Written by Raddu, and first published on 2011-12-11
Death Mark author Robert J Schwalb answers questions about Dark Sun and his new book.
<h3>Robert J Schwalb interview</h3>
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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 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