Dark Sun, Nerdstalgia

Athas Revealed or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dragon

I thought this would be much, much easier to write. I was going to take the time to really dig my teeth into the classic Dark Sun that I played when I was in high school – what it was, why I loved it. I mean I can list off a dozen things about it that were just amazing off the top of my head without break a sweat – surely it’s not so big a deal to talk about those things in a little detail?

Sadira, in a Tyrian alleyway, by Brom.
Sadira, in a Tyrian alleyway, by Brom.

What did I like about Dark Sun? What didn’t I like about Dark Sun is the more appropriate question.

It’s like losing my virginity. I liked it – quite a bit. When it comes to the first time I had sex, it was good (for me at least), no doubt about that. But if you were to ask me to provide a detailed review of the five best parts of the experience, I’d be lost. Like I am now.

So all I can say is that I’m going to try. I’ll do my best. I’ve started and scrapped this post twice now, so hopefully this time it comes together. I’m just going to name the things that really stick out for me, and talk about them a bit.

Brom

An Athasian gladiator, by Brom.
An Athasian gladiator, by Brom.

The artwork of Brom is amazing. Incredibly visceral and potent, imagery that just makes your imagination POP! I’ve liberally peppered a couple of my favorite Brom Dark Sun pieces through this post, the guy is amazing. And he was a part of Dark Sun from the beginning. In many ways, his art guided and shaped the creative direction of the project. Before Troy Denning wrote the Prism Pentad, there was the work of Brom – who made Dark Sun, visually, the most unique setting TSR ever put out. I mean, yeah, Aragorn son of Arathorn looks cool in his dark cloak or his gleaming breastplate – but look at that gladiatrix on the right. Look at that weapon she’s holding – is she going to hit me with it, or penetrate me with it? I don’t know – I don’t want to know. Look at the artwork, go to his website. Middle-Earth, this place is not.

Racial Stereotypes

One of the things that struck me, immediately, about Dark Sun was how they had decided to keep the traditional fantasy races while simultaneously throwing everything you thought you knew about them out the window. The quote below is from the original Dark Sun book – see if you can guess who they’re talking about. (“Athas” is the name of the planet, FYI).

The Dragon of Athas, by Brom.
The Dragon of Athas, by Brom.

“The dunes and steppes of Athas are home to thousands of tribes of nomadic _____. While each tribe is very different culturally, the _____within them remain a race of long-limbed sprinters given to theft, raiding, and warfare.”

A nomadic, tribal people given to theft, raiding and warfare? Sounds like orcs – but actually a description of elves. Dwarves are more recognizable, but still different. I’m not even going to go into halflings today. Gnomes don’t even exist on Athas (maybe some other time I’ll tell the story of why Jeff Grubb is to blame for the genocide of Athasian gnomes).

The point is that Dark Sun wasn’t afraid to change things up, experiment, try something genuinely different. By way of comparison, let’s look at the other D&D settings from the time period. Greyhawk: the original D&D setting, very clearly inspired by Middle-Earth and Tolkien’s tropes. Forgotten Realms: same deal, just bigger. Ravenloft? Some cool gothic horror elements, but applied to the same medieval European paradigm. Hell, even Spelljammer (which was a cool, wonky setting) can basically be summed up as “Middle Earth with spaceships”. The only other setting to get really out there was Planescape, and it didn’t reinvent the wheel so much as warp and exaggerate it to amazing proportions. I might as well come clean right now, the word unique is probably going to keep cropping up.

The Price of Power

Short summary: magic fucks the world up. Basically, the whole concept of “magic” is that you’re drawing on some sort of power or energy that exists outside yourself. Only, on Athas, that source isn’t some omnipresent “Weave” or intellectual concept – you’re siphoning the life energy out of plants to power your spells. Which can, you know, kill them. Did I mention that Athas is a harsh desert world, mostly barren and lifeless? I wonder how that happened.

Magic-users that just suck up energy, killing wildlife for the power it brings them, are called defilers. The ones who draw their power more slowly, thus not killing everything around them are called preservers. And the entire, dying world stands as evidence of the fact that defiling magic is a short-sighted, selfish path to power at the expense of everyone and everything around you.

Yes, I see the global warming metaphor. Not sure that’s what they were going for, but whatever. In that case I guess psionics (which I discuss below) are…biofuels? Solar power? The symbolism may be getting away from me here.

A sorcereress of Athas, by Brom.
A sorcereress of Athas, by Brom.

Magic tends to get taken for granted in fantasy. I’m sure you’ve seen the Lord of the Rings movies – think of when the Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli confront “the White Wizard” (Gandalf, not Saruman) in Fangorn Forest. Gandalf blinds them with a blast of brilliant light, deflects Legolas’ arrows and Aragorn’s throwing dagger, then magically causes Aragorn’s sword to heat red-hot so he drops it (I’m going from memory, so I may not have all the details exactly right). Now imagine if, to do all that, he killed every tree within a 30 yards radius. Nothing flashy – they just turned a sort of sickly grayish color as the life was litterally drained out of them, and over the next week they died off. Even worse, the ground itself was tainted so that nothing else would grow in that spot for decades.

Welcome to Athas.

The Will and the Way

So I’m guessed most people reading this blog know what the term ‘psionic’ means, but just in case I’ll define it: wonky brain powers. Psychic abilities. Telekinesis. Such powers don’t come from an external source, like magic does, but from the deep well of mental focus and potential within. This potential, possessed universally on Athas, is known as the Will. Those individuals who choose to study and focus on developing these powers are called psionicists (a term that didn’t get past 2nd Edition, but more on that some other day), students of what Athasian’s call the Way.

Psionic rules, it should be noted, have been a part of D&D since pretty much the beginning. But always tacked-on, always optional, and always broken. One of the coolest things about psionics was that anyone could use them – the concept was called the wild talent, and basically every character got a random chance (like 2% or 3%) of having one. A wild talent was typically one weak psionic power (called “devotions”) you could use – by way of comparison a 1st-level psionicist knew something like 4 devotions and 2 stronger powers (called “sciences”). Also your power was determined randomly – meaning your power didn’t necessarily complement your character. A melee fighter might have a power that was only decent at range – or that might not have any combat application whatsoever. Integrating your wild talent into your character was always kind of cool, I thought.

The gladiator Neeva, by Brom.
The gladiator Neeva, by Brom.

Dark Sun incorporated psionics and made them an intrinsic part of the setting – as much as allegorical Christ-lions were to Narnia. Every player gets a wild talent, period. A significant percentage of the global population has some, mild psionic affinity (though not everyone – all players get a wild talent, but this does not correlate to the global population). Much like how magic skullfucked the ecology, the incorporation of psionics set the world apart – shifting the flavor from brutal fantasy to post-apocalyptic, which is traditionally a science-fiction subgenre.

This is starting to get a little long, so what I’m going to do is rattle off a handful more things that deserve an honorable mention, without going into as much detail, or we’ll be here forever:

  • The world is trying to kill you. Athas is one harsh motherfucker of a planet and it will fuck your shit up, son. Water is scarce, the desert is hot, and the fucked-up alien ecology is full of things that want to eat you. And don’t get any ideas – the cities are no safe haven of law, order and safety.
  • The sorcerer-kings. They rule the cities. I’m not going to start, because they deserve a post on their own some day – but they absolutely merit an honorable mention.
  • Gray morals. The paladin character class has always been (at least until 4th Edition) the gleaming beacon of hope, charity and pure goodness – expected to protect the weak, show mercy to their foes, and ultimately set an example for all. The Dark Sun setting book explicitly removes the paladin from the game – because there is no room for that kind of soft-hearted shit on Athas. Trust me, paladin-fans, they did you a favor – paladins wouldn’t last five fucking minutes. Kill or be killed is, more often than not, the rule of thumb on Dark Sun.
  • Metal poor. Metal is incredibly scarce on Athas – there’s only one iron mine that still exists (near the city of Tyr), and it’s of incredibly poor quality. Which means a few things – you never see suits of plate mail or metal armor (costs aside, they’re impractical on a desert world). Most weapons are made from alternate materials: wood, bone, obsidian, chitin. This one simple fact of the planet’s economy shifts everything again: from the classic Aragon in his silver breastplate to Conan in his loincloth.
  • The Arena. Living on Athas sucks. Given that, it’s little surprise that each of the city-states has a giant fucking arena in which the downtrodden masses get to watch gladiator-slaves fight to the death for their amusement. The ancient notion of bread and circuses is thoroughly in force in the city-states. I’m sure I’ll talk about this again, as well – I’m a big sucker for Roman history, and the gladiator games in particular always fascinate me.

We’re working our way to talking about DS4E, I swear. Next time, I’m going to touch on the shift in design philosophy over the last decade-plus of Dungeons & Dragons – the change in mindset and attitude as 2nd Edition transitioned to 4th Edition. A fairly strong case could be made that, philosophically, Dark Sun in many ways best exemplifies the old school of game design – and, as such, is incompatible with the newer editions. More on that next time.