dark Sun required the three core rulebooks, the Complete Psionics Handbook, and Battlesystem. While the Dark Sun Monstrous Compendium came out later, I think it is easier to use than a monster here or there from various compendiums as detailed in the rules.

    Dark Sun takes the rules of second edition and turns them up to 11. Starting ability scores go up to 20. All characters start at 3rd level and everyone has psionics. Dwarves can be triple-classed and yes you can actually play a cleric/mage/psionicist.

    In the campaign Iím running, the 3rd level psionicist can use dimension door nine times a day. By comparison, a mage in the "standard" rules would have to be 7th level to cast that spell and could only do so once a day. The gladiator has weapon specialization in multiple weapons and does +6 damage on a hit (even with a fist). The thief has a high enough dexterity that he can hide in shadows 50% of the time, so he can backstab often. Everyone is effective and powerful so it works. Characters have to be rough because the world is so brutal and unforgiving.

    These wild powerful rules combine with the desolate world of Athas. Sand and dust cover a world that barely supports the lives of violent and dangerous races. The sun hangs bloated and massive, a dying orb. Elves are shifty double dealing nomads while halflings thrive in jungles and hunt other races as food. Mul are half-dwarf/half-humans frequently serving as gladiator slaves. Thri-kreen are mantis-folk who eat everyone else.

    In short, the world is as wild as the rules. And again, it works. Things are mutated. Creatures that look like dumb brutes may wield hidden psionic or magic power. Most of the monsters on Athas are unique and unlike anything on other D&D worlds. Even the familiar races are twisted and strange.

    What do characters have to face? Powerful sorcerer kings rule each city. Ancient and deadly mages called defilers, each sorcerer king wields vast arcane and material power. All command powerful armies and legions of slaves. And the dragon (there is one) consumes all, burning entire city states to ash and condemning an entire city culture and its sorcerer king to oblivion when it awakes.

    Dark Sun shines with dazzling visuals, an amazing layout and structure of the physical products, and the well detailed burning world of Athas. Some of the adventures can still be bought new for a decent price and most of the products are for sale used at a reasonable value if you are willing to wait for the right offer. The game runs well with PDFs as well as the books are black and white.
    Comments 24 Comments
    1. Aaron L's Avatar
      Aaron L -
      Last summer I bought a mint condition Dark Sun Boxed Set for 50 bucks on eBay. I keep it in a safe place.
    1. Rocky777's Avatar
      Rocky777 -
      I started D&D in highschool playing dark sun. It can be such an immersive world. Lots of books as well provide a colorful world of dust and ash.
    1. Nostalgia Ward's Avatar
      Nostalgia Ward -
      I loved Dark Sun during my AD & D days. It never captured my interest quite like Spelljammer or Dragonlance, but certainly holds a special place in my heart. The Thri-Kreen are bad ass. I spent far too many all-nighters playing the computer game.
    1. Charles Dunwoody -
      Quote Originally Posted by Nostalgia Ward View Post
      I loved Dark Sun during my AD & D days. It never captured my interest quite like Spelljammer or Dragonlance, but certainly holds a special place in my heart. The Thri-Kreen are bad ass. I spent far too many all-nighters playing the computer game.
      We have two thri-kreen in the party. The ranger struggles with his hunger when he promises a defeated enemy he won't eat them. He hasn't reneged on a promise yet.
    1. EthanSental's Avatar
      EthanSental -
      Never played Dark Sun...with the players higher powered compared to normal 2e, how did game play balance out for monsters in combat? Just throw another in there or max hp etc?
    1. Staffan's Avatar
      Staffan -
      Quote Originally Posted by EthanSental View Post
      Never played Dark Sun...with the players higher powered compared to normal 2e, how did game play balance out for monsters in combat? Just throw another in there or max hp etc?
      Game balance wasn't really a thing in 2e, at least not to the formalized degree it was in 3e and beyond. There's no concept of a "fair" encounter.

      But still, there were a few things that somewhat made up for higher stats and such. One was crappier gear. The best armor commonly available would be scale or hide - better armor than that required metal, which effectively multiplied the price by 100 (and could also cause problems if wearing it in the desert heat). Similarly with weapons - some weapons could be effectively made without metal, but for most of them you would get a penalty and risk breakage if using weapons made of wood, stone, or bone.

      Wizards don't have as much trouble with gear, but all the city-states outlaw arcane magic except for that specifically sanctioned by the state (which mainly means the sorcerer-monarch themself and a handful of more-or-less trusted wizards). That means that components and new spells are hard to come by, and you need to take care not to be noticed as a caster. Wizards in 2e also benefit less from having a high Intelligence - it will mostly determine their peak power level many levels down the road, as well as how easy it is for them to learn new spells, but there's pretty much no difference between a fireball cast by a 7th level wizard with Int 12 and one cast by a 7th level wizard with Int 21.

      You also needed to take care when venturing out of the relative safety of the city-states. You needed to account for water: about 10 lbs for a day's consumption (1 gallon). Going from one city to the nearest one is about a 10-day trip (with the exception of the neighboring cities of Gulg and Nibenay), so food and water for the trip takes about 100 lbs, and that's before actually carrying any adventuring gear, or accounting for delays. And the random encounter tables are fairly harsh.
    1. CM's Avatar
      CM -
      Ran a fun 4e game in Dark Sun, which is on hiatus. The warlord and ranger class were an especially good fit with the low magic setting. The (low-level party) managed to acquire the Dark Lens, and they're terrified of it. They know they can't safely use it, and they know they can't trust most authority figures with it. They're trying to find a place to hide it, and a guardian who can adequately protect it.

      Not sure if I'm going to go back to 4e to complete it, or adapt it to 5th.
    1. hayek's Avatar
      hayek -
      Such an awesome, evocative setting. Best one that 2E produced IMHO.
    1. kenmarable's Avatar
      kenmarable -
      I never got to play in the setting as much as I wanted with only a brief campaign waaaay back in high school, but during the 4e era, I always thought it seemed like it would be a good fit for the setting.

      I still have tons of ideas for Dark Sun characters and campaigns sitting in an old Trapper Keeper somewhere that were never meant to be. But, dang, this is getting me nostalgic to dig it out sometime and play some Dark Sun!
    1. Ath-kethin's Avatar
      Ath-kethin -
      Quote Originally Posted by EthanSental View Post
      Never played Dark Sun...with the players higher powered compared to normal 2e, how did game play balance out for monsters in combat? Just throw another in there or max hp etc?
      Something else nobody mentioned is that PC death was just expected. There was an option they encouraged you to use that involved keeping a "character tree" - effectively a roster of characters that allowed you to easily swap in an already-prepared PC in the highly likely event your main one was killed.

      The backup characters would be lower level than your main one, but only by a level or two, which sure beat starting over with a new first (or third) level PC.
    1. Charles Dunwoody -
      Quote Originally Posted by EthanSental View Post
      Never played Dark Sun...with the players higher powered compared to normal 2e, how did game play balance out for monsters in combat? Just throw another in there or max hp etc?
      Monsters in Dark Sun are brutal and mostly unknown. There are no orcs or normal giants. Many creatures have psionics and/or mutations, even something that looks like a normal animal, and many creatures cast some arcane spells as well. NPCs also have psionics and again more than a few are arcane casters.

      In addition, the characters in my campaign are escaped slaves and spent the first two adventures just trying to stay on top of their water supply. A gallon of water in Dark Sun weighs 8 pounds and the PCs need to drink a gallon a day unless they have skills, psionics, or spells to lower that amount.

      Just finding and approaching an oasis is dangerous. One was poisoned by murderous elves and another was guarded by a fierce beast. And if you meet travelers there you don't know if you can trust them and they don't know if they can trust you.

      The game just sucks you into the sun and heat and won't let go. The mechanics work in the background to support how the world runs not the other way around. Game balance has not even come up, although by modern standards game balance works much differently, being enforced more by the world the PCs are exploring than by the rules on the character sheets. It is a nice change of pace and works remarkably well.
    1. Charles Dunwoody -
      Quote Originally Posted by Ath-kethin View Post
      Something else nobody mentioned is that PC death was just expected. There was an option they encouraged you to use that involved keeping a "character tree" - effectively a roster of characters that allowed you to easily swap in an already-prepared PC in the highly likely event your main one was killed.

      The backup characters would be lower level than your main one, but only by a level or two, which sure beat starting over with a new first (or third) level PC.
      I thought that as well but after rereading the rules and running two adventures I don't think the designers meant Athas to be quite that deadly. DMs are encouraged not to kill the PCs randomly with a lack of water for example. And the sample adventure in the boxed set is well balanced with several low level NPCs to fight. Now if you try to attack the 300 elves threatening you, then yes there will be casualties.

      Now, my PCs are paranoid. And they do avoid fights they think they can't win, they plan out heists instead of fighting their way in when able, and they are willing to negotiate. Those ingrained habits have saved a life or two I'm sure.

      It goes back to game balance. How the PCs interact with the world is what brings balance to the game. Mechanics are useful, but the PCs really have to place themselves in the sun and fiery heat and act accordingly to survive. And even then, the PCs live lives of constant risk and danger. Death certainly can happen and that risk makes the world seem real and come alive.
    1. Charles Dunwoody -
      Quote Originally Posted by kenmarable View Post
      I never got to play in the setting as much as I wanted with only a brief campaign waaaay back in high school, but during the 4e era, I always thought it seemed like it would be a good fit for the setting.

      I still have tons of ideas for Dark Sun characters and campaigns sitting in an old Trapper Keeper somewhere that were never meant to be. But, dang, this is getting me nostalgic to dig it out sometime and play some Dark Sun!
      I never thought I'd being running Dark Sun using AD&D 2E either. But my buddy I used to game with wanted to play and have his teenage son experience Athas. Our friend joined and so did my teenage son. It has turned out to be an amazing campaign so far and my son's first experience roleplaying. He plays a human thief with a crossbow and is a shoot first when threatened kind of guy. He is quite canny and I've been delighted with him skill in playing so far.

      Good times! You should dig out your ideas and play again. Jump in, the sand is fine.
    1. ddaley's Avatar
      ddaley -
      Has anyone converted any of the adventures to 5e? Someone on reddit put together a 5e conversion of the setting material, which I just started browsing through. I'll probably pick up the boxed set from dmsguild, as it is on sale.
    1. agrayday's Avatar
      agrayday -
      Here is an excellent video on Dark Sun Adventures - Scenery for your table: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WGLRMgcGpcc
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by kenmarable View Post
      I still have tons of ideas for Dark Sun characters and campaigns sitting in an old Trapper Keeper somewhere that were never meant to be. But, dang, this is getting me nostalgic to dig it out sometime and play some Dark Sun!
      I always thought the Trapper Keeper should be a monster that spawned Trappers. That would be seriously Dark Sun!
    1. Eltab's Avatar
      Eltab -
      I read some of the Dark Sun modules (but did not buy any because I was / am a cheapskate) as they came out. The concept intrigued me, and I interpreted it as 'here is a world where not everybody will want to play an uber-Wizard; the Fighter / Ranger / Thief will have a chance to get spotlight time. PS there are no clerics or gods'.

      I played the Ashes of Athas living campaign in 4e and had a blast - a very different feel from Living Forgotten Realms.

      So much so that I'm taking my (now-retired) character and using him as the patron for a 4e campaign of my own devising.
      If I ever get past notes and ideas and sketches...
    1. Charles Dunwoody -
      Quote Originally Posted by Eltab View Post
      I read some of the Dark Sun modules (but did not buy any because I was / am a cheapskate) as they came out. The concept intrigued me, and I interpreted it as 'here is a world where not everybody will want to play an uber-Wizard; the Fighter / Ranger / Thief will have a chance to get spotlight time. PS there are no clerics or gods'.

      I played the Ashes of Athas living campaign in 4e and had a blast - a very different feel from Living Forgotten Realms.

      So much so that I'm taking my (now-retired) character and using him as the patron for a 4e campaign of my own devising.
      If I ever get past notes and ideas and sketches...
      I hope you get your 4E Dark Sun campaign back up and running!

      In 2E there are no gods but there are clerics, druids, and rangers (but no paladins). Clerics gain power from elemental forces and not the gods. Only templars who are a class that gain divine spells from the sorcerer king city rulers can cast the big healing spells like heal and resurrection. If they can survive, which is a big if when serving a sorcerer king. Clerics get up to 4th level spells outside of their element from a special list. so clerics do not wield the healing power in Dark Sun like they do in other worlds.
    1. Nostalgia Ward's Avatar
      Nostalgia Ward -
      Quote Originally Posted by Charles Dunwoody View Post
      We have two thri-kreen in the party. The ranger struggles with his hunger when he promises a defeated enemy he won't eat them. He hasn't reneged on a promise yet.
      That's so awesome. I love the Thri-Kreen. I don't recall if there's a 5e version off hand, but I need to have one as a PC or NPC in my next campaign. I love the role-playing opportunity of the ranger keeping the promise. Good stuff!
    1. Charles Dunwoody -
      Quote Originally Posted by agrayday View Post
      Here is an excellent video on Dark Sun Adventures - Scenery for your table: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WGLRMgcGpcc
      That video is great. And here's the one introducing Dark Sun which kicked off my 2E campaign.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zoz9Eo7AwUM
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