So the store got Dark Sun in today. I can sell it as of Friday (remember, folks, if you go play at your Friendly Local Game Store’s organized events, they get to keep running them, and when they run enough of them, they get to sell you product eleven days before Street Date). I’ve already had a flip through the setting book, and a briefer flip through the creature catalogue, and both look like solid Dungeons & Dragons manuals. I think my only beef with Dark Sun is the mantra “there are some things in D&D that don’t really fit in Dark Sun.” It seems to pop up at least once per chapter, and I realize it’s something they need to hammer home to make sure people don’t play an Avenger in Athas, but I think saying it once, right at the beginning of the book, was enough. If you had taken all of the “this doesn’t fit” repetitions and set them in one place, it would serve as a solid reference page for what to disallow in Dark Sun games.
And let me just say, up front, that I think Athas is kind of a strange step for D&D4. Thus far, the inclusivist ideal for Dungeons & Dragons has been pushed really hard. There has been this theme throughout the publication history of the latest edition that anything from Eberron can be used in a Points of Light setting or a Forgotten Realms game, and vice versa. The same isn’t true of Dark Sun; while you can certainly use whatever you like from Dark Sun in other games, the reverse is heavily shit upon throughout the book. There are a lot of settings that could have used an update that would have fit the inclusion market strategy more elegantly. Even creating a new setting would have been a solid idea, and I think that it’s about time Wizards look at Fantasy Setting Search II: The ReSearching.
That aside, I think this is a solid product, for a lot of reasons. The most important to me, right off the bat, is character themes. This is something I want to see explored in broader terms. I want to see Eberron themes, and Forgotten Realms themes, and a Ravenloft theme, and some generic points-of-light themes (not unlike the Lover I wrote up before I got to see Dark Sun properly). One of the most common complaints I’ve heard about D&D4 is that characters lack customization, and themes provide both a customization option (which is fun) and something I can point at and say “There. That’s where the customization lives. Fuck you.” I mean, even with the growing number of class builds, it’s been pretty tough to make yourself a pirate, y’know? There really aren’t that many good swashbuckling powers for fighters; or, for that matter, wizards. Now, we have pirates. You want to represent that you’re noble born? Well, step away from the Auspicious Birth background, and say hello to the Nobleborn theme.
Another touch I loved was the idea of getting powers as magic gear. The heading is gold, like an item, there is a value in gold pieces, like an item, but you just gain a power, forever. I suppose it could be taken away by the same sorts of mystical forces that would give you the power in the first place, but barring such an occasion, you have permanent access to a new ability. They suggest that this should be used as an alternative reward for gear, when one is in a place of power or some such. Personally, I prefer the idea of being granted a power by a patron or by some powerful person you’ve just saved from certain doom, or for allowing your DM to do something stupid to your character for story reasons (Skull, you’ll be getting your ability to turn people into squirrels through this mechanic). One of the more interesting bits about powers-as-gear is that the powers can have a property attached to them. For instance, I could give someone a level-5 power that gave them a +2 bonus to Reflex every time they use a martial power. On top of that, have a daily-use martial attack.
In a world where your best magic item could break in an instant, powers-as-treasure makes a lot of sense. In worlds where your magic gear isn’t going to break, it makes for an interesting alternative to the normal 3500gp art item, plus 500gp. The best part: because they have a gold-piece value, you can just slot them in to a same-level magic item parcel.
I only skimmed the atlas of the world, being far more interested in the crunchy bits. It seems very much like the normal D&D4 world information, though a nice touch was the addition of “personalities” in each area. These are little NPC ideas inset into the text as a sidebar, and give you someone worth talking to when you happen to be in the Merchant District of Tyr. There is a huge poster-map at the back of the book, which I have not yet had the pleasure of opening. It’s in full color, and the usual Wizards of the Coast quality for large world maps.
All in all, this looks like a solid book. I probably won’t be writing up a more in-depth review, because I have other things to do, but you should probably buy this book, and then love its crunchy bits to death. Simple things like weapon breakage, or more in-depth things like inherent bonuses by level (which are a godsend for people using double-experience to breeze through encounters while giving out meager bits of gear… like some game masters… that I’ve heard of…) are fantastic to add to any campaign, and the more setting specific stuff, like Defiling Magic and wild psionic talents are well done, and still feel very much like Dark Sun.