30 Years of Dark Sun

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the release of my favourite fantasy setting. October 1991 saw the release of the Dark Sun boxed set by TSR for AD&D 2ed.

When I say favourite fantasy setting, I don’t just mean for gaming, but overall. Books, movies, gaming, this is my favourite fantasy world.

I remember picking up the boxed set in my local (long since closed) gaming shop and being intrigued by it. When I got it home and opened it up and read it, I was amazed. Here was a world so unique, so different to any other fantasy world I had come across before. At the time, most fantasy was very similar, a fantasy world of vaguely medieval European influence. Dark Sun was nothing like that.

Here is the opening of the campaign setting journal that came with the boxed set;

I live in a world of fire and sand. The crimson sun scorches the life from anything that crawls or flies, and storms of sand scour the foliage from the barren ground. Lightning strikes from the cloudless sky, and peals of thunder roll unexplained across the vast tablelands. Even the wind, dry and searing as a kiln, can kill a man with thirst.

This is a land of blood and dust, where tribes of feral elves sweep out of the salt plains to plunder lonely caravans, mysterious singing winds call men to slow suffocation in a Sea of Silt, and legions of slaves clash over a few bushels of mouldering grain. The dragon despoils entire cities, while selfish kings squander their armies raising gaudy palaces and garish tombs.

This is my home, Athas. It is an arid and bleak place, a wasteland with a handful of austere cities clinging precariously to a few scattered oases. It is a brutal and savage land, beset by political strife and monstrous abominations, where life is grim and short.

That description right there just invokes everything you need to know, of a inhospitable world where survival is a struggle. And it was amazing. The artwork that went with it too, especially from Brom, really helped get a feel for the world.

For those who haven’t run across Dark Sun before, it is well worth. Athas, the world of Dark Sun, was once a pleasant world, but magic was fuelled by life energy, and spell casters plunged the world into an ecological disaster through rampart and greedy use of magic. Civilisation, what remains of it, clings on in a few city-states on the few remaining patches of fertile land, ruled over by tyrannical and all powerful Sorcerer-Kings and Queens. The races, those that have survived, bear little resemblance to their traditional fantasy counterparts. Metals is rare and water is a precious resource to fight and kill for. And everywhere there are deserts.

Yeah, a very different world. The creators of the setting, Tim Brown and Troy Denning, and its best known artist, Gerald Brom, were recently interviewed for the 30th anniversary of the release of the setting, going into how it all came about as well as other thoughts on Dark Sun, including thoughts on if it could have been released in current times or not, and on the direction the setting took after they were no longer working on it.

If there is one world that I wish I could have created, it would have been Dark Sun. Of course, my version would have been a little different – I tend to stick to a vision of it as first seen through the original boxed set. A lot of what was released later on, including the metaplot and revealed history of the setting I would have ignored, but most of that is fairly irrelevant when playing the game. When you are out on the desert with no food or water, being stalked by hungry braxat, the history of the world doesn’t matter much. In this regards I am a bit of a original boxed set purist – or heretic, depending on your view.

But one thing the setting did do is heavily influence my view on what fantasy could be. It didn’t have to be knights and castles and dragons in a psuedo-European setting. It could be something else entirely. And ever since then it has fashioned the way I have GMed and written. It may not always be front and centre, but something of Dark Sun seeps into the fabric of all those worlds I have played with and made them different.

And it is for that reason I am eternally grateful for Dark Sun. It may have been a brutal world where life was cheap but it made me a better GM and writer for it.

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