Sunday, June 6, 2021

Dark Sun: City-States and Sorcer-Kings

art by Alcatena

The main action of the first Dark Sun material is set in the Tyr Region, also called the Tablelands. This is an area a bit bigger than the land area of Britain or a bit smaller than the land area of Colorado, for comparison. There are seven city-states, each (at least in the beginning) ruled by a Sorcerer-King.

Thinking about revising Dark Sun with the elements I mentioned before in mind, but also with any eye to the setting's inspirations, I find the Tyr region a little bland. Each of the city-states has a real world culture as inspiration (sometimes maybe a mashup of two), which gives you a bit more of a hook than just generic D&D Sword & sorcery city-states, true, but I think we can do better--at least in terms of my stated goals.

Here I would look to Planetary Romance, as it's a genre full of city-states separated by desert: Mars/Barsoom and Llarn (from two Gardner Fox novels) come to mind, but there are lot of others, and we don't need to limit ourselves to inspiration from only desert planet planetary romance. What these stories typically portray are cities at once more homogenous and more flavorful than Dark Sun's as presented. 

Most Planetary Romance takes place in a cultural region sometimes covering a whole planet. The cities in that region mostly have the same political arrangements, speak the same language, and have a consistent material culture. In order to make then distinct (and interesting places for adventure), they tend to have one unusual thing about them. It could be one of the things I mentioned above is slightly different or it could be the pursuit of some exotic pastime, a cultural eccentricity, an exotic terrain/natural resource or something physically about its people. (Flash Gordon and Mad Max: Fury Road represent the extreme end of this, perhaps, with polities that are essentially themed.) The more flavorful unique elements, of course, tend to be on the fantastic side rather than the mundane. My post on the Sword & Planet setting of Zarthoon illustrates this, though it leans a little in the Flash Gordon direction. Still, it gives you the idea.

This game in Storm is one of those unique elements

Dark Sun at once makes the cities a bit distinct in terms of mundane details, but they are mostly lacking that hook--a fantastic element to spur adventure. The Dark Sun cities in most cases don't have a high concept thumbnail description, unless you reference what real world culture inspired them.

The description of the Sorcerer-Kings themselves is part of the problem. A bit more "wizard from Thundarr" vibe would certainly help, I think. There is a transhuman aspect to what the what the Sorcerer-Kings are after, so I feel like they should, at least in some cases, feel like they are moving away from human a bit. maybe?

So from this perspective, I plan to take a look at the city-states in upcoming posts.


JB said...

You make it sound like "leaning towards Flash Gordon" is a bad thing!
; )

I never owned/ran/played in the Dark Sun setting "back in the day" (I skipped pretty much the entirety of 2E), and even now I only own a partial copy (I picked up the box set used and it was missing one of the books), so a lot of what you're referencing re culture-based polities of DS is unfamiliar to me...I don't recall reading ANY specific (differing) characteristics of the various city-states.

But I agree such a campaign setting would probably be better served by adding more distinction...and, yes, I think Barsoom's model is probably best (with minor regional differences rather than DS China versus DS Mexico, etc.).

RE DS Sorcerer-Kings

Jeez, it's been a while since I read my (incomplete) books, but the impression that lingers is these guys are some kind of lich-type creatures. And, again, I agree that Thundarr wizards would be MUCH cooler. The neat thing about wizards in Thundarr is that while A) each is immediately recognizable as a "wizard" due to their magical power, evil and insanity, B) they are all physically corrupted in unique/distinct ways. Each has some horrible, Jack Kirby-style mutation or deformity that sets each apart, helps theme their minions and m.o., and (often) a different form of magic as well.

Of course, you always run the danger of taking this kind of thing too far and branching into anime territory...

Trey said...

I certainly don't mean to! :D

Mainly, though, FG differentiates areas by extreme terrain. Here's the Forest Land, Desert Land, Snow Land, etc. Given Dark Sun is mostly desert, that's not really super-helpful there.

Dick McGee said...

Post-human (or more accurately, post-ogre) definitely describes the Dragon in DS, and all the Sorcerer Kings are trying to emulate his path with varying degrees of success, so...yeah, something Thundarr-ish with maybe more of a fantasy vibe and less post-apoc tech would fit well. Certainly all of them are insane by human standards and don't consider themselves bound by human ethics, and they mostly have the power to act as they please.

The again, everything's better with some Thundarr added IMO, so I may be biased.

bombasticus said...

Hot stuff as always. Can't wait. Your insight into the patchwork potential of the setting makes me wonder about a sort of "apocalyptic Ravenloft" where surviving exemplars of various planetary romance tropes would be pulled from their native (presumably dead) settings and stitched together in this fractious waste land. So instead of darklords you have sorcerer-kings with their intrigues and grudges jockeying for dragon status. Instead of domains you have the city-states separated by the vast desert instead of fog walls.

Definitely one way to approach it! And in some versions of Flash Gordon this is actually more or less how Mongo was assembled so there's a tradition for doing it.