Tuesday, June 14, 2022

(AD&D 2e)Dark Sun Boxed Set

I have something of a . . . complex relationship with AD&D 2nd Edition. It was my first rpg, and as a result, it is my most collected rpg (even today, decades after I stopped playing it, I'm tempted to pick up books I wanted as a teenager, but couldn't find/afford at the time), but I don't actually like it all that much. 

So I was going into the Dark Sun Boxed Set with the expectation that it would disappoint me. It was my favorite rpg book in the days before I was exposed to non-D&D rpgs, but that was probably just because it was self-consciously different. I'd read it again for the first time in 20 years and I'd realize that it was like Planescape or Dragonstar - superficially trying something new, but relentlessly wedded to mainline D&D in ways that proved ultimately self-destructive.

But that's not what happened. Instead, I read it with the jaded eyes of a middle-aged collector/critic and I realized . . . It might actually be good. And I don't mean in any of those condescending, qualified senses. Not just "good for nostalgia" or "good by AD&D standards" or "potentially good after a deconstruction and rewrite." I mean that it may actually count as a bona fide classic of the genre that holds up even today. All the big stuff that rpgs have been learning about in the past 20 years of internet-driven cultural hyperawareness - the complex relationship between genre and mechanics and presentation and theme - it's already here. Obviously not addressed with the same forthrightness as a modern indie game (today, the half-dwarven Muls would require a whole safety conversation all their own, and the halfling tribal culture is going to need a paragraph or two later on in the post), but the groundwork is there. This is a game that is trying to be a specific thing, and though it may sometimes be held back by the AD&D rules, it largely succeeds at communicating that vision.

It mostly happens in small ways, like how a high-level fighter's followers are incorporated into the mass-combat rules, instead of just hanging around (and yes, this is a BATTLESYSTEMtie-in, but it speaks to an ambition - your characters are going to get caught up in the epic sweep of history and - the book says it best - "removes the outcomes of important battles from the hands of the Dungeon Master  and puts them on the tabletop where they belong"). Or the fact that Dark Sun characters start at level 3, which is sold as a reaction to the extreme danger of Athas, but really winds up bypassing the comically fragile lower levels to allow you to play fantasy fiction protagonists straight out the gate. 

The magic system has a role in the setting. It presents an ethical dilemma and has shaped the evolution of Athas' societies. Sorcerers draw life energy from the land to power their spells, and it is only through careful discipline that the balance can be maintained. Which explains why the present day is such a shit-hole. Characters are the inheritors of their ancestor's reckless legacy, their world dying thanks to the greed and impatience of generations past.

And that's why metal is so rare. "Our ancestors devoured our ore supply, leaving to us little but their scrap." It's a genre aesthetic - weapons of bone and glass and stone and wood, taking us away from the gleaming metal of pseudo medieval high fantasy - but it's also effortlessly justified and entirely on-theme.

Like the ruins - yeah, some are filled with treasure and monsters, but they're also an essential part of the game's overall vibe. The stuff that actually gets described is purely decorative - an old bridge over a dried up river bed, a cobblestone path leading to nowhere - but it drives home the point. The world is dying. Its best days have passed.  Even if you find the treasure, it's nothing more than the resolution of a loose end.

Like The Dragon. It doesn't have a name. It's not part of a species. It's just The Dragon (or, sometimes, The Dragon of Tyr). So. Fucking. Elegant. As laser-focused a biblical allusion as we've ever seen in D&D, and you don't even notice because it fits so well. It's the monster that exists after the end of the world, a living embodiment of the voracious consumption that choked the green lands and turned the sea to silt. It's a defiler's defiler, a nightmare for nightmares, draining life not just from plants, but from every living thing. An endless hunger. An endless greed. Seemingly eternal, a personification of the planet's decay. A fucking capitalism elemental. And it's clearly positioned as a campaign end-boss (its action economy - 4 attacks + 1 spell + 1 psionic power - is ludicrous in any other role).

The King of This World. The Dragon. You're in the apocalypse. That's the theme.

But it's not exactly bleak. The nuance is hard to capture, and there may be some who will accuse me of inventing it whole-cloth, but while the world is shaped by this cynical brutality (raiding is a way of life, slavery exists everywhere, the masses love the blood-sport of the gladiatorial arena), I think that brutality exists to allow for adaptation and survival. You are in the apocalypse. The world is ruled by evil. But you're alive. To quote The Wanderer's Journal:

"Though the picture I have painted so far is of a stark and rugged land, I do not mean to say that Athas is dreary or monotonous. To the contrary, it has a majestic and stark beauty. When the first light casts its emerald hues over the Sea of Silt, or when sunset spreads its bloody stain over the Ringing Mountains, there is a certain feral beauty that stirs the untamed heart in all of us."
So the other half of all this is that you have to look at the way the people of Athas fit in to their local conditions. To preserve their tyrannical rule, the Templars and the nobles forbid all others from learning to read and write, but the merchant houses have a highly elaborate way of "keeping accounts" that more or less amounts to full literacy. If you step in the wrong spot near the Sea of Silt, you'll fall into 15 feet of dust and suffocate within minutes, but the dwarves are building these vehicles with giant wheels that can roll across the compressed layer. It's the apocalypse, but people still have agency. They can still solve problems. They can still be heroes.

It's a tempting formula - a crapsack world for the PCs to fix - and it works as well here as I've ever seen it, but also, this is definitely an rpg that needs safety tools. It can be so matter of fact about its terrible elements. Like, there's widespread slavery, and Dark Sun is very consistent about framing it as a cruel and unjust practice. There are no sympathetic slave owners. There's no attempt to justify it by claiming that the slaves are better off (in fact, it seems to be the position of this book that the main advantage to being a "well-treated" slave is that it puts you in a better position to escape). Slave rebellions are presented positively. However, you can also play as a character class that may summarily execute slaves as a 1st level ability.

It's not something the book endorses. The Templar class description calls them "an organization of wicked men looking out for their own wealth and power" and summarizes their mission as ensuring that "terror is maintained among their subject populations." But if that description doesn't put you off, then you can be one. The book is clear "there are no good templars," but you don't have to make a "good" PC.

And it's like, it's fairly clear that the book expects you to play epic heroes who pit themselves against the evils of the world, gathering armies under their banner, and mastering magic through the Preserver's path. But also, thanks to the way cleric spells were reworked, only Templars have access to the really effective healing spells.

You're going to need to talk it out, is what I'm saying.

Which brings us, at last, to what I consider the book's only real flaw - Halflings. There's a quote that sums it up: "Their concept of right and wrong is so different from ours that it is absurd to hold them to the same moral standards."

That line is in reference to cannibalism. The Halflings are a wise, spiritual people, with complex and beautiful traditions. They live in harmony with both nature and each other, knowing nothing of war and settling disputes through competitive gift-giving. Also, they consider all other forms of life, including intelligent halfling-like creatures (such as human beings) to be a valid source of food. You go into their lands and you run the risk of being hunted and killed. You've been warned . . . literally every time halflings were mentioned.

On the one hand, this is just funny. I'm positive that's why it's here. Halflings are cute, harmless-looking mascot characters. They are also known for their epicurean tendencies. "What's for second breakfast? I think it's Boromir." It's a solid gag.

However, Athasian Halflings are jungle-dwelling tribespeople. The word "witch doctor" is mentioned. Part of their gift-giving custom is bringing prisoners back to their village to be eaten by their chief. There are tropes at work here. 

So I don't know, maybe don't use that element. The rest of the book is rock solid, though.

Ukss Contribution:  Bards get a bit of a rules rework that makes them largely redundant with Thieves - losing their magic, but gaining access to all of the thief skills - but there was a bit of new lore that tickled my fancy. Nobles will send each other Bards as a customary gift. Because it's nice to hear some music in your fabulous estate. Of course, these Bards are definitely spies, and probably thieves, and maybe even assassins. You know that. They know that you know that. But socially, you can only turn down the "gift" from an openly declared enemy. And, of course, we're all friends here . . .

So catty. So much drama potential. I love it.

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