Dark Sun Campaign Setting: A 4th Edition D&D Supplement Hardcover – Aug 17 2010
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Sure, at the time, I was largely interested in the powergamey stuff - the wild talents, the four-attack-per-round thri-kreen, the Strength 24 half-giants, and so on. But over time, as more outstanding supplements came out, I was enthralled by the setting itself. It's bizarre and unique and nothing quite like it has ever been released before or since. I mean, a desert world with unique and deadly flora and fauna, where psionics are commonplace, and powerful wizard-psions rule city-states while turning into dragons? It was insane and utterly captivating. And then TSR basically blew up the setting by throwing a common-for-the-90's metaplot at it. (A metaplot, fwiw, which my players and I completely ignored.)
Anyway, I've been anticipating Dark Sun 4e since it was announced a year ago. The book has been well worth the wait, and sets a new high water mark both for 4e settings (admittedly not a high bar at the moment) and 4e books in general.
Okay, so what can a fan of the 2e setting expect? Well, the most important thing to remember is that, just like Dark Sun 2e took the iconic parts of the 2e setting, Mad-Maxed them up, and added spiky bits, Dark Sun 4e does the same to the iconic parts of the 4e setting. So there's some new stuff - Tieflings, Eladrin, and Dragonborn for example. Much like the other races, these are thrown through the Athasian blender. Tieflings are "desert devils" - cruel, bloodthirsty raiders in service to demons. Eladrin are xenophobic, mage-hating psions clinging to the last vestiges of the rapidly-dying Land Beyond the Wind. Dragonborn are the Dray - which were around in 2e, reskinned. Half-Giants simply use the Goliath mechanics, which is fitting. Setting favorites Muls and Thri-Kreen make their 4e debut. There are very few other races still around, unless you wheedle your way into them with your DM.
By default, the gods are dead and gone. That means no divine classes, either. This was a jump a lot of people didn't expect them to make, but I'm glad they did. Taking the place of 2e's Elemental Priests are new options both for Shamans and for all other classes as well.
Mechanically, the biggest innovation for Dark Sun are Character Themes. More or less, these are paragon paths you take at 1st level; they sit on top of your class, and tie your character further into the setting. Among these options are Gladiator, Elemental Priest, Templar, Wilder, Noble Adept, Dune Trader, and Athasian Minstrel. They give you a handy Encounter power, and down the road, you can pick a series of Powers from your Theme instead of your class.
It also takes a major step back from magic items. An inherent bonus system, similar to the one from DMG2, is presented as the default, thank goodness. This makes the characters "work" mechanically, even without magical gear at all.
OK, enough about mechanics. The setting itself? Gorgeous. WotC listened to fans, and reset the timeline to just after the death of Kalak. This means no Cerulean Storm, no dead Dragon, etc. It's awesome. Each City-State gets a few pages all to itself, and every one gets a nice map. There's a lengthy section on adventuring in Athas, with (harsh and deadly) rules for travel and desert survival.
All in all, it takes all the stuff I love about Dark Sun and all the stuff I love about 4e, and puts them in a neat little package which my players are already clamoring for me to run.
I recommend this book to anyone who's a fan of Dark Sun of any edition, any DM looking for something other than typical fantasy, and anyone who was on the fence about 4e and needed something awesome to convince them to take the jump.
One note - if you are new to 4e, and Dark Sun has convinced you to take a swing at it, I'd strongly suggest a DDI subscription. It will let you get all the character options included in Dark Sun for an intensely low price.
But in my opinion the new mechanics, the races and classes (and themes), and the setting descriptions have done a great job.
The game feels like a blasted world where survival is a challenge even when you aren't being chased by a powerful primal shaman and his hirelings or captured by a tribe of evil hobbits that plan to eat you.
Only 4 stars though, because the book feels about 75% done:
* There are "page [xx]" typos. Simply inexcusable from a major publisher. Michele Carter, Greg Bilsland, M. Alexander Jurkat, Ray Vallese, and Kim Mohan (the credited editors) should be ashamed and embarrassed when even one of these gets through.
* A lot of the little incidental art scattered through later chapters is just plain bad. Also, no one knows how to illustrate thri-kreen.
* There are waaay too many small portraits of characters doing stuff throughout the rest of the book. There is not enough world building, setting defining medium-sized (like half-page or so) pieces. Which leads to:
* The book feels very light on art, especially in later chapters like "Atlas of Athas" which contributes to the next point:
* It feels short. The original Dark Sun had something like a dozen books and boxed sets released with three years of its release full of stuff to draw from. I expected more detail about everything: only four new rituals? the entirety of the forest ridge gets two pages? twenty pages of advice to DMs?
But a lot is really good:
* It has the polished layout we expect from 4E at this point.
* Though the art is a mixed bag, there is some really good stuff here. The splash page art at the beginning of chapters is mostly really good. The portraits in the Races and Themes chapters are mostly good. I love the city maps.
* I love the pictures on p139 and p183. I wish they were larger and there were more like them.
* I love the themes, muls and thri-kreen. They have "felt right" the ten sessions I've played with them. I don't have a problem with goliaths being plopped in for half-giants. In fact, I am likely to retcon goliaths in my games in other worlds as being descended from half-giants from Athas.
* The few pages for DMs are pretty well done. The adventure looks lame, though.
* The new mechanics unique to Dark Sun are just right. I like survival days, sun sickness, and weapon breakage.
So, I'd say WotC has succeeded in bringing Dark Sun to 4E.
It's a strong setting despite some failures in execution and presentation. Players will enjoy creating and running unique characters. DMs will enjoy new and unique ways to kill those players.
Dark Sun is, without a doubt, a world rich in history. It became apparent as soon as I opened the book and started reading. However, there is a major difference between the Dark Sun Campaign Setting book and the campaign setting books of Eberron and Forgotten Realms: the information here is bare minimum. It is still enough to give you a detailed look at the world, but scarce enough to let you truly take any area of the world and do as you wish with it. I have already run two games in this setting, and I love the amount of freedom the world gives me. In Forgotten Realms, they tell you why Goblins are here and why Goblins would never be here. In Dark Sun, any creature of any level can be found in the vicious wastes. They don't tell you "Silt Runners won't be here because...", and that's what the previous campaign settings did wrong. In short, this book doesn't think for you, it thinks WITH you.
I can only hope that the future campaign setting books are designed like this. I know in full that the design of this book was an intentional throwback to the old book, and I say keep at it. Give me just barely enough information to know what is going on with the world. Keep it's true history hidden. Keep it's ruler's intentions secret. Let the players, not the world, decide what evils the enemies are up to. For the first time since the core ruleset came out, I have felt a world offer unlimited potential to both players and Dungeon Masters, and it is good.
I am, however, not without complaints. An earlier reviewer had mentioned there are far too many instances of complete page references, sentences that say "see page xx for details" and this is a legitimate excuse. Even during initial casual browsing, I found no less than three instances of it. Two, even one, is inexcusable from a powerhouse such as Wizards of the Coast. Other complaints I have are superficial, such as Wizard's continuing use of Wayne Reynolds, who is quite possibly the worst fantasy artist I've seen. Still, the good far outweigh the bad, and I feel that Dark Sun will be the best setting 4e has to offer for quite some time.
So, my first and biggest complaint is that the only map of Athas is the huge fold out map. That really stinks because I like to reference locations visually and to do that, I have to break out the map each time. They should have had a page sized map included in the Atlas of Athas section of the book.
Second- and this is an ongoing rant I have with WotC is the adventure in the back of the book. I really like that they include it but much like Marauders of the Dune Sea (the first Dark Sun adventure module sold), it is really just a collection of encounters with no real story or role playing opportunity. I wish they'd remember that they produce a role playing game! With this product as with so many 4th edition material, the burden is on the DM more than ever to create fantastic role playing moments. Thank goodness the combat encounters are easy to run!
I also want to note that there are numerous editing mistakes where page numbers are referenced but in place of the actual numbers are XX's so you never know where to look. For an expensive book, you'd think a little more care would go into the copy editing.
Other than that, this is a solid book for both players and DMs. Now if they'd only make a 4th edition Dragonlance!
# A Little Bit about Athas #
If you haven't been playing D&D forever and half or just never tried Dark Sun back in its heyday, let me tell you a little bit about what this setting has it store for you. Dark Sun has a very different feel than other settings you may have ever tried. The known world (Athas) is a harsh and unforgiving desert dotted by city-states ruled by tyrannical sorcerer-kings. Slavery of the entire population is a reality of life. Freedom is a privilege enjoyed by very few, except in the single "shining" city of Tyr which was only recently freed by an unlikely uprising of slaves and gladiators. Even in Tyr, life is hard, and the ambitions of unscrupulous men keep Tyr's freedom in constant peril.
As bad as things might be under the dictatorships of the sorcerer-kings, however, the badlands between the cities of the Tyr Region are even more dangerous. Deadly predators lurk in the sands, ready to waylay travelers at every turn. Above, the sun, perhaps the greatest enemy of them all, scorches the land relentlessly and rockets temperatures upwards of 150 degrees at its highest point.
In Athas, it is about survival against all odds and working against, or at least thriving under, the constant oppression of a world that would just as soon see you left a dry and lifeless husk - one less competitor vying for all too limited resources.
# What Dark Sun Brings to the Table #
The Dark Sun Campaign Setting introduces a lot of new material and options for players, including: two completely new races, a slew of new feats; a defiling and preserving system for arcane casters; psionic wild talents; new class builds for the fighter, battlemind, shaman and warlock; new paragon paths and epic destinies for Athasian characters; and, of course, new rituals, weapons, mounts and magic items for Dark Sun characters to find and acquire as they travel the burning sands of Athas. There is far too much to go into in this brief review, but I will elaborate a bit on some of the options that really bring out this setting's unique flavor.
* Two New Playable Races
Dark Sun features two completely new races - the mul and the thri-kreen. Muls (pronounced mool or mull, but forever known to me as mule) are a breed of half-dwarves, half-humans possessed of incredible physical strength and endurance. These walking walls of muscle were bread to be ideal physical combatants and most began their lives as slaves. Thri-kreen are described as mantis-like humanoids that hunt in packs throughout the wastes of Athas. They are versatile warriors and make superior monks, as I have witnessed in our ongoing Dark Sun game. They are also the most alien of the playable races with their bizarre physiology and insectoid outlook, making them an ideal roleplaying challenge for someone who wants to try playing something completely different than they may have played before.
* Character Themes
Character themes are a completely new option available to Dark Sun characters. Themes expand on the idea of character backgrounds and help represent the character's chosen archetype, career or calling. They add extra depth to both the character's background and to his power lineup. The new theme lineup includes the Athasian minstrel, dune trader, elemental priest, gladiator, noble adept, primal guardian, templar, Veiled Alliance, wasteland nomad, and wilder. Each of these themes provides the character with a free encounter power and access to an array of new powers and paragon path choices. Arguably, these themes introduce a small bit of power creep, but for the harsh world of Athas, one needs every advantage they can get. Trust me.
(Rumor has it, by the way, that themes will be making an appearance in future non-Dark Sun materials - Essentials perhaps?)
* Defiling and Preserving
In the world of Athas, arcane spell casters must draw on the vitality of plants, animals and even the primal sprits around them to fuel their spells, which ultimately is what caused Athas to be the mostly barren and hostile desert world that it is. Using magic without damaging or destroying life around the caster is difficult. Those who are careful not to destroy life around them with their casting are called Preservers, and those who recklessly use magic without regard are known as defilers. Regardless of how careful the caster might be, arcane magic users are almost universally reviled, and using such magic openly will almost certainly draw hostility. You can think of defiling like the "dark side," of magery; using it offers a quick path to power. This gives magic a completely different feel than any other system.
* Psionics and Wild Talents
Psionics are prevalent in Dark Sun and most of the inhabitants of Athas have at least some level of psionic potential. You will see this theme strongly in the Creature Catalogue and (at the DMs discretion) any player can choose to take a minor psionic ability known as a wild talent, or spend a feat to gain multiple wild talents. These abilities are not as useful in combat, but they can be incredibly handy in roleplaying situations.
* Did I Mention Chitin?
One of the interesting aspects of Athas is the rarity of metal of any sort. Even if it were practical to walk around under the punishing heat of the crimson sun sporting armor made of steel, few warriors could afford the king's ransom it would take to purchase such. In the original setting, the lack of metal resulted in both subpar armor and weapons, but in 4th Edition the Athasian counterparts (commonly made from horn, scales, hide, bone and even wood) are equally effective to standard steel versions. To spice things up, there is also an optional weapon breakage rules to reflect the less durable materials.
The scarcity of metal and the popularity of the gladiator combat have also yielded an array of unusual weapons distinct to the Dark Sun setting. Even better, there are specialist feats for the cahulak, dragon paw, gouge, gythka, lotulis, net and whip that give the character access to encounter and daily powers themed around these specialized weapons. This is a very nice touch and something that I'd love to see expanded for more weapons in other settings as well.
The equipment section also includes an analog of the various masterwork armors that have been published to date and their Athasian counterpart. Although Athasian armor construction is described in general, there aren't any detailed descriptions for the Dark Sun masterwork armor. In the grand scale of things, this is really only a minor disappointment considering how much material the authors had to cover. As to magic items, there are about five pages of new items with a smattering of new magic items in each category - except armor, which only includes one single lonely scale/plate item. Aww...
* A world rich with detail and story opportunities.
Before I read through the campaign guide for the first time, my biggest concern was that the setting and background "fluff" would be abbreviated in favor of providing more player material, but the Atlas section really delivers. Each of the city-states and major regions has a write-up averaging about four pages, except Tyr which doubles any of the other sections - understandable, given this is the center of the most recent upheaval with the death of its sorcerer-king, Kalak, and is the most likely starting point for most campaigns. Still, there is plenty of material to work with if you would like to set your game in one of the other city-states such as Raam or Urik, and lots of advice on running adventurers featuring the desert wastes for when (not if) the adventurers find themselves in need of venturing beyond the "safety" of the city walls.
# What's Different From the Original Setting? #
It has been literally more than a decade since I have looked through the original books, so my memory of the setting may be somewhat lacking. As I read through the setting though, it still felt very much like the downtrodden and dangerous world that I remembered. I'm sure that the Athas historian can point out all of the little nuances between the editions - I can't - but what I noticed were three critical differences.
* Eladrin, Tieflings and Dragonborn - Oh My!
One of the biggest changes is the inclusion of the new 4th Edition core races. The original Dark Sun was released long before such races as the eladrin, tiefling and dragonborn came on the scene, and there certainly was no place for them in the old world. The Dark Sun purist will probably rail against the idea of including these new races that did not originally have a place carved out for them, but Wizards made the decision some time ago that all of their campaign settings would feature the core races presented in the Player's Handbook. To be honest, I don't think it did any harm to the setting at all. If anything, it enriched it. If the purist DM doesn't favor the new races, it is certainly easy enough to excise them from the setting.
* Wimpy Half Giants
Half-giants in the original setting were monstrous brutes that came in at a staggering 14 feet tall and over a thousand pounds, and they were stronger than any of the other playable races by far! In 4th Edition, they have been reimagined as goliaths from the Players Handbook II. This was the one of the most jarring changes from the original setting to me. While goliaths are imposing in stature - towering over all the other playable races, they don't begin to measure up to the hulking half-giants of old who dwarf the goliath in every way. Goliaths feel like a weak knockoff. Certainly, I can see why goliaths are a natural choice given the constraints of the 4th Edition engine. Wizards has already said on more than one occasion that they don't want to create "large" playable races. Still, I would have rather seen half-giants made into a non-playable race instead of represented as a watered down, neutered version of themselves... Perhaps that's just me though.
* Defiling Mechanics
In 2nd Edition, defilers advanced in level significantly more quickly than their preserver counterparts. It was a significant advantage if you didn't mind turning all plant life into ash in a 90 foot radius and incurring the enmity of basically every living creature. 4e defiling doesn't seem to live up to this same promise of power, mechanically speaking. The new system for defiling gives only a minor advantage to the caster of being able to reroll a missed attack roll - and only on an arcane daily power at that. In exchange, he draws life force from his allies equal to their healing surge value. This is a hefty cost just to be able to reroll an attack, and it only comes into play when a caster misses with a daily attack power. The rules do say that a caster can choose to use defiling on non-daily powers, but there is no mechanical benefit whatsoever - which begs the question, why would any caster ever use the minor defiling option?
It isn't until the character chooses to take the Master Defiler paragon path that they will realize any real advantages, and even then, the Master Preserver path is pretty smoking too. The player can also take some of the defiling oriented feats to bump up the potency of the arcane defiling power, but it still doesn't compare to the advantages of old.
# My Thoughts #
I'll admit that the dark and gritty nature of the setting was an instant appeal to me. I've been playing Dungeons and Dragons for over two decades now, and to be perfectly honest, the usual trappings of fantasy no longer excite me. I need something new ... something different. Dark Sun is the setting that I've been waiting for a very long time, and for almost a year now, I've had the great privilege to play in the new 4th Edition Dark Sun while it was still in its draft stage with one of the designers, Chris Sims, at the helm. I can honestly say that it is the most fun playing D&D that I have had in a long time. Now that it is out, I cannot recommend it strongly enough. Regardless of whatever nitpicky issues I may have with the newest incarnation, Dark Sun is the best campaign setting released for 4th Edition to date. Bar none.