D&D General 1991 Dark Sun Setting Overview and Speculation

overgeeked

B/X Known World
This goes back somewhat to what I wrote in another thread regarding Wakanda versus Luke Cage as power fantasies.

In the real world, lots of people face oppression of various sorts. I think that in the face of that, it is natural to turn to one of two types of power fantasies, exemplified by Wakanda and Luke Cage.

Wakanda is an utopia. It is rich, it is powerful, it blends super-science with tradition, and there's no oppression. There are certainly threats to Wakanda, but Wakanda seems to be mighty enough to meet most of them and prevail. This is a good dream to strive for, and it's clear that it plucks at the heart strings of many. This seems to be pretty close in principle to many settings: there is a status quo which is Good, and people are mostly equal – or at least not discriminated against on account of ethnicity, sex, or sexuality. The job of Our Heroes is usually to defend this status quo, at least on a larger scale.

On the other hand, we have Luke Cage. Cage lives in a grittier part of the Marvel Universe, where corruption is rampant, people in power enjoy holding that power over others, and oppression is a fact of life. In short, Cage's world sucks. But Cage is empowered to do something about it. He is the black man the cops can't shoot (the TV series used a more colorful metaphor which I do not believe our esteemed mods would appreciate). He's the one who can change the world for the better. This type of world is where Dark Sun needs to be: the world is in a very bad place, but the PCs are the ones who can do something about it.
That's a fantastic comparison.
One problem is that writing something like that is pretty hard. You need to walk the line between making it grim, and making it grimdark. If there is no hope at all, then what's the point? So the world can't be all bad, but where do you draw the line? This is where I think the post-Freedom! Dark Sun setting shines: one of the sorcerer-kings has just been overthrown, showing that a better world is possible. But upsetting the status quo is not without risks. Other sorcerer-monarchs have their eye on the city of Tyr, who just lost their mightiest defender (for certain values of defender). The abolition of slavery has created a large poor underclass, leading to social instability as well as food insecurity (because who's tending the fields now? You mean we have to PAY them? But that'll make food more expensive!). That's a setting with lots of potential, but also one who could easily fall back into despair.
I'd slightly disagree about where that line is. I don't see the setting as needing to start with Kalak already dead and Tyr already free. Not saying you're wrong, just that I'd rather the PCs be the big damn heroes of the setting and be the ones who overthrow any sorcerer-kings who are toppled.
Another problem is that a setting like that tends to attract some people who only look at the surface, and who see slavery and oppression and think "cool!". I'm thinking of a recent Kickstarter that tried ripping off Dark Sun, but fortunately never got anywhere. It can be hard telling these pizza cutters from fans who appreciate what little hope the setting has.
I'm not sure that's an accurate representation of that Kickstarter.
And of course, I'm writing this from a position of privilege. I'm a straight white cis dude who lives in one of the world's richest countries. In the great game of life, I'm pretty much playing on easy mode. For me, experiencing oppression in a game is a matter of escapism. I get to experience something else for a while, but when the game is done, I get to go back to my life of privilege. Not everyone has that luxury, and I can't really blame them for preferring a game where they get to take a break from oppression being a thing to contend with on a daily basis.
The great thing about RPGs is that there are thousands of them. Not every game needs to be for every potential player. Some games can deal with harsh and dark topics and the players who want to engage with those topics can. But just because some potential players don't like those harsh and dark topics in no way means that games touching on them should not exist. If some players don't want to deal with the harshness of the Dark Sun setting, they don't have to. But stopping others who do want to engage with those topics just because some other people might not like it is a rather terrible starting position.
 

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Staffan

Legend
That's a fantastic comparison.
Thank you!
I'd slightly disagree about where that line is. I don't see the setting as needing to start with Kalak already dead and Tyr already free. Not saying you're wrong, just that I'd rather the PCs be the big damn heroes of the setting and be the ones who overthrow any sorcerer-kings who are toppled.
The way I see it, if you're going to have the PCs topple any sorcerer-monarchs, that's the kind of thing that should be the climax of a campaign. And doing so could be a really interesting and fun campaign, don't get me wrong.

But there's also a lot of fun to be had in the chaotic aftermath of the revolution having already happened, and everyone dealing with the new situation. And I don't think campaign A easily translates into campaign B, because at that time the PCs are already too powerful. Of course, there's nothing to say that campaign B can't also end with one or more sorcerer-monarchs biting the dust, but it'll probably be as a result of the PCs defending their home city from them.

I'm not sure that's an accurate representation of that Kickstarter.
It was very much presented as Dark Sun with the serial numbers filed off.
The great thing about RPGs is that there are thousands of them. Not every game needs to be for every potential player. Some games can deal with harsh and dark topics and the players who want to engage with those topics can. But just because some potential players don't like those harsh and dark topics in no way means that games touching on them should not exist. If some players don't want to deal with the harshness of the Dark Sun setting, they don't have to. But stopping others who do want to engage with those topics just because some other people might not like it is a rather terrible starting position.
I agree. But I think it's probably a losing proposition for Wizards of the Coast to be the ones dealing with those topics.
 

Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
Thank you!

The way I see it, if you're going to have the PCs topple any sorcerer-monarchs, that's the kind of thing that should be the climax of a campaign. And doing so could be a really interesting and fun campaign, don't get me wrong.

But there's also a lot of fun to be had in the chaotic aftermath of the revolution having already happened, and everyone dealing with the new situation. And I don't think campaign A easily translates into campaign B, because at that time the PCs are already too powerful. Of course, there's nothing to say that campaign B can't also end with one or more sorcerer-monarchs biting the dust, but it'll probably be as a result of the PCs defending their home city from them.


It was very much presented as Dark Sun with the serial numbers filed off.

I agree. But I think it's probably a losing proposition for Wizards of the Coast to be the ones dealing with those topics.
I agree. The days of WotC as an innovative and creative RPG company are over. I don't believe they have anything of value to offer except market share at this point.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Thank you!
Absolutely. Thank you. I legit hadn’t thought about it that way.
The way I see it, if you're going to have the PCs topple any sorcerer-monarchs, that's the kind of thing that should be the climax of a campaign. And doing so could be a really interesting and fun campaign, don't get me wrong.

But there's also a lot of fun to be had in the chaotic aftermath of the revolution having already happened, and everyone dealing with the new situation. And I don't think campaign A easily translates into campaign B, because at that time the PCs are already too powerful. Of course, there's nothing to say that campaign B can't also end with one or more sorcerer-monarchs biting the dust, but it'll probably be as a result of the PCs defending their home city from them.
New campaign, new characters. Offing a sorcerer-king is not a mid-tier endeavor. It’s max level stuff. I’m a fan of persistent worlds when running games. So one campaign climaxing in the PCs overthrowing a sorcerer-king is awesome unto itself, but then having the next campaign build from there with new low-level PCs dealing with the aftermath of that overthrow. It would be an awesome campaign unto itself and be a great sequel to the first.
It was very much presented as Dark Sun with the serial numbers filed off.
That part, yes. I was more reacting to this bit…
Another problem is that a setting like that tends to attract some people who only look at the surface, and who see slavery and oppression and think "cool!".
It seems you were connecting the two and saying it was good their KS died because of this.
I agree. But I think it's probably a losing proposition for Wizards of the Coast to be the ones dealing with those topics.
Yes.
 

Staffan

Legend
That part, yes. I was more reacting to this bit…

It seems you were connecting the two and saying it was good their KS died because of this.
I had a recollection that the kickstarter had more of a focus on "Isn't this horrible and/or badass" rather than "... and you're the ones who can fight it", but I might be misremembering.
 

Mark Hope

Adventurer
We had some success having the PCs be the ones toppling Kalak by making his all-at-once transformation place him in a larval state, making him a target appropriate for the PCs running around with the Heartwood Spear. It's a McGuffiny solution for sure, but it's a solution. Not that this is the main issue holding a new version of DS back, of course :)

I agree completely with @overgeeked in that it should be OK for there to be D&D settings that cater to something other than the mainstream but I also agree that this probably isn't likely under current conditions. It's a shame because the core themes of Dark Sun are even more apt now than when the setting was released. We're seeing environmental collapse all around us. Wars of ethnic cleansing take place right under our noses. Disparities of wealth and power are at their worst ever and our entire society is supported by slave labour. But heaven forbid that anyone should dare make a game setting that addresses these ills...
 

I had a recollection that the kickstarter had more of a focus on "Isn't this horrible and/or badass" rather than "... and you're the ones who can fight it", but I might be misremembering.
It was a bit of a mixed bag, from memory. I honestly think the authors were a bit thoughtless and clueless rather than deliberately nasty or OMGedgy about the whole thing though. It sounded like some long-running home group who knew each other well and had their long-established way of playing decided to write up their version of Dark Sun with the serial numbers filed off, if WotC weren't going to do anything with the setting. They said that they did intend to engage a professional sensitivity reader, though they probably should have done so before putting the KS and sample material up there. They had a sample document that referred to muls as 'ideal slaves' for instance, and they did put a bit of emphasis about how this is the harsh world of harshness for harsh people, and made a point of talking about their support for evil PCs which tends to be a red flag for me.

But yeah, it was such a transparent DS rip-off that it was probably always doomed at the hands of WotCs lawyers, so it was all a bit moot in the end.
 

Zardnaar

Legend
We had some success having the PCs be the ones toppling Kalak by making his all-at-once transformation place him in a larval state, making him a target appropriate for the PCs running around with the Heartwood Spear. It's a McGuffiny solution for sure, but it's a solution. Not that this is the main issue holding a new version of DS back, of course :)

I agree completely with @overgeeked in that it should be OK for there to be D&D settings that cater to something other than the mainstream but I also agree that this probably isn't likely under current conditions. It's a shame because the core themes of Dark Sun are even more apt now than when the setting was released. We're seeing environmental collapse all around us. Wars of ethnic cleansing take place right under our noses. Disparities of wealth and power are at their worst ever and our entire society is supported by slave labour. But heaven forbid that anyone should dare make a game setting that addresses these ills...

Parts of my country last week had 1.5 meters of silt deposits. It's also around the same Suze as the Tyr region. Crap.
 

Mark Hope

Adventurer
Parts of my country last week had 1.5 meters of silt deposits. It's also around the same Suze as the Tyr region. Crap.
Yeah you don't have to look very far to find this stuff for real. I live in the UAE so, well, let's just say that many of the thematic elements of the setting ring very true here...

I mean, games don't have to address real world issues but Dark Sun absolutely did and I think could be an excellent vehicle to do so again. I guess this is one downside of having a massive corporation holding the brand - they'll steer clear of anything that might smack of controversy. I'm not directly affected by WotC's reticence to release DS - the Dark Sun games I run and stream are all 2e - but I do love the setting and I think it would be cool if a fresh generation of gamers could enjoy it like I have. And I'm always on the hunt for new DS art and maps and whatnot haha. I know of a couple of designers who are angling to tackle the setting for 5e and I think they'd do a good job. Doesn't look likely at the moment though.
 

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