Athas Awaits! D&D Dark Sun 4e Review

Ahoy adventurers! The long year wait is just about at an end. Ever since Gen Con 2009, we’ve eagerly awaited the release of the 4th edition version of the Dark Sun campaign setting. The ability to play in a world so unlike the others that Dungeons and Dragons has to offer is what most appeals to me. So much so that I’ll be launching a full campaign in the near future, in my first true foray into the realm of the DM. But that is a different story. Here now, a first hand account of the new campaign setting from our friend Mephit James.

I made the amazing discovery today that my Friendly Local Gaming Shop (FLGS) is getting pre-releases of Wizards of the Coast products now. I should have made this discovery last month when they had all of July’s products out early but this is the norm now. Life just got kicked up a notch. I heartily recommend that all of you stop by your own stores to see if you are as lucky.

Regardless, I saw the Dark Sun line of books just staring at me when I walked in the store, shining in their auburn-toned glory. I played Dark Sun when it was still a toddler, not quite from the start but well before 2e was called 2e. This setting for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was different, intriguing, and brutal: the perfect combination for a young teenaged boy. One of my favorite books, the Complete Gladiator’s Handbook, had pages upon pages of different deadly practices with which to fight; I had more than one series of adventures (just shy of a full campaign) which involved nothing more than being gladiators trying to win our freedom and eventually failing in ways too graphic for an innocent cooking site.

Needless to say, I have high expectations for Dark Sun in Fourth Edition.

From what I’ve seen from the previews, things are pretty different in the 4e version of Dark Sun and the writers are not afraid to say “this doesn’t fit at all and should be discarded in this setting.” They did this most obviously with the divine power source which, purportedly, is unavailable for Athasian characters. The other big change is the inclusion of character themes, what one reviewer astutely equated to paragon paths and epic destinies for heroic-level characters. They are something extra, not part of a class or race, that can be added on to characters in Dark Sun. The other changes I know of going into this are the inclusion of a “defiling” mechanic which is added to any character with arcane powers and the wild talent option which gives all players a psionic cantrip (something which was very prominent in Dark Sun AD&D). With all that in mind, here are my thoughts for the first hour of flipping through these books. Ready… Go!

Alright, skip the table of contents, always a spoiler. First chapter is the World of Athas, which will probably reiterate a lot of what I mentioned above. Ah, yes, starting right off with character themes. They have the same Character Creation steps from the Player’s Handbook but with the extra sub-steps for wild talents and themes. Want those… Looks like some of these themes are pretty class-specific, including a Veiled Alliance theme which seems silly if you’re not an arcane character and Primal Guardian which seems like it would have to be for primal classes. There’s also a sidebar explaining that divine classes are gone, although there are three scenarios for explaining why stubborn characters might have a divine character. You might have an incredibly ancient relic (like that), you might be the descendant of a long-forgotten demigod and have holy birthrights (a little bit of a stretch considering there have never been gods on Athas), and you might have received salvation from a deus ex machina while lost in the desert and now you have divine powers (I’d like to see someone play that well). Alright, this is taking too long on this chapter. Onward!

There’s a very brief History of Athas which describes a lot of what I remember from the AD&D setting books. It’s just one column of one page, though, so hopefully they detail it a lot more later. Ah, Cosmology. In AD&D the world of Athas was surrounded by “the Gray” which kept out divine influence and disconnected Athas from most of the rest of the worlds out there. There were vortexes that led to the Elemental Planes, though, and worship in the desert centered around elements (the Elemental Priest is another theme I skipped before). Hmm… It looks like the Gray has been lined up with the Shadowfell as a terrible echo of Athas with death all around. The Elemental Planes are, of course, the Elemental Chaos which is described as being “close” to Athas and that they are stronger the farther from the Tyr region (the focus of the setting) one gets. I don’t know if this was true before but it shows why so many people would chose to live under such terrible regimes… It also looks like the Feywild is not entirely gone, but it was blown apart long ago. It is commonly called the Lands Within the Winds and is generally inaccessible except for some places around the planet where the land is not completely ruined. You can also reach the Astral Sea through the Grey but it’s pretty hard and it’s said that only desolate ruins lie there now.

Aha, here we go. Races of Athas! There are the mul, half-dwarves, which were tireless laborers in AD&D. In fact, here’s the Tireless ability which lets them sleep only 6 hours in a 72 hour period. Pretty much the same as before… Great! They also have an encounter power which lets them lose ongoing damage or some conditions, with a trigger of “You start your turn” so that seems like it would happen before you suffer those effects. Next, thri-kreen… with an awful racial portrait. The creepy bug powers are good too, they still perceive while sleeping and have claws that lash out as an encounter power. Dragonborn are also called dray (which fits into the mythos from before, I checked earlier) and are heartless mercenaries and merchants. Like it. Dwarves, elves, humans, halflings, and half-elves all look the same as before. Goliaths are the new half-giants, no surprise there. Hmm… Tieflings are raiders from the wastes that prey on civilization thanks to a birthright of violence from their ancestors. Reavers anyone? Not derivative but rather an interesting take on the race. So far so good. They did chose to include eladrin too, which I suppose they have to as a race from the Player’s Handbook. Still, they better do something good with them… Hmm… I guess the eladrin live in hidden vestiges of the world as it was (which makes sense and fits) and they are very isolationist. “Eladrin adventurers are rare” which is good. Oh, and they don’t ever use arcane magic as it eats the world. That’s a new twist which I like. Psionic eladrin all the way!

I’m going to skip the racial paragon paths because I’m short on time. Here are the themes, though, and it looks like you get a free theme power plus you can swap out an encounter or a utility power from your class at each level you’d get one of those. The Athasian Minstrel looks sweet as they are the poisoners of the Tablelands. A want all of these powers at first glance… I recently developed a morbid fascination with characters who make heavy use of poison thanks to my Eberron campaign’s trip to Xen’drik. Hmm… Then there are two paragon paths for each theme. Like that. Ah, Dune Traders, that was on of my favorite Dark Sun AD&D sourcebooks. I read in an interview that this theme makes use of “bargains” in the powers: either your allies do something cool or you do something better. Maybe a too-subtle idea but still the powers looks versatile and fun. I like the Caravan Master path for that theme, although the portrait of the dragonb-… sorry, the dray in goggles and a walking stick looks like a scaly Mr. Magoo… Elemental Priest uses a lot of conjurations which is pretty good. Skipping ahead, the Primal Guardian also has a game-mechanic theme in that it essentially provides new warden forms. I guess the idea with these themes is to provide a sort-of multiclass experience in some ways. If you are a warden you can have many new guardian form options, but if you’re a battlemind you can have them too. The interesting thing, though, is that the powers use “ability modifier” instead of something specific. So the normally totally sub-optimal monk with a warden multiclass is totally doable with the Primal Guardian theme since it uses whatever ability you care to give it. Skipping backwards, the Gladiator theme uses a lot of “grants combat advantage” which works like a fighter but this really helps out people who want to smash their way around the battlefield but would rather do it mostly as a druid or even as a psion. As a side-note, just trying to come up with character class ideas here, and remembering that divine classes are right-out and arcane classes are illegal (nevermind that primal power is frowned on in city-states) the field is really narrowed more than I thought. At least they’re offering new build options for other classes. Oh! Let’s go there now!

Alright, the new builds start off with the wild battlemind which is a sort of savage psionic warrior. A must in this setting, and the new class feature, which pulls in an enemy as they start their first turn for some beating, is something I’d love to give a skull-splitting goliath tribal warrior. Tthe new fighter build is Arena Fighter. A good fit for the setting but this undermines the idea that “anyone can be a gladiator” which led to character themes. Maybe they just wanted to appease those who wanted an equivalent to the old gladiator class. Oh, yep it’s the second. In AD&D, gladiators were proficient with everything, even bizarre weapons, and in this version the arena fighter treats any weapon they aren’t proficient in as an improvised weapon. This means they can’t take special feats but they do get a +2 proficiency bonus which makes them at least serviceable with any exotic weapon they pick up. New exploits are all about conditions and pushing. Makes sense and it means they work a little like the fabled martial controller… Animist shamans are the next build option. It’s supposed to be about elemental shamans but the spirit’s wrath power isn’t especially elemental. There’s also a 2nd level utility called condensation whose flavor text says that moisture gathers around the target to protect them from fire-based attacks. In a desert setting that’s almost criminally asking for flavor-text-abuse. At least it’s only a daily. The sorcerer-king pact for warlocks looks pretty dark with a lot of psychic damage and fire effects. Spooky.

Alright, before I move on to the Creature Catalog, the new feat options for the setting look like what you’d expect: racial feats and character theme feats. Oh, interestingly there are also arena fighting feats which have regional arena-combat styles. This is a big part of the setting and, having watched the fun-but-gratuitous Spartacus series on Netflix I love the idea of a brand new gladiators-only campaign where there are these sorts of options. They work like the multi-class weapon use feats that augment powers (like Garrote Training and Blowgun Training) but mercifully they don’t require you to multiclass into anything. Much better. Oh! Speaking of arena options, there are also combat style feats (like those introduced in Martial Power 2) which let you use classic gladiator staples like the net and the whip, as well as more bizarre options like the thri-kreen gythka and the dragon paw (sort of an Athasian bat’leth). Flipping to the equipment section there are also guidelines for new descriptions of armors so that your scale and plate armor can be made of carapaces and horns instead of metal (which is lacking in the desert world). Turning to the back, there is an awesome new map which looks like the one from the original Dark Sun boxed set. Well played, sirs. Ah! I saw both a section on alternative rewards (to the inherent bonus system) such as elemental boons and weapon training and all my favorite Athasian weapons. Have to check that out later… Must continue…

Alright! Turning to the Creature Catalog with (eep!) ten minutes remaining. There are some awesome familiar names in here such as the braxat, the aarakocra, the belgoi, the crodlu, the gith, etc. There are new entries for the player character races but things like the aarakocra and gith are not available as playable races yet. Also, the aarakocra makes those guys look like vrocks, though at least the powers are pretty neat. Qhoa, the Dragon of Tyr picture makes up for that, though, and the powers look pretty good. This Level 33 solo is going to eat anyone short of a sorcerer-king in no time. The dray, elf, goliath, and human entries all seem like new desert takes on familiar opponents but the eladrin and halfling entries are neat and help me to picture these guys in this world a little more. Beast-headed giants! Enough said… Also, the crodlu mekillot, and inix have some pretty cool mount abilities. I’m a sucker for a fun mount. All in all, I agree with my favorite FLGS clerk Scott that these creatures are very usable outside of Athas in any place where harsh environments and exotic wildlife would be found. There’s also a section in the back about hazards, but I don’t have time… OK one look. Huh, both fantastic terrain and desert hazards are in the back, making a lot of really great ways to kill PCs without even bringing in monsters! There are also themes for elemental monsters and psionic monsters which should really make for a lot of fun new takes on things.

Phew! Alright, I went a little over-budget at one hour and ten minutes but the bottom line is that these books are great. I don’t know if it will be exactly like the old setting, but is that really what I want? I want to have some savage, deadly adventures in a world where people are desperate, gains are ill-gotten, and the government is corrupt as a rule so the only noble thing to do is stir up trouble. This setting is all that and more with some fun new takes on familiar faces. That is what Dark Sun is supposed to be about; turning things on their heads. If you are a DM or player looking for new challenges to spice up your D&D sessions, this is the setting for you and, at first glance, Wizards did a pretty good job of updating the setting. My recommendation is that you go get it, whip up some crodlu stew in a gaj-skull bowl, have your friends over and then beat their characters to a thin paste in the arenas of the sorcerer-kings.

(photo from wizards.com and Mephit James)

Both of these Dungeons & Dragons supplements can be ordered from Amazon.com for 33% off !

Dark Sun Campaign Setting: A 4th Edition D&D Supplement

Dark Sun Creature Catalog (4th Edition D&D)