Dark Sun is the Mad Max of Dungeons and Dragons. It's set on a harsh and brutal world called Athas, where metal is the only thing scarcer than water, evil sorcerer kings rule the only outposts of what is loosely called civilization, and everything is just plain different in one way or another. It came out in 1991, had a slew of books released, and then had the core rules re-released for some inexplicable reason, and then went as dead as the gnomes on Athas. When I heard it was coming back for Fourth Edition, I was a little bit excited. It's not that we play it around these parts: It's too damn weird. But Dark Sun is so creative and different that it's fun to pore through the books and think "hehehe this is crazy". But I'm a bit apprehensive, since the setting was immediately stripped of a lot of the things that made it so nifty right away with that re-release.
As much as I am annoyed with Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons, Dark Sun is definitely a good fit. This is a setting where overpowered cheesy stuff is the norm. It's also really promising to see that Wizards of the Coast, in a staggering departure from the norm, gave people exactly what they wanted. Instead of rebooting the setting (like they did to the Forgotten Realms), they have reset it to the point in the world's history right after the initial adventure hook (and plot of the first novel) in the original release: Kalak is dead, the Dragon of Tyr is still alive, and there's a whole lot of sorcerer kings out there across the desert who are probably really pissed off right now.
I'll start with the art: Athas still looks lovely, though there's not enough artwork in the book to really give off a feeling of the setting. This is okay for someone with a slew of the old books to look at, but it's not going to be much use for newcomers. My biggest criticism is that the the Thri-Kreen, mantis people who prize Elves as a delicacy, don't look anywhere near as alien as they used to, having lost their abdomen and spindly nature - from a gameplay perspective, they've also lost all their innate tear-shit-up combat abilities. The other core races of Dungeons and Dragons are still there, in their slightly twisted Athasian versions. The half-giants are there (the Goliaths from the Player's Handbook 2, respecced with a new background for Athas), the Mul are there, the Eladrin are there (what?) along with the Tieflings (huh?) as well as the Dray, an old Dark Sun monster name applied to... the Dragonborn?
I'm sorry, this is bullshit. There is one dragon on Athas, and from all evidence I've seen he's not interested in assuming human form and sleeping around. Oh, but apparently in the revised 2nd edition setting the Dray were created by Dregoth, a sorcerer king who got stomped on rather hard by the others because he was growing too powerful and is now undead (dragon status: unconfirmed). I suppose this is how things are going to be with the new Dark Sun, then; "A wizard did it." I guess this is okay, since the entire setting hinges on about a thousand instances of that explanation anyway.
Rather than having a slew of new characters to choose from, you simply pick a core class and then bolt a theme on. Like the old character kits, they're extra stuff that further define the role of the character, and some themed powers. You get a basic power, and can take the optional theme powers instead of the core ones as you level up. I like this system, since it's classless base for the themes means you can be a dune trader shaman, an elemental priest wizard or a fighter templar. Removing templars - the enforcers of the sorcerer kings - from the list of character classes in the revised Dark Sun rules was about the stupidest thing I've ever seen, so it's good to see that players can once again serve a cruel and wicked despot. Even if they're not supposed to enjoy it.
Speaking of classes, some of them got tweaked a little, getting new build options. Since it's Dark Sun, a setting that was partly devised as an excuse to sell the Psionics Handbook, there's got to be psionic-powered characters in the new version (in other words, you need to buy Player's Handbook 3). Psionic wild talents are thrown in too, almost as an afterthought but it's nice they're there. Divine characters are possible, thanks to a slight tweaking of the lack of gods on Athas from "none, ever" to "none, but maybe you can bend the rules a little for some players". This is a bit silly, since that's one of the key things about the setting that differentiates it from the core rules. I don't see why they can't just say "no clerics, paladins, or other" and be done with it, rather than leaving that option there. As for warlocks? Well, Athas is cut off from the planes, which makes the usual pacts with eldritch otherworldly powers impossible... so they instead get to forge diabolical pacts with sorcerer kings. I'll admit to chuckling over this one.
One of the key things about this setting is the reason this planet is a barren wasteland: Reckless arcane magic destroys vegetation - magic is fuelled by life, and sucking too much up to fuel a spell turns all the plant life around to ash. This effect is optional, for some reason. I can't understand why anyone would bother when there's no game benefit. The 4th Edition twist to magic on Athas is that all arcane spellcasters get an extra at-will power which lets them re-roll a daily attack power's attack roll or damage roll at the cost of sucking the life out of their allies. Why would anyone do this? It's moronic. Any of the three different ways of handling this concept in the old rules would be better! At least they provide a game benefit that won't annoy all the other players.
It's one of the things that probably slipped through the cracks: Dark Sun is a setting which pushes up against certain boundaries. The original boxed set felt like an attempt at the bleakest reality they could come up with. Slavery is the norm, the world is ruled by godlike beings who are nonetheless human and therefore completely amoral because their power is absolute, normal people will kill you as soon as look at you, the wonderful fun of magic in other fantasy settings is reviled and in danger of destroying what little is left of the planet... there were rules for how to handle the party running dangerously low on water and trying to murder each other! The revised rules were a lot nicer, which is probably what killed it. With the new release, there's an attempt to make the setting not quite so nasty to play in, but not make it so wonderfully nice that people will wonder what the point is.
It's certainly impressive how much of the setting is in the new version. Every time I think of something to check for and say "aha!" over, it's there. Yes, you can still become a dragon at high levels. There's all the weird post-apocalyptic weapons. The characters from those horrible novels are name checked. There's even a little nod to the crazy prehistory of the world, and a reference to the lost city where the Dragon of Tyr lives when he's not sucking the life out of thousands of sacrifices. There's even the link for crossing over with Ravenloft. How convenient, that's possibly being republished next year...
So, is it good? Yes, it's good. It's really good, because it's been published as the setting it was, instead of changing everything about the world in an update. Even though the magic is poorly thought out (it's supposed to present players with a wicked, destructive and evil trade-off for power), it still sounds like fun. Certainly, it isn't as grim and bleak as the original, but doesn't strip away so much of that aspect to be boring. It's the sort of setting I think fits with Fourth Edition Dungeons and Dragons, oddly enough because the feeling of continually ramping up characters that annoys me fits with the idea of a harsh world where everyone has to be some kind of ass-kicker just to go down to the marketplace. All in all, it was fun reading through the campaign setting...
...it's just a shame I probably won't be able to get anyone to play it.