2400 Dark Sun Campaign Setting Review




The original Dark Sun Campaign Setting was released in October, 1991. Its design team of Troy Denning and Timothy B. Brown, along with Mary Kirchoff and artist Gerald Brom took what was assumed to be the dull task of creating what was ultimately an elaborate ad campaign to boost sales of TSR's BATTLESYSTEM and The Complete Psionics Handbook, and transformed it into one of the deepest and artistic products that ever came out of the 90’s.

This product defies corporate ideas about what a RPG should be, and in doing so, became very important, not just to the users who love this setting, but it pushed RPG design into a new direction. Dark Sun breaks many of the traditional rules and ideas that governed RPG design at the time: it ignored the formula for achieving game balance, it perfected and applied the meta-game in a functional way that favored the user over the company, it . . . well, it broke a lot of new ground. This game is important on so many levels that it makes talking about it in a cohesive way very difficult.

The exact product that we’ll be looking at today is 2400. It is the original boxed set, and it contained so many rules changes, that it worried TSR Executives so much that they had to go back and increase the influence of AD&D; which they ended up doing, but twisting the traditional concepts in very creative ways that still made Dark Sun unique. 

Most of TSR's titles are full of things that, honestly, you can  do yourself. You are paying to have lots of work done for you, but the tropes and elements within the setting are all things that follow a default setting. If we create a map, and just apply the principles of the Core Rules, we still end up with Forgotten Realms. Dark Sun is not Forgotten Realms. The designers actually earned their money with this product, creating new design and achieving something that we folks at home couldn't really come up with by ourselves; not on this level anyway! They got paid for their efforts, and thought deeply about ways to take a dumb concept like “War World” and make into a professional quality game with its own identity and design. The concepts introduced are elegant and unique, they not only allow the game to function differently, but they push the users in a direction that, up to that point, TSR had been pushing them away from.

This is not a game for new users. Dark Sun was designed for very advanced tables that have almost become jaded with traditional fantasy tropes. It has been well documented on the Web that this is a very difficult game, but what hasn’t been discussed is what makes it so hard to play. It isn’t just the mechanics, it isn’t just the combat, nor that PCs will die, it isn’t even the imbalanced nature of the game; what makes Dark Sun so challenging is that it attacks you on a psychological level. Unlike most games where the players are limited in what they can do by their characters, in this game, the characters are limited and held back by us.

All that stuff that players are used to doing: saving little villages against bullies, defending lawful kingdoms from evil enemies. All of that clear cut Good vs. Evil stuff goes right out the window. By the time that you start playing Dark Sun, those wars and struggles had ended centuries ago, and the good guys lost.

Dark Sun isn’t a war game, it is a survival game. The players who are used to being in control of their own destinies, and like to feel important to the story, aren’t. The characters that they will be playing are strong enough to take over typical AD&D settings, but here, they aren’t worth the salt in their own tears. This world is brutal, and it affects the people playing in it. Many clubs who start playing Dark Sun quit, they make up excuses that the setting is too preachy, or complain because they don’t seem to be getting anywhere; these are cop-outs. Dark Sun is difficult because it forces us to think and play differently than we had to before. All of the weak and helpless are gone, going murder hoboing isn’t just a PC strategy that they share with the villain, this is a way of life. Characters in Dark Sun aren’t nice, there is a moral ambiguity to everything, and always a feeling of isolated repression that most players of RPGs just aren’t ready for.

The fact that whatever you think that you earned yesterday, you have to defend today; makes  any victory or a sense of gain far and in between. We are talking about a world where finding a weapon made out of copper is a huge deal! There just aren’t enough resources to go around, and that leads to some very very dark sessions. Even the DM is not exempt from the cruelty of Dark Sun, as we’ve got to enforce the rules and amp up our capacity to concoct evil acts that go way beyond the standards of the typical game. This isn’t a horror game (the ideas behind horror are almost romantic in nature and execution), Dark Sun is a metaphor for much darker lines of thinking that cause emotional and psychological discomfort because, unlike other settings, we really wouldn't want to go to this place, but we fear that one day we might just be forced to.

The Rules book within the box will be used by both Players and the Dungeon Master regularly. All of the classic races have been twisted to fit the setting, and new, more powerful playable races have been added. Players are able to exceed the standard ability scores, and are encouraged to create super characters, as they will be very hard to keep alive. At all times the players must have at least 3 characters ready to go, they can choose one of them to play for that session. Characters are also started at a higher level than normal; because of the conditions on Athas, there are no low level characters. The world is more dangerous than normal, but honestly, a really good player can keep a character alive, especially if you’ve been playing 2nd Edition for a long time, but it does let the DM be more aggressive then he typically would be. The level of risks that one must take to get by here are high. The enemy is typically desperate, so fights to the death are typically the rule, not the exception.


Classes have also been introduced which would normally only be associated with villains, if you want to play a Templar, for instance, and serve under a Sorcerer King, you can, and you’ll get the same benefits as the NPCs do. How this translates into a cooperative game is left to the party to figure out.

I’m sure that everyone who is reading this knows all of these changes already, so I won’t go into it to much. This is a basic introduction to a very large world which is supported by modules and novels, however since everything has been completed, the DM has even more options than he did at the time that this product was currently being circulated. If the DM wants to run this according to core, or just build upon the basic concepts Dark Sun supports either/or.

The second booklet is the Wanderer’s Journal, which presents the setting to the Dungeon Master. It helps the user understand the culture and gives adventure ideas. They also added a short story called “A Little Knowledge”, as this is meant to be a literary style game. The module included with the Setting is a bit odd, it included two flip books, one for the Dungeon Master, and one for the Player Characters. Art is very important to this setting, not just for the users, the dedicated artist of Dark Sun, Gerald Brom, was instrumental in the games overall design. He would draw characters, places,  and items, and the writers would come up with ways to introduce them into the game. Historically, this was the first TSR product that incorporated a dedicated professional artist which was responsible for capturing the unique look and feel of a setting. It is up to the DM if they want to use the flip books or not,there is enough potential material here to play the game without the published adventure.

A SUCCESSFUL META-GAME


Typically the meta-gaming concept always benefits the company as it allows a product to be re-marketed and repackaged again and again and again. It involves reworking the map, dramatically altering the setting, and enforcing DM PCs disguised as NPCs. Typically the DM’s first task of prepping a new setting is finding these elements, and minimizing or eliminating their impact upon the game itself. Forgotten Realms didn’t need the Spell Plague, it didn’t benefit the users at all. The Lords of Ravenloft are simplified and pointless characters that anybody could create themselves and a successful game is achieved by completely ignoring them during play. Dark Sun is a meta-game, but the meta-game has been properly incorporated into the system, and allowed to function where it belongs, in the background.

There are major NPCs; however they are actually functional, it is up to the players to identify them and decide if the character should be eliminated or not. How a character being removed from the board will impact the game according to the needs and the creative whims of the DM. What these major players are doing impacts the game, but it does so in a way which frees up the DM to run the game better. The challenge in running these scenarios comes in micromanaging the party; the primary and daily goals for the PCs is always satisfying basic needs first, gathering resources enough to risk practicing higher ideals is where the true heroics of this game come through. To have predictable characters in the background is a blessing for the DM, not a curse.

THE DARK SUN SOAPBOX

This game is very different than any other setting published by TSR, this rises above just a game where people sit around the table and play pretend: the design, the function, the story, all of it combined with the imaginations and development through individual play results in something that is art. Dark Sun is social commentary, it uses metaphors and deals with very adult and complex issues which are directly mirrored by real life. That results in something that, while uncomfortable to play, provides a fascinating experience that is unique to it.

All of the people who started playing Dark Sun and quit because it was disturbing never got to the true heart of the setting itself; it is easy to be blinded by the violence, the wickedness, the unfathomable odds stacked against you, but you also get to experience an element here that isn’t as pure in other settings: Hope.

This game is amazing and fun, but very different from anything that you will play. It will be a very trying and grueling experience, but a very rewarding one as well. It has the potential to take a great player and make them even better. If you want to escape from the Tolkien influence and discover brand new challenges this is the product for you.

I think that many of us want to play evil characters to exercise demons or just to cut loose. This game allows users to do that, and continue to learn from the experience. Evil consumes itself, and that is exactly what is going on in Dark Sun. While in the short term it feels like you aren’t getting anywhere; that there are no real rewards to what you are doing, in the long term game Dark Sun, unlike standard D&D, allows you to actually feel a huge sense of accomplishment, especially if you are able to answer the challenge of this miserable dying world in a meaningful way.

I give this product an A+. This is perhaps the greatest thing that TSR accidentally released. It wasn’t directed at their target audience of novice consumers, but at experienced users who desperately needed a challenge, and were hungry for new ways to play without sacrificing design. For a hard to hit demographic, it exceeded my expectations. As far as the relevance to modern gaming; the days of living under the threat of The Bomb have returned, so yes. The ideas and fears which inspired this game are not out of date.

Now, this specific product is the introduction to Dark Sun; it will get you started. Two other boxsets fleshed out the system, and in 1995 Dark Sun was revised, and while that set is more complete and better written than this one, I feel that in order to have the greatest potential at the table, it is this original box set that you should get. This is Athas in its purest form, warts and all, and not to sound like an elitist, but if the DM can’t tailor the original to fit his club’s needs, then they probably aren’t ready to run it yet.

In the last 10 years the desire for this product has increased the price. While I always prefer to have hard-copies, the PDF is definitely an option. The ideas behind Dark Sun is what matters, one can print off the material that is required to run the game, and leave the rest on your PC and do just fine.  

The legacy of Dark Sun was as epic as the game itself, users updated it to 3e, unfortunately it was softened in the process. 4e also took a crack at it, but the 2nd Edition Setting is the one that offers the greatest amount of potential and challenge. It is this specific timeline that will shape the game into a unique experience, and it really is a shame when people skip it.

2 comments:

Pedro Obliziner said...

great Ode to dark sun, I liked it. And made me want to play it soon

Ripper X said...

Thanks Pedro! I'd like to play it soon too, but this one is kind of hard to find players for. That and I can only DM 1 game at a time. Time, there just isn't enough of that!

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