Last Updated on January 22, 2023
Far beyond the well-trodden path of slightly generic high fantasy walked by the Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, or even the stranger cosmic realms of Spelljammer and Planescape lies a world of fire and sand and blood.
This is a cruel world. A dying world. A world without gods or hope. Welcome to Athas, an ancient planet in its final death throes as, like a cigarette burned down to the filter, the sun glows like a dull red ember in the vast, empty sky. Welcome, to the world of the Dark Sun.
It is a brutal place, where scarcity, enslavement, and struggle alleviated only by death are life’s only guarantees.
A dying world lost in the far-flung future, ruled by deranged sorcerer-kings, populated by 7’ tall mantis men, sterile half-dwarves, and the unwashed, unhappy throngs of humanity. It’s a place where you’re just as likely to die of thirst as you are to be eaten alive by feral colonies of rabid, cannibal halflings. A place where only the strong survive, though they are nothing compared to the terrible power of The Dragon — a lone ancient wyrm whose passing destroys entire cities in the blink of an eye.
Basically, it’s fantasy Mad Max on a dying desert world ravaged by millennia of magical wars. Red sand, leather, spikes, and no gods to hear your prayer or scream.
These, alongside rampant psionic powers, a truly fascinating take on how magic works, and some of the coolest art of any line of Dungeons & Dragons product, are just a few reasons why Dark Sun might be one of the most iconic D&D settings released to date.
In this guide, we’re going to give you a crash course in one of D&D’s most unique, interesting, and brutal settings of all time. Ready? Then grab your bone sword, your whip, and your leather hot pants, because the mantis-men are coming, and if they catch us, you’d better hope they kill us before they start to eat us.
What Is Dark Sun?
Dark Sun was a post-apocalyptic campaign setting released for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (2nd edition) in 1991 with the original boxed set designed and written by relative newcomers to TSR, Troy Denning and Timothy B. Brown.
The setting is known for its bizarro, brutal tone and skewed representation of traditional D&D monsters, races, and tropes. It places much more emphasis on wasteland survival, scavenging, and the selfish pursuit of glory (or riches) than any kind of high-fantasy heroism. There are no paladins in Dark Sun — no gods, no safety, no future.
Originally designed as a setting that TSR could use to push its updated mass combat rules, called Battlesystem, Dark Sun was a near-total departure from the Tolkien-esque high fantasy (even from the pulpy sword and sorcery writings of Michael Moorcock and Robert E. Howard) that had defined pretty much all D&D setting materials up until this point.
Even Spelljammer (first released in 1989) built upon existing AD&D materials, mixing its spacefaring gonzo weirdness with attempts to flesh out and even bring together different existing D&D settings.
Dark Sun brought exactly none of this cooperative energy to the table. Although elves, dwarves, and a dragon (just one, mind you) were eventually reintroduced to the game, they were originally intended to be completely absent — replaced by new, strange (frequently grotesque) creatures like the insectoid Thri-Kreen and whatever the heck this thing is…
Unlike Planescape, Ravenloft, and Spelljammer, Dark Sun really doesn’t fit into the wider D&D multiverse. At all. It’s devoid of gods and goddesses, and you’ll find no formal religions other than the cults created by the power-mad sorcerer-kings. The gods are dead or missing, or maybe they were never here at all.
The AD&D 2e version of Dark Sun lasted for five years with TSR ending support for the setting in 1996, shortly before the company’s demise. There was no official Dark Sun material released during 3e and 3.5e (Pathfinder publisher Paizo licensed and released some material in the early 2000s).
In 2009, Wizards of the Coast announced a return of the Dark Sun setting with a reboot of the setting’s metaplot to right after the end of the first ever Dark Sun adventure and an update to its cosmology to bring it in line with the rest of D&D 4e.
The Look of Dark Sun
It’s impossible to talk about the Dark Sun campaign setting without talking about Gerald Brom, the artist responsible for the world of Athas’ unique look. Not only were Brom’s drawings a fresh new spin on pulp-fantasy illustrations — like someone ran over an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel with a war rig from The Road Warrior — but within the context of D&D they were radical, revolutionary stuff.
Now, I make no bones about (depictions of women in mithril bikinis firmly to one side) how much more I like old-school D&D art than the current, video-gamey, anime-inspired stylings that define the aesthetics of 5e. Modern D&D art is homogenous and fades into the background by design — maybe apart from the cover art — and it’s very rare that I see an artist’s actual style shine through in their work for a 5e product. However, Dark Sun set a new standard for ways in which a single artist’s style and vision could influence not just the tone, but the content of the game.
Gerald Brom was reportedly drawing content for Dark Sun before the setting was written, and the original boxed set’s designers allegedly made a lot of their decisions about the world based on things they found inspiring about his work. The egg was placed firmly before the chicken (or perhaps it was the other way round). Anyway…
Probably more than any other D&D setting, Dark Sun is defined by its art. Also, unlike a lot of other D&D settings, Dark Sun (in 2e at least) only ever had two major artists. Tom Baxa did a bunch of the iconic black and white interior illustrations as well as Brom, but Brom also did virtually all the color work across every subsequent adventure and supplement.
His vision defined not just the look but the feel of Dark Sun. And for that, I’ll be forever a fan.
Welcome to Athas — A Dark Sun Primer
Athas is a vast, tractless hellhole filled with strange and dangerous things — from xenophobic cannical halflings hunting humans for sport through their mountaintop jungle homes to vast monuments to the immortality of sorcerer-kings torn down by bloodthirsty mobs. It’s a boiling, blood-soaked desert world where the strong survive by preying on the weak, and the only certain future is that sooner or later the world will die.
To describe all of Dark Sun here would be both impractical and a disservice to the talented people who wrote it all down in the first place. Still, with a quick primer, you should be able to get an idea of exactly what life orbiting a dark sun is like.
Most of the adventures and setting content for Dark Sun focus on the Tyr region — a mixture of desert and rocky badlands punctuated by city-states and bordered by high forested ridges and brutal mountain crags.
Athas Is a Desert
Athas is a boiling hot, bone-dry world of sand dunes, salt flats, stony wasteland, and thorny scrub. From dawn to well after dusk, the blood-red sun bakes the planet below, and a wind like the blast from a furnace offers little reprieve — bearing yellow and orange dust that stains everything sepia.
Athasian life is defined by scarcity — of food, water, and metal. Intelligent species gather in vast, teeming, refuse-caked cities around what small oases of water remain. There, life is even more brutal than out in the wilderness where monsters, raiders, and nomads rule, and rain (if you can call the warm humid mist that flows over the land a word as grand as rain) might fall as little as once in a decade.
Weapons are almost always made from bone, wood, or metal; a mundane steel sword or breastplate is an ancient relic worth more than gold. Most people have never seen such things.
The World Is Savage
Life beneath the dark sun is brutal and short. Raiders, slavers, and hordes of inhuman monstrosities roam the desert and the wastes. The cities are little better, and each one languishes in the grip of a deathless, ageless tyrant wizard.
Enslavement of anyone for any reason is a common practice, and thousands of enslaved residents of Athas die every day, either working in horrible conditions to erect the palaces and monuments of their local sorcerer-king or in bloody gladiatorial spectacles — gory amusements intended to titillate those with power and pacify those without.
Charity, compassion, and kindness are almost as rare on Athas as water or steel.
Arcane Magic Defiles the World
No one knows exactly why Athas is the way that it is, but the most common theory is that the wanton use of arcane magic during ancient, bloody wars turned the world into the barren, near-lifeless husk it is today.
Magic on Athas works differently from other D&D settings. In 5e, for example, arcane spellcasters tap into an underlying layer of reality called The Weave. To cast an arcane spell in Dark Sun, however, the caster must gather that power from the living world nearby. Plants wither to black ash, crippling pain wracks animals and people, and the soil is sterilized; nothing can grow in that spot again.
While it is possible to cast spells without salting the earth around you, few of these so-called Preservers exist, and their magic is nowhere near as strong as the Defilers who siphon their power from the world around them with reckless abandon.
This is why sorcery is both reviled and banned in Athas. Spellbooks were all burned or hidden long ago (wizards carry their spells around on elaborately knotted cords of rope) and anyone suspected of wizardry is put to death — all but the most powerful and their servants, of course.
Sorcerer-Kings Rule the City-States
Defilers of immeasurable power rule all but one of the city-states in Athas (and even in the nominally free city of Tyr, things aren’t looking good). Functionally immortal as a result of their dark magics, these magic-users are the closest thing to gods that exist on Athas, and many of them demand to be worshiped as such.
The Gods Are Silent
There are no deities in Athas. Some say that at the dawn of creation they were brutally destroyed by the primordials. Others suggest that the gods left more recently, disgusted with what their world had become. And some believe this world never had any gods to begin with.
Thus, there are no clerics, paladins, prophets, or priests on Athas — save those who spread the word of their sorcerer-king. However keenly these mad mages fight to fill the void left by the absence of the divine on Athas, other powers have rushed into the vacuum. Psionic powers are especially strong in the world of Dark Sun with pretty much every creature — intelligent or otherwise — wielding it to some degree. Shamans and druids can also tap into the power of the elements to cast spells.
Strange New Life and Even Stranger Familiar Faces
Thanks to either its harsh climate or the residual effects of magical radiation (probably both), the ecology of Athas is unique, strange, and deadly. There are no cattle, pigs, or horses; instead, people tend flocks of erdlus, ride on kanks or crodlus, and draw wagons with inixes and mekillots.
Wild creatures such as lions, bears, and wolves no longer exist — replaced by mutants and insectoid nightmares like the id fiend, the baazrag, and the tembo.
Even the few examples of recognizable monsters from “normal” D&D are radically different. In Dark Sun, there are no dragons; there’s only the dragon — a vast, cataclysmic force of nature that sucks the life from entire cities when it casts spells. He is considered the most powerful psionic being in the game, and failing that, he can comfortably mash you to death with a vicious set of claws, jaws, and a big spiky tail.
Likewise, though traditional fantasy races like elves, dwarves, and halflings are present on Athas, the races that dwell beneath the dark sun are very different from those that live in the Forgotten Realms. Here, elves are a nomadic race of herders, raiders, peddlers, and thieves. Halflings are xenophobic headhunters and cannibals who hunt and kill trespassers in their mountain forests.
In Dark Sun, you’re just as likely to play a 7’ tall sentient mantis-man called a Thri-Kreen or a cross-bred human/dwarf called a Muul as you are something recognizable.
Can You Play Dark Sun in 5e?
From magic and monsters to player races (even the way you roll for your ability scores in Dark Sun is different, not to mention that all PCs start the game at 3rd level to compensate for just how deadly this world is), the setting refuses to spin on any of the axes that define the trajectory of D&D as we know it.
This is one of the reasons why I don’t think we’ll see an (official WotC) update of Dark Sun for 5e. As we’re seeing with Spelljammer and as we’ve seen with Ravenloft, 5e is all about consistency across sourcebooks and settings. The books that have been released so far go beyond the content in the core Forgotten Realms setting, but they don’t replace it. A spacefaring spelljammer could make port in Waterdeep, pick up a group of adventurers and sail through the Astral sea until they get stolen away to Barovia (or more probably the Sea of Sorrows) by the mists of Ravenloft.
Know the right spells or stumble into the wrong place at the right time and that’s all possible; neither Spelljammer nor Ravenloft require you to dramatically rethink or reboot your entire campaign. Even tangential settings like Ravnica and Theros — not to mention all the Critical Role stuff — can be folded into a game of 5e without too much difficulty. Goblins might behave a little differently, the gods might have different names, and the party’s bard might be a giant elephant person, but your fundamental assumptions about the way the universe works won’t need to be relearned from the ground up.
Dark Sun cheerfully, bloodthirstily takes an obsidian hatchet to everything you thought you knew about D&D.
That doesn’t mean you can’t play a game of 5e set on Athas. You might just need to get a little creative with the setup, especially if you want to port over an existing campaign. You can…
- Start a whole new campaign in the Dark Sun setting. This is the least messy option.
- Skip forward several tens of thousands of years (or cryogenically freeze your players’ characters) to create what Matt Colville calls a “time abyss”…
- Place the entire world of Athas inside a pocket dimension — the magically ravished remnants of an arch-wizard’s personal firing range for 9th-level spells. This is the darkest option if you do the reveal right.
Whatever road you decide to go down, your best bet is to pick up the pdf of the original AD&D 2e Dark Sun boxed set from DM’s Guild. It costs around $10, and it’s way easier to convert the minimalist 2e content to 5e (or you can go look up one of the many solid fan-made conversions out there) than the 4th Edition materials.
There were also a respectable number of adventures written for the Dark Sun setting, including Freedom and Road to Urik, the first two adventures for the setting. Written by Dave “Zeb” Cook, these two modules really drive home the brutal tone of Dark Sun and highlight the precarious nature of all power in that world.
However you want to do it — whether you’re ready to leave the green hills and forests of the Sword Coast behind forever and head for the nightmarish desert of Tyr or if you’re just planning on visiting — there’s enough material throughout the world of Athas to keep having adventures there until long after the sun goes out.
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I played my first tabletop RPG (Pathfinder 1e, specifically) in college. I rocked up late to the first session with an unread rulebook and a human bard called Nick Jugger. It was a rocky start but I had a blast and now, the better part of a decade later, I play, write, and write about tabletop RPGs (mostly 5e, but also PBtA, Forged in the Dark and OSR) games for a living, which is wild.