Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Return of Dark Sun

Dark Sun, as I have probably mentioned before, used to be my favorite campaign setting in 2nd Edition D&D. It was radically different from the other main settings, like Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance. It was one of several new and unusual settings that came to 2nd Edition, though sadly the others have not survived as well - they were either folded into the current realm of 4th Edition, such as Ravenloft, along with bits and pieces of Spelljammer and Planescape, or were totally forgotten, like the Birthright setting.

Now Dark Sun has returned; just a few weeks ago, it was brought out as the third official setting of 4th Edition, after Forgotten Realms and Eberron. It may have been the only decent thing to come out of last month; sadly, just a week after Dark Sun came out in stores, my dog, Merlin, reached a point in his health that we had to put him to sleep. I'm still coming to terms with that, but that's a whole different thing; I'd like to talk about Dark Sun, the new and improved version.

Dark Sun in 4th Edition is both similar to the original 2nd Edition setting and radically different. The timeline of the setting, unlike that of Forgotten Realms, which was moved forward, was actually rolled back to the timeline that the first version of the setting started - while the world is still mostly ruled by vicious sorcerer-kings, and threatened by the terrible Dragon, the city of Tyr has been freed from the tyrannical rule of its king Kalak. The world is still mostly a wasteland, much of it covered in desert; the ruins of the past dot the landscape, and the places of ancient kingdoms and cities where great populations must have once lived haunt those few who remain. Cannibalistic halflings live in the few forests that remain in the Ringing Mountains, and tribes of the insectoid thri-kreen roam the plains far from the human cities. Life is harsh and unpleasant, but there is some hope, and it is up to the players to find it.

Much like the old setting, there are a few new races for Dark Sun - the aforementioned thri-kreen, an insectoid race that are unfamiliar to most humanoids, but whose fate is also affected by the destructive powers of the Dragon and the sorcerer-kings, and the muls, a race that is a hybrid of dwarves and humans, bred for hard labor, slavery, and battle in the gladiatorial arena. The old half-giants are now simply reskinned goliaths, and the dray, a reptilian, almost draconic race from the original version of the setting, are now dragonborn. There are no new classes in Dark Sun - indeed, several classes are missing by default, as the gods of Dark Sun are all dead or gone, leaving no Divine power source. Several classes gain new builds, though, such and the Wild Battlemind, the Arena Fighter, and the new Sorcerer-King pact for the Warlock.

Defiling, the destructive use of arcane power, has a new and interesting implementation in Dark Sun now - it is an at-will power available to all Arcane classes. It can only be used to augment the daily powers of Arcane users, though - it allows for a reroll should the power miss its target, or should the user roll insufficiently high damage, though the second roll must be taken. In return, it deals damage to all nearby allies of the user equal to half of a healing surge value, damage which cannot be resisted or reduced. There are a number of feats that augment this power, making it more useful and powerful - and all you have to do is hurt your friends to use it. Preservers, the 'good' arcane magic users of the setting, refuse to use this power; in fact, for a few paragon paths, it is lost altogether. The two paths of magic lead ultimately to the big epic destinies of the setting - the Avangion, the ultimate symbol of preserving magic, and the Dragon, the ultimate expression of the defiler's power.

The setting also includes notes on what to do for weapons and armor in a setting with little available metal, including optional weapon breakage rules, and also a number of weapons which would be familiar to those who know the old setting. Potions and other liquid consumables are rare in Dark Sun, so instead of small liquid containers, they take the form of various fruits. Because of the lack of most traditional magic, they also include ideas from the second Dungeon Master's Guide, the granting of boons and special powers from various sources, such as the sorcerer-kings, elemental powers, the glory of arena combat, and the like. Finally, there is a section on how to handle the harsh environment of Athas - the most unpleasant of which, at least for PCs, is sun sickness. If PCs go without supplies for long enough, sun sickness hits them, and like the rest of Athas, it is harsh - 3 missed saves, and the affected person dies. Life on Athas is dangerous, even without monsters trying to kill you.

Finally, there is the atlas of Athas. It is a fairly short portion of the book, relatively speaking, but it covers the major areas of the land. It covers each of the seven major city-states of the Tyr region, from rulerless Tyr to the warlike city of Urik and the forested area of Raam. It covers many of the areas in between, as well, from the Ringing Mountains to the Ivory Triangle and the dry but still deadly Silt Sea. There are numerous areas of interest given in each, with enough information given to be a starting point, but not enough to box a DM in. It isn't a huge amount of information, but I'm OK with that - especially since I still have all my old 2nd Edition setting information to help give me some expanded setting areas.

Overall, I'm a big fan of the new Dark Sun. It satisfies my nostalgia concerning the old version, and does a great job of bringing the setting into the present. I only wish that I was going to be in a position to use the setting sometime in the near future. Sadly, while I am in a regular D&D game now, the game is ongoing and set in Eberron, and unlikely to change anytime soon. Don't get me wrong, I like my current group, but I'd like a chance to play in my old favorite setting. If you're interested, or have any ideas you'd life to talk about, or really anything gaming-related to talk about, feel free to comment here, or reach my by e-mail at or on AIM as knightveritas.

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