In the Sea of Silt
Purple Worms shed Spice Melange.
I say so, at least.
Oh Dark Sun! When the rumors surfaced that you would be Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition pet setting, I was excited by cautious-- would they really do that? & here you are! You exist! I've always been the biggest fan of the "all-DnD" settings-- Dark Sun, Spelljammer, Planescape-- rather than the "traditional" settings-- like Dragonlance or Forgotten Realms-- or the "pastiche" settings-- Al-Qadim, Oriental Adventures. Here is the thing, here is Dark Sun in a nut-shell: on the desert world of Athas, everything is totally awful. Clothes? Well, you can wear a harness. There isn't enough plant life to wear cloth! You've got leather, scales, & chitin to choose from. Weapons? Oh, there aren't any heavy metals on Athas. You can have a weapon made of bones, or of glass, or teeth I guess. You want treasure? Okay, how about this: you find a canteen of water. Congratulations! You beat the adventure, you have enough food for the next few days, assuming you eat the monster. Halflings? Cannibals. Dwarves? Slaves. Elves? Nomadic long distance runners. Bug People? Bug people. Gnomes? Extinct. Just like cows, horses, most mammals, actually. "Surely there must be some civilization?" You betcha! The immortal tyrant sorcerer-kings keep cities of slaves & gladiatorial pits. Oh & magic? Well, you can use it, but when you do, the living things nearby die off. Clerics? Oh, you poor sap, there aren't any gods left on Athas! Enjoy, suckers! Welcome to Dark Sun! For the record though, the sun isn't actually dark.
The worst thing about "old school" Dark Sun was its concession to munchkinism. The logic was, since everything on Athas sucked so much, everyone who survived must be super tough. Survival of the fittest, right? Which meant starting characters were already level four, & got extra racial powers, got extra psionic powers. Since 4e characters are a stronger starting build than in any previous edition, you can cover that gamut right out the gate. & really, I get it. Psychic powers are important to the internal mythology & flavor of Dark Sun. No sweat! I'm just a stickler for elegant balance. The two character races that Dark Sun Campaign Setting 4e brings to the table are really, really great-- maybe the best things in the book? They are elegant & easy. First though, it is worth noting DnD 4e's new approach to racial statistics-- instead of "+2 to Int, +2 to Cha" you get "+2 to Int, +2 to Cha or +2 to Dex." They've said this is how it will be going forward, & that Essentials will publish the "core" races thusly, as well. I'm all for it; a diversity in character building is only rewarding, only positive. Besides that, it manages to use the rules to encode storytelling-- that is how I want all the rules to be. "+2 to Str, +2 to Wis or +2 to Con" tells me more about a race than "+2 to Str, +2 to Wis." It tells me everybody who is that race is strong, & that they tend to be tough & wise. Heck, even if I don't take the +2 to Con, I might put more points in it, or if I have a low Con I might point out that I'm surprisingly frail for someone of that race. See? Interesting!
We get Muls, first. Pronunciation guide? "Mull" is most used, & "Mule" is an offensive slur. Sort of what I thought all along! Muls are half human, half dwarf. Whether they are a race of people descended from humans & dwarves, or magically co-joined, or are the product of mixed parentage-- they don't delve too deeply into that. Why should they? You are playing the character, you tell me! Anyhow, their build is again, evocative & hints at greater depths while being elegant in design. Pick human or dwarf-- you count as that for pre-requisites. Great! Gotcha. Extra healing surge? They sure are tough, don't mind if I do. Need less sleep? Hardly broken, since normally players are always trying to sleep to get their daily powers back. & a power to shake off status effects. Done. Useful powers that aren't overly complicated. I'll be honest with you-- I hate overly complicated races like the genasi. Thri-Kreen are up next-- the bug people of Dark Sun. Thri-Kreen have traditionally been tricky, since the designers always make them very powerful. They have multiple limbs, so they give them extra actions, they gave them extra hit dice-- it was a mess. 4e does away with all that, & wisely. They can stow & draw items & weapons as a free action, & they have an encounter power that lets them claw with their extra arms. There-- done! The multiple limbs are useful, are memorable, & don't break the game. Well done. The natural jumping is the same as it was in 3e-- treat as a running jump even from a stand-still-- & I really liked the simplicity of that then, as I do now. They have "torpor" which is basically the same as an elf's trance, & boom. See, well built. They go on to give blurbs on adapting the other races into Dark Sun-- goliaths are half-giants, which I'd be fine with if I liked the goliath rules better. I was disappointed that they didn't make alternate racial powers-- replace "Elven Accuracy" with "Elven Sprinting" & stuff like that.
Oh, but then we hit sweet, sweet paydirt. Themes! Themes are-- gosh, how to explain them? Themes are kits & prestige classes, without any fuss. No prerequisites, besides a good background. Themes are specific-- like "Gladiator" or "Templar" or "Wilder"-- but open to anyone. You want to play a wizard who duels with spells in the fighting pits but doesn't shy from knifing a guy when it is needed? Go on, you can have the Gladiator theme! Are you a Rogue who serves the sorcerer-king of the city as loyal spymaster? No sweat, be a Templar! Are you a barbarian whose psychic talents are an untapped source of power? Great, you can be a Wilder, just take the theme. They work pretty easy; you get a fee encounter power-- which, okay, there isn't any balance for, besides saying anybody can take a theme-- & then there is a laundry list of powers that you can select from when you get the appropriate level. So if you get access to fourth level utility powers, you can choose one from your class, or you can take one from your theme. See? Quick & easy. & again, really just a great touchstone for characters-- a great way to show that you aren't just a fighter, you are a gladiator! & that means something.
I'm less impressed by Defiling-- the bleeding of life energy to power arcane magic. Everyone is assumed to be Preserving-- taking special steps to not kill the life of Athas as a side effect of their magic-- which is fine. Balance it so that normal play is the default, I get it. Defiling lets you re-roll-- which I do like. The trade-off is dealing damage to your allies. That I'm less excited by. Frankly, if there is one element where I think "cheating" & broken rules make sense, it is Defiling. Let the repercussions be story based. Let it be the "quick & easy" way. Again-- making Defiling "free" from a rules standpoint tempts characters, shows them just how easy it would be to give in to the urges that destroyed the world of Dark Sun. I'm similarly bummed about Wild Talents-- random psionic powers. Why are they free, as an option? Sure, you can take a feat to get three-- which shows they are pretty low-powered-- but why not make them, I don't know. Part of character background? "Instead of a +2 to a skill you get a Wild Talent." Or tie a few to races? "Instead of +2 to Nature you can choose Know Direction or Body Equilibrium." I guess seeing the "free power" of themes followed by the "free power" of wild talents just put me back to my problems with earlier editions of Dark Sun lacking balance. They follow that up with some class variants, which are fine-- Sorcerer-King Pact Warlock being the most interesting by far. Then Epic Destinies-- I don't know enough about Dark Sun's former meta-plot to judge most of them, besides Dragon King. The art for Mind Lord of the Order is cool, though. Then, feats! Feats; you got it. There you go. They are Dark Sun feats. They are just what you are imagining.
Equipment is fine-- but I think it could have been better. See, right-- no metal on Athas. & of course, Dark Sun is weird, so you can't just be a guy with a sword. No, you need a Tortoise Blade, or a Gythka, or a Dragon Paw! The weird weapons of Dark Sun are half the fun, most definitely. & they are fine. Weapon breakage-- since they are made out of bones & what have you-- is an optional rule. I would have done it differently, though. I would have balanced them via the "Properties" column. I would have given most of them a property called "Fragile"-- saying that "on the roll of a natural one, the weapon breaks & is out of use for the rest of the encounter. You can fix it easily with a short rest." I'd use that as an excuse to make the weapons weirder-- give them positive properties like Brutal or Defensive. Right, the Tortoise Shell could totally be Fragile & Defensive & otherwise identical to short sword, the Trikal could just be a halberd with Fragile & Brutal.
We close with the "Atlas of Athas." I wasn't blown away, actually. I think maybe the knob needed to be turned up to eleven, for this chapter. It is just too restrained, too plausible. Dark Sun can get really metal without jeopardizing suspension of disbelief. If you get your players to sit down for Dark Sun, they've already put up a substantial "buy-in." I like the generic terrain descriptions-- doubler fields, dust sinks, salt flats-- but the city-states are boring. I don't care about mundane locations; I can create my own shops & inns. I don't really need NPCs either. Unless the location is totally crazy or the NPC is totally sweet...I just don't require it. The sorcerer-kings, for instance. Are they kept under-wraps because they are in the Dark Sun creature Catalog? Come on, the sorcerer-kings are cool, tell me about them instead of a information brokering bartender or shifty nomadic trader. The Sea of Silt is the only location that really hooks you, & even then they use a light touch. Listen, there are giants wading through the shallows! Don't be coy with me, freak out! Give me dust krakens & sand aboleths & all kinds of weirdness. At least it closes strong-- desert survival rules, sun sickness as a disease, ideas for gladiatorial arena encounters, & rewards that aren't treasure. I haven't read the Dungeon Master's Guide II, but that is the stuff. I don't need a magical shield; give me the supernatural authority bestowed on me by the sorcerer-king of a city-state! Don't give me boots that make me run fast, give me the pact of brotherhood I made with the elf runners. & for the final nightcap, you've got some sample encounters. You know, if you pick up the book & just want to go. I have the same problem with it, though. Just isn't crazy enough. Dark Sun! Be insane!
(Penny Arcade by Mike Krahulik & Jerry Holkins, via avatar_x.)