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From Hyperborea to Athas: Inspirations for a Dark Sun Campaign

Due to various “real life” issues amongst both the players and myself, my Michigan-based campaign, the Ebon Cabal, has been on hiatus.  While my other campaign, the Doombringer Saga, has been chugging away in Toledo – with only the odd holiday and mid-winter blizzard to miss a session – the Ebon Cabal has not gotten together for almost three months now – and we’ve all just learned that one of the key members will be moving out of state.
dark sun logo trans
But the rest of the members all want to play again, but with the long gaming break – coupled with the loss of a player – I have opted to recommend the group do a campaign reboot.  And as it just so happens that my recent bedtime reading has been perusing through various collections of Conan short stories, I felt utterly inspired to finally run a Dark Sun campaign!

Now for those of you who have read the original short stories of the mighty-thewed barbarian, you’re probably nodding sage-like to yourselves at the inspirational significance of Robert E. Howard’s works when considering an Athas-based campaign.  But for those who have only experienced Conan the Barbarian on the “big screen”, with a certain governor of California in the lead role, then you might not realize what a treasure trove of plot ideas are waiting to be mined from those pulp fiction pages.

jason conan momoa[As an aside, and for the record, I am totally geeked about the new Conan movie in production right now, starring Jason Momoa AKA Ronon from Stargate: Atlantis!  I really enjoyed the series and the characters, particularly the Ronon character, and I definitely look forward to seeing the new Conan screen release this summer!

Now I’ve read a lot of detractors complaining about the fact that they did not cast an “Arnie-clone” body-builder in the role of Conan – but what few of these nay-sayers realize is how close Mr. Momoa is to the physical characteristics of Howard’s famed Cimmerian!  In a letter to friends, REH described Conan as 6’2” and 210 pounds.  As it turns out Mr. Momoa is 6’4” and 215 pounds – a pretty close body match, and one considerably closer than California’s governor was at the time he had the part!]

Inspirational Parallels

There are a considerable number of parallels to be drawn between Howard’s world of Hyperborea and the Dark Sun setting of Athas.  A canny Dungeon Master can use any number of these inspirational parallels to add finer details and setting descriptors, bringing greater depth into their Dark Sun campaign.

Barbarism abounds

Once you leave the oppressive laws within a sorcerer-king’s city-state, Athas is a barbarous and untamed land filled with raiders, slavers, pirates, outlaws, and even cannibals!  So too is the world of Hyperborea as portrayed in Howard’s short stories, where Conan found himself facing lawless bands of brigands, sometimes fighting against them, but – more often as not – actually leading them!  Over the course his writing, Howard depicted a wide variety of barbarous troupes, including everything from savage tribes of slavers and cannibals (The Vale of Lost Women), to pirates and corsairs (The Queen of the Black Coast and Iron Shadows on the Moon), to even mounted steppe raiders (The Devil in Iron and A Witch Shall Be Born).

There is plentiful material in the Conan short stories to weave intricate plots about the inner workings of these bands and adopt them to the Athasian setting.  For instance, the corsairs depicted in The Queen of the Black Coast, with their female captain, could be adapted to a notorious group of pirates operating on the Sea of Silt.  The tribal politics of the cannibal slavers in The Vale of Lost Women could easily be used as a template for the halfling tribes of the Forest Ridge.  There is plenty of material to borrow from Howard’s work to bring almost any barbarous band of outlaws to life using intricate details.

Slavery is “in”

With the exception of the recently emancipated city-state of Tyr, slavery is a common part of Athasian society, as it is in Howard’s world of Hyperborea.  Almost any of Conan’s adventure stories you can name has slaves appearing at one point or another, usually as common laborers, but sometimes as specialized and even powerfully dangerous servants.

One of Conan’s greatest opponents, the Stygian sorcerer Thoth-Amon, debuted as the reluctant slave of an Aquilonian noble (The Phoenix and the Sword).  An enslaved Nemedian noble woman was used to seduce Conan, and separate him from his men so that he might be assassinated during his hot-blooded pursuit of her (The Devil in Iron).

Slaves can be more than mere grunt-work laborers, and powerful NPCs might be coerced to attack the party at the will of their masters.  And of course, it is entirely possible that the player-characters could end up as specialized slave-pawns themselves, forced to fight and die as expendable assets for a cruel taskmaster!

Horrible monsters are everywhere

Although Howard seemed to have a real dislike of snakes, and pitted Conan often against giant versions of these scaly predators, he also loved to create some really terrifying and horrific monsters, demons, and beasts for his Cimmerian hero to have to battle to the death.  So too is Athas home to some unique and terrifying creatures – horrors might be a better term for them – which Dark Sun characters must face in order to survive and complete their quests.
conan fighting snakes
But one thing Howard knew how to do with his monsters and other foul creatures was to build suspense by making them stalk their prey – in this case, a sword-wielding hard muscled Cimmerian who definitely did not like to be considered for any critter’s dinner.  Likewise we have to consider that most Athasian creatures would be good at guerilla hit-and-run tactics as well as stalking their prey across the wastes.  And using that sense of being hunter to build up an atmosphere of malice and threat, before a monster finally attacks a party.  Allowing the heroes to hear strange sounds, find odd shaped tracks or spoor, or even catch a glimpse of the predator’s shadow or night-time silhouette is a great way to rattle the players around the gaming table.  If the adventurers are guarding a caravan, let an NPC guard disappear in the night, perhaps with a terrified scream cut short, when a monster decides to take its first victim.  Building threat and suspense with a monster before it finally strikes can make your Athasian adventurers feel that much more heroic when they finally meet and destroy the beast.

Magic is really evil

In Conan’s Hyperborean world, magic is almost always synonymous with the darkest evil.  Only in a few rare occasions in the Howard’s short stories was Conan witness to beneficial use of magical power.  And of course in the Dark Sun Campaign Setting, magic is the cause of arcane defiling and the destruction of life all around it.

And in both settings, the practitioners of arcane magic are to be feared, often using their magical arts to enact rituals bent on causing death and horror all around them.  In Howard’s stories, wizards and sorcerers were always summoning demons (A Witch Shall Be Born), performing horrific arcane experiments on creatures and slaves (The Scarlet Citadel), raising armies of undead soldiers (Hour of the Dragon), and even rising from the dead themselves, after untold centuries, to begin their terrible acts all over again (The Black Colossus).

There are plenty of reasons for Athasian heroes to despise magic, but one can also increase their fear by having them witness arcane events which shock and terrify them.  They might be victims of a curse hurled from an evil defiling wizard, or watch a warlock bring forth a horror from out of the Gray.  Or try having an arcane-based party member have to take part in a magical ritual to win an encounter, but gain a temporary boon for using his powers for some dark purpose – and see how long it takes before his comrades begin to question his loyalty!

Ancient ruins hide terrible secrets

Once you have read enough of Howard’s stories, one thing becomes perfectly clear to anyone adventuring in Hyperborea – ancient shrines and lost cities are ALWAYS bad news.  If there is a demon waiting to be unleashed, an evil undead wizard waiting to rise from the dead, or an artifact of unholy power waiting to be used to wreak havoc on the world, they are all going to be found in a crumbling ruin left over from some ancient time.  And as Howard was keenly influenced by his friend and writing colleague, H.P. Lovecraft, there is often an “evil elder god” or “alien presence from beyond the stars” theme running through his story whenever Conan poked around some long lost city or temple.
conan dark sun image
With three mysterious ages (Blue, Green, and Red) lurking in the distant Athasian past, there is plenty of opportunities to bring mysterious ruins and lost temples into a campaign, filled with the promise of great treasure and secret knowledge, but equally full of death and horror.  Dark Sun adventurers could be responsible during the Heroic Tier for releasing some terrible demon or creature from its prison in an ancient city, and then have to seek out lore in other ruins for a way to imprison it again.  Lore uncovered in a lost temple might bring the attention of a sorcerer-king’s templars who will stop at nothing to suppress the ancient knowledge before it can be translated.

And do not forget to use psychic impressions to fill in back story and provide a greater air of menace to ancient sites.  Conan (and occasionally, his companions) gained flashes of insight or even visions about an ancient locale, seeing what brought about its ruin or about the nature of the inhabitants who dwelt there.  Often, these visions were caused by the presence of a profoundly evil entity (Xuthal of the Dusk), or from a narcotic or drug-induced coma (Queen of the Black Coast).  The psychic and psionic sensitivity of Athasian heroes of any level should grant them the occasional vision into the history of a primeval ruin, giving them a brief and possibly terrifying glimpse into the horrors that await them, and maybe even a clue as to how to defeat a horrifying alien foe still lurking within!

Final Thoughts

I am really looking forward to delving into my own Dark Sun campaign, and will be drawing in many Hyperborean elements to create a richer and more satisfying play experience for my player-characters.  Robert E. Howard’s pulp fiction about Conan has stood the test of time and is still a power influence over D&D gaming over the years.  And I would like to think that if Mr. Howard were alive to day and watching a D&D game, he would really enjoy the Dark Sun Campaign Setting, intuitively sensing the literary resonance that so strongly exists between Athas and Hyperborea – and maybe even rolling up a Human Barbarian to play for himself!

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!

What sorts of novels and short stories do you find useful when working on a D&D campaign?  Which authors inspire you as create adventures, design encounters, and write up a campaign?  As always, I love to hear your comments, and look forward to any feedback you might have!

About The Author

Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.


2 Responses to “From Hyperborea to Athas: Inspirations for a Dark Sun Campaign”

  1. Al Harron says:

    “In a letter to friends, REH described Conan as 6’2” and 210 pounds.”

    This is a pervasive misconception, for in none of over 300 surviving letters is there any reference to Conan being 6’2” and 210 pounds. Usually the quote is in reference to Cormac Fitzgeoffrey being “physical doubles” with Conan, and even a reflection of Howard’s own height and weight – even though neither Cormac nor Howard were 6’2” 210 pounds. That said, Momoa ticks more boxes than he doesn’t.

    Also, it’s the Hyborian Age, not the Hyperborean age, and I don’t think the Bakala Conan led were cannibals. Those quibbles aside, this is a good little write-up.

  2. Sorry about that I got my facts crossed – I think I was recalling the letter Howard wrote regarding a 15yo Conan who was 6′ and 180# – and not yet fully grown! But I’m glad you agree with me that Momoa has considerable physical similarities to our favorite Cimmerian.

    With regard to the cannibals, I was referring to the tribe that captured the young girl and tortured her brother to death. I don’t know why, but the flashback the girl has about her brother’s death had me thinking the lad was destined for a roasting spit. I think it was the Man-Easters of Zamboula that featured the really nasty cannibals in it, that even though they are all slaves, sneak out to stalk the streets at night looking for loners to snack on.

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