The Alphastream Game Design Blog

Why Dark Sun Was 4E’s Most Successful Setting (Part 1)

4th Edition D&D re-released only a few settings, including Forgotten Realms, Eberron, Dark Sun, and the new setting Nentir Vale. Why so few settings? Why was Dark Sun such a runaway success? And how does this relate to 5E?

Let’s make one thing clear. I’ll cover Dark Sun next week. To get there, we have to look at the past and the present and lay some groundwork. Get ready for time travel!

Art by Kerem Beyit

4E’s Bold Changes

I attended a seminar during the early days of 4E. Two of the edition’s awesome lead designers talked about how they were taking a different approach to settings – there would be very little setting material. They had found settings didn’t sell well, and boxed sets cost too much money. The fan base fragmented, design was repetitive, and the company suffered.

They explained that where previous editions might release a book of undead for Ravenloft, and then a book of undead for Dark Sun, and so on, 4E would simply have a book of undead that any setting could use.

I could sense the unease in the crowd, but I could also see the logic in it. I understood D&D’s history. Let’s take a step back.

The Greyhawk Boxed Set

TSR Discovers Adventures and Settings are Awesome

When D&D first began in 1974, the company was called TSR. Gary Gygax and others initially thought that D&D would be a simple product focused on rules. There would be no need for adventures or campaign worlds, as the DM would create that. DMs didn’t need help with that!

In just two years, other companies showed TSR that there was a demand for both adventures and settings. The company Wee Warriors released the first stand-alone adventure, Palace of the Vampire Queen. Tékumel was released as a setting using D&D for Empire of the Petal Throne, and City State of the Invincible Overlord was a combination adventure city-setting released by Judges Guild. (If you love this kind of history, head over to the DM David Blog where he lovingly shares how it all started and why it matters today.)

TSR began releasing adventures and settings, and because AD&D adventures were largely compatible with both Basic and 2E, many of the adventures could be found on store shelves for many years and were played and replayed by players. They became classics. Keep on the Borderlands. Temple of Elemental Evil. Pharaoh. Tomb of Horrors. These and others are well known today.

TSR Explodes, Struggles, and Overproduces

TSR grew massively until the early ‘80s, doubling in growth most years and quadrupling toward the end of that time. It then missed targets and went into massive debt, before briefly recovering in the mid-‘80s. It tried to leverage it’s (perhaps waning) popularity with the struggles it had. There were many internal management issues. Look up the story of Dragon Dice or how G.R.R. Martin and James Cameron were not allowed to make a D&D movie!

Amongst the sins of the past was releasing way too many settings. Despite how recently TSR had been destroying unsold product to lessen debt, it launched a number of settings in the late ‘80s and early to mid ‘90s. Those settings were often amazing and innovative. For good reason, they are fan favorites. That doesn’t mean they all made money!

Here are most of the settings released or supported during 2E (2E was released in 1989):

  • Greyhawk (re-released several times)
  • Forgotten Realms (re-released several times)
  • Mystara (supported through 1996)
  • Dragonlance (re-released several times)
  • Kara-Tur (1985-1990)
  • Lankhmar (1985-1992)
  • Spelljammer (1989-1993)
  • Hollow World (1990-1992)
  • Ravenloft setting (1990-1998 or so, then with 3E and 5E)
  • Dark Sun (1991-1996, then again for 4E)
  • Al-Qadim (1992-1998)
  • Planescape (1994-1998)
  • Council of Wyrms (1994-1999)
  • Birthright (1994-1999)
  • Kingdoms of  Kalamar (1994-?, re-released for 3E)
  • Eberron (2004 with 3E, then later for 4E and 5E)
  • Plus stuff like Jakandor, Maztica, and Red Steel, all with just a few products… or lines like Buck Rogers and Gamma World and Spellfire that were different from D&D.

That’s an incredible list of 16 or more settings you could find on shelves! And what’s incredible is the volume of adventures and supplements for each setting. Dark Sun had some 25 boxed sets, hardback books, and softcover supplements, plus at least 10 adventures. Dragonlance has something like 46 different books, not counting the more than 15 adventures. Ravenloft had 27 or so sourcebooks and boxed sets, plus 33 adventure-type products. It goes on and on and on. As fans, we were inundated with options. No one I knew could afford everything, so we picked one or two favorites and said no to the rest.

There is some evidence from ex-TSR and ex-WotC staff that individual lines had problems too. Some products, such as the Dark Sun “flipbook” adventures and may boxed sets, apparently cost more to make and sell than their sticker price, so TSR lost money on every unit even if it did sell. That was far from the only example.

According to historians like Shannon Appelcline, there were many other issues (notably overprinting novels, borrowing money to print books it couldn’t sell, and bad acquisitions), but the release schedule was also problematic. By 1996, revenues were great ($40 million), but actual profits and unsold product returns had doomed them to bankruptcy. TSR was acquired by Wizards of the Coast, and D&D was saved.

PAX Loot
A pile of DM rewards at a 4E Pax West Convention

What Too Many Settings and Products Does

Releasing too many products erodes profit. There is a limit to how much a fan can buy. While you might bring in new fans with more products, you still need an overall high number of fans for each product or the product is a loss. If you release the core book… everyone buys it. You release the monster book… almost everyone buys it. As you start releasing each successive book, it is likely to appeal to fewer and fewer DMs. That book on just undead, or the book on just the fey realms… they don’t appeal to every gamer.

Declining product revenue is a core problem that every RPG faces (seemingly only 5E has been spared this fate). Fans demand more, but each product sells worse than the last. The solution is historically to launch a new edition and do it all over again.

Releasing too many settings splinters a fan base. You cease to have D&D fans, and end up with fans of individual settings. There is some crossover, but the amount of lore and buy-in limit that. New fans are turned away by vast settings where established fans have a dauntingly deep expertise.

Fans of each setting demand more, but now the problem of declining revenue is even worse as it happens to each product line. The monster book for Dark Sun competes with that undead supplement for FR, and both compete with the NPC book for Ravenloft.

Step back and think about what TSR did with those settings. Dozens to scores of products for more than 16 settings!

5E’s Magic Formula For Success

As we talked about at the start, 4E tried to release very few settings and make product as useful to everyone as possible.

5E took that concept and advanced it. First, 5E dug in on the Forgotten Realms as its core world, to the point that it felt like the only world. Even further, it narrowed in on the Sword Coast and used that location for almost all of its content. This focus made it accessible. Fans slowly but surely began to understand that portion of the Realms and accept it.

Secondly, 5E created engaging storylines. Storylines had existed in 4E. Examples include the Drow/Lolth storyline and the Tharizdun storyline. If you don’t remember them, that’s because they weren’t super coherent. The story was hidden in pieces of different (but not all) products. D&D Next’s “Sundering” storyline was an example of this, confusing even devoted fans.

5E took the Storyline concept and wove it into one product, which was an adventure containing all the setting and rules needed to both please players and DMs and execute on that story. Partners were given story bibles, and everything from T-shirts to video games came out with common story elements and even art. I’ve talked about the success of this model here.

5E’s storyline approach is fantastic. I could be wrong, of course, but above all I credit this with 5E’s massive growth. Storylines like Rise of Tiamat, Rage of Demons, Storm King’s Thunder, Curse of Strahd, Tomb of Annihilation, and Descent into Avernus register deeply. Even a fan who didn’t play through Tomb of Annihilation likely feels like they engaged with the storyline through marketing and community.

Now… Wizards seems to be playing with their release schedule. D&D is growing dramatically and there are all kinds of new fans coming into the hobby. If we look at the period between main storyline releases, 2016 saw Storm King’s Thunder as the storyline plus Volo’s Guide to Monsters, with Yawning Portal released in 2017. 3 books before the next storyline released.

For 2018-2019? The main release of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist was accompanied by Dungeon of the Mad Mage, but we also saw Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica, the Stranger Things boxed set, Ghosts of Saltmarsh, Acquisitions Incorporated, and the release of Eberron on the DMs Guild. 8 different books before the next storyline released!

WotC will certainly tweak its release schedule further. A Critical Role book is an excellent and logical choice given how many new players come in as fans of CR, and how great a role CR plays in inspiring and guiding play today. Will new settings be introduced? Will old settings be brought back?

Next time we finally look at why Dark Sun 4E was the edition’s most successful campaign setting and what 5E might learn from it.

Were you around in the ’80s and ’90s? How did the glut of settings affect you? How has it felt to be part of the leaner approaches of 4E and 5E? Have you read Shannon Appelcline’s Designers and Dragons series? What is your favorite account of TSR’s past?

Dark Sun Blog Index

11 comments on “Why Dark Sun Was 4E’s Most Successful Setting (Part 1)

  1. Richard Green
    January 16, 2020

    I loved the different settings of the 2e era, particularly Spelljammer, Al-Qadim and Kara-Tur, all of which I ran, but it was indeed hard to keep up with all of the new releases!

    I’d love to see the model used for Curse of Strahd and Tomb of Annihilation applied to these settings ie a single book with a setting gazetteer and brand new storyline.

    • Alphastream
      January 16, 2020

      Some fans really seem to fight that model. I can certainly understand that a single book can feel limited, especially if it deals with only a focused part of the setting. However, I’m with you in that I think that’s a very good model for 5E.

  2. Tomas GR
    January 16, 2020

    As someone who came into D&D on 5th Edition, this information you wrote explains quite a lot. I have read some of the details, such as the boxed sets being TSR’s demise, but I’d never read the details.
    Great article, and very revelatory for me! Can’t wait for Part 2!

  3. Josh dV
    January 16, 2020

    This is such excellent information! Thank you for sharing!

    I was around in those days. I remember playing at least once in Dark Sun, Ravenloft, Council of Wyrms and then of course the various Greyhawk modules that had come before. Usually it was a dip in the pool, then back to our ‘homebrew worlds, taking with us what we wanted from each place we visited. That is still what I do today. My long-running campaign is homebrew but pulling in adventures or modules or other world elements as I see fit.

    For this approach, books like Xanathars and Volo’s are perfect fits. World specific books like CoS or SKT could work but they don’t have the immediate appeal of (generally) setting neutral options.

    I think the biggest thing I learned from the settings and the glut of supporting material was how to support the material I wrote/liked. I never felt like I could or was required to support or even know all of it.

  4. Jamie Devall
    January 19, 2020

    This is a great article. I played in the late 80’s, early 90’s in Dragonlance and Ravenloft. In the mid-90’s, I played Birthright. I’ve gone the 3e, Pathfinder, 5e route since then (still playing PF, btw). I have a lot of love for these old worlds but recognize that there were too many and it both divided and cannibalized the customer base. Still, I’m torn. I really haven’t been much of a Realms guy and wouldn’t mind some support for one of the older worlds. I just don’t want it at the expense of the brand.

    I, initially, wasn’t thrilled that CR is getting its own book but have decided to judge it on its own merits and am looking forward to it because I want it to be good.

  5. Pingback: Why Dark Sun Was 4E’s Most Successful Setting (Part 2) | Alphastream

  6. Keith Ammann
    January 26, 2020

    I was around in the ’80s, though not the ’90s. The glut of settings didn’t affect me at all, because the worlds my friends and I played in were always entirely homebrew. In fact, you could hardly call them “worlds.” They were just locations. We made up an adventure; it took place somewhere in the world that the party happened to wander through. This one took place in a swamp; this one in a desert; this one in the mountains. Everything in between was indistinct. Not counting Shadowrun, which has only one setting (though different locales within that setting), my first D&D 5E campaign was also the first RPG campaign I played in that WASN’T homebrew.

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  9. Abbydon
    January 1, 2022

    I own all/most the original Dark Sun and Planescape products along with several other settings, however, I never used them to play D&D as I preferred other systems instead. For me, the many settings were far more useful for inspiration than rules were.

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