In June 1991, Dragon #170 contained a single page ad with the now familiar sun logo. I knew from this simple ad that something great was about to be released that would change the D&D experience for all time. Another teaser ad was found in Dragon 171, and full detail ad about Dark Sun found in Dragon 172. Here is the excerpt from the Dragon 171 ad:
A drama of unparalleled heroics unfolds. Through centuries of magical abuse, the once verdant Dark Sun world has become a desert wasteland, and its oasis cities are rules by decadent sorcerer-kings. In their desperate struggle for survival, three steadfast people seek to turn their world to its early splendor. So they set forth to overthrow their magic-wielding rulers and liberate their land. Little do they know of the perils standing before them….
From humble beginnings, the most unique Dungeons and Dragons setting has endured for nearly 20 years with an amazing library of content. This post covers that content and, where needed, commentary on that content.
In putting this post together I looked through all the content that has been produced for the Dark Sun setting and compiled a spreadsheet containing author names, dates, ISBNs, and a few other pieces of info here and there, but there is a much better list at EN World. The method of listing I’ve taken is in chronological order based on the publication date. This means that the development of the product occurred well before publication, but the publication date is telling in that one can imply when changes to the setting began to occur and how quickly.
Though Dark Sun was announced well before September 1991, Dragon 173 had its main features dedicated to the Dark Sun setting which was slated to be released in October of 1991. The main purpose of these features were to advertise, and get gamers accustomed to, the new setting. The official material for 2nd Edition I separate into 2 periods: The Golden Age and The Revision. Each had points of interest and the novels were interwoven into both periods.
The Golden Age (1991 to 1995):
Dark Sun arrives, and it is different. This re-envisioning of the typical Dungeons and Dragons setting is a stark contrast to previous settings like the Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, and Dragonlance. There are a great deal of publications during this period which revel in the uniqueness of the setting as well as the only Dark Sun miniatures produced (in 1993 and 1995, which I list in a separate tab in the spreadsheet). The Golden Age is a paradox, because with the release of the campaign setting came the release of the first novel of the world-changing book series “The Prism Pentad”. The series was in essence the beginning of the end since it is the start of changes and explanations of the world which was to be reflected in the revised edition which heralded the end of the 2nd edition setting.
The Revision (1995 – 1999):
In August 1995, Dragon 220, The Game Wizards article entitled “A New Age Dawns for the DARK SUN Campaign” by Bill Slavicsek noted that is was “time to take the campaign world to the next level.” This was the death knell of the 2E Dark Sun setting. It consisted of expanding the world further. In some cases expanding and codifying well accepted canon (e.g. the Cleansing Wars) and in other cases adding new rule concepts to Dark Sun (e.g. life-shaping). This revision saw published products with a new Dark Sun logo, layout changes, and in most cases a reduction of cover art quality. With this failed attempt to make Dark Sun viable, TSR ceased support of the setting.
Though the revision really diverged from the simplicity of the first release of the campaign setting there were some very interesting ideas that were introduced such as the Dead Land, Life Shaping, Kalidnay’s Domain of Dread, and cities beyond the Tyr Region like Eldaarich. Luckily, the 4E setting touches on these points (lightly) and there has even been a very nice 4E article on Eldaarich in Dungeon.
It was clear that the end was near with Brom no longer being a contributing artist and with the classic DS logo in use only on “Beyond the Prism Pentad”. The novels were continuing with the original logo, with only two more by Lynn Abbey produced until a new Dark Sun novel is published in 2010.
The Dead Years (2000 – 2008):
With the release of 3E, the year 2000 found Athas.org becoming a Dark Sun caretaker as well as die hard fans of Dark Sun continuing to create content and conversions of the setting for 3/3.5E. There were numerous posts and articles on the subject with different groups producing content. A very good all-encompassing 3.5E rules set came from Paizo’s Dragon and Dungeon Magazines and Athas.org provided its own rules for Dark Sun also producing accessories and adventures. The publication dates I list on the spreadsheet are from the last revision’s publication date, so though I have the Athas.org rules published in 2008, there were earlier releases and even preview releases as early as 2000. More content came from fan sites (Siltskimmer.org), and still more from loyal fans on the Dark Sun mailing list and other forums. It’s hard to say what should be on the list since I have a lot of content covering quite a lot in those days, but the ones I mention in the list are certainly worth having in any digital collection.
Like The Golden Age, The Dead Years are also paradoxical since though official support for Dark Sun didn’t exist, the continued support by fans and their websites helped increase its popularity to such a degree that it was released in the 4th edition.
It should be noted that WotC Dragon 364 in June of 2008 contained the first 4E content for Dark Sun well before the Dark Sun 4E announcement.
The Rebirth (2009 – Present):
On August 14th, 2009 WotC announced that Dark Sun would be the next campaign setting for the 4E line. This choice was likely driven by the numerous fans and fan support during the dead years and it’s increased popularity during the same period. The Dark Sun 4E campaign setting was to be released with the same design philosophy as the other 4E products in that there would be little specific published products in favor of products which could be used in any campaign setting. So feasibly, most products for 4E could be used with any game regardless of campaign setting. This appears to be the case when looking at current publications.
In the initial release, there were several special events that provided Dark Sun adventures that weren’t available for purchase or download so I list the publication dates when the special event began. If the publication philosophy of WotC was to make most products usable in any setting, this was not necessarily true for Dragon and Dungeon Magazines. There have been numerous Dark Sun specific content provided to readers which are usually quite good and not so specific that they do not give some room for further in-game enhancement (which I claim the revision period lacked). This continued supply of content can be seen as vindication that Dark Sun 4E has shown strong sales and play.
The rebirth also saw the first comic book series for the setting which incidentally contained an short adventure in a variant of the first issue. Though the list in the spreadhseet are mainly the products of WotC or IDW, I’ve included the Ashes of Athas series which was created as a convention-only series of adventures and will soon be released for local-game play.
Much like after the release of the Forgotten Realms and Eberron, and taking into account the release of the 4E Essentials line and the upcoming D&D Next, it’s likely WotC’s support for the setting will diminish slightly to better support the overall D&D systems and newly released content. Despite this, the release and adoption of the Dark Sun campaign setting in 4E and its very loyal fan base can only mean the future of Dark Sun as a campaign setting is secure.