Dark Sun Campaign Setting
The world of Athas is a twisted, barren landscape composed of little more than blood, sand, and an iron determination to survive. This classic setting did a wonderful job of providing what essentially amounts to harsh post-apocalypse play for AD&D, and the newest incarnation expertly updates the world for 4E. This setting does a good job of turning many classic fantasy tropes around, and is a particularly fine option for those who are tired of standard swords and sorcery and desire a setting that showcases a strong internal logic while providing plenty of reason for all sorts of adventures.
The Good: The presentation is excellent and strongly communicates the setting. The writers do a great job of updating the core with elements of the 4E mythology.
The Bad: Some gamers may find the addition of another level of mechanics, Themes, to be too much for a system already filled with character options. Defiling is far too weak of a mechanic given the setting significance of the destructive power of arcane magic.
The Physical Thing
At $39.95 this 224 page full color hardcover showcases the very highest in RPG production values. The table of contents and index result in easy navigation, while the editing and formatting result in an easy to read product. The artwork is exceptional and does a fantastic job of illustrating both the setting and the available character concepts. I find the writing to be more engaging than that in some other 4E products and it does a good job of painting a picture of the harsh world of Athas at every turn.
Under the Cover
Dark Sun Campaign Setting offers a world that was once a fertile, prosperous land where great magic maintained several powerful civilizations. The current incarnation of the setting doesn’t nail down the disaster, only noting that whatever happened the result was a world transformed from that age of greenery to a blasted landscape where little could survive. As the wastes expanded much of civilization retreated behind the walls of the great cities, giving rise to powerful city-states ruled by the Sorcerer Kings. In the modern era each city-state is all powerful within its territory, often tyrannical with a slave based society supporting a wealthy nobility. The remaining peoples tend to live as nomads or trible recluses, some of which turn to banditry and cannibalism to survive. The flora and fauna are exceedingly deadly, though those willing to brave the harsh wilderness may discover ruins of past civilizations sporting the tools needed to survive.
Athas has certain qualities that make it even more unique. It is a metal poor world, and most weapons and armor are made from alternative materials such as bone, wood, and obsidian. Magic can be cast in such a way that it sucks the life energy out of the world, which has resulted in arcane spellcasters being feared across the world and typically murdered when found, unless they are in the employ of a Sorcerer King. The gods have been silent for a very long time. The only things worth praying to are the elements or, perhaps, a Sorcerer King.
When I first heard that Dark Sun was being revamped for 4E, I was very sceptical. I’m a fan of the 2E setting and at the time I believed it was moderately incompatible with 4E, which has more of a kitchen sink approach to settings. I am extremely pleased with what has been produced, in large part because the writers chose not to force 4E setting concepts that would not work for Dark Sun. This is not a general setting and all D&D options are not appropriate here. While a clever DM or player might be able to justify one of any unique concept, the book simply states that many of the weirder races just don’t have a place here. Others, such as the Kalashtar, aren’t even viewed as a race so much as a psionically evolved human. This willingness to put the feel of Dark Sun ahead of the desire to enable every single 4E concept is part of what makes this book so worthwhile.
The setting does embrace many 4E concepts. The feywild exists, but it has largely pulled away from Athas and can only be accessed at a few rare oasis. The shadowfel is also present as the Gray, an otherworld where ghosts and the restless dead tend to linger. The astral sea is empty, but the elemental chaos lurks near to the surface which is unsurprising given the harsh elemental nature of the world. These elements of the mythology work well because they give the DM an opportunity to add in some elements, but it’s clear that the designers stopped well before upsetting the unique feel of the setting.
One big aspect of the Dark Sun setting is that it turns many traditional fantasy tropes on their heads. Elves here, for example, are nomadic and known for their ability to run long distances more than anything else. The halfling tribes vary, but cannibalism is strongly associated with several such desert dwelling tribes. Dwarves are unsurprisingly stout, but also beardless, task focused, and without a land to call their own. Tieflings remain largely unchanged, and Dragonborn are called Dray here where they take up the role of an ancient people of few numbers who are drawn to arcane magic and often suspected of collaboration with the Sorcerer Kings due to their tendency to make bargains for magic licenses.
Eladrin are rare here, since there are so few portals to the feywild, and more likely to be viewed simply as another type of elf. This is a similar situation the Kalashtar find themselves in, being viewed really as just psionically evolved humans. The Goliath race has been repackaged as the Half-Giant, which makes since given how similar the racial modifiers were to begin with. The approach is excellent overall, incorporating many options while maintaining the feel of the setting.
New races include the Mul and the Thri-Kreen. Mul are half-dwarves bred for endurance and slave labor. Their stats include: Mul +2 Con; +2 Str or Wis. +2 End, +2 Streetwise. Speed 6, +1 Healing Surge. Choose whether you count as Human or Dwarf at creation. Only need to sleep 6 hours of every 72 to get the benefit of an extended rest. Encounter Power: Incredible Toughness – At the start of your turn (trigger) end any ongoing damage or dazed, slowed, stunned, or weakened condition.
The Thri-kreen are a desert dwelling insectoid race with stats that include: +2 Dex; +2 Str or Wis. Speed 7, Low-Light, +2 Athletics, +2 Nature, once per turn draw or sheath weapon as a quick action, always considered to have a running start when jumping, require only 4 hours of sleep and stay aware of surroundings while resting. Encounter Power: Thri-Kreen Claws – Melee 1, 1/2/3 enemies, 1d8 + Str/Dex/Wis mod. Gain a bonus to the damage equal to the number of targets.
Let’s delve into additional mechanical options. The big addition here comes in the form of Themes. Themes are chosen at character creation and offer a character a new power, access to two additional Paragon Paths, and the ability to swap out powers with a specific set of powers. The Themes work well here in aiding existing classes in adhering to character concepts introduced in the original Dark Sun boxed set.
The Themes here include: Athasian Minstrel (bard skilled with poisons), Dune Trader, Elemental Priest, Gladiator, Noble Adept, Primal Guardian, Templar, Veiled Alliance (illusion/misdirection mages), Wasteland Nomad, and Wilder. Each of these does an excellent job of aiding a player in realizing a concept without requiring the player to give up a specific class option. The power lists for each of these classes are solid, and in some cases they can work well for realizing concepts beyond those initially listed. A Veiled Alliance member, for example, is a wizard who practices preserving magic and hides his or her talent from society. The power list, however, can also work well for an illusionist or diviner. Being able to swap as few or as many class powers as desired is quite nice, though there is the risk that a group’s roles could get a little screwy if players are making heavy use of Themes.
Themes and the twenty Paragon Paths associated with them are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of character options. This setting emphasizes psionics over magic due to the fact that magic is often very destructive to the local world, resulting in wizardy being outlawed except for a few licensed practitioners who serve the sorcerer kings. To reflect this, a new mechanic for Defiling magic is introduced. Spellcasters may reroll any and all Daily arcane attack powers once. The down side is that doing so deals necrotic damage to all allies within 20 squares equal to one half of a healing surge. This is a weak mechanic and does a poor job of implementing Defiling magic, especially given how big of a deal Defiling was in previous editions of the setting. That other arcane magic can be automatically disguised as a different type of magic further deemphasizes the setting implications of being a magic user.
Wild Talents are another worthwhile addition, at-will psionic powers that may be picked or rolled randomly for based on the preference of the DM. These powers vary in effectiveness, from being able to general a fire to being able to use any square within 5 to determine line of sight. Ten all together, a Feat will allow a character to pick up three at a time and some builds could gain a lot of benefit from doing so. New Class options include Wild Battlemind (force damage and pushing) for Battlemind, Arena Fighter (specialist in improvised weapons) for Fighter, Animist Shaman (buffs and Tac Warlord style granted attacks) for Shaman, and Sorcerer-King Pact (debuff and ally setups) for Warlock. I’m enthusiastic about all of these builds, though I find the Animist Shaman to have some of the most interesting mechanics and definitely want to play one the next chance I get.
New Epic Destinies include the Avangion (final form of a spellcaster who respects the world), Dragon King (a Defiler who has mutated and changed from corrupting magic), Hordemaster (commander of an army), Mind Lord of the Order (the ultimate psion), and Pyreen (spiritual guardian of the wilderness). These five are particularly nice because they’re very epic for the setting The Avangion, Dragon King, and Pyreen in particular reflect character concepts that number only a tiny few in the setting and which showcase the ultimate goal of many spellcasters.
New Feats, Rituals, and Equipment are also included here and they do a good job of enabling Dark Sun appropriate game play. Plenty of support for the new Themes can be found among the Feats, but my favorite additions include the many arena fighting Feats which add small perks to at-will powers while also granting a Skill bonus. These help out a lot in customizing combat moves for fighters, and given the fact that unique combat styles are common in the setting I think it’s an excellent addition.
Rituals only number five, but those five are very useful. Silt Walk, in particular, is expensive but also absolutely essential to crossing certain areas of the desert. Existing Rituals are altered for the setting, most notably those that create water or rain are unknown here. This is a great addition, as to do otherwise fundamentally upsets the core concept of the setting that water is scarce and worth dying for.
Athas is a metal poor world. In previous editions this was handled by having harsh weapon breakage rules and reduced damage for weapons made of different materials. Wood, obsidian, and bone are the most common options for weapons, and none of these materials is particularly durable in a fight. The fourth edition version of the setting handles this by assuming that all of the stats in the PHB are for non-metal weapons of any given construction. Metal weapons are assumed to have at least a +2 enhancement bonus and are extremely rare. Optional mechanics for weapon breaking are included for DMs who want to use these mechanics. Overall I’m pleased with this result. It maintains the feel of the setting without requiring a serious revamping of the overall game mechanics. A variety of exotic new weapons and armors are also included which are especially appropriate for gladiatorial matches.
What remains of the setting is a lot of attention to the city-states of Athas. The first we encounter is the free city of Tyr. The current incarnation of the game takes place after Tyr overthrew its Sorcerer King in the timeline, but in true Athasian fashion this does not result in a utopian existence for the citizens of Tyr. Spies for other city-states lurk, templars with delusions of grandeur plan their next move, and dark alliances are being formed. Tyr is exactly as I would want it to be – a hotbed of political turmoil, strife, and lawlessness.
The other city-states each receive several pages of attention, as do major setting locations. Most of the global setting information is included in the overall presentation of all the options in the book, with specific locations being detailed so as to offer the DM plenty of support for adventuring in a specific location. One of my favorite parts of this setting book is how it balances setting detail with unexplored wilderness. The major cities and wilderness locations receive support, but there’s an enormous quantity of the world left alone for the DM to play with as desired.
I remember coming home with the original Dark Sun boxed set on a storm day, delving into a setting filled with harsh adventure and deadly challenges. Plenty of games would follow, with slave caravans, templar politics, and Veiled Alliance machinations. When I first heard of the revamped setting I was skeptical, but I can say now that as a fan of the original boxed set this book stays true to the spirit of the Dark Sun setting while incorporating the 4E mythology. The new options are very setting appropriate, the book constantly reflects the flavor of the setting, and there’s a lot of material here for fans old and new to enjoy.