What makes the Dark Sun setting so harsh?

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Hi there! First time DM talking. (4e)

I've been preparing a 2-day oneshot for an experienced group of players (they've been playing for years, i've only been playing for 2-3 months), and it's their first campaign/adventure on Athas. Whilest my story and mobs aren't strictly from Athas, I do want to give the players a real 'Dark Sun' feel. I know they really dont want to use Arcane Defiling (even though over half of the players are arcane), but I'm a bit inspirationless about other things that make Athas a 'harsh' place.

So, what happens in Athas that makes it such a harsh place? (I read stories of alot of people dying in Dark Sun campaigns, and I'd like to know why player deaths are so more common in Dark Sun campaigns then in others)
In its previous iteration, Dark Sun really was D&D played on the "hard difficulty setting". You could expect to lose some characters along the way, if you were playing in Athas.

Even in 4E, which feels less brutal to me in general, the devs seem to try to turn up the danger level with adventures in Athas. The brutal siltrunners in the introductory adventure were an early reminder, for our group, as to which world we had stepped into. The tembo is another Athasian monster that seems more deadly than its monster level would suggest.

You also don't see the same sort of equipment in Athasian heroes that you see in more standard settings. Yeah, inherent bonuses keep your attack bonuses and defenses where they should be, but you won't often see characters with optimal equipment, so characters' ceiling of peak performance is lower.

Most importantly, though, is that this sets the tone of the setting. Athas is a brutal world. Life is cheap, injustice and oppression are the norm, and things like compassion and mercy aren't to be expected. "Common human decency" is no longer a part of this world. In general, the people are brutal, the creatures are brutal and even the environment is brutal. The mightiest warrior or sorcerer can die of sun sickness. Most daily do whatever it takes to survive and see tomorrow, even if it means cutting a neighbor's throat.

It makes Athas different from any other setting in which I've played. The themes are often a bit different, and the feeling a bit more desperate. You can still play a heroic campaign, but the odds will always be stacked against your players. You aren't good people defending a mostly good world, but rather good people defending a world that may be beyond saving, in many ways. It's a great change of pace from "standard high fantasy".

What happened to my post count? It seems the more I post, the more it drops. Is that how it's supposed to work?

Great reply from tallric_kruush.  As he states, there are two ways of describing the harshness -- narrative things (slavery is common, heroism is not, the environments and institutions are never benign, etc.) and game mechanics.

In 4e, monsters/NPCs from the Dark Sun Creature Catalog have generally been made harsher by giving them more damage but lower defenses compared to standard 4e monsters. It's not off the charts different but it makes a difference.

One additional 4e game mechanical thing is the inclusion of hazardous terrain (see the back of the Dark Sun Creature Catalog).
My Dark Sun adventures published in Dungeon magazine.
Great point...the harshness of Athas as a setting is one of its main drawing points, but how do you communicate it to your players besides saying, "it's harsh!"?

One way to do that would be brutally difficult combat, frequent player-character deaths, and the like. I don't think that's the best way, though. Rapid turnover of PCs is appropriate for Call of Cthulhu, but if you're trying to build a good narrative, it can be harmful even in Dark Sun. (In my current game, we've been playing for 1.5 years, and no one has yet died--I haven't pulled punches or deus ex machinaed anyone, but neither have I decided to communicate "harsh" by boosting all the encounter levels).

I think there are a couple of things you can do to communicate this without just running through new PCs every couple of weeks. First of all, have a significant "encounter" (whether combat, skill challenge, or just checks/rolls) early in the game (first few sessions, hopefully) where the PCs are thrust into danger of dying of starvation/thirst/etc. Maybe they're on a long journey and their water is destroyed and they can't easily get more; maybe they get lost; whatever, just make sure they're making rolls, marking down their characters' stats, and getting worried. Once you've established that, you don't have to include a "survival" element in every session; just make sure to bring it in every now and then to remind them it doesn't go away.

The huge and most important thing, though, is that you need to write the harshness into your narrative. It needs to come out in all the NPCs, in the settings, in the adventures they undertake, and in the metaplot. Do not include usual chivalrous "well do this mission because you're a hero" motivations; in fact, punish them if they act altruistically. A cheap way to do this is make them only care about money and pay them for everything, but I think that kind of sucks, because it just makes them mercenaries and there's not much character development to be done beyond just seeking out the next payday. A better way is to weave them in with various interest groups in the region or city-state and present them with adventure opportunities that can further their faction's goals.  Make sure to not shy away from the moral gray areas and even allowing them to end up in situations where both available choices are brutal--it just determines which side you choose to brutalize.

For example, let's take the Veiled Alliance. In a more conventional setting, the Veiled Alliance would be unequivocal heroes. (Indeed, some of the older 2E stuff unfortunately strays into presenting them that way--plenty of it doesn't, though, so I think it can just be ascribed to a quality lapse in the specific writer who did it). In Dark Sun, the Veiled Alliance are an anti-defiler group and that's it. They do not oppose slavery. They do not want to save towns that are dying from lack of water. They might involve themselves in these efforts temporarily, if they see in them an effective strike against a defiler (particularly a sorcerer-king). But make sure you force your Veiled Alliance PCs into some choices where they have to choose whether to murder a defiler who is the single most important anti-slavery politician in his town and the like.

That was one of my very few quibbles with Ashes of Athas--a bunch of the narrative seemed to assume that the VA was automatically aligned with anti-slavers, and that characters like Tawa Tomblador had to be conflicted about their roles. No! Tawa should be very happy to slave the hell out of people, and Arisphistaneles should be welcoming slavers to help his VA cover. Keeping heroes and villains out of it really helps with the brutality of the world. Everyone is in the gray area, bad somewhere, but you accept it if they help you somewhere else.
Athas is a brutal world. Life is cheap, injustice and oppression are the norm, and things like compassion and mercy aren't to be expected. "Common human decency" is no longer a part of this world. In general, the people are brutal, the creatures are brutal and even the environment is brutal.



I disagree, in Athas, along with the brutality, there are also compassion, love, loyalty and ideals. Parents still care for their childrens, friends take risks for each other - they might act more brutal to gain their virtous goals, but not all the characters in Athas are cut-throats. In the novels the protagonists are good fellows - they care about their friends or have some high idealistic values, but they are willing to kill or otherwise perform morally questionable deeds for their sake. They also have the "Me and my gang against the world" point of view which justify the means.
True, the SM are the embodiment of Athas Brutality - they care nothing for others, are extremely violent and would do anything for gaining more power. However, not everyone in the setting is a SM and they are hated presicely for their burtal nature - very few people, even on Athas, would sale their own mother for power (the SM would definetly do that).
Actually, when my players suggested to kill an innocent slave and feed it to the mekkilots just to poison them, I explicitly told them that performing such unneccessary atrocity is inapproriate for good charcters (and I generally avoid such classifications).
I think that this is the point - on Athas the end justify more readily violent means, but it doesn't suggest that everything should be dealt with in the most violent, shocking way.

The huge and most important thing, though, is that you need to write the harshness into your narrative. It needs to come out in all the NPCs, in the settings, in the adventures they undertake, and in the metaplot. Do not include usual chivalrous "well do this mission because you're a hero" motivations; in fact, punish them if they act altruistically. A cheap way to do this is make them only care about money and pay them for everything, but I think that kind of sucks, because it just makes them mercenaries and there's not much character development to be done beyond just seeking out the next payday.


I had the opposite problem - the players are too selfish and trying to scum everyone (suprisingly, we're quite adult group 20-30, yet our characters' goals are very unheroic).
Oh, I don't mean that goodness doesn't exist--but if it does, it comes out due to intrinsic motivations, because the world punishes it at every step. Rescuing the slave from being whipped doesn't give the players a +3 sword and a blessing from Pelor; it means that the next day the Templars will break down their door and enslave them and send them to Makla to work in the obsidian mines.
Oh, I don't mean that goodness doesn't exist--but if it does, it comes out due to intrinsic motivations, because the world punishes it at every step. Rescuing the slave from being whipped doesn't give the players a +3 sword and a blessing from Pelor; it means that the next day the Templars will break down their door and enslave them and send them to Makla to work in the obsidian mines.
The cities are ruled by Overlords whose powers come from nebulous means. Their Lieutenants have free reign over the city. Their word is law and their judgement is final. They care not for right and wrong. They care for their personal powers and the pleasures they indulge in.

Oh. And they're the good guys!

Armageddon has come and gone. Athas is what is left of the world. Water is scarce and food comes in the shape of giant insectoid and reptilian creatures that could eat you for breakfast. The desert is teaming with savages who would steal the hair from your scalp to make brushes and wigs. There are people who suck the very life force from your body leaving nothing but a pile of ash. This is why people don't just live in the city states. It's the reason they worship the ruler of that city state and thank them every single day for allowing them to live.

IMO you emphasize the harshness by limiting the classes people can play. Martial and psionic only classes with the one exception being whichever class you use to represent Templars (my personal preference is clerics). Defilers are the one true villain in Dark Sun and should not be in the hands of PCs. Preservers can undermine the themes of Dark Sun and should only be available to players who are extremely experienced with Dark Sun.

Next I would limit healing. You simply cannot purchase potions of CLW. If you're playing 4th Ed this doesn't really help though. I would eliminate the rule that says you regain max HP after an extended rest.

Next I would introduce weapon breaking rules. If you don't have backup weapons you're reduced to using your fist.

Finally I'd introduce rules on food and water consumption. Work out how much food and water people need to consume in a day. Work out ways people can reduce the water consumption (stay indoors) and force your players to track it.

To help get them attached to the setting get them to build back stories. What's their job? Are they married? Do they have kids? What about their extended family?

Let them play out a couple of weeks. Give them coin for their day jobs, charge them coin for their expenses (rent, food, water, bribes). If they're militia soldiers give them extra coin for taking bribes, getting cheaper food, shaking down businesses.

During this time cause them to suffer hardshiPs. Maybe their spouse's business gets targeted. Maybe their apartment gets broken into. When they're struggling to get by have the landlord arbitrarily increase the rent. Make them choose between becoming homeless or starving. Have the landlord offer to accept payment in other forms. Perhaps by their wife or daughter entertaining him.

If the PCs rail against authority punish them. If they attack the militia then they've signed themselves a death sentence (unless they do this one task for a Templar/sergeant who didn't like whoever the PCs killed). If the PCs attacked the landlord have the militia punish the PCs. Make them realise rotten People are often powerful people and the PCs have no power.

Start killing off their PCs family.

THEN give them whatever plothook you want to use for your adventure. Make it come from an antagonist that the PCs have to work for.

IMO that's how you make it harsh in Dark Sun. Heroes have no place existing in Athas and you'll need to train your PCs to stop thinking like heroes.

All IMO
The original question has generated some great conversation.

The previous post has some great ideas for upping the dramatic tension and insight into how the Athasian power structures create a world much harsher than the stereotypical D&D one. However, I disagree with his statement:
Heroes have no place existing in Athas and you'll need to train your PCs to stop thinking like heroes.


One of the exciting things to me is that heroism stands out all that much more on Athas because of all the factors. At risk of self-indulgence here is a bit of text that I think illustrates this feeling. It's from an email I sent to my players to get them excited about an upcoming session (one that helped inspire "Isle of Death"):

You have risen beyond your humble origins as slaves to become confident, powerful adventurers seeking knowledge and strength in places of ruin.  Each of you has his own hopes, goals, and aspirations -- you realize now that your actions do affect the world around you. A noble idea -- to bring life to the most defiled place known -- has brought you here.

However, you far from any place you are familiar with.  Noble ideas sound worthy in the light of day; down here in the deep darkness surrounded by the taint of death such things sound foolish.  A talking lizard babbles to you about promised days, blessed prophets, and his line of ancestors.  Is this really worth sacrificing your life for? What purpose have you found in your life?

Vitaal has finally fallen silent.  He looks at you expectantly.  You glace at each other.  Time to decide...
My Dark Sun adventures published in Dungeon magazine.

I've been preparing a 2-day oneshot for an experienced group of players...So, what happens in Athas that makes it such a harsh place?

It might help to think of Athas as a post-apocalyptic fantasy world. The primary focus, at least IMC, is SURVIVAL. I don't run it as a particularly evil world (except slavery, which is rampant) but rather as an apathetic one. No one cares for anyone else b/c they are concerned about their own survival first and foremost. Everyone for themselves, and only the strongest survive.

This translates into a theme that the PCs experience on a daily basis: no one, no place is safe.  Consider the two settings that PCs find themselves in:

1. Civilization: These are the major cities. But they are controlled by the SKs and templars. Brutality is seen through their arbitrary actions (don't piss them off), controlled access to water/food (or you have to fend for yourself) and the strong possibilty of enslavement. PCs should get the sense that they have to be constantly looking over their shoulder; they only have themselves, if even that, for protection.

2. The Wild: Once you step outside the confines of the city-states, you are never guaranteed to ever return. I make it particularly harsh in the Wild. Definitely read up on and enforce the Starvation/Thirst rules. Athas essentially "attacks" you each and every day with the possibility of Sun Sickness. Use. This. Rule. Keep track of each and every survival day. I use tokens to track them (each player has his own stash), and certain encounters (in Skill Challenges) result in losing them! That's just as bad as losing hp IME.

For your one-shot, I would suggest the following:

- Survival/tracking survival days
- Arena battles
- Battles with exotic creatures. Since 4e PCs tend to be very robust, and your players are experienced, you should consider adding a level or two to the creatures they encounter. That's what I do (or increase the encounter budget)
- Warding off attempts of enslavement. Slavers make great villains!
- Conflict with templars. This is a fun situation (for the GM) since they are akin to police in a city-state. You don't want to kill one (unless there are no witnesses), so what do you do if one is gunning for you?

Hope this helps. Let us know how it goes!         

Thanks everyone!

For the campaign, the PCs (lvl 16 for this one-shot) will be attempting the murder of the sorcerer-queen of Raam, as a request of one of her Templars (the queen is in hiding and the templar thinks it's the only way to save the city). I'm thinking of sending them into the desert at the beginning to show them the harshness of the outside world (the ambush by enslavers idea is really good!). After that they will have problems in the city (since it's controlled by factions, instead of templars. The factions dont want the queen dead, cause a new sorcerer-king/queen would devestate their reign), showing them that not a single spot in the world is safe. After which they will enter a dungeon in search for the queen (it's a 2-day oneshot, so im really excited for it :D)
Thanks everyone!

For the campaign, the PCs (lvl 16 for this one-shot) will be attempting the murder of the sorcerer-queen of Raam, as a request of one of her Templars (the queen is in hiding and the templar thinks it's the only way to save the city). I'm thinking of sending them into the desert at the beginning to show them the harshness of the outside world (the ambush by enslavers idea is really good!). After that they will have problems in the city (since it's controlled by factions, instead of templars. The factions dont want the queen dead, cause a new sorcerer-king/queen would devestate their reign), showing them that not a single spot in the world is safe. After which they will enter a dungeon in search for the queen (it's a 2-day oneshot, so im really excited for it :D)

my PC's did virtually the exact smae thing in Raam. the solution they came to was to cause trouble with the various warlords and make it look like there rival warlords had caused the trouble. then, when the brink of full on gang war was in sight, the PC's orchestrated a metting with the heads of all the warlords, and thru the use of some clever bluffing and creative illusion magic, convinced them to sigh a treatie between the groups, and bribed them with the promis of the newly created alliance would take over as the "city council" after the queen fell. worked out quite nicely....for now heheheheheeee...........iFrame RemovediFrame Removed