The Burnt World of Athas

The official Dark Sun website

[Repost] Dark Sun out of Development

In today's design repost, Rodney Thompson announces that development on Dark Sun 4e has finished. He talks of his love of the original setting, gives us some idea of what we can expect: A return to the pre-Prism Pentad days.

I know, I've been remiss in my updates. Alas, I have been trapped in a blasted land of work, chained to a desk and toiling away under the watchful eyes of the templars, who are always looking to do the sorcerer-kings' bidding. Translation: I've been working on Dark Sun!

As some readers may know, I am the lead developer for the Dark Sun campaign setting. What you may not know is that it's pretty unusual for a developer to be leading two books at once (as I was doing for the two Dark Sun books), and so I've been very, very busy of late. Fortunately, as of earlier this week I passed off complete manuscripts for both of the books to editing. I've had a lot of help from my fellow developers along the way, but I think the books we've turned over are pretty darn good.

Dark Sun has always been one of my two favorite D&D settings, so all year long I've been waiting feverishly to get my hands on the designers' turnovers. We've taken what they gave us and cranked out some of the most interesting mechanics I think the game's seen so far, and a few mechanical bits that I think will make players very happy.

All that being said, there's been a lot of early speculation on Dark Sun, and not a whole lot of info coming from us. Rich Baker's been doing some good Dark Sun updates, and I'm going to try to as well. Inevitably, Design & Development columns and preview articles will flow out, but I want to take a moment to provide you guys with some generalities that I think will give you an idea where we're headed.

I've always been something of a Dark Sun original boxed set purist. While I think the supplements eventually provided some very interesting material, that first boxed set just had a kind of magic to it in the way it presented Athas. I and others wanted us to shoot for that feeling, so one of the first big goals was to make the setting feel like it did when the first boxed set presented it. Athas is a desolate place where survival is not assured, where the very land can kill you, and where even the points of light (to use a 4E-favorite term) are ruled by darkness. It's a world of sword-and-sandal adventuring, of low tech and dangerous magic. It's a world where psionics is common, and where there are no gods to pray to or receive power from. It's a world where the land is struggling to stay alive, and its defenders face a near-hopeless task to keep it that way. Dark Sun is a dangerous world, a world of survival of the fittest,'s also a world for heroes. They might not think of themselves as such, but Athas is a place where evil rules so long as the common man does nothing.

In many ways, one of the things I love about Dark Sun is that it's a setting where the heroes should have the chance to, quite literally, save the world. Unlike other campaign settings which are quite complex and wide-spanning, Dark Sun is a setting that is zoomed in on a relatively small geographical area. There's a lot of diversity in that small area, but it's not hard to imagine world-spanning plots when the known world isn't much bigger than the American southwest. I also love the fact that the story of Dark Sun is about Athas, and that the focus remains on the world and not plane-hopping, god-fighting, or wars between extraplanar beings. It's about the here and now, the fact that death and extinction are very real things and that there's no such thing as divine intervention to save you at the last minute. Your fate on Athas is in your own hands, and while life may be nasty, brutish, and also are the only one who can change that. And you may just do that!

So that's what you can expect. It's not 1991 anymore, so some things won't be 100% exactly the same, but I feel like we're sticking very, very close to that original boxed set. It's not a kitchen sink setting by any means; there are things that are part of other settings which simply won't be seen in the Dark Sun setting. There are also a few new things which fit the setting really well. Rich has already talked about the dragonborn a little bit (though he left out that we're also keeping the original backstory of the dray, that they were exiled from Giustenal and have a racial pathos about being scorned by their creator), so you know that some things won't be exactly the same. That said, to this first boxed set purist, it sure feels the same. The sorcerer-kings rule over the city-states, using their templars as their agents throughout their domains. Savage raiders make the desert wastes even more unsafe than it already is. Giants wade across the Sea of Silt, staging raids on shoreline settlements and attacking passing silt craft. The Dragon still demands tribute from each city-state, and looms over the land like a force of pure destruction. Defilers destroy life to fuel their own arcane ambitions. Merchant houses still squabble amongs themselves, and wield a great deal of power outside of the sorcerer-kings' control. Mul gladiators still fight in the slave pits, and thri-kreen scouts lurk at the edge of rarely-traveled caravan paths, waiting to strike. Halfling cannibals still stalk the night like ghosts, and untrustworthy elves still lie, cheat, and steal from their victims in the Elven Market. The Veiled Alliance provides shelter from the authorities (and from the mobs of common folk who fear and hate them) for preservers, and they still fight defilers at every step. Ancient ruins filled with undead still lie in the deep desert, holding both danger and treasures of the ancient world.

I'm really excited about the way things are turning out. Now that I've seen the books as a whole, I can rest a bit, and get jazzed about people starting to run games set on Athas in the future.

Rodney Thompson

Rodney is a designer and developer for Wizards of the Coast. He was one of the designers of 4th Edition Dark Sun, and co-designed of Lords of Waterdeep and its expansion, Scoundrels of Skullport. He has won both ENnie and Origins Awards for his work.