Is it Dark Sun? Or just 4th Edition in a desert?

Many, I’m sure, were as eager as I to purchase the 4th Edition Dark Sun Campaign Setting when it was announced over a year ago.  I was so desperate to read and dive head first into the Silt Sea and start wrestling with Silt Horrors that I pre-ordered the book.  When the great tome arrived on my doorstep the first thing I noticed was how thin the book appeared.  Sadly, I would discover that the book’s thickness reflected the effort put into the remake of one of D&D’s more legendary campaign worlds.

First, let me explain why I was so eager to read the 4th edition version of Dark Sun.  The world, in a nutshell, is different from any fantasy gaming world out there.  Sure, there are now post-apocalyptic games available, but at the time Dark Sun was first released back in 1991, D&D players had little to choose from.  Indeed, the campaign source books available were very similar in scope, history, culture, and plot.  Since its release, no other campaign world by TSR/Wizards has compared to the distinctness of Dark Sun.  What made Dark Sun so memorable?

Obviously, the research and writing that went into creating Dark Sun was stellar and the results of such work unique.  The setting focuses on ecological disaster in a world reminiscent of Sumeria or Babylonia.  The gods of this post-apocalyptic world are either dead or they have abandoned the population to the arbitrary whims of the Sorcerer-Kings.  Civilization hangs on by a thread as the people starve under the yoke of their cruel masters.  The writers, Troy Denning and Timothy Brown, went to great lengths to rewrite standard D&D races to reflect how such poverty, resource depletion and godlessness would affect their cultures. Who doesn’t remember the first time they tried to shake hands with the not-so-jolly halfling cannibals of the Forest Belt? Or tried to negotiate with an elven dune trader in Baalic? Not this guy!

But what really made the world of Athas unique and come to life was that the 2nd edition rules changed to fit the world.  The world was no longer a backdrop for a dice game, but the world affected the mechanics of the game itself, which added a level of reality to the role-playing experience.  For example, to reflect a defiler’s abuse of the land and give a player an incentive to be evil, the defiler class gained levels faster than their preserving counterparts.  Psionics were commonplace and operated with a wholly different system than magic.  As metal was scarce, weapon attack and damage penalties were added to reflect the materials the weapons were made from, thereby making combat more brutal and desperate.  Armor was so hot that a player would have to wear “piece mail” as opposed to the whole suit, which would affect the character’s armor class, thereby adding to the brutality of combat.  And finally, my favorite rule of all was that a player’s character could turn evil if the party ran out of water by failing a saving throw versus death.  Dark Sun was a beautiful amalgamation of rules and story-telling that I have not seen duplicated.  The effect of this brilliant game designing was a unique experience that forced the player’s, even those that don’t like to role-play, to role-play.  The 4th edition setting does not do this, or at least, not very well.

So what happened?  The authors Richard Baker, Robert Schwab and Rodney Thompson, provided aesthetic descriptions with few rules modifications, most of which are optional.  The net result is a watered down version of Dark Sun that does not reflect the desperation and survivalist themes incorporate in the original.  All in all, the Dark Sun Campaign Setting feels like 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons in a desert and not the burning sands of Athas.

To be fair, the campaign sourcebook provides some optional rules to make things “tough” on the players as they trek through the wilderness.  For example, they incorporated “Sun Sickness” and a -5 additional armor check penalty for sun sickness or endurance checks if a character is wearing heavy armor.  But, heavy armor is still available!?  Why!? The authors provide a flimsy reason: it is made from chitin with holes drilled into it to cool off the wearer.  WHAT!?  Furthermore, all weapons are presumed to be made from bone, obsidian or stone, so there are no penalties added to your attack and damage.   It seems as though the authors were afraid of upsetting potential players by taking away their favorite toys.  But taking away the player’s toys is exactly why 2 Edition Dark Sun was so memorable.   

Another disappointing aspect of the book is that it does not address the non-standard races that appear in Player’s Handbooks 2 and 3. The authors give each a mere 2-3 sentence paragraph and expect you, the Game Master to do all the work. The authors gave the standard classes the same short shrift as the races.  Now, I don’t mind working for my game, but I do not purchase a campaign setting so that I can do a bunch of extra work to make the campaign setting that I had just purchased. 

The problems with the 4E Dark Sun campaign setting are a reflection of the problems with 4E in general.  The game has sacrificed realism for ease of game play.  There are ways of manipulating the 4E rules to tailor your game and match your gaming style, but here the authors did not go far enough.  Indeed they seemed timid and their product weak.  The authors could have done so much more to make the Dark Sun 4E stand apart from a Forgotten Realms campaign or an Eberron campaign.  If you are an old-timer like me, then you probably have one of the Dark Sun box sets.  If so, use it as supplemental material.  I used them as resources to develop my own rules to make the world of Dark Sun more like the way I remember it: beautiful and brutal.

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