Monday, July 8, 2019

Spicing Up Dark Sun


Back in the day, I ran a few games of Dark Sun using D&D 2E. The books were mind-bending to read way back in 1991, both for the hard turn away from Tolkien tropes, as well as the escalation of attribute levels and abilities that, in hindsight, seemed to foretell a lot of the slap happy kewl powers of 4e.

I've heard that Dark Sun is being rereleased for 5e, and I see only one problem with that.

It is a boring setting, for me. Yes, there are lots of interesting ideas and bibs and bobs, but there is something lacking in the over-arching narrative.

Now, I'm not going to do an exhaustive rereading of all Dark Sun (TM) materials. I am just going to float an idea that should kick your Dark Sun game into overdrive. Use or ignore as you will, but if I ever run DS again, this is how it is going down.

(Note: Yes, I have only read the original boxed set and missed all the novels because I was done with it by then. If you like canon, knock yourself out, but keep reading for stealable inspiration)


You heard me, Dark Sun is the Mad Max of D&D worlds. Post apocalypse? Check. Marauding leather-clad freaks? Check. The only thing that is missing is high speed vehicle chases.

Or are they already there? I dimly recall a brief mention of large wheeled vehicles dwarves on Athas use to cross quicksand seas. What if these are not slow-moving barges like the Jawa sand crawler from Star Wars, but instead high octane, high speed trucks and cars? The only way not to sink into the sands is to go fast enough to escape their grip.

What if the magical apocalypse that killed off nature and magic in Athas instead created a reserve of oil used by dwarves to power their machines? Now things get interesting! The magical apocalypse has drained the world of mystical energy, and created the fuel that is unknowingly exacerbating the environmental collapse.

And it all starts with the dwarves:


Dwarves are the ones who keep the machines running. They have innate knowledge of mechanics, and can build or repair anything from a cistern well to a V8 engine, so they are valued and always captured in combat, never killed. They aren't hairy, because who needs that in a desert?


I always thought the running elves in sweatbands image was possibly the lamest part of Dark Sun, and possibly just a holdover from 80s health conscious culture. Instead, Athasian elves look like this:

Also this:

Whereas dwarves fix technology, elves fly it. They prefer to live on top of mesas or in eyries away from the desert riffraff, wearing archaic clothes, indulging in long forgotten vices, watching from afar through binoculars.


If I recall, there were no bards on Athas, as life had gotten too short and brutish.

See this guy?

THAT is your Athas bard.


See this kid? That's actually a halfling.

Halflings in Dark Sun use weapons they make out of desert glass. They act as vorpal swords, but can be easily shattered. Glass boomerang that cuts off your fingers? That is a staple Athas halfling weapon.


Half giants weren't created in magical experiments. Instead, the Defiler magic that sucked the juice out of the world also siphoned power away from magical creatures. Big and stupid, these guys are excellent bodyguards for dwarven mechanics, like this guy:

This means there will also be other misshapen, twisted versions of old Tolkien or fairytale animals out there. A unicorn that is more elasmotherium than the Last Unicorn, harpies that are more the sex witch from Conan than the flying busts of Harryhausen, all are par for the course on Athas.


Tough but impotent, these guys and girls are the elite troops of armies, as well as avowed hedonists. They'll cut off heads all morning then go to an Eyes Wide Shut party at night. Get along surprisingly well with elves.


These people hide their mystical abilities and instead accrue power through political means, aided with a judicious charm spell or saxophone solo.


But there are weird corners of Athas that do not map onto Mad Max so well, you might say. In that case, other inspirations can be drawn upon.


Giant insect warriors do not fit so neatly with Mad Max, on the surface. But Athas is a desert setting, and thus can easily incorporate other desert-set fantasy worlds. French manga legend Moebius created a setting called The Airtight Garage, a huge desert world filled with all kinds of weirdness that could easily spill out into Athas.

A Mul giving a Thrill-Kreen (jouk) larva attached to a person the old ultra violence.

In Moebius' world, the Jouk is a humanoid insect race of fierce warriors who impregnate people with their larva, take over their minds, and use these pawns to enslave or destroy whole communities. PC Thri-Kreen could be eunuchs, or in a dormant state, waiting for the time or a whiff of pheromone to turn against the party and impregnate them all.

In fact, there is tons of desert weirdness that could easily be ported over from Moebius. The warrior Arzach on his giant pigeon steed. Major Gruber roaming the desert in search of adventure. You can ever go down the rabbithole of Jordorowsky's Dune.


With all the cool shit I just gave you, you want to play a weak-ass kite dude? Seriously?

Sigh. OK.

Pterrans are these guys:

Brownie points if you know what film these flying terrors are from.


  1. Beast Master.

    I agree that Athas, despite some rather cool ideas, had a little bit of blandness to it. Halfling cannibals? Eh. Beardless dwarves? Totally blah. It’s like weirdness just for the sake of making D&D “different.”

    But post-magic-Apocalypse D&D isn’t a terrible basis for a setting. I’m not sure Mad Max vehicle chases are going to spice it up enough; what’s needed is more of a coherent “Fall” (of civilization).

    Now a re-skinned Gamma World might make for a tasty little Maxian setting...
    ; )

    1. Bingo!

      You got the point - it needs something to make it work. Gamma World, Mad Max, Moebius, whatever floats your boat. Weird for weirdness sake don't cut it.