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 ...