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Robert A. Howard

Dark Sun Campaign Setting (D&D 4e) Review

Posted on September 14, 2010 by Robert A. Howard


Available at Amazon.com

I’ve been waiting eagerly for the re-release of the Dark Sun Campaign Setting for a long time – since the early days of 3rd Edition, actually. Why? It’s an amazingly different world in comparison to the somewhat same old and tired fantasy settings out there. But, D&D 3e came and went and Dark Sun languished in some dark corner of the WotC offices – probably collecting dust next to Planescape – forgotten and dejected. I honestly didn’t think I’d ever see this world in print again, but after a decade and half, Wizards of the Coast finally came through with a completely revitalized 4th Edition Athas.

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.

Review by Robert A. Howard, Pen & Paper Games.

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7 Responses to “Dark Sun Campaign Setting (D&D 4e) Review”

  1. Good review. About 10 pages away from writing one myself and we share a lot of the same views. One thing to note, Dark Sun rules were published for 3.x, the problem was it was in Dragon Magazine. Actually that issue of Dragon was what actually had me go out and buy 3.5 when it came up. The promise of bringing back the good old Dark Sun days.

    Definitely agree on the Defiling. This is the one place I found this version of Dark Sun let me down, totally. There really is no point in it.

    The one other complaint I had was the odd mix of DM and Player information in the Atlas section. This really felt like it should have been released as two separate books as they did with the last two campaign settings.

    @windsorgaming

    Reply

  2. Thanks, Gilvan. I recall now that I had heard about the porting of Dark Sun into 3.x in Dragon. That, of course, doesn’t rise to the same level as releasing it as a 3rd edition campaign setting as they did with Forgotten Realms. It’s such a perfect setting for the 4th edition “points of light” model though, I honestly think this should have been the second setting released ahead of Eberron.

    What did you (all) think of the half-giant conversion?

    Reply

  3. Rich Schneider says:

    Great review! I agree, Dark Sun is by far the most original and most interesting. I was a long time DM of it back in the day. I also agree about the half giants. But its easy enough to house rule. Just make them large with a reach of 1. Give them a +2 per tier to athletics and strength checks (or just slap on an additional +2 to str)

    The defiling issue, i dont have one with it. Its just fluff really and opens the door for some good old roleplaying.

    Good gaming!

    @TheKillerDM

    Reply

  4. Glacialis says:

    It makes me sad that Wizards didn’t choose to use any of the amazing material produced by athas.org, which was supposedly an official site. I say “supposedly” because none of their stuff made it into that 3.X Dragon magazine article, nor 4th edition. Terrors of the Deadlands alone gave me many, many evil ideas.

    Reply

  5. Ross Kingston says:

    They missed two of the most fun parts of Dark Sun- character trees and the half-giants’ flexible alignments!

    The changing nature of the halfgiants’ mindsets- emulating other players almost to distraction, flipping along alignments (I.e. Staying good but moving beteen CG and LG dependent on who you were puppydogging around) made for some excellent RP opportunity)

    Character trees were a good idea given Athas’ harsh climate.. Although they did remove them in the second “revised and expanded” boxset (set after the eruption of the Cerulean Storm- something not mentioned in the 4e books leading me to believe that it’s set between the fall of kalak and the end of the prism pentad books..)

    Reply

  6. I’m kinda hazy on character trees. Was that where you would make several characters that were kept on reserve for when (not if) your primary character died? Having the game be so harsh that character death was fairly constant wouldn’t really make it all that much fun. I want it to be difficult … deadly even, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t benefit the story or campaign for the cast of characters to constantly change.

    Reply

  7. Syrsuro says:

    Personally, I’m leaning towards making defiling into the default with a small cost for not defiling.

    As I see it, the world wasn’t turned into a wasteland because of a casters wanting to reroll an occasional daily power. Defiling had to have been the default and the temptation to defile had to be strong.

    I’m leaning towards something along the lines of:

    The option to reroll a daily power exists as in the rules at present. However, that is an extra option available to defilers – but it is not the basic defiling mechanic. In addition, arcane powers work as follows:

    Defiling (default): The caster defiles the square in which he is standing to power his/her spell, killing all plant life in that square – turning it into dead ash, incapable of supporting life. This square is marked as defiled and can no longer be used to power another spell. The caster must either move to a non-defiled square or forgo the advantages of defiling.

    Non-defiling: The caster can choose not to defile when casting an at-will or encounter spell (either because they are preservers or because they are in an already defiled square). If they do so, they do not add their ability bonus to the damage of that spell.

    What I like about this approach:

    1) It feels far more like the defiling mechanism of old.
    2) It gives the PCs a reason to remain mobile, which fits with the increased focus on mobility in 4E.
    3) It presents a strong temptation for characters to defile as they are giving up a moderate amount of damage, while at the same time allowing them to remain useful to the party if they choose to play preservers (controller effects still work, etc).

    Carl

    Reply

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