Review: Dark Sun Campaign Setting, Part 4: Welcome to Athas

Featured image and this illustration by Kerem Beyit.

Now, after three posts devoted to player content from the Dark Sun Campaign Setting, we finally get to the DM content. And there is no shortage of stuff for DMs despite the decision to cram it all in the same 220 pages. None of it is insignificant in any way, and it comprises about half of the Dark Sun Campaign Setting. Much of it is devoted to defining the world specifics of Athas and discussing how to capture the unique tone of Dark Sun itself.

Basically, even though Athas’ is strongly identified as an endless expanse of desert, we don’t get the ‘fill in the blanks’ approach that we did with Forgotten Realms and Eberron. My impression is that there is a conscious decision to place specifics into the 4th Edition Dark Sun setting so that DMs won’t have to rely so much on fiat to place constraints on the player’s ability to transform the campaign world.

The Atlas of Athas is divided into the various city-states such as Tyr, recently freed from tyranny after the end of King Kalak’s oppressive reign and the highly militarized Urik, City of Lions. Each city writeup comes with character backgrounds, details of the local power structures and descriptions of their various districts and precincts.

Illustration by Eric Belisle

Since much attention is given to how the barren surface of Athas is a hostile and unforgiving world, there is no shortage of detail for the wilderness. For example, we get descriptions of the Estuary of the Forked Tongue, a place lined with several small villages and whose isles are populated by giants and the Western Hinterlands, a largely unexplored sea of plains where the Kreen Empire resides.

Like many other 4th Edition books, the sidebars are the best thing about the Atlas. The sidebars provide exotic elements  to build encounters and adventures, make special mention of points of consideration for your campaigns and provide sample characters for the types of NPCs you might encounter (which can be used as is or provide baseline examples for what can be done with their archetypes.)

For example, Darian Haraxes is a sneaky underhanded praetor who hires potential Veiled Alliance recruits to gather valuable spies to assist in his crackdown of the organization while Birk Suntouched is a dwarf who pretends to be a crazed beggar while acting as an information monger for the Veiled Alliance. I like Maxlixoco, chief priest of the High Moon cult who basically spanks other priests who aren’t as dutiful as he is and Mafoun, a dragonborn seer who believes Athas will be saved when the Dragon of Tyr receives enough sacrifice.

As for adventure development, loot-minded players could choose to  fight the large obsidian constructs known as the Black Guard created by the local sorcerer-king of the backwater quasi-theocracy of Balic. Tough guys looking for a challenge might want to battle Herumar the Sand Scourge in the Southern Wastes.  Herumar is essentially a discount version of  Tiamat, that is if Tiamat had seven heads and was a desert wyrm. There are even guidelines for how to make the treasure parcel system work if players choose to fight in the stadiums of Tyr.

Illustration by Zoltan Boros & Gabor Szikszai

Personally, I’d love to take my players to the city-state of Raam, whose citizens have a rather fatalist temperament born from seeing their reckless agricultural practices drain the life out of the soil and their mineral wealth become exhausted from too much mining. I’m sure any DM with a penchant for environmental themes will enjoy using this city for adventure hooks. The local sorcerer-king, Abalach-Re and her thirty generations worth of progeny known as The Offspring are also really interesting.

If you want even more advice on how to grok the concept of a Dark Sun campaign, then the last portion of the book is devoted to that. These sections remind me a lot of the copy that was present in Eberron’s debut in 3rd edition – emphasis is given on how traditional D&D adventures are still possible, but special consideration must be given to the unique conceits of the world.

In the case of Eberron, the twist was in how many of D&D’s core assumptions about race and alignment were dismissed and how complex geopolitics were at work in the aftermath of a terrible war. Dark Sun campaigns must consider the unique ecology (some monsters just can’t live on Athas, and some that do now have psionic powers!), the perils of overland travel and the ever-present tyranny and social iniquity present in the world. Generally, the advice is about how the Athas’ unique setting qualities affects how a DM should flavor the staple components of a 4th Edition adventure.

Illustration by Ben Wootten

They don’t just leave you hanging on just that, though, as we get mini-DMG filled with encounter-building material such as various ideas for arena scenarios and wilderness encounters and concept treatments for skill challenges. The skill challenges are quite nice cause they give you a design angle on how to approach some complications and dilemmas specific to Dark Sun such as quelling a suspicious templar or lying low when they’ve run afoul of figures more powerful than they.

All in all, the Dark Sun Campaign Setting manages to condense all the things a DM needs to know and all the tools he will need (sans monsters, that’s what the Creature Catalog is for) to plan an Athasian saga of his own. As with all of the 4th Edition setting books, you won’t get the walls of fluff you’d find in old campaign guides. It’s an approach I favor because the editorial goal is to pack  the essence of the world into a readable length instead of intimidating me with voluminous detail. I pick up the old books whenever I feel like learning more anyway.

That concludes our four-part epic saga of review-ness on the Dark Sun Campaign Setting, a great book that’s definitely worth the excitement. As you might’ve guessed, I think it’s the best setting book so far. I’m excited to see the future of character themes and the possibilities they present and I’m also pleased with the continued ‘open book’ approach of 4th edition that allows players to take this version of Athas wherever they want to. Furthermore, from the little I’ve read of 2nd Edition Dark Sun, the book represents the flavor and attitude of the setting very well.

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