I think it only fair to warn you before we go any further: My review of anything with Dark Sun in the title will read very much like a review your parents might have written about your performance as “Munchkin #2″ in your fifth-grade production of The Wizard of Oz. The Dark Sun Campaign setting is the main reason I started playing D&D all those years ago, so it holds a special place in my heart to this day, even as we are knee-deep in the midst of 4E. So you may be able to imagine my joy when, one day while wandering the mall between days of an out-of-town conference, I ran smack dab into the newest incarnation of the Dark Sun Campaign Setting at an uber-bookstore. I laughed. I cried. I almost dropped my Dippin’ Dots. And that was just from seeing the cover.
A LOVE AFFAIR REKINDLED
Lucky for all involved, I have a fantastic Reflex save and my Dippin’ Dots survived.
What I love about the new campaign setting is what I loved about the old books: While it resonates with D&D mythos, and is dependent on the core rules, the Dark Sun Campaign Setting is a game unto itself. Nothing else is really needed to craft an adventure that could potentially make history. It would take no time at all for a party to lose themselves in the desert world of Athas, and most of them do at some point. If the desert isn’t treacherous enough, the native fauna- or flora for that matter- is a constant threat looming under the sand or over the blasted horizon. And then there’s the natives…
While other campaigns pit parties against an ancient dragon, or a secretive cult, or a powerful mage, or a hoard of dirty goblins, adventures in the Dark Sun setting only need the setting itself in order to be perilous and intriguing. It’s easy for some campaigns to become PCs versus each other, or PCs versus their DM, or PCs versus the nebulous unseen threat of a supreme archvillain. But every game I’ve ever played (or run) in Dark Sun has started with the PCs versus the entire freakin’ world! It’s that fear of never seeing the next desolate burning sunrise that makes these games have meaning from the very start. Every action, every fight, every encounter has purpose because mere survival is the first mission that any party must accomplish.
This constant fight for survival can be a DM’s best friend sometimes. It provides instantly interesting backdrops, intriguing encounter ideas, and perhaps best of all an immediate incentive for an adventuring party to become a cohesive fighting force. Rather than four or five (or more) random personalities trying to push and pull your campaign wherever their character would like it to go, players (and their gaming alter egos) soon realize that they will be much more successful working as a team. To that end, it’s easy to offer small, in-game rewards for finishing a task early, or for maintaining focus on the common good- even when tempted by personal gain.
As a DM, this dynamic also makes it easier to direct the traffic and tell the story, and keep certain dominant personalities in check- should the need arise anyway. The harsh and unforgiving atmosphere of the Dark Sun setting means that negative consequences could (or should) be levied against characters who strike out on their own, stray too far from a constructive role in the party, or for entire parties who can’t ever seem to agree on what to do next. Does every decision your group makes become an endless debate, sidelining whatever mood or tone you may have established in the last forty-five minutes? End that pointless bickering by pointing out that each of them is now losing Hit Points for every minute spent yammering in the hot crimson sun. A simple mechanic like this isn’t TOO punitive, but reminds your players that they are up against more than wandering monsters and plot twists in this campaign setting.
Even better: Sand shark feeding frenzy! Or some other suitable monster that would call the vast desert home. Not only is the Dark Sun Creature Catalog swarming with encounter-level appropriate beasties of all shapes and sizes (my favorite to date is the Sarlaac… er, Silt Horror), there’s a full ten pages of rules for converting your favorite D&D monster into a denizen of Dark Sun. From Berserk arena-bred gnolls to a Sunwarped fire-breathing Cyclops to monstrous scorpions capable of Psionic Flight, any creature can be infused with foreboding new adaptations to frighten and challenge even the most experienced and hardened players. Case in point: My gaming group hadn’t yet leafed through my new 4E Dark Sun tomes when they went toe to tentacle with the Silt Horror, and everyone said that encounter was one of the high points of our weekend-long campaign. While it was officially a couple levels below their party level, the exotic tone and unique mechanics of the fiend really made the combat come alive.
WHAT’S A PC TO DO?
Fortunately, it’s not just the creatures and climate that get more dangerous in this unrelenting terrain. The Dark Sun Campaign Setting gives the players a horde of new options for character creation: exotic races like the Thri-Kreen (a fan favorite in the setting’s 2E incarnation), and new builds and classes to harness the powerful wild magics of Athas. You can access a whopping 102 new feats (some of which can be used outside the Dark Sun setting), and brutish yet flavorful weapons (I will eventually master those darn cahulaks!). Not enough for you? Read on, there’s more!
The Dark Sun Campaign Setting introduces the idea of Character Themes, “a career, calling, or archetype that might include characters of several different classes and roles. (page 34)” Character Themes offer a new and setting-appropriate tool for character creation (like the Gladiator, Wilder, or Athasian Minstrel to name a few), and expand role-playing opportunities by transcending the classic yet oft-encountered models of player characters. In game terms, they also introduce Theme Features and Theme Powers, giving an Athasian character that special flavor you’ll only find in a Dark Sun campaign. This new mechanic only seems fair, since these characters can use all the help they can get. [I plan to discuss Character Themes, the Athasian Caste System, and some other non-traditional character builders in an upcoming post so stay tuned. Otherwise, this paragraph would be MUCH longer...)
WHAT’S NOT TO LIKE?
My only complaint? I wanted more. (Hey, I warned you fair and square that this would be a wildly biased review.) Specifically: I’d like to see a wider range of arms and equipment- both magic and mundane- unique to Athas. I love all the relics that have been revived from 2E, but for a campaign setting this rich and diverse I think twelve pages devoted to the “tools of the trade” seems a bit light. And while I rarely play a spellcaster in any campaign, the monumental role that arcane magic plays in the past (and secretly the present) of Athas would seem to beg for setting-specific spells to help the traditional classes make the transition to a Dark Sun campaign. While it’s true that Warlocks gain some extra spells as a result of a new Pact option (page 94), there’s little else for a magic-based character to gain from this setting. Yes, I know that in Athas “arcane magic is illegal and can attract hostility” (page 80), but that doesn’t mean arcanists should be deprived of at least a few new tricks and enchantments to spice up their time under the Dark Sun.
The new 4E Dark Sun Campaign Setting and Dark Sun Creature Catalog may be the best $50 I’ve ever spent on gaming materials (thanks Amazon!), and I’m pretty sure they’ll see the most use out of my entire library. Somewhere in there you’ll find a hook for yourself or your party, and maybe you’ll have this blog to thank for it. And before you ask: No, you cannot borrow my copies. I know I’ll never see them again…
COMING SOON: “Making Friends: Creating a Character You’ll Love to Play No Matter How Often He Hits”