The Burnt World of Athas

The official Dark Sun website

Q&A With Kevin Melka

Kevin Melka was TSRs final product lead for the Dark Sun campaign setting, before the line's cancellation. Nytcrawlr has collected questions from the community for a Q&A with Kevin. The results are below. Followup questions are indented.
Are there any other products from the later era of Dark Sun that was also trimmed of its content, and what sorts of material ended up on "the cutting room floor"? I'm not asking for details of course...
Not to my knowledge. Like any gaming product (today or yesterday) there is always the chance for content to be “trimmed”, which is typically between the designer, editor, and the deadline. Since Psionic Artifacts and Dregoth Ascending were the only two I really worked on beginning to end/draft, those are the only ones I'm really able to comment on. The history of Dregoth is known, and there was no extra content for PAoA.
Dark Sun as originally planned was intended to change drastically over a determined period. Were there any other future drastic changes (besides Dregoth Ascending) that were being considered for the setting that were to be revealed in game supplements?
It has been interesting for me over the years to hear things like “I heard about *drastic* changes for Dark Sun...” or “TSR did this-or-that” or any number of various assorted rumors or innuendos floating around since Dark Sun's cancellation. It seems that gamers love to spin yarns about what they think they hear somewhere. The truth is the second “edition” box set of Dark Sun was about all the *drastic* changes the line was going to have when I was asked to be the designer, and I didn't have any in mind for the immediate future. If the line would not have been canceled in the fall of 1996, then 1997 would have had four DS products that were all basically campaign-support in design. There were no plans to drastically change anything that I knew of or proposed.
Including Dregoth Ascending, there was Secrets of the Dead Lands in the files of completed drafts which Athas.org was given to "edit/polish" and convert to 3e rules to be released for free. Were there any other projects that were being worked on that never got to the submitted draft stage? What were they?
No, there were no other products that were communicated to me.
What's up with the red alloy steel the scorcher and silencer are made out of? (though the silencer was from BoA) A few of us think it's just Rajaat's blood mixed in with normal steel and were going to write it up as a special material. Any thoughts on this?
There was nothing special or cosmic about it. Perhaps down the road we may have went back to that, but it was just another plot device that was never exploited in the future. If there was a specific reason I've forgotten over the years.
Athas.org is thinking about making a special material for weapons called Rajaat’s Blood that is based on the red alloy steel. What are your thoughts on that?
From a game design standpoint anything is possible, this is fantasy afterall. Remember that the being known as Rajaat lived thousands of years ago, and something such as the blood of such a creature would border on unique and extremely limited. As for what it does, I never had a specific design for it so I’ll leave it to this generation’s experts. ;)
I noticed that the Irikos entry in PAoA was cleaned up more after first appearing in BoA. Was this a big deal, or was it just something you felt to clean up afterwards and didn't really mind having the inconsistency?
I honestly don't remember. There was an effort by all involved in DS prior to the cancellation to try and streamline things a bit since there were so may designers working on it over the years, so I'm sure that had something to do with it.
It states, in the beginning of PAoA, that Hamanu is only harmed by the Silencer, was this by your design taking a cue from what happened in PP 2, or was it something that was on the drawing board from the beginning and just didn't get implemented until this accessory?
I believe that was something we were going to do in the future. Another unused plot twist.
What’s up with Ktandeo? In the Prism Pentad he was a human but in PAoA he is mentioned as being a halfling.
You know, I'm glad you brought this up. This little “issue” has been a very sore spot for me over the years, and the fact of the matter is you are actually the first person to actually ASK me what the deal was. I've seen postings in newsgroups and message boards over the years saying how big of an idiot I was to “have the gall to change Troy's original race” for Ktandeo or not doing my history or being a hack ... and so on. It would have been nice if someone would have actually asked me to my face about it instead of blasting me behind my back.
OK ... sorry about that. It has been building up for a few years. As for the answer ...
The fact of the matter is, the whole issue was an editing and art mistake. The art director for that project approved the illo for that entry w/o really getting it approved by myself, and the fact that it looked like a halfling more than a human (which I believe was my comment) caused the editor to change the entry to reflect the illo. While skilled, the editor did not know the entire history of Dark Sun and the past reference/race of Ktandeo. When PAoA was in blue lines (pre-press print out) I was pulled to work on an emergency Ravenloft project (Servants of Darkness) and didn't have time to review the document as much as I would have liked; that was left to the editor and creative director. I did look at it briefly, so I guess in a way it was my fault in some ways. In the original draft he was a human who could not use magic and was a trusted friend of the halflings. I guess the editor thought it was easier to make him a halfling given the look of the illo.
Not sure if you have seen my article or not, or the discussions concerning this, but do you think there is enough support for Kalak not being a true champion, despite the fact that he was initially written up as one in Troy's works?
I guess I really don't have a comment one way or the other. Since Kalak is slain at the beginning of the campaign, I guess I don't see the reason for the argument in the first place.
Some people like to start their campaigns from the beginning, before Kalak died and such and let their players changed the world from there. Taking this into consideration how do you feel about the article now?
Everyone’s campaign is different. I’ve always been one to follow the initial direction of a campaign, as was the case with DS. I really don’t have an opinion either way outside of what else I’ve stated above.
What's your favorite aspect of Dark Sun?
At the time it was probably the races. In my home Dark Sun game everyone in my group had a blast playing non-standard races. For me that made running the game more enjoyable, which translated over to the players and game itself having a great time.
What is your favorite Dark Sun product?
From a gaming geek perspective probably the first adventure FREEDOM. My home group had such a blast with that initial adventure, we still talk about it some 15 years later. From a game designer viewpoint, I was the most proud of Dregoth Ascending, even though I never got a chance to see it though to the end. I always felt I worked very hard on that product, and having it pulled out from under me four days after I finished the first draft was a hard pill to swallow back then.
Have you taken a look at part 1 of Dregoth Ascending yet? How do you feel about it?
Yes, and I think it is a very good conversion. Since it was only a draft when last I wrote a word for it, I would probably have done a few different things with it now 10 years later, but that’s just the designer in me. I always thought about adding more hooks and mini-scenarios for the invasion part, an option for mass combat if PCs wanted to confront the dray’s main force – things like that. Overall, I was very happy to see a portion of it finally make it out to the public. I can’t tell you how many people over the years have asked me to send them a copy of the draft.
If you could go back and change one thing about the setting, what would it be?
Honestly, I was never in a position to “change” much from a setting perspective, since I was never really given the chance to do what I wanted with the campaign. If I did have to pick one thing, I guess I would have wanted to find the Ktandeo error so I wouldn't have to listen to people moan about it all these years. :P
What were some other future plans for Dark Sun that never got envisioned?
Another halfling product, a book on the dwarves, and a book on the Order were the other three (of the four products, along with Dregoth) that were part of my official proposals for 1997. Beyond that we poked around the whole Kreen Invasion idea, the mystery of the Messenger, and a product on the Silt Sea to expand the world before DS was canceled.
What were the plans for the Messenger?
With the creation of the lifeshape items and the whole halfling-original-race plotline, we wanted to expand that a bit more to round out that portion of the world . What the Messenger was proposed (from me) to be was a “spaceship” of sorts for three halfings from the Blue Age who escaped the Brown Tide. After the events in Dregoth Ascending the Messenger would soon after crash into Athas and three powerful halflings were supposed to bring back lost life-magic and knowledge back to Athas in hope of rebuilding the world. I think we also toyed with one of the Halflings being a life-bender. That was the basis of the idea.
So, no space halfling invasion?
Ya know, I have no idea where that whole idea came from. I think long ago I may have mentioned the whole Messenger idea to someone, and from there it sprang into some absurd Spelljamming Halflings Invasion Plan 9 from Outer Space – which in my opinion is a bit ridiculous. Every time I used to see that it gave me a chuckle. :)
I am curious as to how you saw the areas beyond the Tyr Region, such as the desolation of the planet. Is the whole planet dead beyond the Tyr Region? Did you intend distant areas to be lush? etc. Was it even thought out that far? Was there any real-life cultures you particularly felt defined an area.
We talked about the possibility of other continents and what else was out there, but those talks ceased after the line was canceled. One thing people have to remember, from the time I starting working on DS until the end of the line was only about nine months. We talked about a lot of cool things back then, but when things came to a halt we all moved on to other projects. If there ever was any more mention of things like this I don't remember.
Does Borys have wings or does he tuck them back?
No idea. If it were up to me I would look at all of Troy's novel descriptions of him and see if there is a mention. Just because Brom never game him wings doesn't mean he didn't have them or couldn't fly. It was never anything I ever had to explain.
What were your personal favorite DS races?
Probably the kreen. Back then you couldn't ignore five attacks at such a low level. :)
How do you feel about the 3rd edition thri-kreen? Did you like the initial art for it in MM2?
I think I glanced at it, so I guess I really don’t have an opinion at the moment. Working in the d20 market you’re limited to only open gaming content, of which thri-kreens are off limits.
Where was the Dregoth plotline heading?
Without giving away the ending (cuz Jon would kill me), Dregoth Ascending was supposed to be a complete product that a DM could use to build upon for their campaign however they wanted going forward. I never had any more immediate plans to use him in the near future beyond the adventure's finale. I'm sure I would have use him again at some point, but I don't remember any specifics.
Why did you pick Dregoth of all the Sorcerer Monarchs to use?
honestly don’t remember why specifically, but from a campaign standpoint it seems to make sense since technically he is the Borys replacement. I believe the previous Dregoth product was a hit seller as well, so a follow up was a good move from that standpoint. I do remember that large adventures were hot at the time (i.e. Night Below), so put those all together and that is how things turned out.
What are your opinions of mixing campaign worlds (especially with DS which has such an isolated feel esp. compared to that big highway called the Realms)?
I was always a Dark Sun purist and never felt the “need” to mix the worlds. To me, there was always enough on Athas for me to design from and game at home.
Aside from this, what is your opinion on mixing Ravenloft with Dark Sun? I always felt that the Black was a good representation of the Domain of Dread. How do you feel about this? Too much of a stretch?
Yeah, I’d say so. The Black was supposed to be this big-bad-dark-dead place you were afraid to travel, not a place to adventure. Based on what Troy had written about it and how Bill used it, I would say that is not the intention.
In Psionic Artifacts you outlined a history for the Orbs of Kalid-Ma that were never further resolved. What was the story there?
Bill Connors (line developer for RL at the time) and I sat down one day to talk about what to do with Kalid-Ma, since he was mentioned in Ravenloft products. In the end we thought that the best way to explain what had been written before was that the sorcerer-king’s essence was trapped in the orbs, and his body was sent to Ravenloft. This allowed me to bring back Kalid-Ma if I wanted in Dark Sun with a new body, and Bill could create some sort of mindless/possessed undead domain lord if he wanted. There was more we wanted to do with this, but then DS was canceled and TSR stopped all product production shortly after.
Was it the idea that there would be more fully-transformed dragons (like Borys) elsewhere on Athas?
Not in any of my plans. When the line was canceled I had a rough two-year product plan proposed, with nothing of that nature in mind.
What did you think of the surfing druids?
No comment dude! :)
Would you be interested in working with athas.org or the community in developing further DS material in he future?
Only if someone can up the hours in the day to around 50. Outside of my regular employment I am currently the Creative Director for Bastion Press, and usually spend my evenings working on our future products. As much as I would like to, I just don't have the time. I will say that if Dark Sun ever moved to an official WoTC product I would love to work on it again if I could.
Do you think WoTC will ever bring Dark Sun back officially?
Personally, I don’t understand why they don’t, but that might be some of my love for the world showing through. I know that in the early years there was some licensing issue with the old TEN-DS online world, but I don’t know what their reason is today. Also, considering the money WoTC wants for licensing and the fact that only they want to be able to produce the core book (that is their current standing on licensing last I heard), only someone with tons of money to throw away has a shot at it. I know several people have inquired over it in recent times, but in the end there is no way to afford it from a business standpoint. As an independent publisher the majority of the money you make on a campaign comes from the main campaign book. Since WoTC insists on producing that end of *any* licensing product (after they learned their lesson with Ravenloft and S&S), no d20 company can really afford such a deal. In my opinion, this is unfortunate. Thankfully, Athas.org has the ability to keep doing Dark Sun, so for that all DS fans owe them a debt of thanks.
Speaking of Athas.org, what do you think of their releases so far? Be brutally honest we love it. :) Are they catching the Athasian flavor as much as the older stuff did?
I was very happy to see Athas.org when it first hit the scene. I had heard at the time from more than a few sources that WoTC has no intention of doing Dark Sun in the near future, so the fact that the fans were willing to do such a project was encouraging. As for how you’re doing, I think everyone is doing a great job. It is difficult from a publishing standpoint in the d20/OGL world to do anything nowadays, so the fact that Athas.org is still doing things years later is quite an accomplishment. Of what Athas.org has done so far, I would say I liked Terrors of Athas the best. Monsters were always one of the fun parts of Athas for me.
What were some of the directions considered for the future of dark sun before it's "cancellation"?
I've outlined some of the proposals above, but beyond that the only goal was to try and make Athas a complete gaming world. I wish I could have done more.
What is your favorite Dark Sun novel?
Troy's first novel was always the best for me, as it got me interested in Dark Sun before I even came to work at TSR.
There has always been a lot of talk about Lynn Abbey’s novel RaFotDK and how it doesn’t fit in some ways into the Athas gaming world. Do you know anything about that?
Shortly after I started working on Dark Sun I was asked to read over the final proof of Lynn’s book. In truth, I was shocked that there was such a book in the works, since this was the first I had ever heard about it. After reading through it in one night I found several “errors” in regards to DS history as it had been outlined in previous products and novels. Things like the miscalculation of the Athas calendar, the addition of a previously unknown champion, and a few other things I can’t remember at the moment. At the direction of my Creative Director I read through the manuscript and made note of the errors ASAP (I think I finished it in two days), which were then turned over to the book department for review. Despite the haste in which we presented this information, the book department refused to do our corrections. Unfortunately, in the old days the book department didn’t care much for what RPG did unless it was Forgotten Realms, and that was only because Ed did both books and products.
Over the years I’ve heard that Lynn has said she never received any feedback on the novel, and in her defense that was probably the case. From the RPG department’s perspective we were always willing to help out with books to keep things all in line, it was just a question of those in charge allowing RPG to have input with books. It was a very unfortunate set of circumstances back then, one I think really hurt our campaigns. For what it’s worth, I loved Lynn’s book and even incorporated parts of the book into the Timeline of Athas.
Do you think Dark Sun would’ve been Dark Sun without Brom?
It was always TSR policy to have quality artist. While I love Brom's work, if it were not him then I'm sure one of the other TSR artists on staff (such as Jeff Easley or Larry Elmore) could have made the world just as exciting as Brom did. If I ever had to pick another main artist besides Brom, I would have went with Tony D.
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