The Burnt World of Athas

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Death Mark Interview with Robert J. Schwalb

Death Mark author Robert J Schwalb answers questions about Dark Sun and his new book.

Robert J Schwalb interview

What draws you to Dark Sun?

Dark Sun has had a special place in my heart since the boxed set first hit the shelves in, what, 1991? Brom hooked me. The paintings hinted at a strange and unforgiving place, a world unlike anything TSR had published up to that point. I grabbed the box and devoured its contents. Although I didn’t run much Dark Sun, I played in an excellent campaign run by my good friend and fellow Dark Sun enthusiast Bobby Turman and he brought the world to life for me.

What grabs me still is how Dark Sun is really a rejection of all the D&D tropes and yet somehow remains very much a D&D world. The setting is an enemy as great as anything else crawling through the desert. There is no such thing as a good king, a good dragon, a benevolent NPC to swoop in and solve all your problems. Dark Sun is harsh, cruel, and often capricious. You never get the sense that you outgrow challenges; water and exposure can kill you no matter how high your character level. And when you achieve any success, there is always something bigger and nastier waiting to take it away from you. 

Dark Sun’s nihilistic atmosphere and oppressive environment, the grittiness and the brutality of it all made me feel like I was dropped into some universe assembled from the minds of Burroughs, Hobbes, and Nietzsche.

What's your favorite in game Dark Sun moment?

There are so many, I don’t quite know where to begin. There was the time when I rolled a natural 20 and killed a fire drake using the Silencer of Bodoch. Or when my friend Shane, who played a bard, covered himself in poison and flung himself into a Nightmare Beast’s maw in a vain attempt to destroy the foe that had us on the ropes—sadly, he discovered his sacrifice was meaningless since Nightmare Beasts are immune to poison. Or, there was the time when we built a fortress in the wastes only to lose it the very next session when the bad guys decided to ruin our day. And then there was my ongoing vow to commit genocide against the elves of the Silver Spring Oasis. I hate those guys. Yeah, we had a lot of great times playing Dark Sun.

What inspired you to write the book?

I’ve wanted to try my hand at fiction for years and years, but I’ve been so busy with game design I haven’t had two seconds to rub together, let alone the time to write a novel. As they say, though crap or get off the pot.

I wish I could tell you I had a great flash of inspiration, an epiphany that compelled me to write 100,000 words about the world of Athas. But nothing so romantic happened. I was at Wizards of the Coast’s office in Renton, coming back from lunch and riding up the elevator to R&D with James Wyatt. I mentioned that I had always wanted to write a novel and that at one point I had hoped to use game design as a stepping-stone to write fiction. How naïve of me. (I say naïve because I still believe game design and fiction require very different skill sets and being good at one doesn’t mean you are at all good at the other.) James mentioned they needed authors to kick off the new Dark Sun novel line and he asked if I was interested. I said yes. I met with Fleetwood Robbins, my editor, and before I knew it I was tasked with writing a novel. I was terrified and excited all at once, and I’m still terrified now that the novel is out!

What was your favorite part of the book?

I’m a bit torn. Loren and Temmnya’s first meeting was pretty fun, as was Pakka and Korvak’s first encounter in the cell. No one point stands out as my favorite and that might stem from the Post-Traumatic Stress picked up from getting the book done. I kid. 

What was the hardest part to write in the book?

All of it? Heh. No doubt, the final chapters were the hardest. Tying up all the plot threats into a neat little bow is not easy, especially with all the characters involved in the plot.  

What did you wish was different about the book?

I wish I had had another 50,000-100,000 words and another six months to work on it. There was so much story I wanted to tell, but reality kept intruding. During the writing, I was also writing about 45,000 words a months for D&D, so there was a lot going on throughout the process of outline, writing, rewriting, revising, rewriting, and so on.

Do you outline? If not, what do you do?

You bet I do. I outlined and outlined and outlined through the entire process. Once I had the general framework, I sketched in what would happen during each chapter. From those sketches I constructed the chapters. Often, one chapter might become something unexpected, and I would go back to the outline and move plot elements, characters, and events to later in the book or just cut them completely.

How do you keep the plots straight and in sync?

As this was my first novel, I had to learn how to write fiction. I didn’t get it right on the first try. (Me, being my worst critic, I still have doubts.) While writing the novel, I was working on Famine in Far-Go, Psionic Power, and other D&D products. Deadlines on these books meant I had to step away from the novel for weeks at a time. When I finally had time to examine what I had written, I sort of freaked out. I threw away the first 50,000 words and started again. I wrote a new outline and preserved what text I could, but I basically started from scratch. 

One reason for melting down was that I hadn’t thought about where characters were in relation to each other at any given time and so the book was a mess. I sat down and plotted out the book again, this time keeping track of time and place. When I started working again, I had a clear idea where the characters were and what they were doing at all times. No character got lost and I knew when the events of one story line would affect the other story lines. In the end, it helped me create a more coherent story.

What is your writing routine?

Since I view writing as my career, I do it every day I can. I try to produce 3,000 to 4,000 words a day, sometimes more, sometimes less, and many times, I do this seven days a week. I get up early and often work late. Nothing about my process is good for me and I don’t recommend it to anyone. Of late, I’ve tried to create more reasonable goals and I’m now taking one day off a month. Hitting 4,000 words is far more reasonable than the 8,000 words I was doing a few years ago.

Which comes first? The character's story or the idea for the novel?

Either one. In Death Mark, I was interested in telling a story about Tyr and its transition from a city ruled by a sorcerer-king to a free city and focused on the events that happened between Troy Denning’s first two Dark Sun novels. While the characters dealt with their personal challenges, they were also windows into the events I was exploring. This approach proved challenging and in hindsight I wish I had done it the other way around. Still, I’m pretty happy with the way the book flows and now we all know what was cooking while Rikus was tangling with Urik.

Any plans to write more novels? Will they be Dark Sun novels?

No doubt. I have some stories stomping around in my little attic and hope to write them down someday soon. I’m focused on game design at the moment and if I have a chance to do more fiction it will have to be in my spare time. I’d love to return to Dark Sun and I’d love to tell more stories about Loren, Alaeda, and the rest. Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll get back to Athas.

What would like to see for the future of the Dark Sun line (rpg &novels)

I’m very happy with the current Dark Sun sourcebooks. They provide a strong foundation for gaming groups to tell their own stories set in the Burnt World of Athas. I firmly believe the game products should stand apart from the fiction line. RPG products exist to help you tell your own stories. Novels, obviously, tell you stories. They share a common world, but they have different objectives and thus one should not always influence the other. For the game line, I’m hungry for anything that helps DM’s create stories set in Athas. So I’m keen to see more adventure content, threats, rumors, locations, and so on. (And by the way, the guys doing Ashes of Athas are doing a great job with Dark Sun. If you’re a fan, be sure to check out their games at D&D XP, Gen Con and other shows.) For the fiction line, I’m very interested in stories set before Tyr’s fall. I’d like to learn more about Kalak, more about Tyr’s history, more about the world before freedom was even possible. And I’m not talking about the deep history—we know how Athas became the way it is. There were heroes before Kalak’s death. Who were they? What did they do? That stuff excites me. 

Dwarven Focus

Your take on the Dwarven focus and banshee was great. What inspired you to really take the mindless wailing undead and bring it...to life?

I’ve always dug the dwarven focus. In my mind, it fills the god-shaped hole in the Athasian dwarf’s psychology and it operates as the principle means by which they honor their obligations to themselves, their society, and their ancestors. Failure to fulfill their focus has real consequences, a damnation of sorts. However, this doom is not something imposed on them, but is instead self-inflicted. Since we didn’t pay a great deal of attention to the focus in the sourcebooks, I wanted to revive the concept and really explore why and how such a transformation might take place.

Any thoughts on a Dwarf Focus power?

This is a tricky one and it’s something we tossed around and argued about during design. The challenge here is that the focus is really a roleplaying tool with mechanical consequences. Since we didn’t want to force players into this story element, we handled the focus concept as purely a roleplaying device as we described under the Dwarf entry in the Dark Sun Campaign Setting. For long time fans and folks who want this element to be more prominent, I propose using the following optional rule.

Dwarven Focus

Athasian dwarves do not give up, set aside, or abandon the tasks and objectives they set for themselves. They commit themselves fully or not at all. When a dwarf commits him or herself to a particular goal that goal becomes the dwarf’s focus. Once a dwarf chooses a focus, he or she makes every effort to complete the task, whether that task is to construct a bridge, hunt down an enemy, or find lost treasure. Failure is unthinkable and those who die with a focus left unfulfilled do not go to their graves easily. Many dwarves with unfulfilled focuses rise up as undead monsters called banshees, unthinking, mindless killers, driven mad by their frustration. A few cling to their sanity and struggle against their cursed natures until they can complete the task that torments them.

When you undertake a major or minor quest, you can choose to make that quest your focus. Until you complete the quest, you gain a +2 bonus on any ability and skill checks related to completing the quest subject to the Dungeon Master’s approval. If you undertake a different quest, while your focus remains unfulfilled, you take a –2 penalty on any ability or skill check related to the other quest, again subject to the DM’s discretion. 

Completing a quest you made your focus is a great accomplishment and upon completing it, you gain 1 extra healing surge. The healing surge remains until you expend it or until you choose another quest to be your focus. If you die before you complete a quest you chose to become your focus and you are not restored to life before 1 day has passed, you return to play as a revenant (see Heroes of Shadow) and you must swap out a feat for the Past Soul feat to gain the dwarven resilience racial power. If you do not complete your focus within one month, you become an Oath Wight (Dark Sun Creature Catalog) under the DM’s control.

Spoilers!!

What is the black shard that Aeris and Temmnya used?

So the black shard is something I want to explore in a future book. For now, I’ll just say it is a cursed implement with strong ties to defiling magic. It’s how Temmnya gained control over Aeris and how she was able to control and create her undead army. It is a lot like the Death Rock artifact, but with an even darker, more sinister origin.

What is the green grub as long as 8 mekillots with a segmented body and rows of tiny black eyes? Where did it come from?

These creatures are a lot like wysts (3e monster) and they come from the Far Realm. Temmnya was slipping into the city painting mystic circles in Under-Tye to call these monsters from the Outside when she performed the ritual just before attacking the city. If you want to use these creatures in your game, I recommend reskinning the purple worm. Change its origin to aberrant and you’re pretty much ready to go.

Last Thoughts

Last thoughts on the novel or Dark Sun in general?

Writing Death Mark was anything but easy, but I learned a great deal about the process and writing in general. I’m thrilled you enjoyed it and very much appreciate the review and the interview. I hope your readers like the book too and I look forward to telling more stories in the future.

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