Clash of the Dark Sun Tropes

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The Dark Sun setting draws from several genres:

  1. Sword and Planet
  2. Sword and Sorcery
  3. Post-Apocalyptic

I wonder if some of these aren’t in direct conflict with one another. For example, the Sword and Planet genre is likely to be much more ‘heroic’ than the other two genres (and could that be one reason that so many of the published Dark Sun adventure modules seem to fall short of the promise of the setting?).

Or is this mish-mash of conflicting tropes one of the setting’s strengths? Because each GM can adjust the dials for each genre, does it gives them more flexibility in creating the world they want?

I think you forgot psionics? And anti magic.

(I don’t consider psionics to be “just another kind of magic”, because it’s not supposed to be. )

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do you mean as tropes, or as characteristics of the 3 tropes?
Psionics are common in Sword and Planet as well as Post-Apocalyptic stories. In Sword and Sorcery you have magic but it is seen as a corrupting influence (though usually corrupting the individual, not the environment).
So yes, that would be another place there may be conflict when you try to blend the tropes.

It really depends on what you want to emphasize in your game. The Prism Pentad novel series starts with slaves toppling a corrupt king and a fight against evil, and goes from there. Dark Sun starts as a grim setting, but the metaplot turned that on its head very quickly, with mixed approval. It’s an example of a heroic sword and sorcery game.

Post Apocalyptic is more atmosphere than anything else. You can run all of the same stories in a post apocalyptic game in any other setting, with minor adjustments.

You can pick one and run with it. But the political climate in Dark Sun is stable - there’s no reason why it has to shift in any dramatic way. In a gritter game, nothing changes, or the changes aren’t nearly so heroic. Killing Kalak and having Tyr as a “free” city is perfectly fine in Dark Sun, if its toned down.

A few individuals find that attaining power isn’t so easy, and even if they do, they can’t get everything they want. Some reforms on slave treatment, some changes, but in the end, there are still slaves, life is still harsh, and the new regime has to make many compromises to maintain stability. It can work even better in this light if Kalak is not a Champion, and kept the heart of a slain Champion, gifted by Rajaat. That way, the city can keep its Templar, and the realignment will be heavily political, with lower ranked templar getting promotions as old ones are removed, but the mechanism of power demanding concessions to keep them loyal. More traditional sword and sorcery in theme, if not power level.

Or, you can focus on the villages and wastes. This seems better for Sword and Planet. The city-states are the hubs of civilization because they have the resources, the people, and offer advantages and safety that the wastes don’t offer. The price is steep, but many prefer to live in fear than die free. It’s dangers aren’t the dangers of a dying planet, pressing down on the character, but a fight with others over who gets the guarantee of the future a city offers. Even if there’s a famine, the city is likely still the best off. In the wastes, your next meal isn’t in sight, or a handful of cp away. You struggle for every drop of water. Villages have more, but raiders are a threat, and there are still no guarantees. Defilers are key here. The PCs find a small oasis? They come back one day, and it’s reduced to ash. A village grows to large? It’s harder to defend, and the Sorcerer Kings may come. Druids, and perhaps the Veiled Alliance offers some help, if the land is respected, but the forces who will exploit that land are many. The land itself is the treasure, and the characters are going to have barter part of it get the allies they need to defend the rest.

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Interesting discussion idea.

Regarding tropes of Dark Sun, here’s a related question:

Is Dark Sun Grimdark?

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It’s Grim Dark by design in in the first box set, then the Prism Pentad series moves it to Noble Dark in a push towards Noble Bright. It’s kind of a natural progression when you have a heroic saga, but it wasn’t universally well received.

Dark is easy to keep, it’s the Grim that’s harder to pull off in a game. Many players don’t like not being able to impact the world. Believably creating a campaign where this can happen involves setting up a backdrop where years of politics are coming to a head, and the player is caught in the middle - they can have a major impact, not through their own effort, but through being in the right place at the right time and taking the opportunities.

The PC game with the most Dark Sun flavor I can think of in recent memory is Age of Decadence. It’s a grim-dark, post apocalyptic fantasy setting, and the storytelling does a great job of giving the player agency through the mechanisms I describe above. The player can’t change the world, but the political scene is such that they can help choose which of the major players are winners or losers. But they need to be careful, because they can easily end up exiled or dead if they’re not. The game is very unforgiving and harsh, so save often or prepare to restart. It’s not a very long game, but has a bunch of replayability from the different origins and faction storylines.

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I happen to think the multiple tropes are a strength for the setting. Exactly for the reason mentioned. One group can play a grim survivalist game while another tackles heroism toppling a corrupt regime. Both are still dark Sun and neither are playing it wrong.

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I think that’s what annoys me about Grimdark as a genre-- gritty and hopeless just seems masochistic and indulgent at best, torture porn at worst. Isn’t the whole point of tragedy to show the best of human nature?

I guess I can get that Grimdark’s rise in popularity is a sign of the times, but it has always seemed to me an unsustainable genre. Either the protagonist gives up, the reader gives up, or the world must be allowed to change.

I suppose I kind of asked the question in the first place because I think people can take Dark Sun to grimdark places if they want to, but the setting as grim dark is a poor fit for all the reasons you described above, and I just said here.

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Grimdark can work as a way of showing resolve and fortitude in the face of impossible odds and adversity. Of maintaining dignity in the face of the inevitable, of how people make choices when the inevitable end looms. It’s also a way of dealing with the harsh realities of life, how no one person can really affect much. At most, you can move other people to move on your behalf.

But in games, it tends to be a hyper-violent backdrop for hyper-violent combat that never ends and never changes. Combat is a big part of games, so it works there, but then it ends up veering to Noble Dark because palyers who want to rack up a body count hate not having any real agency. Ultimately, the problem with grim dark is that most gamers don’t really want a grim dark game.

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Heroic? or Epic? I don’t see the Prism Pentad as having followed Sword and Sorcery tropes given the fact that it includes overthrowing Sorcerer Kings. Aren’t Sword and Sorcery stories more about small personal struggles rather than world-shaking ones? Maybe I should have started with a definition of terms…

But the post apocalyptic genre I’m thinking of does have typical story arc tropes - they begin with hardened heroes just trying to survive but who eventually shows their better nature when they need to help those weaker than themselves.

I like your idea of an urban-flavored Sword and Sorcery game, but your villages and wastes description sound more Post Apocalyptic than Sword and Planet.

Anyway, maybe this is all too academic (what do we care what we call it so long as it’s fun) but my original point was that there feels like there’s a gap or a disconnect somewhere in the setting (at least for me) and I wonder if that isn’t because of what I’m calling ‘trope clash’.

“Heroic Sword and Sorcery” isn’t really a term, but there’s not a great one for the Prism Pentad series. It has far larger wins than would really fit a Sword and Sorcery game that fit within those bounds, but I wouldn’t say that it ever really hits the high fantasy mark, however. There’s no finale where the day is truly saved, and things get worse as often as they get better, but there are big swings from big damn heroes in quick succession that’s far beyond typical Grim.

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And if examples help, here’s what I think of as the platonic ideals of each genre type:

  1. Sword and Planet - Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian series
  2. Sword and Sorcery - Robert E Howard’s Conan series
  3. Post-Apocalyptic - George Miller’s Mad Max film series

Actually, I’d be interested to hear if anyone in this forum has a different work or collection of works that they see as best fitting Dark Sun.

Addendum: of course I’m leaving out Frank Herbert’s Dune which, though I feel was a major influence on the setting, is the kind of story structure that I have found difficult to replicate in role playing games…maybe I’m not trying hard enough?

Both really. It’s probably why the metaplot wasn’t every popular - too much of a shift from the setting’s themes. Sardira and Rikuus et al had rough edges, but they all made heroic choices. Most of the lasting characters ended up being good or the good side of neutral. Tithian was evil, but he ended up getting his comeuppance.

The story arch in a post-apocalyptic game can be present in any other game. Even James Bond could get dropped in a desert with no support and have to try and survive by his wits. You could take Mad Max and put it most fiction somewhere in that world. Post-apocalyptic gives focus, but it’s not really a theme or specific story arch.

I’d chalk up the discongruity of the trope clash to the metaplot. Prism Pentad was a mistake in many ways. If Game of Thrones suddenly went heroic adventure it would be a head spinning shift, and the destruction of the entire Dead Army by Aria killing the Night King was a big turn off for me because it seemed like a “Ring in the Volcano, the good guys auto win” moment.

Those are good archetypes IMHO. Age of Decadence has a lot of appropriate themes for Dark Sun mixed in. Dune is kind of an influence, but I’m not sure how directly. Thinking about it more, I can see many parallels over the course of the series.

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Yeah, the more I thought about Dune the more I thought about the similarities between a God Emperor and a Sorcerer King.
Maybe you could have a story where a character tries to become a Sorcerer King, just to defeat all the other Sorcerer Kings - “for the good of Athas” - it might make an interesting character journey but I feel like it would be hard to adapt to party-type play where you have multiple players if only one of the characters can be the Chosen One.

What you’ve just defined here is more or less the Aristotelian definition of tragedy. And I think people who confuse that with sadism (which is basically how most people seem to define Grimdark) are the people who annoy me most with both writing and DMing.

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Hey Neujack, can.you elaborate what you mean by many people confusing Grimdark with Sadism? I’ve had a very select group of players so I haven’t been exposed to that many playstyles so do you mean the players use Grimdark to try and play out sadistic fantasies?

In another post I mentioned that for my campaign I’ve portrayed the Shadow King as being horrendously sadistic. The idea being that a creature as old and evil as he with nearly unlimited power simply would be bored with regular old villainy and would need something truly vile to excite him. Mind you I also made it clear he didn’t indulge these desires very often. He was mostly consumed with his research and various sorcerous projects to the point he truly resented interruption.

No worries, @Kalakoftyr. Here goes:

Grimdark, to my understanding (which coincides with the assertions of more than a few literary theory people out there in the blogosphere), was the idea of an unrelentingly negative world designed to show the worst in characters, revelling in “their dark sides”. What little that is good there either gets broken, or it breaks the Grimdark.

In practice, it seems to me running a campaign as Grimdark becomes an exercise in PC abuse. The PC’s either revel in being awful and suffer the consequences, or they play good in a world where good actiions are futile. This is what I mean. So it’s more about the DM being sadistic than the players, but it could be both.

Hope that helps.

Don’t get me wrong, grimness and darkness have a valuable place when carefully managed. I’ve run a campaign before in a dark future setting where the players were in a world that was seemingly hopeless. But that’s the key-- it wasn’t completely without hope, it was just that hope was hard to find, which made it shine all the brighter when goodness did show up in unexpected places, or when the heroes won.

So far as I’ve been able to see of every piece of Grimdark ever produced by DC’s cinematic universe (for example), it cannot be Grimdark if the “good guys” win, or if there is lasting hope.

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Yeah, most people don’t want to play in a tragedy.

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I prefer nobledark to grimdark normally (though there are exceptions.)

The dark part of the equation is obvious - Athas is not a nice place to live.

Grim means that the sheer inertia of the setting means that individuals can’t do anything to change the trajectory of it. The best you can hope for is some minor temporary victories but nothing that will be lasting. Maybe you take down a SK. another one will be along soon to replace them.

Noble means there can be change, but it can take much sacrifice and insane willpower, depending on the darkness of the setting. It isn’t necessarily easy. And it isn’t just the good guys - the bad guys are also capable of changing the setting as well.

Just because a setting is grimdark doesn’t mean it is endless doom and gloom for the characters. They can have successes, they can become wealthy - they just can’t change the overall setting. Think Conan of Cimmerian - he vanquished foes, won (and lost) vast wealth, even became king, but his world didn’t change.

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As someone that has GM’d for the Warhammer 40,000 rpgs for around 5 years and Dark Sun on and off I would call default Dark Sun grimdark. The setting is a brutal and unforgiving one where virtues easily turn into liabilities and changing the overall setting for the better can feel next to impossible. That being said I tend to play Dark Sun as more Noble Dark the way Crosswire describes it. The PCs can definitely better the world, it is just a daunting feat that is the stuff of campaigns.

My first Dark Sun campaign revolved around assassinating Kalak of Tyr, where the PCs got caught up in the conspiracies of Sacha and Wyan as well as the Veiled Alliance. In the end the free city of Tyr wasn’t some idealized place, slavery was still a thing and so were the Templar. But slaves couldn’t be mistreated nearly as badly and the senate could now serve as actual opposition to King Tithian.

For those curious, I handle settings like 40k as the PCs are capable of making a difference in their corner of the setting. So for them it does feel like a huge accomplishment, but in the end relatively little has truly changed. This is also a way you can do Dark Sun well, the SKs are all still in power, but the region the PCs care about is now a better place.

That is how you do grimdark enjoyably imho. You don’t abuse the PCs as much as you remind them how much bigger the world is than them and how much risk there is in great acts of heroism. My players eat this up because it makes their victories feel more earned and makes them more invested in their little corner of the setting. Everything feels more personal and immersive as a result.

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