One of the things I regret most about missing out on practically the entirety of the 2nd edition run of ADnD were the release of such fantastic campaign settings, Dark Sun in particular. (Other great campaign settings of the 2e era included Spelljammer, Birthright, an expanded Ravenloft, and Planescape for example.) Dark Sun brought together many of my favorite themes, from survival in harsh environments to the visuals of a post-apocalyptic world. Of lost, dying civilizations and a land corrupted and ruined by power-mad mortals. Of gritty fights for the meager scraps of wealth and beauty left in the world. Advanced magic and machines no longer understood and often running amok, and lands entirely forsaken to the living dead. Of a sun, blazing hot and glaring down. This was Dark Sun, the setting I always wanted to explore but never had the chance, until with surprise and cries of adulation, Wizards announced it would be the campaign setting next released.
With this knowledge, I began planning for the release. I always use settings of my own creation, and recently began a new campaign using 4th Edition DnD. This game took place in my own game world, known as D Erte, and was the second campaign to take place in D Erte. (Our 3rd edition game was in D Erte, and I moved the time-line ahead 100 years.) I wanted to begin this campaign in classic style, and so was running us through Keep on the Shadowfell but was setting the stage in small ways for the future. This included some subtle clues, such as a book titled Rise of the Dark Sun and the elf Ninaren had a mysterious past that went deeper than the module outlined. There were other clues and ideas which never made it into the game. at one point, Kalarel was goiunmg to unwittingly call the Dark Sun into this dimension or plane or something.
I am not too worried about going my own way, or breaking established lore. After all, this is my own game, played among friends, and I steal movie plots, character names, etc. all the time. Now I planned my biggest heist of all – I was going to steal the whole world of Athas.
My initial idea was very convoluted and strange, but one I am still very fond of. It involved a magical disruption in the flow of space whereby the world of Athas, more like our Mars, comes extremely close to the world of D Erte every 500 years or so. Close enough that the atmospheres of each world intermingle for the one year when the two planets are conjoined at the poles, before being torn asunder for the next half-milleneum. There was also a floating landmass upon which was a city at the point where the two worlds met. The landmass was divided in two, and each world kept its half until the planets came together. it was here that invasions would launch. Each city in the clouds took pains to prepare for the inevitable meeting. First there would be a speck in the sky, moving closer. Within hours the grinding of stone would rattle the city until the twin cities were reunited at last for one short year.
The gravitational disruption caused by this are what created the floating islands, and a whole string of earth-motes led to this city in the clouds above the North Pole of D Erte. This wild idea is definitely not in accordance with official lore of Dark Sun, but that doesnt matter. What matters is the story created around the table, and how that helps add to the fun of playing the game. My early campaign ideas revolved around Ninaren being from the far north, and she knew the concordance of planets was about to happen, and so she hatched a wild plan to invade Dark Sun by enslaving the elves of D Erte to be her invasion army. The party of Heroes was going to chase her to the North Pole, and then to the city between worlds, and finally, from there they would venture into Dark Sun, either to kill and capture Ninaren, prevent an invasion, or for whatever reason.
This idea evolved a long way to get to where we are today. Ninaren was killed during the climactic encounter of the Keep on the Shadowfell, and now the players are level 6 and have just crossed over through some sort of inter-dimensional rift. My goal was for the party to be sent, or trapped in Dark Sun with no known way to escape, and to arrive with a minimum of supplies. The method I used relied heavily on narrating the event, though the battle itself was real enough, the final result was that each character awoke from unconsciousness under a scorching but dark sun, in the middle of a high duned shifting desert, as far as the eye could see. They had each retained 2-4 prized possessions, depending on how well their skill challenge went the week before. (Preparing for the Doom that Awaits Ye)
From a dungeon mastering point of view, this allows me to wipe the slate nearly clean, so to speak, with items both mundane and magic in nature. The benefits of this are numerous, the main ones being that survival in the desert will be perilous without iron rations and canteens of water, the dozens of healing potions, etc. But more importantly, was that many weapons were given up in favor of magic items, thus they will be re-equipped with the non metal Dark Sun variety of arms and armor. The opportunity for the PCs to retain a few favored items is the true key to success without mutinous glares. They were disappointed in the loss, but it was made bearable and thus, more understood and accepted.
The few exotic and metal items that the party does have, the Greatsword of the White Rose for example, and the +4 dagger of sacrifice, will show signs of tarnish and rust if not constantly cared for, as Dark Sun is hard on metal. Already the PCs have found chunks of obsidian in the desert sands and have chipped and forged them into crude daggers. I will introduce the weapon breakage rules as soon as a melee natural 1 is rolled. This rule will apply to normal as well as magic weapons, and the magic weapons can be fixed with the mend ritual. This is more extreme than the official rules. As far as I know the official campaign world is not especially corrosive to metal, but I thought it added a neat twist, that the PCs have to constantly care for their beloved steel blades.
As far as magic items from D Erte, such as the magicians gloves of Poppy, they do not cause a defiling of the world, because the magic is contained within the item, and thus sealed from causing harm. It is only through the casting of arcane spells that the defiling takes place. This is an issue that will arise because of any arcane casters in the party. Mad Molly for example. Since I do not know the 4e rules for defiling vs preserving until tje official rules come out, I am improvising them. The first time our wizard cast a spell, she inured those around her and the sand granules under her feet literally exploded into silt. The plan I developed was for Molly to slowly learn how to control her magic so that it is no longer defiling the environment. In he end, I simplified by having her find a scroll which taught her the secret of preservation arcane magic.
Now that I had my characters torn from their world and thrown into Dark Sun, it was time to get planning. But before I plan out the epic campaign that awaits the band of intrepid adventurers I will go through a personal list of inspiration I draw for Dark Sun. For me, Dark Sun represents a trio of powerful themes: Post-apocalypse/sci-fi/fantasy.
For Post apocalyptic inspiration, my first real movie experience was Road Warrior. Recently Book of Eli and The Road offer compelling examples of the theme in film. The world of Dark Sun is also post-apocalyptic, as the wars that waged between the gods and the primordials, in which the latter won, also caused the wide-spread desolation of Athas. The species struggling to exist are survivors of that apocalypse. The novel (and movies) of Dune by Frank Herbert is a great desert-themed novel. One of my favorite desert-world sci-fi novels is the Faded Sun Trilogy by CJ Cherryh.
Early Mars and other planet spanning Science fiction captured the spirit of Dark Suns post-futuristic flair, where the adventurers rode air-boats and fought with swords. This is a world in which high or lost technology is indistinguishable from magic, and similar to Steampunk, often reside alongside one another. Ray guns and Magic Missiles away. Burroughs Carter of Mars books represent the pinnacle of this type of planetary romance, and I will have to admit that I focus on the futuristic elements perhaps more than the official party line. There are no ray guns or air ships in Official Dark Sun lore (that is reserved for Eberron) but here is an area where I bend the campaign closer to my idea of epic awesomeness. Another example that is more inspiration rather than whole-sale idea-theft is Flash Gordon. I recently re-watched the movie from 1980, and was shocked by it, but I have to admit that stylistically, it really captured my Dark Sun imagination.
There is definitely a retro-sci-fi theme happening in Dark Sun. And the fantasy is self-evident. Replace the ray guns with wands and the airships with flying carpets. Sorceror kings rule rather than immortal thought-emperors.