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D&D 4E “Dark Sun Campaign Setting”

So I’ve been reading back and forth through the D&D 4E “Dark Sun Campaign Setting” book and I have to say, I am somewhat disappointed.

Dark Sun is my second most favorite D&D campaign setting (1st being Planescape, 3rd being Greyhawk) so my expectations were likely unrealistically high to think that they’d do a good translation of the 2nd edition setting up to the 4th edition rules.

But I still, even counting for my unrealistic expectations, hoped for more than what the book has in it.

I’ll start with the good points:
The rules for Thri-Kreen and Mul character races are both well designed and the are in the PHB3 style of having one fixed stat bonus and a choice between two stats for the 2nd bonus.

The ‘Character Theme’ rules are a great idea and something that I’ll likely reverse-engineer and use for non-Dark Sun campaigns as well. Themes are basically archetypes, or background careers, for your character. Or you could consider them to be like Living Greyhawk meta-orgs. Basically an idea about who your character is, but they are broad enough that they aren’t class restrictive. They include things like Dune Trader (merchant/agent), Athasian Minstrel (assassin/spy), member of the Veiled Alliance (revolutionary anti-defiler group), or Templar (servant of one of the sorceror-kings).

The new build options for Fighter (Arena Fighter), Warlock (sorceror-king pact), Shaman (elemental spirit), and Battlemind (Wild Focus) are also all pretty good and except for the Warlock one I could see using them in other settings as well.

The Feats section offers some good support for the Dark Sun options, though suffers badly from it’s somewhat cluttered organization (I wish they’d pulled all the weapon path feats out and listed them seperately).

The primer about the world is somewhat mediocre. It doesn’t give much detail on any specific locations, which I suppose allows DMs to customize the world as they see fit, it also lacks pretty much all of the style that the “Wanderer’s Journal” (world book) had in the boxed sets for 2E.

And that is where my criticism of the book starts…

It feels sterile. It is missing a lot of the life and art and style that the original 2E setting books had. The prose is lifeless and flat, the art lacks the edge that the old Baxa and Brom art had (I wish they’d just re-used that old art for the most part), and a lot of the little flavor details from the setting are missing.

Such as the coinage. Athas (the Dark Sun world) is very metal poor. The original 2E setting reflected that by having the coinage be ceramic bits and pieces. Specially glazed ceramic coins made each year that were designed to break into 10 small bits for trade. It fit the setting, made it an interesting change of pace, and has been completed ditched in 4E by having the game use the standard default D&D currency instead.

Defiling originally happened with all magic, unless you made an effort not to. Now instead, it is an option that you can choose to do with your Daily Arcane attack spells. Something that was a huge part of the setting (do you defile or are you a preserver?) has been marginalized to completely and turned into something akin to the Warlock Dark-Pact where it damages party members (yeah… they aren’t going to be too keen on that for very long).

Some things that should have been illustrated also simply weren’t. Specifically riding animals, something that players should be able to expect their character to know about, only have a brief short text description and a mention that full stats on them are to be found in the “Dark Sun Creature Catalog” (which I still need to get as the gaming store closest to me didn’t even order any copies). I know what a Kank and a Mekillot are because I played 2E, but newcomers to the setting are going to have no clue what sort of animal they are riding.

I’d describe the difference between this 4E book and the old 2E setting as the difference between someone giving you a copy of their vacation schedule listing where they were going to be and when, and someone showing you a documentary movie they made of their vacation in vibrant full color with lots of insight into the little details and quirks of the place they went and the people they met.

My summary then of the “Dark Sun Campaign Setting” book then would be that it is mechanically well written, includes a good brief overview of the world, but lacks all the wonder and style and personality that it really needed to describe the setting to people new to Dark Sun. Fans of the old 2E setting who still have their old gaming materials will be able to use the book to run a 4E game with some slight adjustments (changing the currency around back to the 2E currency, etc) but new-comers to the game world will probably have a hard time viewing it as anything other than “D&D in the Sand”.

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