TSR released the second edition of Battlesystem in 1989 and, in 1990, began pre-production on a new campaign setting that would use this edition in gameplay. The working title of this setting was "War World."
Contributors to this project at its beginnings included Rich Baker, Gerald Brom, Tim Brown, Troy Denning, Mary Kirchoff, and Steve Winter. With the exception of Denning and Kirchoff, design veterans such as David "Zeb" Cook declined to join the conceptual team for "War World" (later on, Cook would write the first two adventure modules: Freedom and Road to Urik). The majority of project members were freshmen to TSR, though not necessarily to the industry (Winter having worked at GDW).
Steve Winter's inspiration drew partly from DEN comics by Richard Corben and the fiction of Clark Ashton Smith. Winter also suggested the idea of a desert landscape.
The team envisioned a post-apocalyptic world full of exotic monsters and no hallmark fantasy creatures whatsoever. TSR worried about this concept, wondering how to market a product that lacked any familiar elements. Eventually, elves, dwarves, and dragons returned but in warped variations of their standard AD&D 2nd Edition counterparts. The designers actually credit this reversion as a pivotal change that launched the project in a new direction.
By the time the name "Dark Sun" replaced "War World," Battlesystem integration was still considered important; and mass-combat statistics accompanied early modules. However, poor sales for Battlesystem soon stopped any further inclusion in Dark Sun products.
The original Dark Sun Boxed Set released in 1991 presented the base setting details wherein the Tyr Region is on the verge of revolution against the sorcerer-kings. Set a decade after the first boxed set, the Revised And Expanded boxed set released in 1995 updated the setting to reconcile the events in the Prism Pentad novels. It featured an updated "Wanderer’s Chronicle" which included a summary of the material from "The Wanderer’s Journal" in the first boxed set, updates to the setting, events and characters introduced since the initial 1991 release, and details on the world outside the Tyr Region.
Tie-in with the Complete Psionics Handbook proved more successful, but designers regretted the extra time involved in attaching these rules to practically every living thing in the campaign world.
The Dark Sun setting drew much of its appeal from artist Brom's imagery: "I pretty much designed the look and feel of the Dark Sun campaign. I was doing paintings before they were even writing about the setting. I'd do a painting or a sketch, and the designers wrote those characters and ideas into the story. I was very involved in the development process."
Game designer Rick Swan described the Dark Sun setting: "Using the desert as a metaphor for struggle and despair, this presents a truly alien setting, bizarre even by AD&D game standards. From dragons to spell-casting, from character classes to gold pieces, this ties familiar AD&D conventions into knots, resulting in one of the most fascinating and original game worlds that TSR has ever produced."
The Dark Sun game line came to an end abruptly in late 1996. When TSR released its product schedule in Dragon #236 (December 1996) no Dark Sun products were included. The final release was Psionic Artifacts of Athas(1996) though two books, Dregoth Ascending and Secrets of the Dead Lands were rumored to have been near completion to the point that early versions were reportedly given to some GMs at the 1997 Gen Con Game Fair (1997) before the plug was pulled on the setting. Designer Kevin Melka claimed that another halfling product, a book on the dwarves, and a book on the Order were part of his official proposals for 1997. An invasion of the Kreen Empire was also being considered, according to Melka, along with the mystery of the Messenger, and a product on the Silt Sea to expand the world further prior to the line's cancellation.
Dark Sun was not supported by the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons but Paizo, and the fans at Athas.org kept the setting alive by way of an open game license with Wizards of the Coast.
David Noonan created an updated version of the setting for Paizo in 2004 that was published in Dragon Magazine and Dungeon Magazine that presented rules for 3rd edition. This version took place three hundred years after the last published setting details and sought to return the setting's in-game metaplot to something closer to the original boxed set. This version also provided rules and setting details for the new third edition player character races such as elans and maenads.
Athas.org presented another update to the setting for 3.5 in 2008. It was a rules only conversion that provided everything needed to play in the Dark Sun world through the non-epic levels. The Athas.org version also condensed the metaplot information and presented a much broader view allowing players an opportunity to create campaigns in virtually any era of Athas, even going as far back as the Blue Age. Athas.org was also given permission to convert and release two unpublished second edition source books, Dregoth Ascending(2005) and Terrors of the Dead Lands (2005), which was based on TSR's unpublished Secrets of the Deadlands.
In August 2009, Wizards of the Coast announced at Gen Con Indy that Dark Sun would be the next campaign setting to be released for fourth edition. The setting was chosen because designer James Wyatt felt that the setting's grittier, action oriented feel was a good fit for the fourth edition rules and because the setting demonstrated that imaginative possibilities of Dungeons and Dragons games could go beyond the tropes and themes of standard medieval fantasy.
This version was heralded as a return of the feel of the original 1991 boxed set taking the setting back before the events of the Prism Pentad. The metaplot's timeline is set back to just after the original Dark Sun's first adventure, Freedom (1991). The sorcerer-king Kalak is dead and Tyr is a free city-state but the future of Athas beyond that is up to the players. Game designer Richard Baker said the design team wanted the game to begin when Athas had the most possibilities for adventure and offer a version of the setting where the Prism Pentad storyline would be possible but not mandatory.
The fourth edition setting strayed far less from the core rules than its AD&D counterpart. Rich Baker reported that the design team wanted the campaign setting to mesh closely with the new core rules and source material, such as the Player's Handbook, than previous editions had. Effort was made, however, to ensure that these more generic elements stayed true to the unique feel of the setting.
The most notable fourth edition change expanded character building by introducing themes. Themes were a third way to define a player character identity through archetypes or careers allowing them to more clearly describe their place or role within the world. Some variant classes central to the previous editions, such as gladiators, templars, and elemental priests, were introduced as themes. Themes proved very popular and were widely adopted in other settings. The scale of Athas was reduced slightly but the geography was largely unchanged.
The edition change created other notable differences including templars as warlocks, the dray becoming dragonborn, the introduction of new core races such as tieflings and eladrin, and the exclusion of races from previous editions elans, maenads, pterrans and aarakocra. The new fourth edition races were given Athasian twists in a similar manner to the original fantasy races.
Possibly the most significant change to the setting was the inclusion of Athas in the standard fourth edition cosmology. In previous editions, Athas had a setting specific cosmology that was isolated from the rest of the D&D universe making it nearly impossible to access via other planes or spacelanes. The fourth edition setting no longer featured a stand alone cosmology but instead presented Athas squarely within the standard fourth edition cosmology though it was still difficult access or exit through other means.
A reviewer for the British magazine Arcane commented: "There's plenty of atmosphere in Dark Sun and, despite the seeming uniformity of the geography, a great deal of imagination has gone into detailing its various regions." The reviewer concluded that "if blood in the sand is the bag you're into, you'll find plenty to enjoy under the Dark Sun".
The original Dark Sun product line was one TSR's most popular releases with an enduring fan following. In the 1990s, fans formed multiple mailing lists, fan sites, and discussion boards concerning the setting. These fan sites grew to such a size and scale during the 1990s that TSR filed legal paper work against them for infringing on their copyright. TSR eventually relented after fan outcry and established a formal fan site dedicated to Dark Sun fan creations. Despite Dark Sun not being supported by the third edition rules the setting remained popular and fans at Athas.org and Paizo kept the setting alive by releasing source material for the setting through an open game license.
Reviewers of the fourth edition release of the setting were largely favorable. Christopher W. Richeson of RPG.net gave the setting an excellent rating saying that update did an "excellent job of incorporating 4E's mythology without losing the harsh feel of the original setting. EN World gave the setting a B+ rating saying that the source book was readable, and introduced innovative new mechanics to the game. The reviewer was critical of the source book reporting that it felt "incomplete" in both content and art work in comparison to the Forgotten Realms source books released two years prior.
Dark Sun is played on the fictional planet Athas. Novels and source books largely take place in Tyr Region though other areas are described for a play such as the Ringing Mountains and the Jagged Cliffs. The game likely takes place on a single continent, but the exact landmass configuration of the planet or the existence of other continents is unknown.
Athas has a single, crimson sun and two moons named Ral and Guthay.
Dark Sun features a number of important distinguishing features that differentiate it from other Dungeons and Dragons campaign settings. The brutal climate and the oppressive rule of the sorcerer-kings have created a corrupt, blood thirsty, and desperate culture that leaves little room for chivalric virtues common to fantasy settings (hence why paladins are excluded from the setting). Slavery is wide spread, the people are violent, and monsters roam the wastes beyond the safe havens of the city-states and villages. Arcane magic draws its power from the life force of plants or living creatures with the potential to cause tremendous harm to the environment. As a result, wizards and other arcane casters are despised and must practice in secret. Psionics are extremely common with nearly every living thing having at least a modicum of psionic ability. Due to a scarcity of metal weapons and armor are made from natural materials such as bone, stone, wood, carapace or obsidian.
Athas has no deities and no formal religions other than the false cults created by the sorcerer-kings. There is some contention within the source material as to whether or not there were ever deities in the setting. The AD&D source material seems to suggests that there weren't ever any gods involved with Athas while the 4th edition setting leaves the option open more explicitly stating that the gods were destroyed or driven away by malevolent elemental spirits, called primordials, at the end of the Green Age. Clerics and druids instead draw power from the Inner Planes/Elemental Chaos.
Dark Sun's second edition metaplot was advanced through its novels and adventure modules. During this era TSR began to expand metaplots in other settings, such as Forgotten Realms, but Dark Sun pioneered the matching of fiction and adventure modules to engender and advance metaplots.
Troy Denning's Prism Pentad novels brought sweeping changes to the metaplot of Dark Sun and were also closely tied to playable adventure modules such as DS1: Freedom (1991) and DSQ1: Road to Urik (1992) This trend continued with the adventure modules tying directly into Denning's fiction and vice versa. The culmination of the tangled metaplot was summarized in Beyond The Prism Pentad (1995) in preparation for the release of the revised and expanded boxed set, released a few months later, which presented the setting after the events of the modules and novels. Some advances in the metaplot were controversial among fans as such releases such as Mind Lords of the Last Sea, and Windriders of the Jagged Cliffs explicitly introduced more science fiction elements, such as the lifeshaping magics of the halflings and isolated psionic utopias, that had previously only been hinted at.
Dark Sun saw its last TSR release for second edition in February 1996 but the setting was revived, updated, and advanced by fans at Paizo and Athas.org through an open game license. The third edition advancements of the metaplot from Paizo located the setting three hundred years after the events of the Prism Pentad.
The designers of the fourth edition campaign setting chose to turn the clock back on the metaplot and condense it to something similar to the original 1991 boxed set rather than pick up where previous developers had left off. While not a full reboot the designers sought to capture the essence of the first release while allowing for players to explore the setting anew through the new rules set.
Dark Sun's extensive metaplot spans several fictional ages into its past and is described by a fictional narrator called the Wanderer who presents an in-game account of Athas's history in his or her Wanderer's Journal,. According to this account the planet progressed through several ages roughly corresponding to the color of the sun and the state of the planet. Ages described are the Blue Age, the Green Age, the Red Age, and the age originally designed for play known variously as the Age of the Sorcerer-Kings, or the Heroic Age.
The Blue Age
The Wanderer's Jounal begins with the Edenic Blue age when Athas was once covered with a vast body of life-giving water under a blue sun. Halflings ruled Athas during this time, building a powerful civilization. They were nature-masters and life-shapers, able to produce anything they needed by manipulating the principles of nature itself. While most of the halfling nature-masters worked in concert with the environment, some attempted to push boundaries in order to make nature bend in ways it was never meant. The Wanderer claims the Blue Age lasted an unspecified amount of time and attempts to see past the Green Age using magic or psionics have been unsuccessful. Regardless, it came to an end by accident. The halfiings of the great city of Tyr’agi tried to increase the sea’s fecundity in order to produce more creatures and plants. The experiment failed, however, and the sea became choked with a toxic brown tide that spread across the waters killing everything it touched.
Desperate to save themselves and Athas, the halflings used their mastery of nature to build the Pristine Tower, a powerful talisman that could be used to destroy the brown tide by harnessing the energies of the sun. The Pristine Tower changed the sun from blue to yellow and its light burned away the brown tide but it also changed the planet. The endless sea receded revealing a verdant world of plant life known as the Green Age. The halflings' civilization came to an end and most of them withdrew from the world into the mountains and underground, spiralling into savagery. The last of the nature-masters transformed themselves into new races, becoming humans, demihumans, and other humanoids that repopulated the world and built new civilizations. This transformation is called the Rebirth.
The Green Age
The Wanderer's Journal claims that the Green Age began approximately 74,000 years before the game's starting period. Races such as elves, humans, gnomes and dwarves thrived in naturally lush abundance under the yellow sun. The former halfling center of Tyr’agi was renamed Tyr and the other great cities of the Tyr region, such as Ebe, Bodach and Giustenal, were built during this period. Religions sprang up to meet the spiritual needs of the people but no true deities or clerics were produced. Due to the mutations caused by the Rebirth and the power of the Pristine Tower, the new people of Athas discovered they were gifted with a myriad of psionic powers. This power was recognized and called "The Way", and was cultivated and developed. Soon masters of the Way began training others and a high standard of living was achieved for those dwelling in the cities supported by wonders created with psionics.
The Time of Magic
Among the races of the Rebirth were a rare and powerful race known as the pyreens. The Wanderer claims to not know how or where they came from but reports they lived an extremely long time and that they largely kept to themselves. One of their number would bring about sweeping changes to Athas. His name was Rajaat and he would eventually gain the titles of First Sorcerer and Warbringer. While extremely ugly in both body and mind, he was highly intelligent and had a natural command of the Way. Rajaat travelled the world exploring the land and civilizations of Athas but his travels could not assuage his self-loathing. According to the Wanderer's Journal Rajaat discovered magic eight thousand years before the current age. Seeking more power he took possession of the fabled Pristine Tower. Here he mastered this new force and developed two distinct ways; one that preserved nature, known as preserving, and one that exploited natural energies, known as defiling. Rajaat hid his true feelings behind an altruistic front. He taught preserving magic to the public but secretly selected students with a potential for both psionics and magic for a darker purpose. Once he had found these fifteen students, all humans, he sent everyone else away. Using the power of the Pristine Tower to harness the energy of the yellow sun he transformed these fifteen into his Champions. Besides their native psionic powers and defiling magic, they were imbued with immortality and the ability to draw magical energy from living creatures through the use of obsidian orbs. The process of creating the Champions turned the sun from yellow to red, an omen of things to come.
The Cleansing Wars
Rajaat secretly blamed his flaws on the emergence of the Green Age and he projected his self-loathing on the new races which he viewed as abominations. His ultimate purpose was to exterminate all races except the halflings and return Athas to the splendor of the Blue Age. About 3,500 years before the current age, Rajaat assigned each of his Champions a race to exterminate and the ensuing years of struggle were known as the Cleansing Wars. The unbridled use of defiling magic unleashed by Rajaat and his Champions during the Cleansing Wars desolated the land, turning much of it into a savage, desert wasteland under a burning crimson sun.
The Age of the Sorcerer-Kings
The struggles would have continued to completion had the Champions not discovered that Rajaat's true plans did not include their survival. Approximately 2,000 years before the current age, The Champions, led by Borys of Ebe, rebelled against their creator and used one of Rajaat's talismans, the Dark Lens, to imprison him in a shadow realm known as the Black. With Rajaat imprisoned, the former Champions renamed themselves Sorcerer-Kings and divided up the surviving city-states among themselves. The Sorcerer-Kings had a problem. Rajaat's prison was unstable and required powerful magics to be maintained. His escape would spell doom for all of them should Rajaat escape so the former Champions selected Borys as Rajaat's warden. As warden, Borys would need to be transformed into a true dragon, a creature nearly unheard of in the setting, in order to be able to cast the spells required to maintain Rajaat's prison. The full, ten-step ritual that transformed Borys into a dragon caused him to go mad and embark on a century-long defiling rampage that desolated the planet even further. Shocked by what they had unleashed, the remaining Sorcerer-Kings fortified the city-states they had claimed and hid from the dragon's madness. The defiling during the Cleansing War had been substantial, but Borys's defilement during his bedlam was the tipping point that truly turned Athas into a hellish desert. When Borys emerged from his madness he saw Rajaat's prison was about to disintegrate. Fearing the return of his creator, he levied one thousand slaves from each of the Sorcerer-Kings to defile as fuel for Rajaat's prison. This age continued with tyranny and the further desolation of the land by the despotic Sorcerer-Kings.
The original 1991 boxed set begins at the end of the Brown Age or the Age of the Sorcerer-Kings with the former Champions of Rajaat, who now rule over the few pockets of civilization left in the Tyr Region. These city-states tightly control the few remaining reservoirs of fresh water, the food supply, and other precious resources such as obsidian or iron. At the point the source material lays out for play the beginning of the Age of Heroes when the sorcerer-king's hold on the Tyr Region has recently been challenged with the assassination of Kalak of Tyr in a slave rebellion led by Rikus, Agis, Neeva, Tithian, and Sadira. Over the course of the adventure modules and the novels the metaplot advances radical changes in the Tyr Region with Rikus, Agis, Neeva, Tithian, and Sadira (in the novels or the player characters in the modules) at the center of the changes.
Borys the Dragon is killed by Rikus and Sadira using his own sword, Scourge. Sadira becomes the first sun-wizard through the use of the Pristine Tower putting her at a level of power equal to the sorcerer-kings. The Dark Lens, which was lost during the Champion's rebellion, is rediscovered by Tithian who uses it to free Rajaat believing he will be transformed into a sorcerer-king as a reward. Several sorcerer-kings are lost or destroyed during the ensuing battle with Rajaat. Andropinis is imprisoned in the Black while Tectuktitlay is killed. Rajaat is ultimately vanquished by Sadira using the Dark Lens as a focus for a sun spell that burns away Rajaat's shadow, the source of his tremendous power. His body is finally destroyed and his essence is returned to the Black. Tithian, having been in contact with the Dark Lens as Sadira cast her spell, is transformed into the Cerulean Storm. The result of the spell to destroy Rajaat causes a tremendous earthquake creating the Great Rift, a passage to the previously unknown Crimson Savannah and the alien Kreen Empire. Sadira magically seals the Dark Lens and Scourge in a volcano called the Ring of Fire. The Revised and Expanded boxed set released in 1995 begins at this point with the destabilization of the Tyr Region's political power structure. The environmental upheaval created in the wake of the Cerulean Storm and the earthquake that caused the Great Rift results in powerful storms and aftershocks that threaten the fragile region with further destruction. The Wanderer discovers the lost halflings, the Rhul‐thaun, of the Jagged Cliff, as well as the psionic utopians of the Mind Lords of the Last Sea.
In May 2004, David Noonan wrote a brief update for the setting for the 3rd edition rules. The setting picked three hundred years after the second edition after the events of the Prism Pentad. The guide outlined some of the important events that had taken place since then. The guide largely focused on the city-states and the fate of the remaining sorcerer-kings.
The city-state of Raam is on the verge of collapse after the death of its sorcerer-queen. The psionic dragon-lich Dregoth (known as Dregoth the Savior in Raam), who resurrected himself after being slain by the other sorcerer-kings for attempting to become a dragon like Borys, sweeps in and transforms most of the riotous inhabitants into undead. He now rules the city-state where the living walk side-by-side with undead zombies and skeletons.
In Draj, Azetuk the adopted son of the deceased sorcerer-king Tectuktitlay has been installed largely as a figure head by Tectuktitlay templars, the Moon Priests, and the psionic order House of the Mind. Azetuk somehow manages to learn enough magic and psionics, and with the help of a splinter group of templars, transforms himself into a true sorcerer-king. He destroys the House of the Mind, takes control of Draj and begins to demand regular blood sacrifices in his temples.
Balic has also fallen into chaos after the disappearance of their sorcerer-king Andropinis. The lost sorcerer-king had previously been banished to a demiplane in the Black when Rajaat was released, but has somehow emerged from the Outer Planes to retake his former fief. He does not return alone, however. The exiled sorcerer-king returns with an army of maenads carrying his banner. He retakes his city-state and now rules once more.
Tyr remains free from sorcerer-king rule and has manages to defend its walls from multiple assaults from Urik. The city-state is now ruled by a council of nobles and preserver mages from the Veiled Alliance.
In 2008, Athas.org released a new edition of the Dark Sun campaign setting for the 3.5 rules. The release was rules only and did not advance the metaplot in any significant way.
The fourth edition setting presents a much abridged and somewhat different backstory that alludes to the original metaplot but doesn't explicitly reference it. Little is known in-game about the history of Athas and what is known largely myth, legend, and/or the propaganda of the sorcerer-kings. The fourth edition metaplot describes three ages: the Green Age, the Red Age, and the Desert Age or the Age of the Sorcerer-Kings. As with the original metaplot, the Green Age is earliest visible sign of civilization but suggests that rare tales tell of an earlier age, possibly the Blue Age. The end of the Green Age is described similarly to the original metaplot as verdant and fecund but that it came to an end mysteriously due to wars, magic, the Dragon of Tyr, a combination of these, or something entirely different. The Green Age gave way to the more recent Red Age; a time of profound war and strife that left the world a blasted, desolate waste. Game play begins during the Desert Age, similarly to 2nd edition, with the world a barren wasteland and its few remaining habitable places being lorded over by the sorcerer-kings. Sorcerer-king Kalak of Tyr has been assassinated and the liberation of Tyr has sparked a glimmer of hope and renewal in the Tyr Region.
A side-bar briefly describes the true history of Athas for the dungeon master which differs from the original metaplot. First, the gods were destroyed or driven away from Athas by malevolent elementals known as primordials. The loss of true gods created a fault in the world that allowed for the potential for arcane magic. Rajaat discovers and masters magic, but because it derives its power from the fault, he also learns of its defiling capabilities. He only teaches magic's full power to a chosen few and uses these disciples, known as his Champions, to exterminate the races he considered impure. This genocide, known as the Cleansing Wars, brought forth the Red Age due to the Champion's excessive defiling of the land in order to accomplish Rajaat's ambitions. Seeing that the entire world was dying the Champions reconsidered their loyalty to Rajaat and eventually overthrew him and imprisoned him in a place of nothingness outside the world. Rajaat’s imprisonment ended the Red Age and brought forth the Age of the Sorcerer-Kings, also called the Desert Age. Borys became the Dragon of Tyr (though how or why isn't explained) and the sorcerer-kings divided the remaining city-states among themselves. The Tyr Region remains the only bastion of civilization on Athas but is tyrannically ruled by the sorcerer-kings. No mention is made of the events of the Prism Pentad
One of the hallmarks of the Dark Sun setting was Athas' cosmological isolation. The Advanced D&D edition featured a notably unique cosmology that broke with the rest canonical Dungeons & Dragon's universe. Many of Dark Sun's AD&D contemporaries are accessible via planar travel or spelljamming (e.g. Krynnspace, Greyspace, Realmspace), but Athas, with very few exceptions, is entirely cut off from the rest of the universe. While it retains its connections to the Inner Planes, access to the Transitive Planes and Outer Planes is nearly impossible. The reason for the cosmological isolation is never fully explained.
The Advanced D&D cosmology for the setting consists of the prime material plane (Athas) and two other transitive planes the Gray and the Black. The Black is roughly equivalent to the Plane of Shadows and contains a mysterious realm of absolute nothingness called the Hollow that serves as a prison for Rajaat. The Gray is roughly equivalent to the Ethereal Plane in that it surrounds Athas forming a massive buffer between the prime material plane and the Astral Plane cutting it off from Outer Planes. The Gray in this edition is the realm of the dead where undead creatures and necromancers draw their power. The Gray, however, is thinner in regards to the Ethereal Plane bringing access to the Inner Planes with relative ease. Dark Sun's Inner Planes has different paraelementals based on natural phenomena: rain lay between air and water; sun between air and fire; magma between fire and earth; and silt between earth and water.
The 4th edition setting stays truer to the core rules than previous editions placing Athas clearly within the World Axis cosmology, but retaining its traditional cosmological isolation. The Feywild, known as the Lands Within the Winds, is largely absent with its few remaining access points being jealously guarded by the remains of the eladrin on Athas. Shadowfell, known as the Gray on Athas, acts as a barrier between Athas and the other planes. The Astral Sea is accessible via the Gray but the realm is largely empty in proximity to Athas with the connections to other realms lost. As with previous editions, Athas sits close to the Elemental Chaos and the planet has a special connection to these planes. These planes are accessible from the World and vice versa. Contained deep within the Elemental Chaos is the Abyss.
Athas is home to several of the standard high fantasy races, including elves, dwarves, half-elves, halflings, and humans, as well as a handful of new or exotic fictional races, such as muls, half-giants, pterrans, thri-Kreen, and aarakocra. Subsequent resources introduced more races such as elans, drays, and maenads.
Dark Sun races were distinctly different from those found in other campaign settings as the designers purposefully went against type. For example, the thri-Kreen and aarakocra were originally monsters. The hallmark fantasy races were each given different twists to make them more suitable to the settings darker themes. Athasian elves are not benevolent forest dwellers but hostile tribal nomads with savage dispositions and a deep distrust of outsiders. Dwarves are masses of sold muscle whose single mindedness gives them purpose. Halfings are largely cannibals living in shaman-ruled settlements in the jungles beyond civilization. Other standard fantasy races such as ogres, kobolds, or trolls, for examples, are all assumed to have been destroyed during the Cleansing Wars or simply passed from the world in previous ages. Pyreen – The pyreen or peace-bringers are an ancient race of nomadic, psionic druids that mysteriously emerged during the Green Age who opposed Rajaat and the sorcerer-kings, and seek to restore vitality to Athas. What they are and whether or not they are truly a race unto themselves is unclear as they their natural forms they have the physical characteristics of all the demi-human races. The pyreen are a non-player race in previous editions but appear as an epic destiny in the 4th edition setting.
Similar to the races, Dark Sun's classes were largely consistent with the classes of the core game rules, but with some changes to bring them in line with the game's unique themes. For example, the commonplace development of psionic ability, unusual nature of magic, and focus on survival skills have altered the scope and theme of some classes and lead the addition of new classes. Bards, for example, are as likely to be skilled at assassination or poisons as they are with entertainment. Athasian clerics, rather than worship a given deity, pact with elementals. They also do not organize into churches, collect followers, and are allowed to carry edged weapons.
There are also significant setting distinctions between arcane spellcasters, divine spellcasters, and psionicists that often do not exist in other fantasy worlds. Arcane spell casters are largely reviled, while divine magic is accepted though it sometimes presents an ideological challenge to the sorcerer-king's rule. Psionics broadly accepted and celebrated, and are by far the most common form of magic with virtually all living things possessing some psionic talent.
As classes changed in subsequent editions these were also reconciled with the setting. Available characters classes are not defined in the 4th edition campaign setting. Besides paladins being specifically mentioned as not being present there is very little information as to whether or not the other 4th editions classes should be included in the setting.
In 3rd edition sorcerers are almost unheard of, though in the Paizo adaptation they suffer an even greater stigma than wizards. warlocks, sorcerers, and artificers are standard classes available for play in the 4th edition setting. Other arcane spell casters such as sorcerers, and warlocks, or were not included until the Paizo later version of the setting in 2004. In 4th edition any arcane caster was ostensibly available if the dungeon master allowed it.
Clerics and other divine spellcasters were particularly impacted by the setting; the lack of true gods meant that divine spell casters were radically different from the standard fantasy counterparts. Without proper deities, clerics derive their powers from such as the forces of the Inner Planes, or in 4th edition, the Elemental Chaos. Divine spell casters, such as elemental clerics or druids, are allied to one of these planes from which they draw their specialized spells. The only spheres accessible to Athasian clerics are those corresponding to the elemental planes (earth, air, fire, and water), the paraelemental planes (silt, sun, rain, and magma). Additionally, some divine casters may tap into magical plants, called trees of life, once per day to gain heal, augury, divination, and magic font spells.
The idea of the divine spell caster changed significantly during the 4th edition of the setting with the introduction of primal magic. Some ostensibly divine spell casters, such as templars, became arcane spell casters. Others, such as shamans, clerics, and druids, cast spells using primal magic as opposed to divine magic. Clerics technically still used divine magic mechanics but under the same limited auspices that marked the previous editions of the setting.
In previous editions, Templars were considered to be a specialized form of cleric who derived their powers from their sorcerer-king. In 4th edition the templar class shifted away from being a divine caster to an arcane caster though not all templars are skilled in magic. Many templars are not clerics at all but warlocks who have pacted with their sorcerer-king. Unlike other clerics templars are often organized into temples, bureaucracies, or pseudo-holy orders which are often false and corrupt. They are entirely dependent on their patrons for their magical abilities. Besides their cleric-like abilities templars also have special abilities that allow them to govern and control the population of their city-states.
Game designer Rick Swan felt that while "clerics got the shaft in the original Dark Sun set", the supplement Earth, Air, Fire, and Water "transforms the stodgy Dark Sun cleric into the setting's most intriguing character". With the 4th edition setting the elemental cleric became a background rather than a class in and of itself.
Arcane magic in Dark Sun differs substantially from more traditional fantasy campaign settings in that it draws from the life force of the planet or living beings. Arcane magic on Athas is often a problematic (though not entirely) force and is largely believed to be the cause of the environmental devastation that plagues the land. Arcane spellcasters may cast spells in a manner that preserves nature, known as preservers, or in a manner that destroys it, known as defilers.
Preservers take special care when preparing spells and only extract as much energy from the environment as they need, thus avoiding the sterilizing side effects. Striving to wield magic in harmony with nature, they cause no damage to the environment when they cast spells. Virtue comes with a price however, as preservers advance in level at a much slower rate than the self-serving defilers. Preservers and druids have a negative view of defilers, but both preservers and defilers are relatively rare.
Any arcane caster may choose to defile at any time though not all of them do. Defiling exploits the environment, draining the life from the surrounding area turning it into a sterile wasteland. Defilers are those spell casters who routinely fuel their magic in a destructive way and have no regard for the life they steal. Defilers are considered evil as the surrounding areas of vegetation turn to ash whenever a defiler prepares spells, which explains the current barren state of the planet. Being a defiler, however, is really a matter of choice. Little is known about arcane magic by the general public and most not distinguish between preservers and defilers.
Rules for playing psioncs were not published in the original Dark Sun boxed set, but rather a separate supplements; The Complete Psionics Handbook, and in the setting specific source book The Will And The Way. The Will And The Way expanded the psionic rules presented in the The Complete Psionics Handbook by providing new rules for psychic combat, new psionic abilities and disciplines all within the context of the world of Athas. D&D classic game line historian Shannon Appelcine writes that TSR's decision to publish a second psionic rulebook specifically for Dark Sun was a testament to the popularity of the setting and the importance of psionics during the 1990s.
The Dark Sun Campaign Setting, Expanded and Revised published in 1995 would later include rules for psionics as part of the core boxed set, which was intended to replace the original information published in The Complete Psionics Handbook. Players had the option of sticking with the rules set presented in TCPH, instead, if they chose to. Psionic power are the cornerstone of the setting with nearly every living thing having some psionic abilities. Psionic ability is about as common in Dark Sun as arcane magic is in other D&D campaign settings, and unlike arcane magic, is accepted and revered appearing in every strata of Athasian society.
Psionics are more common on worlds like Athas because these universes have been pushed so far from the typical D&D fantasy setting that psionic powers become possible. Practitioners refer to psionic ability as "the Will" and the development or schooling of in psionics as "the Way". Psionics on Athas from time in memorial but its current in-game practices date back 900 years to a single founder named Tarandas, the Grey Lady or Tarandas of Raam. Prior to Tarandas' rise to power psionics tutelage was disorganized with each master teaching their students in their own way. Tarandas codified the six psionic disciplines and created a learning structure still used in modern-day Athas. All the fictional races of Athas have the potential to develop psionic talents to a greater or lesser degree with some races having a particular affinity for a given discipline.
Each of the major city-states in the setting have organizations that teach or regulate psionics in that region. Nibenay, for example, the School or the Augurs, and Balic has a school known as the Cerebran. The Order is a secret psionic organization based in a hidden mountain castle in Dragon Crown. It is composed by supremely powerful psions (21st level and above) it sees itself as the secret monitors of psionic balance on Athas. Should a psionic force pose a threat that balance Order feels that it is its purpose to set the balance right gain by neutralizing the threat.
Given the prevalence of psionics the people of Athas have developed laws to govern their use. Psions who commit crimes by controlling others bear the guilt of their transgressions, but by and large, crimes committed using psionics are punished as they would be if they were committed normally. Mind reading, controlling the actions of others, spying on others using by psionic means are all outlawed, and summoning extraplanar beings are all outlawed. The only exception to these laws is for court officials who are allowed to use psionics in the due process of law.
Later 3rd and 4th Editions of D&D would make psionics more common as an option in any D&D world, and would split the original Psionicist class into a number of different psionics-using character classes.
The majority of resources for the setting were released between 1991, when the setting founded, and 1996 when TSR stopped supporting the game line. The line included the original boxed set with rulebook authored by Timothy Brown and Troy Denning. Dragon Kings, released in 1992, featured rules for epic level character advancement for Dark Sun. The basic source material was later expanded and revised by Bill Slavicsek in 1995 to include the developments of the setting since the initial 1991 release. Additional source books further detailed the setting. These included a source book in-depth look at certain aspects of the setting including certain classes, such as gladiators, clerics, and psions; the races native to Athas, such as elves or thri-kreen; and more detailed setting information, such as the city-state of Tyr, the Veiled Alliance, and the different slave tribes.
Dark Sun was not supported under a with published rulebook under D&D 3, but rules for the 3.5 edition appeared in several places; the Sandstorm supplement included rules for the impact of desert conditions on game play. In 2004, Paizo published several articles in Dragon Magazine and Dungeon Magazine that brought Dark Sun in line with the 3rd edition rules. athas.org published unrelated source materials in 2007 for Dark Sun under the open game license. Both rules were official versions approved and sanctioned by Wizards of the Coast that provided two different possible versions of the setting.
A special feature in Dragon Magazine No. 319 (the May 2004 issue) and a parallel feature in Dungeon Magazine No. 110 provide an alternate interpretation of the setting for the revised Third Edition (3.5) Dungeons & Dragons game. (The rules for defiler wizards appear in Dragon #315, and additional monsters in Dungeon #111). Two of the authors of the Paizo materials, Chris Flipse and Jon Sederquist, are on the Athas.org "overcouncil," and are responsible for much of the development of the Athas.org rules.
In place of the higher dice for ability scores, the abilities of all of the player character races have been improved. Each (including humans) has an additional bonus to one or more ability scores, an innate psionic power, and often other bonuses. Every race has a level adjustment, meaning that a PC of the race counts as a PC of higher level than he actually is for purposes of balance.
On August 14 at GenCon 2009, Wizards of the Coast announced that Dark Sun would be the 2010 campaign setting. Wizards announced 2 source books and 1 adventure for the new campaign setting. The setting is a "reimagining" of the 2nd edition setting, returning to the time immediately after Tyr became a free state. As first indicated in the third excerpt, published July 19, the Mul and Thri-kreen races were included, with special racial paragon paths and several new options for all characters. A new rules element was the addition of Themes (Athasian Minstrel, Dune Trader, Elemental Priest, etc.). Each PC gained one theme that together with race and class helped define the character. Themes grant an initial power and additional powers can be chosen instead of normally available class powers.
Wizards of the Coast promoted the setting heavily. Rich Baker first communicated various likely changes to the setting via his Blog at wizards.com. He also indicated that a preview of Dark Sun would be available as an adventure at the 2010 D&DXP convention. The adventure description "Come join us for the first sneak peek at the next campaign setting for 4th edition. This full adventure will preview new material from the campaign setting and comes with characters already provided" can be found on the D&DXP site.
The fourth Penny Arcade/PvP series of Wizards of the Coast's D&D podcast, running for two weeks in May and June 2010, was devoted to a Dark Sun campaign using pre-generated Dark Sun characters. The character sheets and other information are available for download from the podcast pages. Throughout July and August, excerpts from the upcoming Dark Sun Campaign Setting supplement were scheduled for publication as free content on the D&D Insider web site. The first two excerpts covered basic information on the setting, which is similar to that of previous versions. A series of articles continued to provide glimpses into the setting prior to the release in August.
In addition to the first adventure at D&D XP, there were several other adventures provided before the release:The Dark Sun adventure entitled Bloodsand Arena was held on June 19 for Free RPG Day.
The second season of D&D Encounters (featuring weekly one-to-two-hour adventures at gaming stores) was based in Dark Sun and provided players with 15 weeks of Dark Sun encounters.
Gen Con and PAX Prime held the "Glory and Blood" Dark Sun Arenas, featuring seven separate arena encounters held in each city-state. Each arena was of varying difficulty and players gathered glory. Winning six of seven adventures resulted in sufficient glory for a cloth map of the Tyr region, not currently available through other means.
The Lost Cistern of Aravek for fourth-level pregenerated PCs was provided on August 21 for the Worldwide D&D Gameday.
On August 17, 2010, the Dark Sun books were released.Richard Baker, Robert J. Schwalb (August 2010). Dark Sun Campaign Setting. Wizards of the Coast. ISBN 978-0-7869-5493-3.
Bruce Cordell (August 2010). Marauders of the Dune Sea. Wizards of the Coast. ISBN 978-0-7869-5495-7.
Richard Baker, Bruce R. Cordell (August 2010). Dark Sun Creature Catalog. Wizards of the Coast. ISBN 978-0-7869-5494-0.
The 4th Edition Dark Sun books greatly change the setting, and the 4th edition races were added as well, including Tieflings, Dragonborn and Eladrin. Some topics are skipped as well and there are many notable setting conflicts with earlier material.
Mechanical differences abound, but reflect the 4th Edition rules. For example, in Second Edition defilers were a separate wizard class. In 4th Edition there are many arcane classes, so defiling became an at-will power applicable when using daily arcane powers. Elemental priests are now a new Shaman build, the Animist Shaman. Elemental worship is tied to the Primal power source, because the Divine power source (which includes clerics and paladins) is unavailable to player characters by default. Finally, non-metal weapons and armor are considered the baselines for 4e Dark Sun characters. Metal weapons, however, are more durable and less prone to breakage.
In addition, the Dungeon Tiles set released on June 15 was Dark Sun themed.Peter Lee (June 2010). Dungeon Tiles: Desert of Athas. Wizards of the Coast. ISBN 978-0-7869-5398-1.
In January 2011 at the D&D Experience Convention, Wizards of the Coast and Baldman Games launched an organized play campaign set in Dark Sun. The campaign used the 4th edition rules and time frame. PCs played the role of Veiled Alliance members fighting against a secret organization named The True. Later adventures took players from Altaruk and Tyr across the Tablelands (Urik, Gulg, Nibenay, and many wilderness locations) to confront an ancient primordial awakening in the Sea of Silt. Chapters consisting of three linked adventures each were released at the D&DXP, Origins, and Gen Con gaming conventions. A total of seven chapters (21 rounds of four-hour play) were released, providing a single continuous story taking player characters from 3rd through 9th level (11th level at completion). Though the campaign concluded in January 2013 at Winter Fantasy, adventures can be requested from Baldman Games.
Numerous novels have been based in the Dark Sun setting. Notable authors writing in the world of Athas are Troy Denning, Simon Hawke, and Lynn Abbey.
A five issue series of comics based on the campaign setting called Ianto's Tomb created by writer Alex Irvine and artist Peter Bergting was released by IDW Publishing
A number of video games are also set in the Dark Sun world: including Dark Sun: Shattered Lands (1993), Dark Sun: Wake of the Ravager (1994), and the MMORPG Dark Sun Online: Crimson Sands (1996).