Thursday, June 3, 2021

The Dials of Dark Sun

While I haven't heard its creators name specific works, it seems clear that the Dark Sun setting draws inspiration from Planetary Romance, Sword & Sorcery, and Post-Apocalyptic media. Paying attention to the features of these (sub)genres, one could "dial" up or down their presence in the game to tailor the setting to a specific experience, without needing to eliminate any one of components entirely.

In considering this, I realized that those three genres actually wind up having quite a bit in common. I've thought of some specific elements that 2 out of the 3 share. (I'll be ignoring similarities between Planetary Romance and S&S, because they are likely genetically related genres.) Before I present my lists, a comment about "post-apocalyptic" in regards to Dark Sun. I suspect DS is mostly inspired by Mad Max and related 80s post-apocalyptic films (The degree to which these films share some aesthetics with barbarian films in the same era in the wake of Milius's Conan, I'm also not going to get into.) I don't think DS draws much from say post-apocalyptic literature of earlier decades or even post-apocalyptic films of the 70s. The similarities I'm going to point out are with this particular Mad Max branch of the genre.

Anyway, here's what I thought of:

Planetary Romance and Post-Apoc
  • Lots of wilderness, most often desert 
  • Isolated, weird communities
  • A mishmash of technology in use
  • Lost technology
S&S and Post-Apoc
  • Outsider, loner, (badass) heroes
  • savagery vs. civilization
  • violence
  • grimness

There are major differences, of course, but it was surprising to me how well they mesh. I think it would be relatively easy to turn up the Planetary Romance by having the city-states of the Tablelands be more like the Red Martian cities of Barsoom, and the technology level of the pre-apocalypse world be higher, without really losing the post-apocalyptic struggle for survival. Alternatively, you could dial down the survival themes are play up the heroic stature of the protagonists without losing any of the other Dark Sun trappings.

There is a fourth dial and that's Dungeons & Dragons. It's probably the reason there is both magic and psionics and certainly the reason there are elves, dwarves, and halflings, different from standard as they are. The need to be marketed as a D&D campaign is probably the source of much of the dissonance in the setting, but on the other hand, a D&D setting is what it is


Dick McGee said...

While DS is a partially post-apoc setting, it doesn't feel quite like the ones we normally think of to me. My vision of PA involves the collapse of a technological civilization, even if it was far enough in the past that it's become myth and operating relics are rare or unheard of (eg the Shannara books). DS had an advanced civilization, but it was magically oriented and that just feels different than the more common nukes fall/worldwide plague/massive asteroid impact scenarios.

OTOH, I'm stuck in a modern perspective. I imagine someone living through the aftermath of the Bronze Age collapse or the Black Death in Europe would see those as PA settings, and both of those feel more akin to Dark Sun. Shrunken population leaving much of the world a wilderness, only a few relatively isolated settlements left. That's pretty DS to me.

Trey said...

Definitely most things in the Post-Apocalyptic genre involve our modern civilization or something relatably like it having collapsing because the media is meant to be consumed by us. I'm not necessarily saying here that Dark Sun is in the Post-Apoc genre (though you can make a case for that) anymore than I'm saying it's in the Planetary Romance genre. I'm saying that genre informs it and it has a number of its traits.

Dick McGee said...

Fair enough.

Now I find myself wondering what a D&D-universe bard (or other creator) spinning a fictional post-apoc tale would do. The grim lives of the survivors of a magical war that destroyed civilization, maybe? Perhaps scavenging the ruins of fallen wizards' towers for a few surviving scrolls or potions after magic is largely forgotten? Or maybe magic has failed altogether and that's what cause dteh collapse, and now it's having to rebuild itself with purely mundane resources?

For that matter, what would a planetary romance look like if it were being written in the Spelljammer setting?

Bubba O'Ginch (Of The Clan O'Ginch) said...

This is hot stuff. The ecological tinge is especially interesting throughout . . I'll re-read Shannara in this context if you do. The only real difference might be which biome ends up taking over in the disaster: forest (Shannara as well as the Hiero books and also the Long Afternoon of Earth, both in Appendix N I believe), desert (Mad Max), ice.

Arguably the entire Star Wars "galactic republic" milieu is just the aftermath of all these planetary disasters. See also planet Mongo and the early work of Ballard.

JB said...

I'd say psionic abilities are also a part of both planetary romance and PA fiction. Corrupting magic is definitely S&S, but I'm stymied to think of a PA fantasy setting (in film or fiction) that includes least not from the time period when Dark Sun was developed.

Trey said...

I'm not so certain on the corrupting magic in S&S thing. People say that a lot, and I'm sure it shows up somewhere, but it isn't really in Howard. Agree on psionics.

JB said...

Howard's Conan books talk a lot about the "stench" of magic or its palpable feeling of evil in places where magic has been worked. It can be read as the protagonist's superstition or as a real tainting force.

Moorcock's stories have more, and are generally what I think about. The influence of Chaos (from which magic comes) causes physical and mental corruption (eventually destroying the world), but there's a lot of talk about moral corruption (selling one's soul for magic, etc.) which I chalk up in the same category. The physical corruption in Dark Suns is (in my opinion) a manifestation of the corruption (evil) of the sorcerer kings.