Thursday, April 3, 2008

Why Did the Dark Sun Burn Out?

EDIT: Here's a thread about this post on the Dragonsfoot Forums.

So, I have a weird love/hate relationship with the Dark Sun setting from long-dead TSR.

It was the third D&D setting I bought, after Dragonlance and the Forgotten Realms boxed sets. I really dug the fact that it was not another Tolkien ripoff, used the much-neglected psionics rules (which I really liked back in the day but never found a good chance to incorporate them into my games), ditched the pseudo-medieval trappings for something at once post-apocalyptic and pre-Greco-Roman at the same time (when I thought Athasian city-state, I thought of Ur or one of the other Bronze Age city-states in the Fertile Crescent region), and really created a look and feel that was unique among published D&D settings, and not that common even in other published RPGs at the time.

Yes, Dark Sun had Elves, it had Dwarves, it even had Halflings (hobbits...I hates me hobbits...). BUT, they weren't your "typical" Elves, Dwarves, and Halflings. The Elves were all untrustworthy bastards, the Dwarves were beardless and much more of a slave race than a "proud but dying race living under the mountains", and the halflings were a bunch of half-crazed jungle cannibals living on the edge of the world. Hello? Cannibal Hobbits? How effing awesome is that? Along with this you've got your Half-Dwarf slave-bred Muls, your Thri-Keen PCs (that's right, you get to play a seven-foot tall preying mantis badass), and even Half-Giants (yeah, you weren't that bright, but you were a freaking one-PC wrecking crew...).

So what went wrong? Why did Dark Sun wither on the vine just a few years after it came out? Granted, it showed up just a few years before TSR died out and D&D was bought up by WotC, but FR, Greyhawk, and DL soldiered on. Even Ravenloft re-appeared in the oughts, published by another company. A lot of good (or potentially good) settings died with that move, but Dark Sun had a unique appeal that could really have taken advantage of the "power up" that D&D got with 3E. But alas, it was not to be.

A couple of reasons come to mind. The first is that Dark Sun was challenging, but not very rewarding. We're talking a game so potentially deadly that players are told to create a "PC tree" of three characters because when (not if, when) one of them dies, you've got another PC ready to fall back on! We're talking a game where standard ability scores went up to 20, and that was BEFORE racial adjustments, which could take most demi-humans up to 22 in various stats (and Half-Giants could have a strength of up to 24, one shy of the maximum statline in the core 2E books...). Heck, 4d4+4 was the WEAKEST method of rolling PC stats in the book!

And yet, here's a setting where the big rewards of an andventure might be enough food and water to keep everyone alive and healthy for a few days, or a dagger made out of steel rather than bone or obsidian. Forget magical +5 greatswords that cast fireballs on command, or suits of full plate armor that turn you ethereal and let you fly, or chests filled with gold and sliver and gems. Just be happy that your character isn't starving, or dying of thirst, or drowning in the Silt Sea. That should be reward enough for Dark Sun players and their characters, right? There wasn't even the sort of "feast or famine" approach that a lot of Sword & Sorcery campaigns use - the idea that while PCs might amass great fortunes in an adventure, they will squander it all in gambling, booze, and whores to be left penniless in time for the next big adventure. Nope, it was a "be happy with what little you have, because it can be taken away at any time" approach, and I don't think that sat very well with players.

Another reason might have been the very things that make it unique - that TOO MUCH was changed in the natural way of playing what we know and love as "Dungeons & Dragons". Keep in mind that every PC had a Psionic wild talent, and not only was there the Psionicist class, you had two different kinds of cleric (Templars and Elementalists) as well as Druids, and you had both Defiler and Preserver mages. Magic became a LOT more complicated in Dark Sun, and once you throw Psionics into the mix, it became a lot to handle. Dark Sun was definitely not intended for newbie players or DMs, and I imagine with a big party things would have been terribly confusing.

Also, the presence of Psionics alone soured many players. Older players remembered Psionics from 1E and disliked them still in their newer version. Somewhat younger 2E-only players felt Psionics was either too weak or two powerful compared to the other classes (and some of the combinations of powers were indeed very dangerous, especially with Dark Sun attribute levels). Others liked the idea of Psionics in general but felt it should either exist in Science Fiction only (which to me is an odd belief, but one I see quite frequently), or if it was in a Fantasy setting, it should be there in place of magic, not in addition to it.

Beyond the mechanics and rules, there was also the setting itself. I personally like the whole post-apocalyptic genre, but if you look back at it, there's not much, erm...quality literary or theatrical background for it. Sure, you've got Mad Max, but how many people really wanted to play a D&D version of Mad Max? This sort of look and feel was considered a lot more "cheesy" than the traditional-fantasy D&D setting, which a lot of players still somehow clung to as representing a "serious" campaign setting, mostly because it emulated the most serious of all literary fantasy worlds - Middle Earth. I always thought this was a bit silly, since most of the post-apocalyptic type settings I've seen are incredibly bleak, harsh worlds with a lot of grim violence and savagery, while a lot of Middle Earth clones turn out to be little more than Elf & Hobbit tea parties.

And finally, there's the Prism Pentad - the five book series that introduced the Dark Sun world to readers of TSR fiction. They were pretty interesting (I'm re-reading the first one now, which is what prompted me to write this), but at the end...lets just say the series takes the boxed set's "current events" setting material and pretty much either lets loose what should be DM-only backstory (so you can't have your players read the books) or throws it out the window as very much old news and no longer applicable (lets just say at least one of the All-Powerful, Immortal Sorcerer-Kings of Athas gets hosed in the series). I know that a lot of DMs and players felt this somewhat ruined the setting for them in a big way, just as there were a lot of complaints about how the Dragonlance Chronicles ruined a lot of the DL setting material. Now granted, what happens in the TSR novels never has to happen in one's campaign setting, but it does carry a lot of weight, especially if the books are how your players got into the world or if you want to use them to introduce the world to the players.

So yeah, c'est la vie, I guess. I still think DS is a great setting with a lot of potential that went untapped. I would seriously consider doing a bit of re-vamping and applying another rules system to it - since most of the races and creatures are unique or uniquely altered to fit the setting, a creative GM has great latitude in doing whatever one wants to with it. I may just have to do a LBI re-write of Dark Sun as a creative exercise someday.


skeleri said...

I loved Dark Sun. Still want a reason to use that snazzy cloth map of the Tyr region that came in the second boxed set.

trollsmyth said...

Rumor has it that Dark Sun is one of the settings getting 4th edition treatment.

- Brian

taichara said...

Having literally picked up Dark Sun at the same time as Planescape and a few other shiny toys, I want to toss out my own two ceramics on the subject many months late ;3

Dark Sun is one of my favourite TSR creations; it loses its third place spot to something I'll address a mite later. It's definitely not for everyone, though, and I think you hit on a number of reasons why -- the scores, the psionics, and how PCs succeed (and die) in the setting.

It's possible to reap great reward in Dark Sun, but those rewards are more intangible than the usual D&D fare. Look at the supplements like Dune Trader and Veiled Alliance, or Earth Air Fire and Water and The Will and the Way -- powerful characters amass influence and / or small patches of territory, not loot. Wheeling and dealing and making webs of influence aren't the main focus of most D&D games, especially not when in conjunction with the type of world Athas was.

Then -- indeed -- there was the Prism Pentad. That alone might not have tripped up Dark Sun as a campaign setting, but the Revised Box certainly did. Suddenly ignoring the PP events just wasn't an option any longer; the whole world was redescribed and every supplement after the new box got weirder and weirder. (Dolphins? On Athas? And don't get me started about "life-shaping" halflings.)

One further wrinkle, though -- and one that I think tends to get missed when the Great Dark Sun debate comes up -- involves that which bumps DS out of third place for me.

Namely, Al-Qadim.

For the average gamer browsing around through piles of new material, having two different "desert settings" couldn't have been anything other than confusing, despite the fact that sand and elements are about the only similar points between the two (and those barely bridge a huge, huge gulf of differences). And faced with that confusion, I suspect most gamers would just go elsewhere.