Dark Sun House Rules

In my post last month, I discussed how I was combining themes and backgrounds for my Dark Sun game. Since then, I’ve fleshed out a few more ideas for the game.

Different settings require different adaptations of the rules. I firmly believe that a Dungeon Master should feel at liberty to adapt the rules to best match the tone that he or she wants out of a game. There are no rules to rule them all. In a game that is meant for the enjoyment of all, a rules system should serve its players. It doesn’t need to be a slave to the players, but it should promote elements appropriate to the game: competition, fun, immersion, challenge, etc.

One of the qualities that makes the Dark Sun campaign setting interesting is that it removes the traditional elements of a fantasy setting. The paucity of metal, water, and life, as well as the complete lack of gods and divine magic, are the defining characteristics of Dark Sun. The setting is characterized not by what it has, but rather, what it lacks. I find this concept fascinating, and as an experiment, I’ve decided to mirror it in the way I use the D&D rules in my Dark Sun game.

Fewer healing surges

I’m limiting characters’ healing surges to one or two. If a character is a defender, or if he or she has a class feature based on the use of healing surges, such as the druid from Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms, then a character has two healing surges. Otherwise, each character has only one healing surge.

What about damage?

I plan to adjust monster damage on the fly. I’ll be dividing monster damage in half. I might also make a few tweaks to accuracy, especially on soldiers. I’m also altering my expectations. I don’t expect the characters to go into every fight with full health. And I expect them to have to run away sometimes. If the party has already had a couple encounters during the day, the characters are unlikely to want to fight a third or a fourth unless they have to. Sometimes they will. Other times, running away will seems like a better choice. Athas is a world of pragmatic people, so if the character needs to flee to fight another day, they’re just acting consistent with the setting.

Healing outside of combat?

I haven’t figured this one out yet. I don’t want all the character to merely spend their healing surges after the first fight and leave the healer’s healing word meaningless in the following combat. I’ll have to see what happens in the game. I might allow characters to heal outside of combat, but if they want a nice, juicy healing word, they’re going to have to wait until they’re in battle. Alternatively, the druid might be able to use healing word on a character with no healing surges remaining, but he or she only regains 1d6 hit points.

And how about second wind?

I contemplated eliminating second wind, but ultimately I decided against it. If I had a party of experienced players, I would have eliminated it (with the exception of the dwarf). However, I have three new players in my Dark Sun game, and I don’t want to overwhelm them with too many house rules. The healing surge change will be difficult enough.

Action points

You only get one each day. Period. I know, I’m a big mean Dungeon Master. I’ve implemented this rule for two reasons. One—I think it fits with the tone of the game. Athas is a harsh, abusive world. It doesn’t care much for heroics. You already get to be extraordinary in that you can beat up templars and travel the wastes. Two—When a character uses an action point, I want it to be extraordinary. The action points are for life or death moments—when extra action is required to survive.

Magic items

I’ll be using the inherent bonuses rule in my game, which divorces characters from the need to acquire weapons, armor, and neck slot items of a certain enhancement bonus at a certain level. I plan to give out more boons and expendables. The people of Athas closely guard their treasures. You’re unlikely to just find any person in possession of more than one magical item. When I give out items, they’re going to be rare items. The party might only get one of these each level. When a character acquires a magic item, I want to give it the attention it deserves. I want the item to have a legacy stretching back to the Green Age. I want it to be something that gives the villains and monsters pause.


Despite how tough and “unfun” some of these rules might sound, I’m not worried about the players dying or feeling disappointed with combats. It’s true that if the character assume they can defeat any foe, they will quickly learn otherwise. Still, I’m a big softie when it comes to character death, and Dark Sun affords so many delightful non-death options for defeated heroes. They can become gladiators, or slaves, or servants of a noble. Short of stalking into the desert to go hunting for crodlu with their teeth, the players don’t have much to worry about. And as for XP, they’ll be getting story rewards for exploration and social interaction. An hour spent exploring the elven marketplace and negotiating with merchants to locate the Veiled Alliance offers just a many rewards as an hour spent battling an id fiend—probably more.

One of the crazy goals I have for the campaign is to have the party visit every one of the major city-states. If the players are particularly enjoying a location, I’m not about to railroad them on to the next location, but I do plan to allow plenty of plot hooks to allow them to explore the other locations and get exposure to the various cultures. This goal also allows travel to be a central element in the campaign, which is appropriate for a Dark Sun game. After all, what’s a game set in Athas without a little sun fever to cause a party of delirious adventurers to wander into a cacti field.



12 thoughts on “Dark Sun House Rules

  1. Well, you may remember my general feelings about houserules and rules on the fly, so I won’t bring up those again.

    I’m all for whatever people need to do to actually evoke the setting they want. I have yet to see what’s so all-fired dangerous about Athas. I feel this is due in large part to ongoing attachment to characters. I didn’t play the original setting, but didn’t it encourage having a collection of characters so another could step in upon the death of the previous one?

    If I get to run a Darksun game, I might have to consider not giving inherent bonusesn at all OR many magic weapons at all. THAT ought to make them desperate.

  2. In particular, healing outside of combat has been a problem I’ve had with the system since the beginning, and adjusting it for Dark Sun seems entirely reasonable. I’m thinking about just telling people they can’t take multiple short rests between combats.

    The one thing in your list that I would absolutely hate to play in is the one action point thing. If anything, I want more action points in the game. Not being able to pull of some cool combinations of your powers or do something awesome just seems to induce frustration instead of feeling more gritty.

    1. Well, to each his own, I guess. To me, an action point is a resource that is really aimed at the more advanced/tactical player. My players who are newer to the game will probably not even notice the difference. It’s also an effort to speed up combat. For those of us who have played a lot of 4E, we’ve come to expect the action point, but I bet after a few sessions, none of the players will really miss it. I could always be wrong.

      And honestly, with my healing changes, I really only expect 2 or 3 encounters per days, so it’s not as if they’ll really be missing out much.

  3. Your last paragraph makes me think you’ll be running a roleplay heavy/combat light game. So maybe your house rules will work just fine for you because you won’t be running real combat often. I have to admit though I winced while reading most of them and I personally would have passed on the game.

    However, if I was implementing something to convey more harshness I’d just halve total number of healing surges. Dark Sun is vicious and dangerous, and I’d rather keep healing surges and crank up the danger-o-meter on all my encounters. I run a combat heavy game and so I throw more elites and tons of minions in with hard level encounters laced with hazards, etc into my DS games, rather effectively puts the fear of character death in my players.

    I would keep action point accrual the way it is, but house rule that using one requires spending a healing surge – its exhausting but anyone can reach deep and do amazing things. If you’re out of healing surges clearly you’re just too depleted to summon up the energy or the will to do that extra action.

    1. The reason I decided to reduce the healing surges in the way I did is because I think the way to make Athasian monsters feel more deadly is to have the proportion of damage to hit points APPEAR higher. That is, the percent of damage my monsters do will not be any higher than normal. PC 1 has 30 hit points and 8 healing surges = 90 hit points total. PC 2 has 30 hit points and 1 healing surge = 37 hit points. Monsters attacking PC 1 deal average of 9 damage on a hit = 10% of total hit points. Monsters attacking PC2 deal 4 damage on a hit = about 10% of hit points. The proportion is the same, but the damage feels more real because you’re not sitting on a backup of 60 hit points.

      The issue with just cranking up damage is if you’re dealing more like 20% of hit points on a single hit, then a crit will drop a character every time, and two normal hits will take down a character. While this does make things dangerous, I think it crosses a threshold to where characters are spending more time trying to heal and stay conscious than actually attacking. I don’t think that’s desirable, at least for most encounters.

  4. Do you mean 1 or 2 healing surges per day? or per rest (long or short)… if you mean that players can only get 1 or 2 surges in between rests (or including rests) then I see that as reasonable.. if you mean only 1 or 2 per day, then PCs are going to spend days resting to recover from anything more than a simple fight, and although that is more realistic, it isn’t a whole lot of fun for most players. Limiting them to 1 or 2 surges between rests however, would be interesting IMHO.

    I like thesheDM’s idea about making them use a surge to use an Action point, although again, depends on how many you intend them to have. The idea you are trying to convey is there and it rewards player sacrifice at critical moments.

    I do have to agree that the current 4e Athas is not a whole lot “more dangerous” as it is run… I find myself wanting the need for water and risks of exposure to the elements to be more threatening, but making skill challenges to find water or survive a sandstorm becomes a little stale after a few days on the road… I agree that your changes would make Athas more threatening, but is it really making Athas harder or just making the players less able to survive?

    _ Josh

    1. 1 or 2 healing surges per extended rest. I appreciate how it might seem like the PCs would want to rest after each simple fight, but there are a few things I’ll be doing to prevent that. 1) I’ve never had any problem before. I’ve pushed my players through ten encounters in a day before—multiple times in fact. They keep going not because the story compels it. 2) I control the damage and healing resources. In my opinion, damage and healing resources (like potions) are resources you can adjust up and down to control tension and pacing.

      I agree that the environmental and exposure risks might need to be a little tougher. I want to make money more limited, so the characters don’t just buy transportation and resources to get across the desert. I’ll put them in the position of needing to bargain with elves, serve as guards in merchant caravans, or forage from the landscape if they want to survive the crossings.

  5. I can certainly appreciate the magic item rulings, but many of the others I am not sure I understand at all. I’m finding my DS game is absolutely brutal (already killed a PC in fact) without needing to change anything. Many of the DS:CC monsters deal ridiculous damage, like silt runners who deal 4d6+6 damage with one of their powers (IIRC). Given the lack of magic items that PCs will face in a DS game, it isn’t hard to make encounters challenging or combat very deadly.

    When you add in that the entire environment wants to murder them in completely horrible ways as well, it adds up to a pretty brutal campaign setting.

    1. I agree that many of the DS monsters are already nasty, but as I mentioned in my reply above to @theshedm—I’d rather have the deadliness coming from monsters’ attacks dealing real damage that is hard to recover from, rather than a monster attack dealing enough damage to drop a character.

  6. I wrote a bit about brutality here. You can only toy with the 4E underpinnings so much. What you can do is provide ways to make PCs bleed more often but then help prop them back up. Use some of those ferocious DSCC monsters, but give a way for PCs to regain resources. Use many low-level foes but give no short rests. Keep it varied, keep it fun, and keep a foot on the throttle so you achieve the right balance.

    When it comes to house rules, in my home campaign I try to achieve a 2E feel. Low magic, metal is incredibly rare, core setting options only, and enhance the feeling of the setting. I’ve introduced languages and made them matter. I’ve encouraged theme feats and DS weapon feats by throwing in bonus expertise/focus if they take them. I also given bonuses to attack with theme powers and even the ability to retain (instead of swap) one class power if they take enough of the feats. I want to promote a DS mentality at all stages, from character creation to advancement, to the experience at the table. I regularly use MB to remove non-DS weapons from monsters and replace them with gouges, trikals, writs razors, etc. I’ve modified new lists of weapons so PCs know all the options they can take. I work with them to create cool feats. Want a halfling bola hurler? Let’s make that happen. I want flavor.

    You can see my house rules and my character creation rules (and download pdfs for weapons and armor) and see setting information all on my Epic Words page. Comments are always welcome.

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