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Wednesday, 8th September, 2010, 09:44 PM #1
Defender (Lvl 8)
Review: Dark Sun Campaign Setting by Wizards of the Coast
There is nothing quite so inevitable as change! When the original Dark Sun was released back in 1991, I recall that I was not terribly interested in a new campaign setting. My Players and I were still trying to get a handle on how 2nd Edition was going to mess with our AD&D Greyhawk game, and I was thoroughly absorbed with trying to implement stuff from that new cool City of Greyhawk boxed set into my already ongoing campaign. Some of the other guys in our college gaming club had picked up this strange new desert world setting called Dark Sun, and were bragging about how powerful their new Characters were, and how they used psioncs (ooooh!) instead of magic.
I pretty much rolled my eyes at the whole mess once I heard the p-word mentioned. After all, psionically active Characters and wild talents had screwed up more than a few of my AD&D campaigns, and the thought of an entire world full of psionic blasts and id insiuations sounded like over-powered munchkin play at its finest. So, no thank you, I’ll stick with my tried and true World of Greyhawk, where Iuz the Old and Mordenkainen’s Circle of Eight were gearing up for a big brawl!
But times have changed, and nowadays, given our own ecological crises on good old planet Earth, there is something perversely appealing about a fantasy campaign world which is set on a dangerous post-apocalyptic planet. Rising social awareness for the dangers of pollution and de-forestation, of green house gases, and toxic oil spills (Thanks BP!) have even lead Hollywood to produce films reflecting the current mind-set. Movies like Pandorum, The Book of Eli, and Avatar reflect concerns about our own abilities to cause catastrophic damage to planet Earth – or even other worlds as well. Even Pixar’s family movie, WALL-E, carries a serious warning about the fate of those who show poor planetary stewardship.
And so now we have Wizards of the Coast’s new and revised Dark Sun Campaign Setting for Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition. But just how good is this newly revised setting which revisits Troy Dennings’ original violent and savage world of Athas?
Dark Sun Campaign Setting
- Authors: Richard Baker, Robert J. Schwalb, Rodney Thompson
- Cover Illustrator: Wayne Reynolds (front), William O’Connor (back)
- Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
- Year: 2010
- Media: Hardbound (224 pages)
- Retail Cost: $39.95 ($26.37 from Amazon)
The Production Quality of the Dark Sun Campaign Setting is exceptional. It is superbly written and really a pleasure to read, with material presented in a logical fashion for both Players and Dungeon Masters. And there are numerous sidebars containing useful information, such as the pronunciation of the word “mul” or the dreadful secret of the Sorcerer-King Dregoth, which contain both flavor and useful information for the reader. However, there are a couple sections where the lines become blurred between Player and DM information (see Chapter 5), which might be cause for some concern if you are DM’ing and want to play down Character knowledge.
The artwork is quite beautiful, with many new pieces done by artists daring to tread gently in the footsteps of the legendary Brom. Also included in the book is a poster sized map of Athas and the City of Tyr, which are fantastically rendered, particularly the city map, which shows the wide variety of structures and homes in “The Free City”.
As mentioned, the Dark Sun Campaign Setting is divided into six Chapters, with the first four dealing with Character creation and outfitting, and comprises a bit more than half of the book. The remainder of the book is broken into two chapters, the largest of which details the geographical areas of Athas and its city-states, while the smaller final chapter discusses Dungeon Mastering a Dark Sun campaign, and includes a short adventure.
This new setup, offering both the Player and Dungeon Master content in the same book is quite a change from how the Forgotten Realms and Eberron Campaign Settings were released, where the Player and Dungeon Master information was divided into two separate books. From my own experiences of running two Realms campaigns, I often find tidbits of information in the Player’s Guide that I wished would have been in the Campaign Guide, necessitating that I had to purchase both books. However, while more costly, splitting information into two books meant considerably greater page count about the setting – over 450 pages in fact. So despite some overlap and cost, having two books offered more overall content than a single supplement would provide.
The First Chapter of the Dark Sun Campaign Setting, entitled “The World of Athas”, is a short and concise description of general facts about the setting, including history, cosmology, and social structure. The information is broad enough so as not to give too many secrets away to Players, and gives a decent primer as to several facets of the campaign setting. Admittedly, some of the information in the “Cosmology” of Athas seemed more appropriate to Dungeon Masters, but not overly so, and Players should be able to decide how much knowledge of the planes their Character might know without feeling too overburdened. Examples of the information provided in this chapter were previewed on the Wizards of the Coasts official site.
The Second Chapter details the Races of the Dark Sun Campaign Setting and introduces two new playable races: the hulking half-dwarf Mul and the insectoid Thri-kreen. Each new race is given the same treatment as other races in the various Player’s Handbooks, including sample names and racial backgrounds to help more fully form a Character.
Nine other races, previously developed in various sourcebooks, have been re-envisioned for the Dark Sun Campaign Setting, and are very different than how they would normally appear in high fantasy worlds like the Forgotten Realms or the Core D&D (Nentir Vale) setting. For instance, Dragonborn on Athas are duplicitous sorcerers and slave-traders, while Goliaths fill the role of the brutal thugs called Half-Giants. In fact, an excerpt of the Half-Giant from this chapter was offered in this preview from the official WotC site. Each races’ new dispositions are discussed in detail, as well as how they fit into the social structure of the Dark Sun Campaign Setting. New Background options of an Athasian nature have been provided for each race, to assist in Character creation and development.
Chapter Three of the Dark Sun Campaign Setting explains all about the new game mechanic, Character Themes. There are ten themes in all, and each theme starts by offering a single encounter attack power which is added to the Characters normal compliment of 1st Level powers.
[Author's Note: As Rich Baker pointed out during the Dark Sun is Here Seminar at GenCon a few weeks ago, adding a theme basically gives a first level Athasian Character the same number of attack powers as a third level Character would normally have. Incidentally, D&D gamers who played the original Dark Sun Setting will recall that 3rd Level was the recommended starting level for a campaign on Athas! ]
Subsequently, a theme provides a set of Heroic Tier encounter powers, utilities, and daily powers which can be substituted for standard Character Class powers. The amount of substitution is entirely up to the Player, allowing for greater variety of builds. And most of a theme’s powers have scaled-up versions written into the effect text (at initial level +10 and +20), allowing these powers to be swapped with appropriate level Paragon and Epic Tier powers as well.
By the way, an example of one of the themes, the Athasian Minstrel, was previewed on the WotC official site in July and can be viewed here. The other themes include: Dune Trader, Elemental Priest, Gladiator, Noble Adept, Primal Guardian, Templar, Veiled Alliance, Wasteland Nomad, and Wilder. In addition, each Theme is accompanied by two Paragon Paths, most of which requires a particular theme in order to qualify for the abilities.
What I find most innovative about the design of the Theme Mechanic is how they can be applied to almost any Character Class. For instance, the Templar theme is used to represent a Character which is one of the official servants of a Sorcerer-King. But it could be applied to a Fighter to represent an elite guard, a Rogue to represent a spy or secret policeman, or a Warlord who would be a commander or administrator. In order to provide maximum adaptability, theme powers are written using the term “Primary ability” to determine the Hit and Effect modifiers, which means that even a Wizard could wield a weapon like a Gladiator, or a Warlock unleash a few psionic powers as a Wilder, without needing to have high off-stats.
I personally feel that Character Themes is one of the most brilliant new Character mechanics which has been created for D&D 4E. At the moment, however, the only traditional 4E Characters which can have themes are for Dark Sun Characters. Hopefully, we can expect to see themes released in Dragon Magazine for non-Dark Sun PCs as we get closer to the release date of Player’s Handbook: Champions of the Heroic Tier, scheduled for late 2011. It should be noted that a new Dark Sun Theme, Escaped Slave, has already appeared in Dragon #390 last week, so who knows what else might be in store for Character Themes in the coming months.
A wide variety of Character Options are discussed in Chapter Four of the Dark Sun Campaign Setting, including some psionic Wild Talents, as well as powers for new builds of the Battlemind (Wild Battlemind), Fighter (Arena Fighter), Shaman (Animist Shaman), and Warlock (Sorcerer-King Pact). The Wild Talents are minor psionic powers (i.e. cantrips), which any Character can take at the Dungeon Master’s discretion. These are non-attack powers, like the ability to move small objects (Telekinetic Grip) or to create a tool-shaped force to perform a skill (Mental Tools), and represent the wide-spread psionic endowment in the native Athasian population. The new builds provide a new set of powers and class features which is more in tune with the Dark Sun Campaign Setting, and WotC published an example of this, the Sorcerer-King Pact for Warlocks on the official site a few weeks ago.
And assuming that a Player-Character manages to somehow survive the brutality and savagery of the harsh world of Athas, there are five new Epic Destinies for use with the Dark Sun. These new Epic Destinies seem very appropriate to the setting, and most possess frightening abilities, such as the Dragon King and Hordemaster.
Chapter Four also has an extensive list new Feats to match up with the new Themes, and also has another selection of Feats to more fully develop the new Builds introduced in this chapter as well. There are also many new General Feats which apply to the new Races, and Weapon Expertise Feats for the new Athasian weapons. There are about a dozen new weapons native to Athas, as well as all manner of other equipment for the setting, such as armor, magic items, adventuring gear, rituals, and bizarre new mounts. Thankfully, the Dark Sun Campaign Setting does provide a nifty illustration of these new weapons and armor, so Players can now envision what a chatkcha and alhulak look like. But on the other hand, I was disappointed that we were not provided with illustrations of the new riding beasts, such as the crodlu, erdlu, and kank. So beyond a brief description and a stat block, I really am not sure if I would want my Athasian Character sitting on a crodlu or not.
There are also some very important sidebars presented in the Character Options chapter which are worth a note. There is a full page description on Arcane Magic and the difference between Defiling and Preserving, which are key elements to the story of the world of Athas, and important for Characters to understand. There are also Optional Rules which discuss wearing metal armor (and overheating) in the desert sun - in the profoundly rare circumstance one would find a suit of intact metal armor – as well as rules for weapon breakage, since many weapons are made from stone, obsidian, and chitin. As many of the new Athasian weapons are double weapons, special notes are provided for handling these attacks and how the weapons are utilized.
Chapter Five of the Dark Sun Campaign Setting offers detailed information about the geography and society of the world. Entitled the Atlas of Athas, it offers detailed information about the various city-states, such as Draj (City of Moons), as well as descriptions of large regions like the Southern Wastes. The official Wizards of the Coast site provided excepts from this chapter, highlighting the city of Tyr and the region called the Sea of Silt. In addition to descriptions of the regions, additional Backgrounds were provided, to help further the development of a Character who may have come from the particular area.
Personally, I found this chapter of the Dark Sun Campaign Setting to be an absolutely fascinating read, learning a great deal about what makes this campaign setting so unique from the other high fantasy settings offered by WotC. The descriptions of the various cities and regions were evocative and, in many cases, both stunning and a little frightening, although I have no idea how much this new Atlas of Athas bears a resemblance to the original geography presented by Troy Denning. However, I did have a big problem with this chapter, in how there was no clear demarcation between Player content and Dungeon Master content. For instance, the local Character Backgrounds were tossed in with descriptions of the geography and the social structure. As a Dungeon Master, some of the information in those geographical descriptions I would want to reveal to my Player-Characters in-game as a surprise or as an adventure hook. There is simply some facts in the Atlas of Athas I would not want my Players to read before I began to DM for them, and there is no spoiler warning to avert a reader from learning too much about the setting.
The final chapter, Chapter Six, of the Dark Sun Campaign Setting is called "Running a Dark Sun Game", and it seems pretty clear that this section is meant for Dungeon Master eyes only. In this last section, the elements of Adventure Creation and how to build various Athasian Encounters (Arena, Wilderness, and Skill) are discussed, as well as how to impose the harshness of the native environment upon the Characters. Athas is a harsh and desolate world, and the “points of light” are clearly spread much farther apart. Further, the environments in the lands between the “points” are considerably more brutal than other typical fantasy worlds, and so special rules governing sun sickness, night travel, and a new gear mechanic called survival days are provided for DMs. There is a disappointingly short sidebar describing what is called the Secret History of Athas, and I have a feeling that more detailed information regarding the horrible events which nearly destroyed the world will be forthcoming in a product release in the future.
However, the discussion on Treasure and Rewards offers Dungeon Masters new rules for creating fixed enhancement bonuses for items as an alternative to having to hand out magic items in a world where magic is both scarce and harmful to the environment. These bonuses also explain why it is so hard to cleave that Barbarian Gladiator in her chitin bikini, by giving increased defensive bonuses with advancing levels without having to hand out ensorcelled D-cups. The section on Alternative Rewards was discussed, in part, on the WotC site here, and include a variety of interesting new boons, favors, and re-skinned potions to better match the magic poor campaign setting of Dark Sun.
Finally, Chapter Six offers a three-encounter 1st Level Adventure, complete with maps, monsters, and treasure, to help introduce Dark Sun to a new audience of Players. The adventure is nicely written, with interesting encounters, and the maps utilize various dungeon tiles, including the new tiles from the Dark Sun Tileset. However, there are no pictures of any Dark Sun critters, and only a stat block and a vague description are offered to suggest how horrible the Athasian monsters are. I assume that illustrations of the monsters in this starter adventure, as well as for the mounts of Athas will be found in the Creature Catalog, but I think it would have been awfully nice to print them here. While I appreciate Wizards of the Coast hoping to sell the Dark Sun Creature Catalog along with the main campaign book, would it have really destroyed the sales of that monster manual to include a couple monster pictures, not to mention images of the crodlu, erdlu, or kank from the previous section?
Overall Grade: B+
I definitely can say that having read the Dark Sun Campaign Setting, I have become a real fan, and look forward to finding a group of Players willing to face the challenges and terrors that is the world of Athas. The sourcebook contains solid writing, and is a pleasure to read (and even re-read in many parts). And the new game mechanic introduced, Themes, is strikingly innovative and offers a whole new set of Character building options to D&D 4E. Add to that some amazing art and a great map, and you have a book with a lot going for it.
But as much as I like the Dark Sun Campaign Setting, I cannot say that I love the sourcebook, because I cannot get over the way the book was executed. Two years ago, the Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide was released, with nearly 300 pages of content, for the same prices as the Dark Sun Campaign Setting. A Player’s Guide for Forgotten Realms was also released that month for just ten bucks less than the DM version, and contained another 160 pages of Realms lore, Character races and classes, and setting information geared specifically for Players to read. Flash-forward to 2010, and now we are being offered a campaign setting combining Player information and Dungeon Master information mixed together and packaged in a measly 224 pages of content. I just cannot get over the “page shrinkage” factor we are seeing in recent sourcebooks, and it feels like there could have been so much more Athas released if WotC had adopted the previous methods of having a Campaign (DM) book PLUS a Player book. Faced with the mixing of content information in Chapter 5, coupled with the lack of key illustrations (like that of Athasian monsters or mounts), and the Dark Sun Campaign Setting just feels a tad incomplete. It is a solid campaign setting, with a whole lot to offer, but I will always wonder how much content was edited out to make it fit in the smaller package.
- Presentation: A-
- - Design: A-
- - Illustrations: B+
- Content: A-
- - Crunch: A+
- - Fluff: B+
- Value: B-
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