Dark Sun Goes Back to, and Beyond, Its Roots

Last week at Wizards of the Coast headquarters I had an interesting conversation with Rich Baker about the latest D&D campaign world, Dark Sun. He explained some of the original inspirations for this unique world, and told me why the new Dark Sun timeline is a major retcon.

Rich Baker, whose current title is Design Manager for D&D, has been at the company since the TSR days and was there for the original Dark Sun. The new Dark Sun Campaign Setting comes out August 17, but you can get a sneak preview by visiting a local game store taking part in D&D Encounters. The second Encounters “season” is set in Athas.

One of the first things I noticed about Dark Sun was the release schedule — where Forgotten Realms and Eberron got a pair of books and not much else, Dark Sun is getting its own Creature Catalog, a set of desert map tiles and a series of adventures in addition to the D&D Encounters support. Baker told me this wasn’t a conscious change in strategy for campaign worlds, but rather a confluence of opportunities. For one thing, Dark Sun is such a unique setting that it has its own set of creatures, so instead of a campaign guide and a player’s guide, they split the material into an overall campaign setting with a separate creature catalog. They’d been planning a set of desert themed dungeon tiles anyway, so that was another chance to tie something to Dark Sun. The success of D&D Encounters allowed them to introduce the setting to thousands of new D&D players worldwide. Future campaign settings might use the old formula, or something completely different.

Speaking of future campaign settings, Baker revealed to me that the next setting to be released will be…what, did you really think he was going to spill that kind of advanced info? He said that there are a lot of worlds they want to revisit, and many new ideas for settings they plan to explore. He wasn’t sure if there would be a setting related announcement at Gen Con this year. “We always have cool stuff to announce at Gen Con,” he said, but wasn’t any more specific than that.

I was curious where in the Dark Sun timeline the new version would fall. Far into the future, with a very different Athas? No. As it turns out, they’re going back in time. 4E Dark Sun takes place in the period immediately after the release of the original boxed set, negating the events that occurred in the novels that came out shortly thereafter. “The Dark Sun world was full of the most promise then — that was the most pure vision of the world,” said Baker. While he expressed admiration for the novels as works of fiction, they limited what DMs could do with the world and effectively tied TSR’s hands in terms of future Dark Sun releases.

What’s really interesting is that this is almost verbatim what I’ve heard from experienced gamers who bemoaned what the Prism Pentad did to the Dark Sun storyline. Baker compared the new version to Marvel Comics’ Ultimate series — revisiting places and characters earlier in their histories and taking them in a new direction, with a different attitude. Notably, the story has been advanced a few weeks. The revolution that was brewing in Tyr has already happened, but now there’s a struggle to fill the resulting power vacuum.

I was trying to pin down some good cultural touchstones for Dark Sun fans. With typical fantasy RPGs, you can reference Tolkien and a dozen other prototypical fantasy epics. I couldn’t really decide on a movie or novel that would work as the perfect inspiration for a Dark Sun campaign, so I figured I’d ask Rich Baker. His first answer was perhaps the most interesting: he couldn’t think of anything at first. I think that really speaks to the uniqueness of the setting — there are bits and pieces of it that seem familiar, but Dark Sun as a whole is just not like anything else. Playing in Athas is a very distinct experience from any other fantasy RPG.

After a few seconds, Baker settled on some classic pulp authors. “Dark Sun comes from a different tradition of fantasy literature,” he said. “I call it ‘swords and sandals’.” One of the biggest influences is Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom. The original boxed set grew out of an idea based on that, though it obviously took on its own life by the time it was released. Baker also mentioned Robert E. Howard, Lin Carter, and the art of Frank Frazetta. It’s a world where the danger and violence is amped up, and there’s an extra element of “salaciousness,” as Baker put it.

When it came to Dark Sun themed films, we both had trouble coming up with definitive examples.  Baker named Gladiator, the prime modern swords and sandals film, and somewhat sheepishly suggested the first Conan movie (sheepishly because I think no true fantasy fan wants to admit finding redeeming qualities in that particular movie). He also suggested Lawrence of Arabia. “Obviously, it’s a different kind of story than what we’re trying to tell, but for the first third, the desert is the star of the movie,” he said. “In terms of visuals, that would be a good source of inspiration.”

I’ll admit that I’m not the biggest Dark Sun fan. I’d been thinking it would be a great RPG book just for some unique rules and ideas to borrow for other campaigns, but after talking to Baker, I’m pretty excited about the release. Maybe his enthusiasm was infectious, or maybe tying it to some familiar fantasy tropes that I love helped. I mean, he had me at Robert Howard.

Check back next week, when I’ll have some amazing details on Gamma World from the same interview.

7 Responses to Dark Sun Goes Back to, and Beyond, Its Roots

  1. I know it would be too close to another Desert-themed setting release, but I would totally geek out about a new 4e version of Al-Qadim.

    Jambias, turbans, guys with “al-ibn” in their names. I mean c’MON!

  2. I’m a huge fan of Dark Sun (almost as big a fan as I am of Gamma World) and I’m glad they took it back to pre-Prism Pentiad. Unfortunately, it’s still 4th Ed… that pretty much kills it for me.

    I am looking forward to hearing about Gamma World. What’s been shown so far looks beautiful and sounds hideous (daily card drawn mutations from collectible decks? Puleeeese). I’m hoping you can shed some light on it.

  3. I know nothing about Dark Sun as a setting, but everything I’ve heard just sounds awesome! It does seem very Conan-esque with the spellcasters being evil kings cooking up evil badness in their evil castles, and everyone else is running everywhere because they didn’t have a budget for horses, wait, that’s the movie. Anyway, I think It sounds really interesting, but I’m hip deep in Pathfinder now, so I don’t think I’ll be buying books of another system for a while. Also, what’s so bad about [card]Pentad Prism[/card]? It’s not that bad. I mean, it’s not good either, but it isn’t[card]squire[/card].

  4. It’s not that “Prism Pentiad” was bad, but it’s when they revised the Dark Sun Setting, they made the events from the novel series core, which basically kicked many of the elements that made Dark Sun “Dark Sun” right in the yabbos. It also keyed this avalanche of really contrived and… frankly… awful products that quickly choked the setting out of existence (with the exception of the internet).

    Understand all this was at the height of the “splatbook” era of 2nd edition where D&D had six or seven settings going at one time with weekly products for most of them.

    Those of us lucky enough to still have the first Setting Box weren’t hit so badly. We just hit the do-it-yourself plateau, which isn’t really a bad place, as long as we stuck to our guns with the “That’s nice, but it didn’t happen IMDSU” and “I’m not using that supplement IMDSU” but there was sooo much superfluous garbage after the revision that Athas was just a mess.

  5. Pentad Prism isn’t inherently “bad,” but it works best as a “possible future.” Athas, the “real” Athas as far as I (& WotC, apparently) is the setting outlined in the books, not the meta-plot they followed. It meshes with Wizard’s “adventure path” directions– I won’t spoil the ending to any, but the published campaign arcs tend to end…dramatically? With world changing events. But the core setting goes on like nothing happened.

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