Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Sand and Cyphers - Running Dark Sun with the Cypher System


I fell in love with the Dark Sun Campaign Setting in September 1994.  I was spending the weekend at my friend Andy's house, and he had this old SSI game on his computer:  Dark Sun Shattered Lands.  The idea of playing a gladiator-slave desperate to achieve freedom felt so very different from typical fantasy settings.  I put in a few hours on the game while staying with Andy, and asked to borrow the game before heading home.  

By the middle of the following week I found myself completely enthralled by the world of Athas.  So I got my mom to drive me to the Oxford Valley Mall, where I traded several weeks worth of allowance for the Dark Sun Campaign Setting Boxed Set and the Brazen Gambit by Lynn Abbey.  I still have that same boxed set, worn to heck with exposed cardboard breaking through the busted corners and edges.  As I look at the box right now I am amazed...

... can you imagine that it was only $20 for the setting?  

I explored the Dark Sun setting with AD&D 2nd Edition all throughout high school and college.  My players threw off their chains and ventured out into the Great Alluvial Sand Wastes.  Since one of our player characters was a Templar, we spent countless sessions involved in the bitter disputes between Gulg and Nibenay.  Later on our Trader led the party on grand caravan ventures to Urik, Raam, and Draj.  Athas truly became our sandbox.  

Years later I returned to the wastes with D&D 3rd Edition.  At the time I was a convert to the new D&D system, and had no interest in playing the game with the older ruleset.  Fortunately, I discovered!  Like thousands of other Dark Sun fans, I found the fan-made rules perfect for running another excursion across the sands.  That campaign would last three terrific years, and wrapped up in 2007.

Since then, I've had only a few brief trips back to the Dark Sun Campaign Setting.  I ran a short D&D 4th Edition mini-campaign in 2011, but found the drastic changes to the source material off-putting.  I'm sorry, Wizards of the Coast, but Thri-Kreen have elongated abdomens, and Half-Giants are quite different from Goliaths.  

My most recent trip to Dark Sun was when I used Athas a recursion for The Strange last year.  We came up with a few basic rules for the recursion, and used Foci to match our agents of The Estate to familiar race and class combinations.  It worked really well, and left me wanting more.  

With the Cypher System Rulebook I think I'm now ready to deliver... 

Conversion Notes

Before we move forward, I want to be clear about what I've thrown together.  I'm not one for full conversions.  Sure I could come up with a dozen custom descriptors, and another half-dozen new foci, but why bother?  

Want to play a Mul Gladiator?  A Tough Warrior who Fights With Panache fits quite nicely!

Those Gith raiders are Level 2(6) creatures, level 3 speed defense due to their springing ability.  

It really doesn't take much to Cypher this stuff... that's why I'm such a fan.  

So what I've got here is a list of quick conversion notes that you can use to run Dark Sun this weekend using the Cypher System Rulebook with very minimal effort.  To do this right you'll just two, maybe three things:

  • Obviously you'll need the Cypher System Rulebook.  Pretty much a given.
  • You can get the Dark Sun Boxed Set PDF on DrivethruRPG for $9.99.  You'll need this unless you've already got a copy.  Speaking of, I may need to go get one.    
  • The rules for Wild Talents are based on mutations that can come from either the Numenera or The Strange rulebooks.  I've got an alternative method as well... we'll get to that soon enough.

For this post I'll be covering character generation and some basic rules for general gameplay.  I may do another post with some creature conversions, but I trust most of you reading this can do these on the fly.  Actually, if you come up with any conversion materials, or comments on what I'm sharing, I'd love to see them!

Races of Athas

Any character race from the original Dark Sun boxed set can easily be emulated using the right combination of descriptors, types, foci, or even just flavor text.  The Cypher System Rulebook goes as far as to point players towards using stock descriptors to describe an elf or dwarf.  Not every dwarf needs to be rugged, nor does every halfling have to be stealthy.  It's your game, and your character.  

So when you read my suggested descriptors and some decent foci, don't get bogged down with these being "required" in your game.  Even the Half-Giant and Thri-Kreen, each of which I've created slightly customized descriptors, could be created using alternatives.  When we played Dark Sun using The Strange our Thri-Kreen was a Lucky Paradox who Hunts with Great Skill.  

These suggestions probably work best with players who are unfamiliar with the Dark Sun setting.  Any die-hard Dark Sun fan will tell you that this isn't the world where you'll find a Jovial Elf or a Kind Halfling! 

  • Descriptors:  Dwarf, Driven, Mad, Rugged, Perceptive, Strong-Willed, Tough, Vengeful
  • Descriptors:  Charming, Elf, Dishonorable, Fast, Graceful, Mystical, Sharp-Eyed 
  • Focus: Moves Like the Wind
  • Descriptors:  Appealing, Empathic, Jovial, Mysterious, Spiritual
  • Focus:  Controls Beasts
  • Descriptor: Half-Giant (Custom, modified "Strong")
    • Extremely Powerful: +6 to your Might Pool
    • Skill:  Trained in all actions involving breaking inanimate objects.
    • Skill:  Trained in all actions involving lifting or carrying objects at great lengths.
    • Inability:  The Half-Giant's constantly shifting alignment causes cracks in their personality.  The difficulty of all Intellect Defense actions are increased by one step. 
    • Initial Link to the Starting Adventure
      1. You served as a caravan guard during one of the other PC's trips across the wastes.
      2. You are an ex-slave who served in an elite unit hired by another PC's friend's or family.
      3. You are paranoid that your fellow PC's will come to distrust you based on your shifting alignment.
      4. One of the PC's has been able to help sooth your transition from one alignment to another.  
  • Focus:  Performs Feats of Strength
  • Descriptors:  Clever, Cruel, Impulsive, Inquisitive, Lucky, Stealthy, Swift
  • Descriptors:  Brash, Craven, Doomed, Impulsive, Intelligent, Noble, Wealthy
  • Descriptors:  Strong, Hardy, Naive, Resilient, Tongue-Tied
  • Focus: Never Says Die
  • Descriptor:  Thri-Kreen (Custom, modified "Tough")
    • Carapace:  +1 to Armor
    • Dextrous:  +2 to Speed Pool
    • Skill:  You're trained in jumping and leaping
    • Additional Equipment:  You begin play with a Chatkcha
    • Initial Link to the Starting Adventure
      1. You see all of the PC's as part of your clutch.
      2. You consider only one of the PC's as part of your clutch, and have a distrust of the others.  
      3. One of the PC's has watched you consume an elven friend of theirs.  
      4. You have spent time teaching one of the other PC's how to use your Thri-Kreen weapons, and the experience has been very rewarding.
  • Focus:  Hunts with Great Skill

Classes of Athas

To create the feel of traditional character classes from the original AD&D 2nd Edition Dark Sun campaign setting, you'll need to consider combinations of Type, Flavor, and Focus.  


Warrior, Speaker, Adept, or Explorer... the "Type" is the core of a Cypher System character.  But if you are looking to emulate the "feel" of the original AD&D 2nd Edition Dark Sun, don't get too hung up on this aspect of the character.  Your Druid may be a powerful Adept with a deep connection to a guarded land, or an Explorer with a nature-related focus.  A Templar could be an Adept or a Speaker, and a Gladiator a Warrior or an Explorer.  

If you are a game master reading this post, looking to run Dark Sun as a campaign, work with your players.  Decide amongst yourselves how closely you want to link the player characters to the original builds allowed in the Dark Sun Campaign Setting Boxed Set.  They're your sands.  


Combat, Stealth, and Magic fit best.  


What I've done is pulled out all of the traditional AD&D 2nd Edition classes found in Dark Sun, and suggested the best Foci to come up with the right builds.  You'll note that I suggest the Types and Flavors for each, but this is another place where you can have fun!  If you remember, back in the original Dark Sun there was a lot of multi-classing.  

When I played Shattered Sands, my party included a Psionicist/Thief, a Ranger/Preserver, and a Fighter/Cleric.  In a Cypher System game, my Dwarven Fighter/Cleric could be a Strong-Willed Warrior who Channels the Elements.  I certainly like the sound of the Cypher build more than the old AD&D title.  

Bard (Speaker flavored with Stealth, remember that Dark Sun Bards did not cast spells)
  • Entertains
  • Infiltrates
  • Murders
Cleric (Adept flavored with Combat, consider the original weapon restrictions found in the Dark Sun rule book)
  • Channels the Elements
    • As Channels Divine Blessings with minor modifications
    • Trained in all tasks related to the Cleric's chosen element
    • Blessing of the Gods (Elements): Must choose Earth/Stone, Sky/Air, Sun/Light/Fire, or Water/The Sea.  Cannot choose two elemental blessings.  
  • Bears a Halo of Fire (Fire Cleric)
  • Blazes with Radiance (Sun Cleric)
  • Works Miracles (Water Cleric)
  • Throws with Deadly Accuracy (Air Cleric)
  • Stands Like a Bastion (Earth Cleric)

Defiler/Preserver  (Adept)
  • Bears a Halo of Fire
  • Casts Spells
  • Consorts with the Dead
  • Crafts Illusions
  • Rides the Lightning
  • Wears a Sheen of Ice

Druid  (Explorer flavored with Magic)
  • Controls Beasts
  • Lives in the Wilderness
  • Masters the Swarm
  • Speaks for the Land

Fighter  (Warrior)
  • Carries a Quiver
  • Defends the Weak
  • Looks for Trouble
  • Masters Defense
  • Masters Weaponry

Gladiator  (Warrior)
  • Fights Dirty
  • Fights with Panache
  • Masters Weaponry
  • Needs No Weapon
  • Rages
  • Wields Two Weapons at Once

Psionicist    (Adept)
  • Awakens Dreams
  • Commands Mental Powers
  • Focuses Mind over Matter
  • Sees Beyond
  • Separates Mind from Body

Ranger  (Warrior flavored with Stealth or Explorer flavored with Combat)
  • Hunts Nonhumans
    • Pick from an Athasian dedicated foe, such as Gith or Dray
  • Hunts with Great Skill
  • Lives in the Wilderness
  • Wields Two Weapons at Once

Templar  (Speaker flavored with Magic)
  • Channels the Sorcerer-King/Queen 
    • As Channels Divine Blessings with minor modifications
    • Trained in all tasks related to knowledge of the Sorcerer King or Queen
    • Blessing of the Gods: Must choose from Authority/Law/Peace, Knowledge/Wisdom, Protection/Silence, Trickery/Greed/Commerce,  or War.  
    • All "divine" aspects are reskinned as coming from the Sorcerer King or Queen
  • Leads

Thief (Explorer)
  • Explores Dark Places
  • Infiltrates
  • Moves Like a Cat
  • Works the Back Alleys

Gear of Athas


Some of these are from The Complete Gladiators Handbook
  • Light Melee:  Quabone, Wrist Razor, Singing Stick, Puchik
  • Light Ranged:  Chatkcha
  • Medium Melee:  Carrikal, Impaler, Alhulak, Forearm Axe, Talid
  • Medium Ranged:  Dejada
  • Heavy Melee:  Gythka, Lotulis, Trikal, Double Bladed Spear

New Mechanics

Wild Talents (courtesy of +Scott Robinson)

Psionics permeate all of Athas, and so every character, when upon completing translation, gain a Wild Talent, a single random psionic ability.  To generate this random ability, use the  rules for Powerful Mutations, found on page 241 of The Strange core book.  Each player gets one roll, and is given a psionic-skinned version of that power.


For each character in play, roll one random cypher.  This will be their Wild Talent.  Once used, the character can roll another cypher after a 10 hour rest.  

Sure, this isn't the most canonical version of how cyphers work, but its a way to enjoy Wild Talents in your campaign without having to buy anything other than the Cypher System Rulebook.  


Potion fruit, scrolls, arcane trinkets, pretty much the same as the regular Cypher System Fantasy fare.  

Defiling Magic (courtesy of +Marc Plourde)

Using magical abilities on Athas requires the spell caster to draw the life from plants and creatures around them.  While most creatures can take a small drain on their soul, and just experience a bit of nausea, plant life is another matter.  If a caster is not careful, they defile the land, causing all plant life to turn to dead ash.  This is, of course, the easiest and most direct way to cast spells.  Preserving the plant life is far more difficult, but leaves no permanent harm to the world around them.  Of course in Dark Sun, there is no "grey area", and spell casters must make a tough choice:
  • When using a magical revision, or focus ability, should the player character choose to "defile", the difficulty is lowered by 1 step.  
  • When using a magical revision, or focus ability, should the player character choose to "preserve", the difficulty is increased by 1 step.

Inferior Materials    (created with the help of +Jeremy Land)

Due to the relative scarcity of metal, most weapons and tools are made of bone, stone, or wood.  When using one of these items as a weapon, any roll of a 2 when using an inferior weapon means that the item breaks, and cannot be used until repaired.  If the player rolls a 1, not only do they suffer the GM Intrusion, the weapon also breaks permanently.  

Tools are often made of non-metal as well.  Non-metal tools cannot be used as assets, but merely give the user a +2 modifier to the result of the roll.   

Survival Mode (created with the help of +Jordan Cwang)

This applies to any encounters that may occur in the open wastes.  

Traveling across the sands of Athas is very dangerous, and should always be treated as an arduous ordeal worthy of careful consideration.  Similar to Horror Mode found in the Cypher System Rulebook, Survival Mode increases the Intrusion Range. 

Any journey across the sandy wastes of Athas begins with an Intrusion Range of 5.  A character who just walks out into the wastes, unequipped and unprepared, will suffer a GM Intrusion whenever they roll a 5 or less on a d20 during all actions...

... yeah, it's that dangerous!

Obviously there are ways to decrease the Intrusion Range, and all of the following should be considered as ways to move the Intrusion Range down by a step:

  • Accompanying or employing a guide trained (1 step) or specialized (2 steps) in survival.  This can include a party ranger or scout.
  • Traveling on a road.
  • Being part of a caravan.
  • Carrying adequate food and water.

So walking from Tyr to Altaruk with adequate food and water grants an Intrusion Range of 3, while journeying as part of a caravan with a guide reduces this to 1.  There is safety in numbers, my friends.

Your Journey Awaits

So that's my take on character creation and basic rules for running Cypher System campaigns on Athas.  I may do another post covering monsters, but I think this is enough to get you started.  If you have any other suggestions or rule tweaks let me know!  I'd be happy to make some modifications and give you credit!

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