Amid the barren wastelands of Athas lie the scattered city-states, each in the grip of its own, tyrannical sorcerer-king. Protecting their own positions with dark magic, they demand absolute obedience. The restless mobs are placated with bread and circuses --the arenas overflow with spectators seeking release from their harsh lives.
The land outside the cities belong to no one. Savage elves race across the deserts while insectoid Thri-Kreen satisfy their taste for blood. Dwarves labor at projects beyond the scope of men, and feral halflings lie in ambush.
Athas is a land of deadly magic and powerful psionics that offers promise of glory or even of survival. Those who do not have the cunning to face life on Athas will surely perish - leaving nothing but bones bleached white under the blistering rays of the DARK SUN
On the sands of Athas you'll face
- Three new PC races!
- Muls - half-dwarf, half-human; specially bred for combat!
- Thri-Kreen - the savage mantis-warriors of the Barrens!
- Half-giants - bred for tremendous size and strength
- Three new PC classes!
- Gladiators - heroes of the arenas, the ultimate warriors!
- Templars - Wicked priests who serve the sorcerer-kings!
- Defilers - wizards whose powers drain the life around them!
- More powerful PC's
- All Dark Sun game characters begin at 3rd level!
- Ability scores that can go as high as 24!
- All PC's have one or more psionic powers!
- The new character tree allows players to advance many characters at once!
The Dark Sun Boxed Set (1991), by Timothy B. Brown and Troy Denning, is the supplement that kicked off the popular Dark Sun product line for AD&D 2e.
Origins. In 1990, the TSR higher-ups, worried about decreasing interest in Dragonlance, decided they needed a major new campaign world. They also decided that Battlesystem Second Edition (1989) needed a tie to a campaign world in order to be successful. Somewhere along the way, it was determined that the new setting would also support PHBR5: The Complete Psionics Handbook (1991), which introduced psionics to AD&D 2e play. The result of these varying directives was a design overseen by Steve Winter and created by Timothy B. Brown and Troy Denning that was initially called "War World".
Battlesystem would be integrated into the first few Dark Sun supplements, but this tie would soon be dropped. This Psionics connection was more long-lasting; psionics are ubiquitous in the Dark Sun world of Athas, something that was quite unique in D&D gameplay.
However, the demand for a new campaign world and the tie-in to certain supplements didn't tell Brown and Denning what the world was going to be like. They decided that Dark Sun would satisfy the "Conan or John Carter vibe", something that they thought was missing from existing settings. They began work on a savage, post-apocalyptic world that would be entirely unique in D&D.
By the time Dark Sun was released, some of this uniqueness had been reduced a little. At first the setting wasn't going to have any standard D&D races or monsters, but TSR's marketing department was uncomfortable with this idea. As a result, the Dark Sun designers added back standard races with wicked twists (like cannibalistic halflings!); they complained a bit at the time, but later said that the result was stronger than their original plans.
About the Artist. Dark Sun also had some of its origins in the works of Gerald Brom. His picture of Tyrian gladiator Neeva was completed before he knew anything about the setting and was what made Brown and Denning choose Brom to become the setting's main illustrator.
Because of Brom's strong aesthetic, Dark Sun became TSR's first "artistic" setting, with a firm artistic vision created by a single illustrator. Similar models would be used for some later settings, most notably Planescape (1994), which is well known for the art of Tony DiTerlizzi
Continuing the AD&D 2e Worlds. By 1991, TSR was publishing a new campaign setting every year, and so Dark Sun joined its two 2e predecessors: Spelljammer (1989) and Ravenloft: Realm of Terror (1990).
Beginning the Dark Sun Series. Following in the footsteps of the previous 2e setting lines, Dark Sun was supported by both adventures and sourcebooks, though the module coding for those lines was very erratic. Adventures appeared in the "DS", "DSQ", "DSE", and "DSM" lines, while sourcebooks appeared as "DSR" and "DSS" — with no apparent rhyme or reason behind the changes.
Dark Sun was also supported by novels from the beginning. The first five-book series was written by setting co-author Troy Denning, starting with The Verdant Passage (1991) and continuing through the entire "Prism Pentad" series. These novels quickly advanced the metaplot of Dark Sun and were also closely tied to the first few adventures, DS1: "Freedom" (1991) and DSQ1: "Road to Urik" (1992).
At the time TSR had already started playing with metaplot through Forgotten Realms events like Avatar (1989) and Empires (1990). However, Dark Sun was the first setting that had metaplot built in from the start, and it was TSR's only setting to ever lay out such a rapid and dramatic plot advancement.
Laying Out the Boxed Set. In the early '90s, TSR had a standard format for their boxed sets: two 96-page books, three or four big maps, and a pile of cardboard sheets. You can see this formula in Dark Sun, which includes a 96-page "Rules Book", a 96-page "Wanderer's Journal", two major maps, and a poster. However, Dark Sun also got to expand beyond those standards, probably as a result of the extra support that management was throwing its way. As a result, Dark Sun also included two unique spiral-bound "flip books" and a short booklet.
Beginning the Flip Book Adventures. Dark Sun was a box full of innovation, and the spiral-bound flip books were a large part of that.
The first spiral-bound book was the "Player Aid Cards". This was artwork to be shown to the players, an idea that TSR had originated way back in S1: "Tomb of Horrors" (1978), but which was pretty uncommon by the 2e era.
The second spiral-bound book was the "Dungeon Master's Book", which included the actual adventure. However, it was a non-traditional adventure for the time period: it was split into individual encounters that included specific sections for "Setup", "Roleplaying", "Statistics", and other important elements. Each encounter also ended with a list of which encounters the GM should "flip" to next, based on what the players did. The result was the sort of event-driven adventure that was common in 2e days, but with very different, easy-to-use formatting and with more room for player choice.
The flip-books were complemented by a "Story Book" that contained a short story, "A Little Knowledge", which introduced the adventure.
This innovative format would be used throughout the Dark Sun adventures, beginning with DS1: "Freedom".
Expanding AD&D. Dark Sun also dramatically innovated the AD&D game, taking it in new directions that had been unseen in the decades before.
- Characters were more powerful, with stats rolled on 5d4, beginning with more funds, and starting at third level.
- The classic but "twisted" races were complemented by totally new races: the half-giants, the muls, and the insectoid thri-kreen.
- Many traditional classes were also transformed. Because there were no gods, clerics were powered by the elements. Wizards could be preservers who protected Athas' ruined environment or defilers who made it worse. Psionicists were also used as a standard class for the first time in any setting.
- Even more varied classes such as the gladiators and templars also appeared.
- Experience points were expanded with new rules for individual class awards that gave out points for acting in-character for a class.
Gaming Tropes. One rules change deserves an additional comment: the "character tree". Over the years, D&D had become focused on the idea of each player playing just one character, but by the '90s other games such as Ars Magica (1987, 1989) were challenging that idea. Dark Sun was the only latter-day D&D game to ever embrace this change; it did so through "character trees" where each player had four different characters and could decide who to play in each individual game.
Writing Tropes. Finally, Dark Sun also innovated the role of fiction in a game world. Not only did it include fiction for players to read, but it also included first-person narratives in the rule books themselves.
Expanding Athas. Dark Sun was of course the introduction to the world of Athas. Unlike the traditional settings of the Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, and Mystara, Dark Sun detailed just a small part of the world of Athas called the Tyr Region. Future books would continue to extensively detail this relatively small area of Athas over the course of the original Dark Sun run (1991-1995).
In order to introduce Athas, Dark Sun offered a big overview of the society of the Tyr Region, as well as short notes on many of the major cities and other areas in the region.
Future History. Dark Sun was one of TSR's more successful product lines in the '90s. It ran from 1991-1995 and was then released in a Revised & Expanded edition that lasted through 1996. Afterward it faded out, as D&D moved from TSR to Wizards of the Coast.
During the 3e era, Athas was kept alive with Wizards of the Coast's blessing by the fans at athas.org, then it reappeared for 4e as the Dark Sun Campaign Setting (2010). Most recently, in 2013, co-designer Timothy Brown kickstarted his own setting, "Dragon Kings", which he called his "spiritual successor to Dark Sun".
About the Creators. In 1991 Brown & Denning considered themselves the newcomers at TSR, and were willing to take on the Dark Sun line when no one else was. Of course by that time, Brown already had a decade of experience at GDW while Denning had been working with Mayfair Games since the mid '80s.
Neither author worked much on the Dark Sun roleplaying line after the release of this box. Brown only wrote the Dragon Kings (1992) hardcover, while Denning moved over to fiction with his work on the Prism Pentad series (1991-1993).
About the Product Historian
The history of this product was researched and written by Shannon Appelcline, the editor-in-chief of RPGnet and the author of Designers & Dragons - a history of the roleplaying industry told one company at a time. Thanks to Robert Adducci for Dark Sun advice. Please feel free to mail corrections, comments, and additions to firstname.lastname@example.org.