Around the same time I began DMing for my peers, one of the “older kids” I also gamed with told me about a fun pre-published adventure he had recently played, which he wanted to run for a couple of us who hadn’t been there. In my experience, adventure modules were not commonly used during that era (which may be a reflection of the quality of most 2nd Edition adventures). In fact, up to that point I had neither played nor run a pre-published adventure. So I was certainly interested in what this experience would be like and what would set it apart. As it turned out, far more set it apart from my previous D&D experience than just being pre-pub — the adventure in question was “A Little Knowledge,” the flipbook that came in the 1991 Dark Sun box set.
Dark Sun is perhaps the best TSR-published example of making the D&D rules serve the setting, as opposed to the other way around. Sure, all of the PHB races are present (save for the gnome), but Athasian elves and halflings are different enough from the standard presentation as to be effectively different races. The tougher starting characters (3rd level to begin) and character trees reinforced the settings flavor of a harsh world in which death was a constant threat.
However, it is also an unfortunate example of the Bronze Age’s insistence on “heroes” as opposed to just characters. The setting seems to go out of its way to remind you that this cruel world needs heroes who are all the stronger to save it. Is this how anyone actually played Dark Sun? It certainly wasn’t reflective of the games I played in. My friends and I wanted to fully embrace the harsh, post-apocolyptic vibe of the world and play uncaring mercenaries and murderers. Everything about Brom’s art screamed “Heavy Metal,” player characters in the setting should too.
Overall, though, I still love the world as it is presented in that 91 edition. The 1995 revision moved strongly in a direction that I didn’t like, reflecting the events of novels that introduced a lot more hope into a setting that thrived on hopelessness. The visual element was also far less compelling. Ultimately Dark Sun was a setting that I probably spent more time thinking about than actually playing, but it deserves credit for teaching me during my early gaming days that lesson that bears repeating: let the rules serve the setting.