The Alphastream Game Design Blog
D&D’s 4th edition deliberately minimized the number of settings and the number of setting-dependent supplements it released. Despite this approach, Dark Sun was the most successful 4E setting and pleased fans old and new. Let’s find out why.
As we discussed in Part 1, 4E had a deliberate goal of releasing very limited and focused setting material. Settings historically had not sold well and boxed sets are expensive to print. TSR (the company that owned D&D before Wizards) had gone bankrupt for several reasons, with one key reason being overprinting products it couldn’t sell quickly or profitably.
4E launched several books that are arguably not settings. A good example is the Player’s Option: Heroes of the Feywild hardback. This is a wonderful book, and a favorite for many. It provides an overview of the Feywild, but only on the first 19 pages. The rest of the book is new races, class options, and character options. (This book is notable for ending on a sort of choose-your-own-adventure method of creating a character backstory. Really cool!)
As much as I love that book, 19 pages is not a setting. We have books like Manual of the Planes, Secrets of the Elemental Chaos, Secrets of the Astral Sea, and Underdark that are clearly about a location or set of locations, but they are not what a DM would likely use as a setting for a long campaign. Books like Menzoberranzan: City of Intrigue and Halls of Undermountain are similarly locations within a larger campaign.
We also have Nentir Vale. This was a new 4E setting, but it was mentioned across several products rather than ever being a distinct product.
The above products certainly don’t have any of the depth found in famed settings from the AD&D days, such as Greyhawk, Planescape, Ravenloft, Dragonlance, and Spelljammer (which were almost always boxed sets followed by a plethora of support products).
That leaves us with just a few true 4E settings:
While the FR setting is undeniably popular, and there was a large supporting organized play program called Living Forgotten Realms, my understanding is that the two setting books did not sell particularly well.
In an ideal (somewhat simplified) scenario, the company orders a print run from a printer, sends the printed books out through distributors, those distributors sell them to game stores (and online retailers sell them too), and they sell out. Based on how quickly they sold out, the company decides whether to reprint them.
In the non-ideal scenario, the books don’t sell quickly, which can hurt demand for future sales. Think of a gaming store with a ton of unsold copies of the last book… they aren’t likely to order lots of copies of the next book. Books can even be returned as unsold (less common these days) and the distributor and/or company (depending on the agreement) has to move them around to other places, trying to find a place with demand. Eventually, they end up at places like Half-Priced Books, selling at what could be a loss.
For smaller companies, unsold books eat up warehouse space (which costs rent). Financially, unsold books are a big problem, because they tie up capital. In the TSR days, TSR was sometimes paid in advance, which is a lot like taking out a loan, and when the distributors eventually gave up and returned the product, TSR owed money. In the TSR days there was also a link to printing, where printers would create the books and pay some money in advance. Because of that lending process, TSR ended up in a situation where distributors and/or printers refused to allow further sales until debts were paid, and the company could no longer even create product to dig out of debt. I’m not an expert on this, and I refer you to the account by Shannon Appelcline in his amazing Designers & Dragons series.
There is a version of this story applicable to any size company. I know an absolutely great company that made an awesome RPG. They ran a very successful Kickstarter for it. And the time came to print it. They received print run estimates from the printer. If they ordered a higher number of copies, each individual item costs less to print. If they ordered fewer copies, each would cost more, resulting in less profit per unit. So, they went a bit high. And sold about half of their copies. The other half sit in storage. Those unsold copies are like lead weights in a designer’s pockets. They slow every future endeavor down, because while they work on the next product they must also contend with those unsold copies. If this happens across even just a couple of releases, they can be sunk.
The point is, most 4E setting books didn’t sell out quickly, played some version of the return game, and years later could be found at discount re-sellers like Half-Price Books. Before we get to the one that did really well, let’s talk about one other great 4E setting book.
Released after Dark Sun, the 2011 Neverwinter Campaign Setting was a single book, supported by a promotional “Vie for Glory” event at Gen Con and two seasons of D&D Encounters (a weekly in-store organized play program). I don’t know how well this book sold, but its excellent design achieves a lot with a single book.
Neverwinter is packed with setting material. After 14 pages of introductory information and DM guidance, we get 65 pages of character options. But then we get another 138 pages of setting material, including factions and foes and a gazeteer including everything from recent history to location details to exciting campaign seeds.
Like classic settings of old, Neverwinter is depicted as a city on the brink. Multiple stories await heroes, who can determine whether the city rises or falls. It’s great stuff! A single book, but it delivers more useful material than some boxed sets of old. It ties well to the larger Forgotten Realms settings book, to several novels, and would prove so popular that the D&D MMO released at the end of 4E was set in and called Neverwinter.
Okay, it’s time. Let’s talk about Dark Sun’s success! It’s easy to look at 4E as releasing only two Dark Sun setting books and one adventure, but that would be wrong…
When WotC announced at Gen Con 2009 that it would release Dark Sun as the next setting, it did so a year before the book’s release. From the start, it said that a big reason why this setting was chosen over other favorites was that Dark Sun had die-hard fans. Sites like Athas.org and activity on forums showed that fans were dedicated and organized. They wrote fiction, they created content, they traded stories. Credit Athas.org’s Robert Adducci and Chris Flipse, among others, for this win. The last published Dark Sun product had been in 1996, 13 years before! Credit WotC for engaging those fans from the start!
Wizards then launched a serious of events before the setting released. Each announcement and launch drew greater and greater interest.
First came Death in the Arena, a short 2-encounter preview throwing early pregen characters into a gladiatorial pit, followed by the PCs escaping when sorcerer-king Kalak is killed in the stands. It was a brief taste, but it was well regarded when it ran in early 2010 at Winter Fantasy and then at New York Comic-Con and PAX East.
Next came Glory and Blood: Dark Sun Arenas. This awesome event ran at Gen Con and PAX West 2010. Players played pregens in exciting gladiatorial battle. Each encounter was in the gladiatorial arena of one of seven different city-states, utilizing 4E’s terrain and monsters to create thrilling challenges. Players completing every challenge received a cloth map of Athas – a reward that sold for more than $100 on E-Bay (not that I would ever sell mine). I played this event at Gen Con and ran it at PAX, and it was hugely popular. We ran table after table in rapid succession.
D&D had recently launched its in-store organized play program, D&D Encounters. The second season ran from June 9 to September 15, every week. Fury of the Wastewalker wasn’t just set in Dark Sun. It did an excellent job of capturing many of the essential components of Dark Sun. Wasteland travel, Templars, ancient Green Age ruins, defiling magic, cannibal halflings, and more! It also previewed some of the upcoming new rules. I ran this at my game store, seating more than 200 unique players during the season. When the books released, many players bought them (which was unusual for Encounters players) because they found the setting so compelling and wanted the full rules.
Only two weeks after Encounters had started, Free RPG Day 2010 was held at gaming stores and included Bloodsand Arena. This adventure reused the material from Death in the Arena, adding additional encounters. We ran several tables at my local game store.
D&D was also releasing Dark Sun content in DDI’s Dragon and Dungeon online magazines, with a few articles in June and July 2010 and then a steady stream once the books released. Each article tended to be very useful, adding material DMs could directly use in their campaigns. This lasted for more than two years! One of my proudest moments was having two articles published in May 2012’s Dungeon 202!
Back in August 2010, the Dark Sun Campaign Setting finally released at Gen Con! The setting book sold out there, and proceeded to storm off of shelves at gaming stores. The setting book was excellent. It distilled AD&D’s old Dark Sun supplements, updating the information to current publishing standards and making it more useful and meaningful for DMs. Player options beautifully captured the setting, innovating 4E with the concept of Character Themes and adding rules for defiling, weapon breakage, inherent magic item bonuses, survival days, and more. It even included a short adventure, with a sequel appearing in Dungeon magazine.
Accompanying the setting book was the Dark Sun Creature Catalog. This book added classic and a few new Dark Sun monsters and personages, but it also added Athasian terrain features, hazards, and monster themes. The monsters were some of 4E’s best, with high damage and low defenses that tended to create fast and furious combats. A fun bit of lore: The DSCC is only $19.95. Well, it was originally meant to be a softcover release. The pricing reflects that. However, there was an error and the printer made it a hardback!
Wizards also printed and sold an adventure, Marauders of the Dune Sea. It was not well regarded, but fortunately the many adventures in Dungeon and all the gamedays meant it was just a minor issue for fans.
August 21 saw another Dark Sun store gameday, this one using the fun adventure Lost Cistern of Aravek.
4E also released Psionic Power in August. While not a Dark Sun release, it was of course useful to fans given the settings heavy use of psionics. There was a set of Dark Sun themed Dungeon Tiles (used with miniatures) and even a comic book series called Ianto’s Tomb. Special printings and the bound version of the comic included three encounters.
And, last but not least, 2011 saw Wizards of the Coast and Baldman Games launch the Ashes of Athas organized play campaign. I was one of the admins, helping to recruit a host of authors. Between 2011 and 2013 we released seven chapters of three adventures each, providing the longest connected adventure series the setting has ever had. We are allowed to distribute it even today, with over 16,000 adventures requested at the time of this writing!
Dark Sun only had three products in shelves. But it used a variety of adventures and promotional events to drive interest and sustain it. Two preview events. A store program. Two store gamedays. More than 50 magazine articles/adventures. An organized play program. These diverse efforts made the setting an immense success both for gamers and Wizards. The approach created community, extended the reach of the products, added value for DMs and players, and increased sales.
Last time we discussed the many reasons why WotC is unlikely to launch multiple settings constantly, and why any settings they do launch will likely be a single focused book. Such books are likely either to be an adventure that focuses on a part of the setting, or a setting book that has high utility and can be applicable to other campaigns. We don’t get a setting book on Chult, we get an adventure that takes place in Chult, extending the appeal of the product. We get an Acquisitions Incorporated book and it includes an adventure, innovative positions and franchise news, revised downtime rules, and more.
But such releases can be stronger if Wizards borrows from 4E’s Dark Sun success:
Let’s be honest. Talk about settings has increased lately because of the announcement of Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount, a setting book for the world used by the Critical Role livestream show. For fans of older settings that aren’t aware of streaming, the immense popularity of Critical Role and Acquisitions Incorporated can seem puzzling. The idea that something so new can be so instrumental to 5E’s success, and more important to 5E’s success than the settings that seemed so fundamental to D&D’s history… that can be hard for some to understand. But it is real.
I hope fans of older settings can be respectful of several things. First, of the troubled history of D&D settings. We might look back so fondly on old settings, but the way those settings were published could be harmful to the company. Second, new players are overwhelmed by all of those old products, many written in ways that don’t work as well today. Third, that new methods, such as streaming, are how many people learn about and enjoy RPGs today. Fourth, that the staff at Wizards of the Coast probably loves those old settings even more than you and I do. They want to release those settings too, but they have a responsibility to do so well.
It will be interesting to see how Wizards treats new settings. How exciting would it be to provide stores or conventions with a short focused Critical Role organized play program? Can you imagine a convention event where teams of players pilot Spelljamming vessels against a DM-run enemy armada? Wouldn’t it be cool if a Planescape adventure hardback was accompanied by a series of short missions in the planes that were available first at conventions and then on the DM’s Guild?
What do you think? What setting do you love, and how could a single setting book capture that setting well?
Wow, lots to digest in there. Thank you for such a thorough review and history lesson. People can I hope appreciate the lessons of the past and see now how we got to where we are.
I think folks also need to get away from the idea that every product must appeal to them or it’s a waste. I don’t need (and don’t have every book) but I’m sure I could find something I could use in each and my players bring ideas or options from those books.
I think you hit a lot of reason why Dark Sun did so well as a 4e campaign but here are few other bits that contributed to its success:
1) The spellplague was super unpopular with FR fans (and basically the gutting of Realms history). Combined with the sundering of the the D&D community with the Edition Wars, 4e was not doing as well as WotC had hoped. The one bright spot was organized play. Dark Sun came out as the D&D Encounters program was in full swing and it wasn’t encumbered by a massive change to an active setting like FR.
2) The rules for 4e felt like they worked with the setting rather than working against it. My wife loved the lore of Dark Sun but detested the 2e mechanics that made it less fun to play for her.
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