Review: Dark Sun Campaign Setting, Part 1: New Races & Builds

Illustration by William O'Connor.

Call me a disgusting fanboy, but I’m continuously impressed by the improved quality between every succeeding release in the 4th Edition product line. Each new supplement improves upon its predecessor, and it kind of makes me wish they did the much-maligned Keep on the Shadowfell the way they did HS1 Slaying Stone, and had the same amount of inspiring character fluff in Arcane Power that they did in Primal Power.

Okay, but what about campaign settings? Well, the Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide — a poor attempt at Ultimate-izing the venerable setting  — was a collection of poorly organized factoids that barely fleshed out anything. Realms fans hated it and newcomers like me couldn’t understand what to do with it. WotC fared better in their sophomore effort by using the Eberron Campaign Guide to establish the setting’s unique tone and complex geopolitics. Still, Eberron was ignored by those who dismissed it as the Battle Chasers setting.

By contrast, many breaths were baited for Dark Sun, which is famous for eschewing  the verdant Tolkienesque milieu that typifies most fantasy in favor of an arid Conanesque mythos with a hint of  cinnamon Arrakeen goodness.  ‘Random encounter’ monsters have developed psionic powers as a matter of evolutionary course; metal and water is the stuff worth killing your grandmother for; and if you have a grandmother it is likely she was once part of a rape camp, and that her husband, your grandfather, was a slave laborer who built grandiose edifices for the vainglory of a sorcerer-king.

So, what exactly does the 4E Dark Sun Campaign Setting hold within its meatful tome-ish pages for players? Why, quite a lot. There are two new races — Mul and Thri-Kreen — a wide spread of setting-specific character themes to add flavor-based mechanics to your character’s occupational talents, a new set of builds and powers for the warlock, the battlemind, the fighter and the shaman and of course, the usual new feats, epic destinies and paragon paths. What results is a rich blend of crunch and fluff designed to expand on a player character’s flavor and translate it into mechanics.

Illustration by Eva Widermann

The Dark Sun Campaign Setting has better navigation and indexing than the 4E books of old (Player’s Handbook 1, I’m looking at you). There’s also some great art, and much of it comes from Sarah Stone, an up and coming talent who made her debut filling out odd spots in the Dungeon and Dragon magazines. Many of our favorite artists return, such as Eva Widermann and William O’Connor, who also showcases his versatility by presenting the classic PHB races in the second chapter, albeit with an Athasian twist you don’t normally see in his art.

The book’s first chapter establishes what makes  adventuring in Athas different from in a ‘normal’ D&D setting. The heroic themes — such as athasian minstrels, wasteland nomads and gladiators — as outlined here describe the motivations and skills of the campaign’s potential stars. The social hierarchy is also established to give an idea as to where everybody’s place is in the New Wasteland Order. Of significant note is how power sources fit in Athas. In short? Arcane energy is a WMD and divine patrons have left for better campaign settings.

Fluff-wise, the two new races don’t require as much explanation as the races that debuted in Player’s Handbook 3. (No extraplanar beings, sentient crystal constructs or humanoid plants here!) The Thri-Kreen are pack-oriented hunters in the form of bug-men, but disposition-wise they are less predatory and more survivalist. The Mul are self-centered pragmatic folk who survive by adapting to dismal circumstances (which in most cases means being born and raised in slavery).

Illustration by Jason A. Engle

Both make use of the new ‘floating attribute bonus’ introduced in Player’s Handbook 3 (and the Eberron Player’s Guide before it.) The Mul get a choice between Strength or Wisdom as their second bonus after Constitution, can spend longer stretches of time without sleeping and have a racial power that lets them end ongoing damage or any daze, slow, stun, weaken effects as a free action at the start of their turn. Thri-Kreen get a bonus to Dexterity and a choice between Wisdom or Strength as their seond bonus, possess a natural jumping ability and have a bonus melee attack as a racial power.

New class builds abound in Chapter 4. The Arena Fighter makes chair leg wielding fantasies a more ‘optimized’ possibility by increasing the proficiency bonus to improvised weapons. The Animist Shaman provides several powers that require your spirit companion — this time an elemental –to disappear in order to confer a significant benefit to an ally, such as the encounter power Granite Armor which at level 3 can grant upwards of three to seven points of resist all damage.

The Sorcerer-King Pact Warlock introduces the concept of Fell Might, which can be spent when certain attack powers are used to confer a variety of effects and is refreshed with every slain foe. The level 7 encounter power Sorcerer-King’s Decree, which allows one to push a small crowd a number of squares equal to one’s INT, appeals to me for the “billiard hall” cool it can generate. The Wild Battlemind build attempts to increase the Battlemind’s ‘control’ factor.  To date,  Battleminds fall short in locking down enemies and mitigating their damage. Enter the Wild Focus class feature, which allows the Battlemind to pull distant enemies towards him when they start their first turn and mark them.

Illustration by Eva Widermann

All in all, the new builds and races expand much of the flavor and potential of previous game components, though none of them really change the game significantly. Great lengths are taken to establish many of the flavor components that make Athasian heroes different from their un-apocalyptic counterparts and giving a place in Athas for the existing races. If you already have a favorite race-class combo in 4th Edition that is at the risk of seeming played out to your group, a Dark Sun campaign is a way to try it out in a unique setting.

So tune in next time, where I will talk about character themes, wild talents for the psionically inclined, defiling for the arcane class as well as the new feats, equipment and magic items introduced by the Dark Sun Campaign Setting. And don’t forget to visit our pals at Points of Light, who also posted a review of the Dark Sun Campaign Setting up before we did, but hey, we have six campaigns right now, m’kay?

If you like what you already know about the Dark Sun Campaign Setting, then consider purchasing it from our Amazon Associates store. Purchasing it and any number of RPG products such as the Eberron Player’s Guide or Psionic Power through us will help support My Girlfriend is a DM.

7 Responses to “Review: Dark Sun Campaign Setting, Part 1: New Races & Builds”
  1. eriochrome says:

    I did a drawn out review of the new dark sun book here from the point of view of an setting originalist:

    In terms of races the problem is that they essentially just died their hair. Dark Sun races used to be significantly different in terms of abilities than the traditional D&D versions. This does not come through.

    Also found that they lack good instruction on how various classes fit into Dark Sun. Nothing like the current Arcane Bard class ever existed but no mention of how to treat it all.

    • Regarding class, this is a problem of WotC trying to make everything ‘core.’ (e.g. swordmages are artificers are considered usable anywhere you like) I wouldn’t necessarily hold the lack of instruction on class use against them, but it’d definitely be something I’d like to have.

      As for races, I totally get where you’re coming from. I understand dwarves had this whole focus thing and thri-kreen had special considerations for their unique anatomy. Still, I think this has less to do with being ‘faithful’ to Dark Sun and more to do with 4e shying away from anything they think should be decided by the DM (such as alignment, profession, knowledge skill branches, etc.)

      • Core Ruler says:

        Matthew wrote:
        “Regarding class, this is a problem of WotC trying to make everything ‘core.’…Still, I think this has less to do with being ‘faithful’ to Dark Sun and more to do with 4e shying away from anything they think should be decided by the DM ”

        Which is the ‘Magic: The Gathering’ business model applied to D&D. The more books you buy, the more you can do! DMs be damned!

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  2. […] In the first installment of my look at the Dark Sun Campaign Setting, I dug into the new builds provided by the book  for existing classes and the two new races introduced. They’re all pretty cool, but one of the best things about this book is that it expands on the flavor possibilities of characters through a great attention to the details that make the world of Athas, and adventuring within it, different from any other D&D campaign. […]

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