How Do You Solve A Problem Like Dark Sun?
I’ve seen a lot of discussion on what the “other” classic setting will be for D&D 5e, and a lot of that speculation has been either that Dark Sun is a shoe in for this other setting, or that there is no way it can be Dark Sun. Before I go any further in my speculation, I want to point out that while I was following Dark Sun in 2nd edition and some of what happened in 3e with Dungeon and Dragon Magazine content, I wasn’t in the loop for 4e Dark Sun developments, other than some of the PC races being equivalent of existing 4e races (i.e. Goliaths = Half-Giants, etc.). I’m accepting that it was pretty popular at the time.
Why Dark Sun is a Shoe In
Dark Sun is easily one of the most distinctive settings for Dungeons & Dragons. You don’t have to spend time explaining the nuanced difference between elven culture in Dark Sun versus Dragonlance versus Forgotten Realms, it’s pretty evident. Dark Sun also has a very clear set of themes that go with the setting: ecological disaster, tyrannical rulers, harsh environment.
Artwork isn’t always the best way to express the differences in settings, but you only need to look at Dark Sun artwork, either the original Brom images or the newer 4e pieces, to see that the setting doesn’t look like other D&D settings. While it has a passing resemblance to a “swords and sandals” motif, there is also ubiquitous alien imagery as well.
Dark Sun also has the advantage of having D&D 4e support, meaning that people that adopted D&D during the 4e era have a touchstone for the setting. Unlike a lot of D&D settings that haven only had vague references since the AD&D 2e era, Dark Sun is only a little over a decade out of print.
Surely all of this means that Dark Sun is a shoe in to be the other famous setting revived, right?
Why Dark Sun is a Non-Starter
There are two big magically mutated pachyderms in the room when it comes to Dark Sun. While other D&D settings may reference enslavement in some cultures, and may discuss how some civilizations were wiped out, enslavement and genocide are part of the very near backstory of Dark Sun.
Every major city enslaves part of its population (depending on if you set this before or after Tyr’s uprising). The Sorcerer Kings came to power after fighting wars to wipe out entire non-human cultures. How successful they were varies depending on the edition you are playing, but the point is, there was a definite “humans need to wipe out these other people” vibe to the ascension of the Sorcerer Kings.
In addition to enslavement and genocide, there are a few more subtle, but still tricky, elements to the setting. For example, while the world itself is a strange and alien place that has developed from the collapse of a more traditional D&D fantasy setting, some of the city states were built around the concept of emulating cultures in the real world. Given that the Sorcerer Kings are uniformly bad, that means that any culture being emulated is also being associated with villainous enslaving villains who were willing to wipe out entire cultures.
One of the distinctive ancestries of the setting, the Mul, is also a big issue to deal with. Mul’s are sterile half-dwarf, half-human people that came about due to the Sorcerer Kings trying to make an enslaved population that had the best traits of both people. So now you touch on enslaved people being forcibly mated to produce offspring. I believe that 4e introduced the concept that a significant portion of Muls came about from intermarriage instead of abuses due to enslavement, which is a good start, but the origins, and the fact that the name is disturbingly close to “mule,” needs to be kept in mind.
While it’s easy enough to make novels “non-canon,” another issue Dark Sun has is that it’s first story arc in the Prism Pentad was a series of reasons why the heroes had to compromise their initial moral stances. For example, freeing the enslaved was seen as a good thing, but then they find out that Borys the Dragon comes around to collect tithe, and if they don’t give him X number of people, he’ll trash the city, and it was easier to hand over the enslaved than to get free citizen volunteers. The overarching story of the Prism Pentad made it very hard to make deep, lasting, long-term change in the setting, which in some ways was a means of maintaining the status quo of the campaign setting. Unfortunately, this status quo was to let genocidal rulers continue to enslave populations.
The Mechanical Challenges
D&D 5e has certain mechanical assumptions, and some of these would have to be addressed to make Dark Sun as distinctive as it was in previous editions.
- Defiling magic is destructive but more efficient than preserving magic
- Clerics draw power from the elemental planes instead of gods
- The primary source of Warlock powers would be from the Sorcerer Kings as outside entities aren’t really prevalent in the setting
- Most of the ancestries found in D&D should have distinctive changes to them for the setting
- Many traditional monsters shouldn’t appear in the setting
- Psionics were a big deal in the setting, and they don’t have a lot of mechanical presence in D&D 5e
That means that you may need some kind of mechanic to differentiate defiling and preserving magic, and since that distinction only existed for Arcane magic in previous editions, you would be defining or expanding on how magic is defined for D&D 5e.
Many cleric domains don’t seem appropriate for a Dark Sun game. Every domain that appears seems as if it would need to be thematically linked to Earth, Air, Fire, or Water.
At the very least, if you want Warlocks to have the choice of patrons beyond the Sorcerer Kings, you would have to define what powerful entities exist that can touch the plane and grant access to their magic, while still maintaining the boundaries between Athas and the wider cosmology.
The 5e default would be to just say that certain ancestries exist in the setting, but some ancestries, especially elves and halflings, really need to be repackaged in order to work in the setting. Similarly, some ancestries that have sub-ancestries don’t really have those in Dark Sun. Mountain dwarves and hill dwarves aren’t really distinct groups in Dark Sun, so you kind of need a singular Dwarf entry.
If you restrict standard beasts and monsters like standard D&D dragons and giants, you need to have an extensive list of monsters to use to make the setting unique. If you say that “not every standard monster fits this setting,” you need to provide guidelines and possibly a list of what monsters don’t fit the setting and why.
Look at Strixhaven, as an example. Strixhaven has to tell you what is unique in that setting, build monsters native to that setting, and create backgrounds for that setting. It doesn’t need to tell you what doesn’t belong there, because it touches multiple realities. The work on the setting is additive and doesn’t redefine the core D&D experience. That’s what can be tricky about a setting like Dark Sun.
The information we have on how WotC will be presenting Dragonlance may be a partial answer to how WotC might be able to handle Dark Sun. The Dragonlance adventure seems to be presenting an experience in the setting, rather than a sourcebook meant for ongoing play (not that it will be unsuited for that, it’s just not the focus). The experience is to let the players have a role in the War of the Lance, which has been identified as a core experience of the setting.
If you consider the overthrow of Kalak as a core experience of Dark Sun, you could present an adventure where you liberate Tyr. In this case, you can switch the focus from “the whole world runs on enslavement,” to “you are liberating the city,” without the pushback in the meta-story keeping the other Sorcerer Kings in place.
Some of the mechanical challenges still exist in this solution, but some of the weight of the Non-Starter issues can be alleviated. That said, you still have some tricky needles to thread. You don’t want anyone to be forced to play enslaved characters, but you also don’t want wealthy or free citizens to be the saviors to the enslaved population, taking away their agency. You still need to address half-dwarves and their place in the setting, as well as how to portray defiling and preserving as magical realities.
The Wild Card
What if they don’t want to present Dark Sun as an “experience,” versus as a long-term setting treatment. That might take some work, but I think you have to mess with some core assumptions, while still paying heed to the history of the setting. This could work, but if the changes don’t feel like a natural extension of the setting, you run the risk of having some of the backlash that happened with the D&D 4e changes to the Forgotten Realms. Maybe that won’t be as much of a problem if you have more of a fanbase that is brand new, which we know is the case with D&D 5e.
What if you had a new dragon raze all of the cities of the Tablelands, so that settlements are much smaller, and no longer tied to the enslavement of populations? Could you have the Sorcerer Kings as powers that have retreated to dungeon complexes under the surface, with Templars as their spies and agents in the world above? Would this shift in emphasis still capture enough of the old experience (harsh survival in an unforgiving world), without importing it’s more problematic elements?
The Obsidian Oracle
So, is Dark Sun going to be the other classic setting? I have no idea. I know it will take a lot of work. I know that if WotC attempts this setting, they really need to have a deep discussion in the product about agency and lines and veils, and the legacy of some story elements. While WotC has been adding a lot more regarding safety and inclusion, I feel like this would be a much deeper exploration if they want to get it right.
Dark Sun could end up being a lot of mechanical work for something that doesn’t translate beyond the setting. For example, when you make Magic the Gathering settings that have more powerful backgrounds, you can transfer that design work to other settings where you want to present more powerful backgrounds tied to the setting. If you provide mechanical weight to concepts like the difference between divine and arcane magic, and defiling versus preserving magic, are you going to carry that forward into other design work, or does it just live in your Dark Sun product?
So what else could be a classic setting that WotC would want to revisit if they don’t do Dark Sun? It really depends on if they are looking to capture a “key experience” like the Dragonlance book seems to be aiming for, or if they want a broader campaign setting book, like Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft or Eberron: Rising from the Last War.
If it’s more of an adventure to deliver an “experience” from the setting, it could be a lot of things, if you can isolate the key story from that setting. If it’s a more setting focused product over an adventure focused product, I think that narrows the field down to things like Planescape, which still have a lot of elements tied to the core D&D experience, and are generally just “additive,” not restrictive, with their presentation of a setting.