Review: Dark Sun Campaign Setting, Part 2: More Player Options
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.
The character themes are a new addition that best expand players’ ability to give depth to their characters. They give the player character a definite place in the world of Athas, while spelling out mechanical options to reflect it. Now, I’m not saying giving your characters nuance was impossible before. Instead I’m saying that it is now possible to translate that into mechanical terms, without being bound by the limitations of your race and class.
Taking a theme for your character grants a free encounter power and access to a new power tree. For example, the Elemental Priest theme grants access to a series of powers that allow a character to summon minor elemental creatures like a misshapen hulk of stone or a dust devil while the Athasian Minstrel theme permits the use of more assassin-ey tricks such as weapon concealment and poison effects.
To some extent, it reeks a bit of feature creep, and shows 4E’s design goals have changed. IMHO, the thinking behind skill powers, backgrounds, et al have emerged to prevent table arguments about justifying character abilities not spelled out by utility powers (“Why am I rolling with only an untrained Dexterity modifier to juggle? My character used to do it for a living!”) or the amount of leverage can be applied to skill use under time presssure. (“Can’t I just use Arcana to aid my Bluff and trick them into thinking I can cast a hex?”)
With themes, abilities can be added that don’t necessarily conform to the expectations of your base class. That means a mage might have some affinity with the outdoors through the Primal Guardian theme while the stalwart warrior might have been born with unrefined psionic talent, manifested through Noble Adept powers.
Note that unlike previous editions of D&D, this attempt to diversify character options isn’t a series of trap choices: all the theme powers can be mapped to your primary ability, allowing you to pull Gladiator maneuvers with your Intelligence. Whether this can be called ‘power creep’ or ‘mechanical diversity’ will really depend for each group.
The Dark Sun Campaign Setting also introduces the concept of defiling and preserving magic, which has been a defining aspect of the setting since its original incarnation. The basic premise is that unrestrained use of magic is why Athas is such a wasteland.
If my understanding is correct, old-school Dark Sun basically made the lives of heroically-inclined spellcasters a living hell. It was assumed that most uses of magic amounted to giving Athas the finger, and would get you arrested if you were seen, since the average Athasian made no distinction between ‘environmentally-responsible’ spellcasting and ‘arcanic planet rape.’
Prior to release, WotC made the reasonable decision to assume that by default, magic use was ‘preserving’ by nature and that defiling magic would be a special option for more dastardly players. If I recall correctly, they said that the defiling mechanics would be comparable to the Dark Side options in Star Wars: SAGA Edition. I envisioned a preserver-defiler grading scale that applied reputation consequences or the introduction of new feats or class features for all arcane classes.
Instead what we got was kind of lame: An at-will power for any character possessing an arcane daily attack power. This power, ‘Arcane Defiling,’ allows you to reroll the attack roll or damage roll for any arcane daily attack power at the cost inflicting necrotic damage to allies within 100 feet of you equal to 1/8 their hit points. At least, that’s according to the listed rules block for the power.
There’s stuff outside of the block about choosing to defile creates defiled terrain in a ‘burst’ equal to half the power’s level, but that’s still weaksauce to me. In short, this iteration of defiling lessens the dramatic weight that magic use originally had. A DM who is talented and/or well studied on Dark Sun will probably be able to remedy that problem, but it still kind of sucks that the defiling is not as dramatic when used right out of the book.
Athas is also premised on the idea that psionics emerged as a common power source in world where arcane use is dangerous and taboo and primal power is the province for those who can hear the dying whispers of the planet. Only those with the privilege of training or those who are ‘hero born’ (i.e. players) ever attain the kind of mastery that allows them to effect change on a grand scale.
Enter Wild Talents, psionic tricks that anyone can learn regardless of class. They’re akin to wizard cantrips and can be used to generate small illusions, create minor tools made of pure thought, etc. It is assumed that they are so common on Athas that the DM, can at his discretion, grant a free Wild Talent to player characters and they can take a feat to get three more.
Wild Talents are unnecessary in campaigns outside of Dark Sun but are minor enough not to upset the game’s power level. I know I’d enjoy using them, but I think their necessity depends on how hard the DM is going to ride the players on finer things like food, water and non-combat items. When those things are in short supply (as they should be on Athas) the functionality they provide makes sense.
All in all, the new character options introduced by the Dark Sun Campaign Setting are kind of a mixed bag. Defiling is a complete miss, while the mileage of Wild Talents may vary. The really big hit are the character themes, and I don’t think it takes a sharp mind to know that WotC is going to expand upon this in future Insider content. I know I’d appreciate me some Eberron themes.
So tune in next time, where I will talk about epic destinies, paragon paths, magic items, feats and the DM-specific material from the the Dark Sun Campaign Setting. Also, our BFF blog, Points of Light, posted a review of the Dark Sun Campaign Setting, so check that out.
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