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  • 4th Edition Dark Sun: Thoughts from a Playtester / Reviewer

    When the news broke last year that the Dark Sun Campaign Setting would be finally brought back to life in 4th Edition, I thought it was a brilliant move. I remember many years ago cracking open the Dark Sun box set for the first time and flipping through the accompanying sample adventure -- it literally flipped open from the top and was free standing so that on one side the players would see the accompanying art and on the other, the DM had the adventure notes. I was so enthralled with the new setting, I even skipped a few classes the next day to run some of my high school buddies through the starter adventure. (Shhh, don't tell!) I loved the world of Athas, and so did my players, even if all of their characters died in the first few encounters.

    Not surprisingly, when the opportunity came around to play in an ongoing Dark Sun campaign with one of the designers, Chris Sims, at the helm, I eagerly joined up. A few months later, I was offered a chance to be one of a small group of readers to review the initial draft of the new Dark Sun setting and provide feedback. Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity.
    So ... My thoughts?

    It's every bit the gritty, downtrodden and dangerous world that I remember.
    The harsh desert environs of Athas are dotted by city-states ruled by tyrannical sorcerer-kings. Slavery of entire populations is a reality of life. Freedom is a privilege enjoyed by very few, except in the single "shining" city of Tyr which was recently freed by an unlikely uprising of slaves and gladiators. Even in Tyr, life is hard and the ambitions of unscrupulous men keep Tyr's freedom in constant peril.

    As bad as things might be under the dictatorships of the sorcerer-kings, however, the badlands between the cities of Athas are even more dangerous. Deadly predators lurk in the sands, ready to waylay travelers at every turn. Above, the sun, perhaps the greatest enemy of them all, scorches the land relentlessly and rockets temperatures upwards of 150 degrees at its highest point.

    This isn't the land of shining castles and high fantasy all too common in just about every other D&D setting I have ever played.

    It feels different.
    Dark Sun has a very different feel than other Dungeons & Dragons settings. In Athas it is about survival against all odds and working against, or at least thriving under, the constant oppression of a world that would just as soon see you left a dry and lifeless husk -- one less competitor vying for all too limited resources. Warriors adorn themselves in armor made of chitin and wield weapons carved from bone and stone. Even if it were practical to wear metal armor in the extreme heat of Athas, metal is scarce and highly coveted.

    The one commodity that you'll find here in abundance unlike other worlds is psionics. Almost every sentient inhabitant who lives beneath the crimson sun is gifted with psionic potential to varying degrees. For many, this maybe simply a "wild talent," while others have far more extreme abilities. The coming Dark Sun Creature Catalogue has a slew of new creatures with psionic powers that will give encounters in Athas a distinct and exciting feel.

    The world is rich with detail and story opportunities.
    Prior to being selected as a reviewer for the Dark Sun Campaign Setting, I had never had the opportunity to see one of Wizards' supplements while it was still in draft. Much of the layout of the book I received was already close to production quality actually, except that there were empty sections where the art would eventually be placed, and it hadn't been through the editing process yet. Interestingly, I noticed that at the top of each of the background sections on Athas, there were notations from the editor that quickly summarized the target word count, pages, and anticipated art. Just looking at the numbers, it was immediately obvious to me that the authors were very excited about the Dark Sun material, as in almost every case they exceeded their target word count -- sometimes by quite a bit.

    Before I read through the draft copy, I was a bit concerned that the setting and background "fluff" would be abbreviated in favor of providing more player material. Instead, I found every page of the Atlas section loaded with detail and story hooks galore that spurred ideas for adventures, scenarios and entire campaigns that I could run for my players. My only lament was that I would have to wait the better part of a year before I could bring this setting to the table for my own players.

    Dark Sun fits the "points of light" model better than any other setting I have ever played.
    Where Forgotten Realms required drastic changes to even begin to fit the new experience the designers of 4th Edition were trying to capture, Dark Sun fit the mold basically right out of the box. Roads plagued by marauders, bandits and hungry monsters? Check. Towns and villages that don't stay in close contact? Check. A wilderness filled with forgotten towers, abandoned towns, and haunted locations where even people living only a few miles away from such places might know of them only by rumor and legend? Yep, it's got that all of these things in spades. Athas is a dangerous place, sparsely dotted with few safe-havens, and even those rare havens aren't necessarily all that safe. No setting before this one has showcased the precepts of 4th Edition so exceptionally.

    Ultimately, the change of pace makes Dark Sun a winner in my book.
    I'll admit that the dark and gritty nature of the setting was an instant appeal to me. It's also different enough from all the other settings out there to really catch my attention. I've been playing Dungeons and Dragons for over two decades now, and to be perfectly honest, the usual trappings of fantasy no longer really excite me. I need something new ... something different. Dark Sun is the setting that I've been waiting to reemerge for a very long time, and I can hardly wait to see it finally released in August. I don't want to sound too much like an advocate, but truthfully, I think this is going to be the best campaign setting published for 4th Edition yet.

    Just a couple more months ...
    Comments 20 Comments
    1. MegatonSunder's Avatar
      MegatonSunder -
      Thanks for the great review!

      -MegatonSunder
    1. yukonhorror's Avatar
      yukonhorror -
      sounds pretty nifty.

      Aside from a story point of view, do the mechanics of the world (psionics being so prevalent, magic being what it is in the world, etc...) fit in well with the 4e mold?

      More specifically, are there enough mechanical differences to notice you are not playing in FR, but not so many that it overcomplicates things?

      It seems a good DM could run a world like Athas in terms of grittiness, etc... on his own. But the mechanics that make it truly Athas are what would draw certain people to buying the book (mechanics that are clean and polished). Do the mechanical differences/additions/etc... have high quality, or are they just there to fill the requirements of the world?

      I like fluff and story and richness of the game (which your review covers well and has swayed me a bit towards looking into Dark Sun), but game mechanics are super fascinating too and wanted to know your opinion of those.

      But thanks FC.
    1. Farcaster's Avatar
      Farcaster -
      Good question, Yukon. I'm still under a NDA, so I can't give away much in the way of specifics as to the mechanical elements of the new system, but yes, I do think they did a good job of representing a distinctly different world 'mechanically' speaking. The creature catalogue alone is filled with unique monsters that are going to make the world of Athas feel very different from any other setting. There are new races and a world where arcane casters have to draw on the world around them to fuel their spells -- by the way, the preserving and defiling mechanics are much more reasonable (and interesting) than they used to be. I also love the addition of themes, which allow you to customize your character even further, giving him or her a distinctly Athasian feel.

      There is no way that this is going to feel like just another "realm" in Faerun.
    1. russdm's Avatar
      russdm -
      I loved Dark Sun. I think this is awesome. I am going to buy Dark Sun when it comes out and as soon as I can afford it.
    1. Rochin's Avatar
      Rochin -
      Great preview/review, I loved the 2nd edition Dark Sun setting. I have high hopes for the 4E version, from your words it sounds like I should be happy with it, can not wait.
    1. yukonhorror's Avatar
      yukonhorror -
      Oh, I didn't realize the nondisclosure was still in effect. I apologize. But that is great to hear.
    1. Blydden's Avatar
      Blydden -
      Awesome. Dark Sun has pretty much been the only published setting I have actually been looking forward to.

      Also, apparently the D&D website is featuring this review! Bring on the enormous flood of new users!
    1. Grummore's Avatar
      Grummore -
      Nice review!

      Although, to all those that think Darksun was dead for more than a decade, you will be sorry to hear that I have been playing Darksun 3.5e through all those years. Thanks to the athas.org team. You should all be impress by what they created. It's almost near professional.

      Since I'm all geared for 3.5e, I still need peoples to throw me in the 4th edition. I hope Darksun 4e will drag me in, once it appear in august. The fourth edition just dont appeal me right now by all the bad review I had about it.
    1. kris8384's Avatar
      kris8384 -
      As much as I dislike 3rd Ed, 3.5, and detest 4th Ed, I will probably end up buying this book... for the source material if nothing else.

      I have to agree with our erstwhile reviewer and state for the record that Athas has a different feel to it than most fantasy RPG settings. It is more visceral and more real...
    1. mr_joshua's Avatar
      mr_joshua -
      Those sly dogs at Wizards, they knew releasing Darksun for 4th ed would get those older gamers who didn't make the jump all excited. Well it worked, I'm gonna need to get myself a set of core books before Darksun hits the shelves.
    1. jim pinto's Avatar
      jim pinto -
      Dark Sun is hands down the best product TSR has ever released. The new 4th Edition rules, however, are not to my liking. It's too bad they had to mix my favorite and least favorite things together. I would really love to see an INDIE game approach to Dark Sun, with story archs, character threads, and conflict resolution. This world really is as good as the review says... but it fails to address how the two play styles don't really have anything to do with one another.
    1. yukonhorror's Avatar
      yukonhorror -
      He addressed that in reply to my comment. He can't address the play styles because of his non-disclosure agreement. However, WOTC had a design & development article on the new Dark sun, and it seems as though the play style integrates REALLY well into the 4e mechanics.

      From that, it seems as though if you liked the play style of Dark Sun from 2nd edition, adjusting to 4e mechanics won't be a painful jump. Of course, I am a 4e fan, so maybe I am talking out of my bum. But from the review, it seems there are a lot of nice fluffy components to the book, so it seems like you could take the ideas from the book, and adapt them to the system you like using. But that of course goes along with what I have been saying in my blogs since I got to this site regarding the shift to 4e.

      The decision you have to make is, do you let your disdain for 4e prevent you from trying out a new polished version of your favorite setting?
    1. jim pinto's Avatar
      jim pinto -
      Yukon. That's cool. I wasn't trolling or trying to snipe anyone. I really don't care for 4E (and I won't go into that), but I love Dark Sun. I think there's more to Dark Sun then just new names for swords and armor. The storytelling style of the game needs to shift when the tone shifts. If you do an adventure about looting a tomb, you're doing it for very different reasons than the Forgotten Realms (glory, boredom, etc). A character that has to choose between losing a piece of gold or letting go of a ledge has a much more difficult decision in front of him in Dark Sun. These kinds of critical ingredients have few places to hang their hat in a ruleset like 4E (or even 3E). Granted, the rules don't get in the way of it, but the rules don't encourage it either. Again. Sorry. Not trying to troll. Just want to iterate that I think Dark Sun is amazing in every respect and can easily divorce itself from something like 4E, which would make it a better game (in my opinion).
    1. Farcaster's Avatar
      Farcaster -
      Jim,

      I don't think it is about divorcing the setting from the system. You could (try to) purchase the old Dark Sun materials from 2e today and run a game in whatever edition you wanted or in a different system all together, such as GURPS. Certainly the setting details can be translated to whatever you want. However, there are a lot of mechanics to running a game in Dark Sun as well, including preserving/defiling, non metal weapons, psionics, a bunch of Dark Sun monsters, etc. Having this setting updated into 4th edition makes it immensely easier to run in that system, because they have done all that design ahead of time for you. Even better, they also expanded a lot on the setting itself over the original boxed set.
    1. arjomanes's Avatar
      arjomanes -
      I was a huge fan of AD&D Dark Sun and I'm really excited about it in 4th edition. I really enjoy playing 4e and I'm very excited that WotC made the decision to revive my favorite D&D setting. All fans of Dark Sun should be glad that the company is investing in the setting, updating it to their latest rules system, and republishing the Prism Pentad novels. I hope the gaming community rewards their investment in the setting and encourages them to continue some of their best settings.

      Now having said, I can see no reason why those who like other systems can't adapt the setting to their preferred game. I can see Dark Sun being adapted to the Burning Wheel system, for instance, where combat is rarer and deadlier. It would take some work integrating psionics into the game, but outside of that it should be pretty straight-forward. Maybe there's stuff on the interwebs where people have already tried that.

      Failing that, you can always run an AD&D 2e game. And of course there's all the awesome work the people at athas.org did.
    1. bauldah's Avatar
      bauldah -
      i was just wondering if there will be any world info for regions outside of the tyr region? like whats past the silt sea? west of the hinterlands and beyond the kreen empire? ive exhausted all of my 2ed materials on this world and ive left my players craving more. i love this setting and will be over joyed if they expand the world more ...
    1. Matt James's Avatar
      Matt James -
      Bauldah, any content like that will probably show up as a DDI article to support the base setting. I would keep an eye out for such content as the campaign grows older but I agree that it would be cool to see some information on those extended areas.
    1. DARKSUN's Avatar
      DARKSUN -
      4e has totally destroyed what I held sacred! Golliaths as Half-giants? Tieflings on Athas? Really? What the hell is going on here! Athas did not need tis kind of re-vamp, it is perfectly fine the way www.athas.org converted it to 3.5e rues. I have been gaming it for years, but I recently converted to PATHFINDER rules and its' working out even better! I am currently running a PATHFINDER Dark Sun campaign, check out the campaign blog!

      http://darksunchrono.blogspot.com/

      4E is a unique/fun-ish system, don't get me wrong--its' just not D&D...its more ike ADHD & D!
    1. kirksmithicus's Avatar
      kirksmithicus -
      ADHD&D? well as a person with ADHD, I knew there was a reason I liked this game. BTW, 3.5e and Pathfinder aren't D&D either, but they are unique/fun-ish games.
    1. Fezzik's Avatar
      Fezzik -
      Dark Sun is an awesome world full of grit, grime, the fearful as well as the feared. Life is a much different when you're just trying to get enough water to make it through the day.

      www.athas.org has done a great job on the 3.5 work and if you are cringing at the thought of going to 4.0, you should take a look at it. They also have great resources available for both 3.5 and 4.0.

      www.digitalwanderer.net/darksun/ is an awesome map of Athas, and I suggest it for any player or GM.

      I love Athas, just wish that they'd done it for 3.5.