Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Dark Sun Campaign Setting impressions and info

Let me get this out of the way up front. I like Dark Sun. When it was announced as the next campaign setting being released from Wizards for 4e, I was excited. Dark Sun has been a wonderful almost post-apocalyptic counterpoint to the typical high fantasy that D&D usually embodies. It's dangerous, it's grim, it's black and grey as opposed to black and white.  There have been other attempts to emulate that same style, but Dark Sun was unique. Even if things veered into the weird, the silly, or the ridiculous at times with Dark Sun, it was a great setting. So I loved seeing it come up again for 4e and eagerly ran down to my FLGS when they told me that they had my copies in stock.

Note that this is not a review and I probably won't write one. As you may have determined by my Vor Rukoth review, I don't do things by halves when I'm reviewing something. It'd be dishonest of me to throw something out on the site having not done a thorough job. That said, as much as I might want to review this, I'd rather direct my efforts elsewhere in light of the fact that there are already more than a few good reviews up and I'd not like to be just another voice in the crowd. Vor Rukoth was different in that it was being drowned out by Tomb of Horrors and it needed the love.

Digression over. Time to dig in to Dark Sun.

I like that the book starts off by telling you basically that Athas is not your typical D&D world and gives you a list of things that are important to the setting that might be taken for granted elsewhere. A brief overview of society and the cosmology are good too, especially before you get into the crunchy bits. It's worth noting for fans of the setting that a lot of the "metaplot" aspects of the old edition have been rebooted. The setting presumes that your game starts shortly after Kalak is killed in Tyr according to the events of the first Dark Sun novel (The Verdant Passage), but before the events of the second novel (The Crimson Legion) takes place. A lot of the history of the world is left vague enough so that a lot of the sillier elements of the older editions can be ignored, though that also leaves out some of the things that were good about the history as well.

First up with the crunchy bits are the races. Two new ones, as expected. Muls (which they clarify that pronouncing it "mull" is more correct than "mule", though neither is technically incorrect) and thri-kreen. I really like the 4e iterations of both races and I'll be playing a Mul Monk when my local Dark Sun campaign gets started. Aarakocra or Pterrans do not make a playable race appearance, though aarakocra at least appear in the Creature Catalogue. Next is a very good thing, which is describing how the already established races fit in to Athas. Like many people, I wondered how they would include things like Dragonborn, Eladrin, and Tieflings. I think they've done an excellent job of it on all of them, making them fit as naturally to the setting as anything else. It also goes in small detail how you could handle races or classes outside of the normal Athasian ones (either that didn't exist in 2e or were explicitly forbidden). I know that the issue of "canon", especially as it relates to Dark Sun, was a hot topic on Twitter, forums, and even a podcast that I was on. It's nice that Wizards acknowledged that not everybody treats canon as law and offered some flexibility, however small. So there are small sidebars on unusual races or divine classes and the like for people who want to branch out.

More crunchy bits start with more racial paragon paths, one for goliaths as half-giants, as well for muls and thri-kreen. Then it's on to themes. I think themes are great. They are essentially the heroic tier equivalent of paragon paths and epic destinies. There are 10 of them and they are for the most part Dark Sun specific. I hope that eventually there are more general ones created. Each theme automatically bestows an extra encounter power and has several other powers that can be taken in place of class powers. The themes are generally wide enough so that they can be applied to many different classes, though obviously some classes will be better suited to a theme than others. They really do help you define and differentiate your character even further. Each theme has a couple of paragon paths associated with them. There are some restrictions, but nothing terribly binding.

Next are new character options. First is the arcane defilement power, an at-will free action that will make your party hate your guts if you use it. It allows you to reroll an attack or damage throw (taking the second result) at the cost of hurting everybody within 20 squares for half their healing surge value. Powerful yes, but again, if you use it your party is going to cave in your skull before too long. I think that it's a wonderfully flavorful option though. There are 10 wild talents next, which are optional. It's written that players can just choose one, but I like far better their suggestion that players roll a d10 and pick one. The wild talents aren't terribly powerful, but they are a nice touch to again make characters unique and Athasian. They're less powerful or versatile than Prestidigitation, to give you an idea of what they're like.

There are several new class builds available: Wild Battlemind, Arena Fighter (which is awesome), Animist Shaman, and Sorcerer-King Pact Warlock. There are more epic destinies as well, starting with the classic Avangion and Dragon-King then adding in Hordemaster, Mind Lord of the Order, and Pyreen. Next up are feats, a lot of them. There are racial feats, class feats, theme feats, arena feats, and general feats. A lot of variety and a lot of very interesting things to look at.

Next is some information about magical rituals in Athas, followed by equipment information. This is a big deal given the lack of metal in Athas. Despite what early reports indicated, there are 2 optional rules for weapon breaking. The first is that any natural 1 with a non-metal weapon breaks it. The other is the much publicized one where you can reroll a natural 1 but the weapon breaks immediately after (a metal weapon only breaks if the reroll is a 5 or less). Also included are optional rules for wearing metal armor and the effect it will have given the intense heat. There are several new types of weapons, new adventuring equipment, living costs, more weapon enchantments, and other magical items.

Then on to the atlas of Athas (catchy, huh?). There's good, though rather brief, information on each of the major city-states as well as the other important geographical areas within the Tyr Region. The book focuses there and doesn't go terribly far afield from it. Which is probably a good thing given the amount of information they already have to cram in to what's there. My major complaint here is that there aren't enough maps scattered through the text. Each city has a map, but the other areas are... problematic. Let me give an example. The part of the book entitled "Estuary of the Forked Tongue" has a small bit of map. It talks about the towns of North Ledopolus and South Ledopolus. Are either of those towns on the map? No. Further, even the city-states don't have a map to indicate the region surrounding it, only a map of the city itself.

The next section is about running a Dark Sun game, mainly pointed towards DMs. Things like desert movement and travel, dealing with the sun, making uniquely Athasian encounters (like arena bouts) and skill challenges. There's also a few pages on treasure and rewards, which is a good thing to cover since the usual 4e method wouldn't really fit in quite as well in a world where metal is scarce and arcane magic is a bad thing. I like what they've got presented. I like that they've added more boons and secrets like were introduced in the DMG2.

The book ends with a standard 3 encounter delve which seems suitably Athasian, if nothing tremendously unique or awesome. It'd be a good intro to the setting or maybe to a campaign if expanded further. Finally, there's a large foldout map of the Tyr Region. It's nicely detailed, well drawn, and has a lot of useful information on it. It's also a little more necessary than it should be given how few good maps are found in the book itself.

Anyway, despite some rough spots, it's a damned good update to Dark Sun for this edition and I can't wait to get in and play it. Given the wealth of interesting and detailed Dark Sun material in 2e, my only real wish is that they could have included more of it here, but that will likely have to wait for Dungeon and Dragon magazines or scavenged from the old material.