Dark Sun Is Deadly

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on July 2, 2010

Expect your PCs to die if you are playing a campaign set in Dark Sun. Dark Sun is a deadly campaign setting and death is par for the course.

“This rule reflects the fact that daily life on Athas is much harsher than it is in other AD&D realms, forcing characters to mature more quickly if they are to survive.” – AD&D 2e Dark Sun Rules Book

The rule in question is the one which states that characters start at level 3 in the AD&D version of Dark Sun. With the changes in the game since this edition, especially the fact that in 4e level 1 characters are a lot tougher than their previous counterparts, this rule is no longer needed.

“Dark Sun campaigns are set in a violent world. Powerful magics and psionics, desperate hordes of raiders, and even the unforgiving desert wastes all conspire against player characters – death is not at all uncommon on Athas, nor is it uncommon for player characters in Dark Sun campaigns.” – AD&D 2e Dark Sun Rules Book

This statement comes out of the section in the original setting that described the Character Tree. A system that allowed a player to have several characters as backups. The player was free to swap characters between adventures, so long as doing so made sense to the campaign. In this way the player was able to play different characters and always keep his Character Tree full with roughly equal levelled PCs.

For myself I don’t need a character tree and I doubt we’ll see this rule implemented in the 4e version of Dark Sun. Simply create a new character in consultation with the DM. Why complicate things?

What the Character Tree and the statement above emphasises is that Dark Sun is not like any other campaign setting. The DM is creating encounters that will test and challenge the players in multiple ways. The players are trying to survive, not necessarily to conquer, but survive to fight another day. Dark Sun is deadly.

We’ve been spoiled since Dark Sun was left behind with AD&D 2e. In many ways the existing campaign settings that have been supported have been soft. Set in high fantasy worlds, players and DMs have been given settings with rich histories, various personalities to interact with and countless novels to inspire us. The worlds themselves weren’t overly violent, no more than any fantasy RPG could be said to be. Sure Eberron was a little darker with a campaign taking place just after a 100-year war. The world was in a cold war setting, with a focus on deliberate action that propelled the plot forward. Even the 4e revision of The Forgotten Realms was darker, more mature.

However, neither of these worlds is as deliberately violent or deadly as Dark Sun. Neither of these worlds arrive heralded by warning all PCs that they should consider themselves lucky to survive an encounter. Other campaign settings don’t try to kill PCs through the physical environment. In this regard Dark Sun stands alone.

“Dark Sun is a particularly dangerous place; one where character death is frequent and, at times, gruesome. High PC mortality rates find some relief in the character tree … Still, as deadly a world as Athas is, player characters, especially those at low levels, may die too frequently.” – AD&D 2e Dark Sun Rules Book

If this statement doesn’t say expect your PC to die, I don’t know what does. Knowing that Dark Sun is such a deadly campaign setting the designers at WotC have also been doing some tweaking. Monster Manual 3 is full of beasties that are much tougher than anything present in the previous two releases. It makes one wonder how deadly the monsters in the Dark Sun Monster Manual will be.

The other indication of the difficulty of Dark Sun is evident in the current season of Encounters. Ameron has been a DM for these sessions and has reported on how the players have dealt with the adversity of Dark Sun. Many of our readers have also been sharing their experiences through comments. In reading Wednesday’s encounter (D&D Encounters Dark Sun Week 4) it is evident that Dark Sun is not a campaign setting for the meek. The Dark Sun world of 4e seems to be living up to the standard set by the original release.

Now, there are many complaints about the quality of the characters that are provided. Others have indicated that the encounters are simply too tough. While the pre-generated characters might be weak, would a tougher level 1 character fair much better? The encounters might be too difficult, but is this just what we should expect from Dark Sun?

I’m personally looking forward to Dark Sun. I think it’s going to provide the punch in the gut, oh my goodness my PC could actually die feeling that gets the adrenaline pumping at the game table. I think it could make 4e D&D even more exciting to play than I already find it. I also think it’s going to be just as tough in 4e as it was during it’s original release.

The world is savage. Life is brutal and short in Athas. The vile institution of slavery is widespread in Athas, and hundreds, perhaps thousands, are sent to their deaths every year in bloody arena spectacles.”Returning to Athas, Part 1 (DDI Subscription required).

If this is what the designers are stating about the 4e version of Dark Sun I think it will live up to expectations and hopefully satisfy fans of the original campaign setting.

What are you looking forward to with Dark Sun? Are there any aspects of the 4e version of the setting that you are wary of?

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1 Chris July 2, 2010 at 9:29 am

I’m really not sure if Dark Sun encounters is indicative of how hard Dark Sun is supposed to be. I personally think that it was rushed out, and a lack of testing led to overly difficult and unfair encounters.

There’s nothing wrong with a hard encounter, there is something wrong when half the PC’s can easily be taken from full HP to 0 in one half decent hit.

I don’t think Dark Sun for 4e will be more or less deadly than standard 4e. the DMG and MM are clear that when you build an encounter, the level of difficulty is set by the overall level of the monsters compared to the average level of PC’s. Dark Sun shouldn’t make monsters that, on the surface are the same level as normal D&D monsters, but are much more powerful if you look under the hood. That will lead to problems in creating encounters. If you want your Dark Sun to be deadly, just have every encounter be of your party’s level + 2, or even higher.

2 geneome July 2, 2010 at 9:43 am

You mention above that in high fantasy worlds, players and DMs have been given settings with rich histories. This could also be said of Dark Sun, given the blue and green ages and with the Cleansing Wars being a large part of what made the world as it is. It is this history that I am concerned the 4E Dark Sun will leave too open to each DM to construct. The Cleansing Wars (and the results – both it’s effect on the world and its races) are such a great part of the Dark Sun story it would be a shame to change it. In a way this history is the foundation of the setting.

3 Stealthygopher July 2, 2010 at 10:46 am

I loved the start at 3rd level rule; nothing says brutal environment like “if you aren’t third level by the time you’ve grown up it’s because you’re already dead.”

4 Wimwick July 2, 2010 at 11:32 am

@ Chris
I agree that Dark Sun Encounters may have been rushed out. I work Wednesday nights so I haven’t been able to play, but I talk with Ameron every Thursday about the previous nights session. It will be interesting to see what the Dark Sun Campaign setting says about encounter difficulty. If any recommendations are given to make encounters tougher. The Dark Sun Monster Manual will also give us an indication as well.

@ geneome
By no means am I trying to indicate that Dark Sun doesn’t have a rich history. In fact if it didn’t have a strong tradition/history I don’t think we’d see it released as a campaign setting.

@ Stealthygopher
I agree. This fact alone says that Dark Sun is a high powered setting that expects more from players and DMs alike.

5 Dan July 2, 2010 at 1:36 pm

A tougher spin on encounters could mean a greater emphasis on building characters with survivablity in mind (re: “Building a Character That Can’t Be Killed”). Feats like durability and toughness may become more manditory when creating a character of a lower level that lives in a harsh environment (with good reason!). Although, “manditory feats” may sound a little unsavory to the ear, bare in mind that these feats could later be retrained out-of as the character becomes more proficient at adventuring in the wastelands of Athas. I think this may be one of the first instances wherein players could/may/should adjust their character creation because of environmental factors and in relation to the setting they are adventuring in. A very interesting topic for later consideration imo…

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