Dungeons & Dragons is one of the most infamous games in history, but even its harshest critics may not be ready for what it’s up to these days. Dungeons & Dragons has become more than just an iconic game; it’s now a franchise with multiple media properties and active communities spanning across dozens if not hundreds of planes. With so much attention on their 30th anniversary coming later this year, let us take a look at how Dungeons & Dragons has come to embody everything great about geek culture over the years.,
Dungeons & Dragons is celebrating 30 years of the Enduring Post. The game has been around for a long time, and has seen many changes over the course of its history. It has also had an impact on pop culture that is still being felt today.
I originally got down with several of my family members to play Dungeons & Dragons when I was approximately 12 years old. I was expecting something with good wizards, brave knights, and cunning thieves gathering in a pub to go on an adventure including a dungeon and a monster. Instead, my character and his companions awakened onboard an armored caravan as hostages. The caravan was attacked by a gang of elves just as I realized we were being fattened up for an ultimate massacre by those in charge of the convoy. Our captors let us free and armed us in the hopes of enlisting our help in the defense, but their bet backfired. After escaping the movable building that held our cells, we were able to roll our dice well enough on certain social skill tests to avoid being killed by the elves. Instead, they let us explore the barren wastelands in the vain hope of finding refuge before succumbing to thirst or exposure.
Yes, we were playing Dungeons & Dragons. It was, however, Dark Sun.
(Photo: a belgoi painted by Brom.)
It was “A Little Knowledge,” the first adventure featured in TSR’s Dark Sun Boxed Set, which was published 30 years ago this month, in October 1991. Dark Sun wasn’t the first campaign setting for Dungeons & Dragons, but it stood out. Whereas other D&D worlds at the time were steeped in classic high fantasy tropes, Dark Sun borrowed more from Conan the Barbarian and John Carter of Mars’ sword and sorcery adventures. For mixing a desert landscape with tremendous psychic skills known as psionics, it’s been compared to Dune. Dark Sun’s distinctiveness is one of the reasons it still has a cult following three decades later.
During a Skype discussion, Tim Brown, one of Dark Sun’s two co-creators, reveals, “There was Greyhawk, there was Dragonlance, and there was Forgotten Realms.” “We all know that if you simply file those serial numbers away, it’ll always be Tolkien. So I wanted to produce something very unique, and I thought in that odd scenario where we found ourselves, they really needed a fresh environment, and we were basically given a blank slate to design anything we wanted. And the tale of its development, in and of itself, leads to the rest of it.”
Somber Sun’s popularity is also due to its dark tone, which deals with adult issues. That darkness, at its finest, makes the athletes’ heroics seem brighter. Even the tiniest act of kindness might seem tremendous in a society where evil is the norm, almost to the point of banality, especially when such a modest deed could cost the would-be hero their life.
Athas is the name of Dark Sun’s world. It was once a fantasy world similar to those seen in D&D’s other campaign settings, but it is now a bleak and unforgiving wasteland where most people’s daily survival is enough adventure. The only pockets of civilisation that exist are a handful of city-states, each controlled by the iron grip of a different sorcerer-king. These tyrants are master psionicists and defilers, a new class of Dark Sun wizard. A typical campaign can entail merely living in the wastelands, or joining forces with the Veiled Alliance to topple a sorcerer-king, or exploring the Sea of Silt or the remains of a long-dead city in quest of clues to Athas’ strange history.
Arcane magic is uncommon on Athas, which may explain why psionics thrived. What magic there is drains energy from the earth itself, depleting the land’s life-giving capacity. Defilers use this energy selfishly to release enormous power beyond what preservers, who are more cautious spellcasters, can achieve. Athas was converted into a desert due to rash usage of defiling sorcery.
“I’ll accept full responsibility. I came up with the concept of defiling magic “Brown explains. “In a D&D or AD&D environment, I’ve always thought that basic magic casting looked a bit too simple and without repercussions. Because it is the most powerful object in the game, there should be some penalties for doing so. So I connected it into an environmental scenario in which you’re really eating the surrounding living stuff to make your spells work.”
Over the phone, Troy Denning, Dark Sun’s other co-creator, explains, “I call it ecological fantasy.” “It’s probably one of the earliest fantasies that dealt with the concept of what magic may do to the ecosystem, and of course that’s a metaphor for what industry and unbridled exploitation of our natural resources does to the natural environment in the actual world.”
While both authors consider defiling magic to be Dark Sun’s most distinctive feature (Brown puts psionics as a close second), the motivation for the game’s development wasn’t initially as lofty as producing an ecological narrative. According to the designers, it all began with TSR’s need for a new setting to replace Dragonlance. TSR’s management were certain that fans would soon quit Dragonlance en masse, for reasons neither Brown nor Denning are clear of (Dragonlance remains one of D&D’s most popular campaign settings to this day).
The developers of TSR were approached with a few suggestions. The corporation wanted something unique, and they wanted psionics to be a part of it. They left Brown and Denning to their own devices in terms of creativity. The chainmail bikini, a long-standing fantasy cliche, was the starting point for their approach. Brown and Denning decided to create an universe where ladies in impractically skimpy armor might make sense, knowing how often D&D artists at the time tended to do so, a pattern that was unlikely to alter any time soon. As a result, they invented Athas, a world in which tremendous heat is the norm and metal is very rare.
The earliest iteration of Brown and Denning’s setting was named War World, and it was partially inspired by the Battlestyem miniatures game, which TSR was relaunching about the same time. Battlestystem scenarios were included in early Dark Sun editions, but the game never caught on and was discontinued. Brown and Denning, on the other hand, had taken TSR’s demand for a unique setting to heart. There were no elves or halflings in War World, nor were there any of the other fantastical races seen in D&D.
“At first, we stated there wouldn’t be any elves, dragons, or anything like that in this world,” Denning explains. “We developed it with the concept that all of the races and animals that would be in the world would be new.” “That’s why we had a lot of various sorts of far-flung species that weren’t being utilized or used a lot in other games, but became extremely widespread in the Dark Sun universe.”
Denning is referring to Dark Sun’s unique playable races, such as the thri-kreen, who are mantis-like humanoids, the massive half-giants, and the half-dwarven muls. TSR eventually contacted Brown and Denning and warned that they may have strayed too far from the familiar, and that they were now concerned that the new scenario would be too unfamiliar to appeal to D&D fans. Elves and halflings were brought to Athas by Brown and Denning, as well as a solitary dragon, a towering entity that walked erect on two legs and was the only creature the sorcerer-kings feared.
(Photo: Brom’s depiction of the Dragon of Tyr, Athas’ sole known dragon, on the cover of the Valley of Dust and Fire sourcebook.)
Dark Sun’s fantastical races, on the other hand, are unlike those seen in other settings. On Athas, elves live in nomadic tribes rather than tranquil and contemplative woodland dwellers, sprinting through the waste and avoiding the use of riding animals. Athas’ halflings inhabit the last surviving wild areas, such as high-altitude mountain woods, and are more inclined to consume visitors than to welcome them in for a second meal. In Athas, familiar monsters such as orcs, goblins, and ogres are replaced with bizarre and unique creatures such as the belgoi, tembo, and gith.
Another distinguishing feature of Athas is the absence of gods. Certain sorcerer-kings claim divinity, and each bestows power to their templars, a Dark Sun-exclusive class capable of casting cleric spells. Clerics commit themselves to one of the four basic elements that rule Athas — fire, earth, wind, and water — giving them a distinct flavor from priestly clerics in other settings.
Because Athas is blocked off from the D&D cosmos by a formidable spatial barrier known as the Black, the absence of divine presence makes sense. Denning and Brown were pushing the bounds of balance with Dark Sun, which inspired this notion. Level one characters didn’t stay long on Athas, according to their playtesting. As a result, Dark Sun characters started their campaigns at level three. Characters in the Dark Sun universe also rolled extra dice for better beginning characteristics, and their ability scores might be greater than the standard limit of 18. (Despite this, the campaign still invites players to create a “character three” of four interconnected characters from the outset.) This guaranteed that if a player’s current character perished, they would have backups available.) Furthermore, the classes and races created expressly for Dark Sun, as well as psionics, did not always work well in other campaigns.
“No one knew how the game balance would effect 2nd edition or what it would mean for the other campaign worlds,” Denning explains. “As a result, we decided to close it off, making it impossible to travel from Athas to any other AD&D game world. That, of course, did not hold true. Someone would ultimately overturn a regulation like that, but it was one of our first notions.”
The founders of Athas never said whether or not it ever had gods. When it comes to the answer, it is likely that it varies from game table to game table. It’s something that even the creators don’t always agree on.
“There are none in my view of the environment, and there have never been any,” Brown explains. “That was mostly motivated by the fact that, when we were developing the game, we thought to ourselves, “Well, let’s take as many flaws as we can from prior D&D settings and flip them on their heads.” Let’s design a game that doesn’t have any gods like the others. There are no gods in the world.”
Separately, according to Denning, “I’ll simply say that Tim was mistaken. That’ll be the end of it. I don’t want to make it seem like we were at odds, because we weren’t, but Tim and I had somewhat different ideas about what the gods’ past was, and we never said it because it wasn’t necessary.”
Brown and Denning, on the other hand, didn’t want to sell Dark Sun to TSR executives without some visual aids, afraid that the executives would get bored or unable to understand their vision if they didn’t have anything to show them. They didn’t have a specific artist in mind, so they went to TSR’s art studio, where the company’s staff artists worked. A painting of a strong lady wearing black armor, clutching an unusual-looking weapon, standing atop a rocky desert protrusion hung behind one artist’s workshop. Gerald Brom, often known as Brom, had painted the work at home and brought it into the studio to decorate it. Denning remembers, “We arrived, took a peek at it, and exclaimed, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ Dark Sun is the name of the game.’”
(Photo: Brom’s original art work inspired the character Neeva and established the aesthetic style of Dark Sun.)
Brom was new to TSR and hadn’t gotten there because of a special fondness for TTRPGs. He’d dabbled in commercial art and comic book covers, but he wasn’t having much luck. He claims he wound up at TSR in part because none of the higher-ranking applicants on the business’s list wanted to relocate to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where the company was situated. He recalls being young and “full of snot” at the time.
“I didn’t fit in when I first came there and was painting a couple covers for Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance,” Brom remembers during an over-the-phone conversation. “‘Basically, your style isn’t fitting in,’ they said. Is it possible for you to paint more like the other artists?’ This was both terrifying and infuriating. Because, first and foremost, I wanted to add my own voice to my work while also making my bosses pleased. As a result, it was a bit challenging there.”
It was a privilege to get the attention of designers seeking for a style that was distinct from everyone else’s in the firm. Brown and Denning aided Brom in imprinting his aesthetic mark on everything Dark Sun, making it TSR’s most artistically-driven product to date. Brom designing the covers for each Dark Sun release gave the series a more coherent aesthetic than other settings at the time. Brom’s Dark Sun art’s monochrome, brown-yellow shine, which contrasted so dramatically with his classmates’ more colorful approach at TSR that management had to draw him apart, quickly became Dark Sun’s hallmark.
“The product line had a true trade dress to it at our insistence,” Brown recalls, “so that all the Dark Sun goods would appear like they belong together on the shelf, whether that’s at your house or in the shop.” “It was a jumbled ball of madness back then if you lined up all the Greyhawk items spine out. Nobody was thinking about how this things would look on the shelf. We also worked closely with the graphic designers to ensure that everything was in order. And I believe it was a huge success.”
Neeva, one of the main characters in Dark Sun novels, was inspired by that initial picture. This incident cemented Brom’s professional connection with Denning and Brown. Most TTRPG illustrations are created by designers who come up with a concept and then submit an art requisition to an artist requesting them to produce what they’ve imagined. Brom would frequently come up with something on his own and bring it to Brown and Denning after painting it, who would figure out a way to include it into Dark Sun. Brom was given the large image by the designers, and he excitedly filled in the blanks.
“I had greater flexibility with less knowledge,” Brom adds. “What they pushed me to do, and where I believe I made a significant contribution, was to give me this wide framework.” It’s unlikely that the characters would have been created. The world was not well-designed in terms of aesthetics. So they were simply like, ‘Put whatever great thing comes to mind in there.’ And we’ll simply write that into the world’s scenario. If a dragon king exists, no one knows what a dragon king looks like. As a result, I create a dragon king. I’ll create this if there’s a ship that can traverse the Silt Sea. This is something I’d want to add. This weapon was created by myself. So that’s the point when I got to just let my mind go wild, and that’s what I contributed. And they’d take the things I’d placed in the paintings and incorporate them into the story. It oscillated back and forth. The wonderful part was that I’d produce something aesthetically, and they’d write it up afterwards. Then they’d come back and say, ‘Oh, this is what inspired this notion, and this is what this is.’ ‘Oh, that’s very nice,’ I’d say. Then I’d include it into the art.
“I believe that committee-based art and game production may destroy the spirit to some extent,” he says. “However, we were quite lucky. And there were just a few of us. And it appeared like, since there was so much to do, nobody was trying to supervise, and there were no egos, so I got the impression that everyone was simply working together creatively. They made an impression on me. And I hope that the job I was doing influenced them in turn.”
It everything came together in the end. Dark Sun was launched, and despite some early reservations, it was a huge success among Dungeons & Dragons players.
Brown says, “I believe the original buy order was supposed to be about 15,000 units.” “That was the figure, which was somewhat humiliating.” Brom’s advertising artwork then appeared in Dragon magazine. Brom’s Dark Sun artwork was also printed and distributed to gaming retailers by TSR. “It went over the ceiling at that time,” Brown recounts. “We didn’t have the internet back then, so we largely got snail letters saying, ‘This is fantastic.’ We’re quite excited to witness this.’ And the orders pouring in from distributors just kept going up and higher until it shattered some kind of first-print record. I believe we printed 70,000 sets of the first box straight away, and they were all gone, so it had to be reprinted.”
(Photo: One of Brom’s Dark Sun advertising prints distributed to gaming retailers by TSR.) The artwork was also used as the cover for The Verdant Passage, the first Dark Sun book.)
Dark Sun was a huge hit for a long time. TSR added adventure modules, monster folios, and new sourcebooks to the original Dark Sun Boxed Set. Dark Sun’s extra releases, particularly the adventures, were notable for the fact that they presented a narrative. Dark Sun had a metaplot, which was a story that spanned all of the setting’s resources. Over the years, the notion of a metaplot has gone in and out of favor. D&D has already experimented with it. Denning (writing under the pen name Richard Awlinson alongside Scott Ciencin) had been hired by the firm to create The Avatar Trilogy. These books discuss how the lore of the Forgotten Realms was changed in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons edition.
Dark Sun, on the other hand, took the notion a step farther. In the first adventure module, Freedom, a gang of rebels assassinated Kalak, one of the sorcerer-kings featured in the Dark Sun Boxed Set, making Tyr the first free area in Athasian history. Denning was recruited by Mary Kirchoff, then the head of the D&D book line, to record the exploits of the rebel band in a series of Dark Sun books called The Prism Pentad. The series proceeded to modify the world as portrayed in the box set, revealing additional details about Athas’ past and tying into future Dark Sun adventure modules.
These developments ultimately led to TSR producing an updated boxed set to bring new players up to speed on what Athas was like following the events of The Prism Pentad. Denning had abandoned game creation to pursue a career as a full-time author by that time, and he went on to contribute many books to the Star Wars extended world. Denning was allocated to work on a Planescape book by Brian Thomsen, the new head of D&D’s novel line.
Denning recalls, “I believe he was having a little bit of problem coping with the stars that Mary had created at the time.” “When individuals achieve great success, they want more money, privileges, and control over their projects, and this was giving him some problems with some of the people who had achieved great success in other realms, so I believe he was trying to say, ‘OK.’ He pulled me off of Dark Sun because he said, “I’m not going to have another one.””
Brom had left TSR to return to independent work, while Brown had moved into a more management role. Bill Slavicsek was finally tasked with overseeing the new boxed set. Slavicsek had already written for Dark Sun and would continue to play an important role in the creation of Dungeons & Dragons for many years to come.
Dark Sun Campaign Setting, Expanded and Revised was released by TSR in 1995. It and its associated sourcebooks not only included narrative themes from Denning’s novels, but they also carried the setting in new ways. The new version opened up a trail in the west, where a thri-kreen empire existed, since the original Dark Sun Boxed Set concentrated on a very tiny, isolated region of Athas called the Tablelands. It also revealed a secret paradise established by strong psionicists in the east. Several sorcerer-kings had perished, and a fresh spirit of optimism had swept over Athas.
Denning adds, “It went closer to becoming more of a typical fantasy scenario than we ever would have permitted or done.” “But that’s just the nature of various people’s perspectives and people constantly trying to come up with new things to accomplish, and one of the new things for Dark Sun was, ‘Oh, alright.’ Let’s add some more metal to the mix. Let’s enable people to go to other planes from Dark Sun,’ and things like that, which was not something I had planned or anticipated to happen, but that’s not to say it’s a negative thing. It’s just a little different. I suppose the best way to put it is that it’s not the Troy thing.”
Dark Sun had been one of TSR’s best-selling games for years, so many were startled when it was discontinued. In the company’s 1996 catalog, the setting was not included. TSR and Dungeons & Dragons were bought by Wizards of the Coast a year later. D&D had a more simplified concept for Wizards of the Coast. Wizards of the Coast, believing TSR had split themselves too thin supporting its various campaign settings, gave few in comparison when the game’s third edition was launched. One of them was not Dark Sun.
While Wizards of the Coast didn’t produce any official Dark Sun material, Paizo commissioned designer David Noonan to develop an updated version of the setting in 2004, which was published in Dragon and Dungeon magazines (which Paizo operated at the time). The fan community at Athas.org generated another 3rd edition upgrade of Dark Sun under the Open Game License and made it available for free on the internet. Dregoth Ascending and Terrors of the Dead Lands, two Dark Sun sourcebooks that TSR had abandoned at the conclusion of their run, were finished by the group. In 2010, Wizards of the Coast officially resurrected Athas, with lead designer Rich Baker and his team revamping the setting for Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition (Brom says Wizards of the Coast invited him to contribute new artwork to this edition but declined).
Athas.org has maintained the closest to the original setup of these upgrades, starting up where the redesigned box set left off. Others attempted to be more open to non-Dark Sun content. Paizo’s version had paladins, and both versions included additional races. Both of them attempted to bring back part of Dark Sun’s original flavor. The Paizo version shifted the history forward 300 years, to a period when the Tablelands’ power balance had mostly restored to what it had been before The Prism Pentad. In the 4th edition, the timeline was reset to shortly after Kalak’s death in Freedom.
Although the current core rulebooks include Athas, there has been no official update for Dark Sun in Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition. Early playtest material for the upgraded psionics classes mentioned the setting once again. An appendix to the adventure Princes of the Apocalypse contains instructions for adapting the adventure’s contents for use in a Dark Sun campaign. However, Wizards of the Coast has been tight-lipped on Dark Sun’s future, even when contacted for comment for this piece.
“From my perspective, what they did for the 4th edition didn’t seem very creative,” Brown explains. “And now it’s in a drawer, which has always been a little frustrating.” Brown sought to fill that hole in 2013 by launching a successful Kickstarter for Dragon Kings, a spiritual successor to Dark Sun that could be played with a variety of gaming systems, including D&D 5th edition.
Brown also claims to be a member of a group that has offered to buy Dark Sun’s rights from Wizards of the Coast on many occasions. Brown, on the other hand, claims that his organization “Every time, I’ve been turned down. [Wizards of the Coast] aren’t interested in having anything to do with that setting right now.” (Wizards of the Coast stated it couldn’t confirm or reject Brown’s claims when contacted for comment.)
(Photo: Brom’s cover for Slave Tribes, a Dark Sun sourcebook.)
Given the current state of concern about climate change and broad popular dissatisfaction with established institutions, Dark Sun’s themes of power, corruption, revolution, and ecological catastrophe may seem more pertinent today than ever. Brown speculates that Wizards of the Coast is hesitant to explore Dark Sun because of the setting’s additional complexities. What about the caravan I mentioned before? That was a slave caravan, to be sure. Slavery is ubiquitous on Athas, and despite the fact that slavery is not based on race, some TTRPG players believe it has no place in the pastime.
Similarly, Wizards of the Coast has been reflecting on how race has been portrayed in Dungeons & Dragons in recent years. Wizards of the Coast has altered the game’s racial laws and worked to combat stereotyping in the Drow and Vistani portrayals. Similar complaints have been leveled about Dark Sun.
“All of them are legitimate worries,” Denning adds. “In Dark Sun, I don’t believe slavery was ever shown as anything other than awful, but it was presented as a reality, and I believe that this might cause issues. When you’re attempting to run a campaign, you don’t have the capacity to put your ideas and sensibilities into the hearts of every DM who’s running it, therefore there’s always the chance that some of theme elements may be misused.”
He goes on to say, “The elves, in my opinion, are a fantastic illustration of how a character may be stereotyped to the point of being racially insensitive, since they were shown as untamed nomads with a completely different view of civilization. They saw property as communal rather than individual, which made them seem to city inhabitants as “simply a bunch of individuals you can’t trust.” You can’t be near them because they’ll seize your wagon and claim it as their own. They’ll just hop in it and drive away with it.’ I believe that’s a spot where, if someone wasn’t attentive, they might miscast them, but I believe that’s probably true in most narrative ideas.”
When it comes to Wizards of the Coast’s efforts to address such problems, Denning says, “This is a good thing, but I believe that today, more than ever, fiction of all types is being more cautious not to stereotype anybody, of any race or even species, in a bad manner, which I believe is sensible. To begin with, it generates more intriguing personalities, therefore it’s a wonderful thing to happen on that premise alone. If they republished Dark Sun and asked me to do it, I’d take a close look at it to make sure stereotypes weren’t being used negatively and that we were avoiding stereotypes as much as possible. I’m happy of all I accomplished in Dark Sun, but it doesn’t mean I couldn’t improve on it today.”
Brown, on the other hand, repeats a lot of what Denning argues about slavery in Dark Sun. “We always believed we’d put it in the game,” he adds, “but we’re the ones fighting against it.” He recalls having just watched Spartacus, a 1960 picture, at the time. It prompted him to develop a scenario in which players might participate in a recreation of the Third Servile War (the original Dark Sun Boxed Set introduced the gladiator class to the game, and gladiator arenas are fixtures of every city-state). Brown, on the other hand, is undecided about whether Dark Sun might be properly modified to appropriately address those difficulties.
Brown adds, “The hopeful me says yes, I believe it might be.” “If you massage those items well and include a lot of coaching in your text, such as, ‘Here’s how you should handle them as you play,’ no one will think these are amazing things. Fighting them is a bad thing to do. Stand up to them. That’s what heroes do,’ says the narrator. As a result, the upbeat me says yes.”
Brown, on the other hand, who quit social media years ago, isn’t convinced the endeavor is worth the risk, given the current state of online debate. “There is no such thing as negative PR,” he adds, using an ancient adage. “Today, there is a lot of poor PR, and that is terrible publicity. I believe you would spend the most of your time apologizing and moaning rather than playing the game. It would be quite tough. It’s really tough.”
However, although many fans would appreciate a new official Dark Sun version, it may not be required. As previously stated, Athas.org stepped in to fill the hole left by Wizards of the Coast’s decision not to support Dark Sun in D&D 3rd edition. It’s now simpler than ever to contribute ideas for a new Dark Sun via D&D Beyond, the Dungeon Masters Guild, and a variety of other internet venues and groups. It’s easy to discover playable fan adaptations of Dark Sun for D&D 5th edition by doing a simple online search. Denning, Brown, and Brom collaborated on the original Dark Sun documents, which are now available in legal PDF format.
Dark Sun, in other words, is still accessible to those who seek it out. There is no other D&D setting like it, nor one that is more in need of heroes, to this day. Those ready to embrace the challenge may still find adventure on the scorched globe of Athas.
“The Dungeons & Dragons” is a role-playing game that has been around for 30 years. It was originally created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in 1974. The game has changed over time, but the core of the game remains the same. As it turns out, this year marks the end of an era as Wizards of the Coast announced that they are discontinuing “Dungeons & Dragons” after its next release in September 2020. Reference: arena dark sun.
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