Saturday, August 8, 2009

Dark Sun: The Fiendish Way

I’m beginning to wonder if I have not contracted the Dreaded Lurgi, otherwise known as "Gamer ADD" (a condition diagnosed by David “Grubman” Bezios in his memorable “101 Days” project). As soon as I pick a focus for my gaming project, I seem to jump onto another. It’s interesting, but not highly conducive to productivity. Case in point: I just won an auction for Mind Lords of the Last Sea, an accessory for the DARK SUN line, and suddenly I’ve got Athas on the brain.

DS is one of those amazing settings from the 2nd edition era, a time of intensely creative settings colliding with the inappropriateness of then-current game design philosophy and all tied-up in an outrageously over-produced bow. I have heard that these productions were so uneconomically feasible as to have directly contributed to the demise of TSR (although I can’t confirm that). I missed all of these settings when they were released as I had given up first D&D and then gaming entirely. Thus I have come to them over a decade later. With these more aged eyes, most of these offerings look like unpolished gems—covered in junk just waiting to be buffed out.

DS is a good case in point. There is so much cruft of AD&D design in there that it sometimes obscures the beauties. For example, starting everyone off at 3rd level abnd rolling stats on 4d6+4 is just nonsensical. The awkwardness of shoehorning in the Tolkien races and extended Classes is painful (Elves? Druids?). And a setting in which clerical and wizardly magic are supposed to reside comfortably beside universal psionics makes my head spin in a bad way.

But underneath all that, DS speaks to me. It’s like E.R. Burrough’s Barsoom rewritten by William S. Burroughs. It’s like the Ta'arna segment of Heavy Metal, with less nipples and more Sorcerer-Kings. It's like a Spaghetti Western with Mantis Men playing the Eli Wallach role. It’s like butter.

For no very good reason, DS has just fought it’s way into my head lately. And in doing so, I realized how much of my version of Athas would resemble Hypernotus, the ostensible subject of this blog. And my mind just started coughing up ideas. Here they are in their rough, first-time out appearance. Note that I have felt free to use some parts of DS exactly as presented, reject some parts absolutely and totally, and heavily rewrite the rest. And, as with Hypernotus, the system here is Spellcraft & Swordplay, but should be more-or-less useable across game lines.



  • Slayer
  • Scavenger
  • Sorcerer

Slayers function as Warriors with the changes below:

Exceptional Strength – There is no Exceptional Strength (18+). Instead, only Slayers get a bonus on the "to hit" roll from high STR (13+); other classes only get the bonus on damage.

Combat Reflexes – Warriors levy a -1 penalty on all in-coming attacks per every 3 full levels (3rd, 6th, 9th, etc.).

Weapon Mastery – Warriors receive a +1 to hit bonus with their chosen weapon, with an additional +1 per every 3 full levels. Alternately, a warrior may choose to specialize in defensive fighting, receiving an additional -1 per every 3 levels on all in-coming attacks (making a total of -2 per every 3 levels).

Steely Thews – Warriors add +2 to all Strength-based Saves. This is in addition to Iron Constitution.

Scavengers are based upon my Rogue ideas. They a +2 to any rolls for Thiefy things, with a further +1 per 3 levels gained. Among those thiefy things are appraising the value of treasure, stalking, sneaking and hiding, and deciphering Artifacts. This makes them excellent all-round survivors.

In addition, they get +2 to DEX and CHA Saves.

Sorcerers are the wizardly equivalent on Athas. They are loosely-adapted from the Psionist class. Note that while anyone may possess sorcery on Athas, Sorcerers are the only ones to properly develop them. Slayers and Scavengers suffer penalties from their psychic powers that Sorcerers do not. Unlike Wizards, Sorcerers cannot create scrolls (?)

They develop their powers steadily. They use the Wizard Casting Table from S&S, with Discipline Level replacing Spell Level. Sorcerers begin the game with 1 Attack Mode, 1 Defense Mode, and 1 Discipline (randomly or choice, depending upon Referee). Each level they develop 1 additional Attack or Defense Mode and 1 additional Discipline (reroll duplicates). Thus, at 9th level, a Sorcerer has developed all Modes and 10 Disciplines.

Sorcerers get +2 on INT and WIS Saves.


  • True Men
  • Muls
  • Desert Men (replacing Elves)
  • Wild Men (replacing Halflings)

Muls are artificially-bred hybrids. They may only be members of the Slayer class and can never possess sorcery. They receive a bonus of +4 to STR and CON Saves (as opposed to +2), but also suffer a penalty of -2 to WILL and CHA Saves.

Desert Men have mutated to accommodate life in the deserts. Tall and thin to radiate heat. They may take any class, but get +1 to DEX Saves and -1 STR Saves in addition to any class-based Saves.

Wild Men are either evolved or mutates. They get +2 to sneaking and hiding in the wilderness and get +1 to attacks with slings, rocks, or blowguns. They may take either the Slayer or Scavenger class. They may take both and split XP evenly, or take one class and suffer a -5% XP on earned XP.

A variety of mutants exist. In general, they are not for PC-use, however even True Men suffer from minor, physical mutations from time-to-time. Feel free to give your PC any minor mutations you desire, such as blue skin, extra digits, etc. These have no in-game effect. Note that low CHA can be indicative of mutations, as many True Men dislike mutants.

Next up: Combat and Magic!


  1. Dark Sun was one of my first campaign boxed set experiences. I like the direction you're going with this--there is indeed a lot of cruft and unnecessary Tolkienian BS--but I'm curious: if you're ditching wizard magic (and I like the idea of having just one type of magic and that magic=psionics), how are you planning to handle the whole defiler/environmental destruction angle?

  2. Thanks; good question. Two ways:

    First, I'll probably downplay the defiler/preserver thing. Frankly, although a nifty idea, I just don't think it quite plays. For instance, all the Sorcerer-Kings are powerful defilers; therefore, all the city-states ought to be wastelands after centuries of defiling.

    Instead, I'm going to suggest that the environmental devastation is more the result of Ancients and there dangerous magics.

    Second, I'm going to expand the idea of "necromancy"--psionics which drain others. In other words, make defiling more about defiling other people than the land itself. I think, among other thigns, it makes more sense for the Sorcerer-Kings. Why do they support massive gladiatorial spectacles? Feeding off the energy.

  3. Very, very cool. Gotta say, if you put this all together in a setting booklet or PDF someday, I'll definitely be in line to pick it up.

  4. Cheers. I'm getting to the really hard part now: Disciplines, which are really a glorious mess.

  5. I can't say that I care for dropping the Tolkien races; part of what I loved about Athas was the twisted versions of those races, and the bizarre true origins of the Mul.

    However, I applaud your creativity, even if I disagree with the way you're applying it, heh.

  6. It's amazing how rare that kind of gentlemanly attitude is on the internet. Cheers.

    For myself, I have gotten really sick of "cool, different" versions of the Tolkien races. Once you remove the archetypal stuff, what makes an Elf an Elf anymore?

    Plus, I see this as much more S&S.

    But you could just call the Desert Men 'Elves" and the Wild Men "Halflings". I got nuthin' for dwarves though.

  7. I think part of it is not so much that you've replaced elves and halflings; rather, it's that you brought a little bit of sci-fi into the mix by basing the replacement races on mutation.

    Something like, say, a race of partially anthropomorphized scorpions as counterpoint to the Thri-Kreen might make for an interesting replacement for a Tolkien race.... or maybe, taking more directly from the flavor of the original, a race of living rock creatures who, throughout their culture, embody the dying nature of magic seen in Athas.