This morning, after a somewhat surreal misadventure with the local bus service – about which I’ll post, maybe, another day – I went and dug out my one-volume Italian edition of Troy Denning’s Prism Pentad – the five novels set in the old AD&D setting known as Dark Sun. The thing is like a dictionary, a small-print, bullet-proof hardback that weights two kilograms, and that will make reading in bed a health hazard.
The reason I decided to go back to Dark Sun is somehow connected with a future writing project (remember what I told you? Announce you’ll write your own things, and new gigs pop up like that) , but as I am doing research and taking notes, I thought I might one day set up a game, to have a little fun with my friends.
Originally published in 1991, Dark Sun was the first attempt by T$R to try and break away from classic, European-medieval, Tolkienesque garden variety fantasy. Fronted by the striking art by Brom, Dark Sun was something completely different, a brutal sword & sorcery setting that owed more to planetary romance and Dying Earth fiction than to high fantasy.
The action takes place on Athas, a dying world of scorched deserts and razor-sharp mountains, ravaged in the past by the abuse of magic, and in which a handful of city-states hang on to what passes for a civilization, vying for control over the Tablelands. Life is nasty, brutish and short. Water, food and metal are scarce. There are no gods, and magic is as powerful and dangerous as nuclear power – more, probably. Psionics are a force to be reckoned with. Gladiatorial games are your basic form of entertainment. There’s elves, yes, but they are mighty strange.
Filled with creatures straight out of old scientific romance, with an overabundance of slithery, scaly, armored beasts and giant insects, Dark Sun admittedly fired the imagination of the munchkins – a game in which you could play a dual-wielding, psionically-endowed cannibal halfling gladiator was the wet dream of all those that favored a “kill & maim” approach to gaming; indeed, the presence of these players somewhat kept me at a distance from the setting for a while. But once I got to know the world of Athas, I saw the huge opportunities it could provide – not only for rough action and harsh consequences, but for exploration, survival, and adventure. For roleplaying, if you will.
Maybe counter-intuitively, the merciless world with its history of violence and hard knocks requires a more nuanced approach and more sophisticate players than your vanilla elves & dragons sort of game. Greanted, the world of Athas could be a meat-grinder of eternal strife, but for those willing to get deeper into the setting, learning the lore and traditions, discovering the ancient mysteries, a Dark Sun campaign could be extremely rewarding and yes, very very different from your standard D&D game.
And it was (and is) the sort of setting in which just “being there” could be the source of adventure – fighting against the elements to find enough water to live another day could be often a much more demanding and rewarding enterprise than making dead meat of a horde of goblins.
So yes, I’ll be going back to Athas, and the Tablelands, and all that.
And then I’ll do some writing, and maybe some gaming.
It’s going to be good.