The Dark Sun setting was originally printed in 1991 and, if a somewhat-fringe hobby like tabletop RPGs can be said to have cult classics, then the not-medieval, not-european-ish, not-tolkienesque world of Athas would certainly fit that bill.

Now Wizards of the Coast has revived the oft misunderstood Dark Sun setting. And I have finally managed to get my hands on their first offering, “The Dark Sun Campaign Setting.” And let me tell you, dear reader that I haven’t bored to tears yet, it is full of surprises.

A World of Sand and Silt

Dark Sun focuses on Athas, once a bountiful world, now a sunbleached wasteland. The denizens of this savage world have two options; live in bondage at the heel of the Sorcerer-Kings that rule each city state or try their luck out in the monster-ridden wastes. In this world there are places for Martial and Primal powers, but Psionic power is king, since arcane spellcasters are hunted down, and there are no divinities for clerics and paladins to pray to.

Let me repeat that.

There are no gods in this setting.

A Different Direction

This setting means Business. And I, for one, find that glorious. If you listen to Critical Hit! or the Super-Rockin’ MSP, you may have heard me joke about the fact that the Player’s Handbook is a big lovefest, each race and class description devoting a paragraph to reasons why that particular axis gets along with all the others. And also why it makes sense for every race to be able to take any class. Now, don’t get me wrong, that’s partially a good thing, because a lot of people take those descriptions as gospel rather than guidelines, so infusing a flavorful feud between races can cause strife at the table. Dark Sun doesn’t care; there are halflings who eat whatever they kill, including sentient creatures, being a wizard means you need to destroy a little piece of the world each time you cast a spell, and there are no clerics because the gods all packed up their radiant damage and took the first train for the coast. It is a setting that expressly deals with adult themes like slavery and poverty, but does it in its own style, eschewing, for example, the byzantine politics of Eberron, for a savage Kill-or-be-Killed direction. Although some of the themes feel like the setting is yelling “This ain’t your daddy’s D&D!” over and over again, the deliberate departures, both in story elements and rules, promise a drastically different play experience from any other D&D setting.

I got your THEME right here, buddy!

So now that I have spent all this time lauding the fact that Dark Sun strays so far from the D&D mold thematically, I’m going to spend some time whining about the fact that Dark Sun strays so far from the D&D mold mechanically. Now, I don’t care about the inclusion of Wild Talents or about the new warlock pact, all that stuff is cool. What bothers me is the introduction of a brand new mechanic, “Themes.”

And honestly, it really only bothers me because picking a theme is optional, but gives you a free power, which is a big red light for me in the powercreepometer. Granted, this can be construed as Dark Sun saying “You’re playing in Athas, pick a Theme, gain a power.” But the potential for non-dark sun games to pick this up is always there. Am I going to have to make the choice from here on out (at least until more get printed) of whether my character is an Athasian Minstrel, Dune Trader or Noble Adept? What if no theme fits my character concept? Will I have to walk in with one less power than everyone else? To me themes really smack of the poorly thought out and frequently abused Backgrounds mechanic. But time will tell whether Themes become a vestigial limb of the game or get fleshed (and straightened) out by later supplements.

On a more positive note, Dark Sun introduces two new races, Muls (which I assume is pronounced “Mules” for obvious reasons) and the insectile Thri-Kreen. It also features a slew of new feats, equipment, class builds, paragon paths, epic destinies, mounts and magic items.

The Final Blow

All and all, despite my concerns The Dark Sun Campaign Setting is phenomenal. I appreciate that much like Eberron was revolutionary in its all-inclusive, kitchen sink approach, Dark Sun is revolutionary in the fact that it picks and chooses the bits of the D&D experience that fit it best and feeds the rest to its ravenous crodlu.

Four Slices of Meatloaf from me, cut with a bone knife due to a staggering shortage of metal.

Rating: ★★★★☆

The Author

Rodrigo

Rodrigo

Nobody really knows what Rodrigo's deal is. He is a perpetual enigma, an unknown quantity, the X factor. He's the new kid in school, the unlisted number, the person all your friends talk about, but you've never met. How can one person be so mysterious, you ask? THAT IS ALSO TOTALLY A MYSTERY! You can try to keep tabs on him on twitter by following @fearsomecritter, but that probably won't help.

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28 Comments

  1. Release the Dakin
    August 26, 2010 at 10:51 am — Reply

    I’ve been reasonably exited about this since I heard about its existence a few months ago. That being said I have to agree with Rodrigo power creep irritates me to no end. But it is GM’s discretion that will decide what goes in and what stays on the cutting room floor.
    I like to have fun with my games, so if themes keep the fun level without making things unbalanced its OK with me. I’m eager to get these books and see what brave new world is ripe for the exploring. I like the overall flavor of the new setting, from what I’ve read so far, it is a welcome departure from the established settings.

    I just hope I can find a tavern for all the pc’s to meet in.

    • Dante
      January 4, 2011 at 4:45 pm — Reply

      I don’t particularly mind the power creep that themes provide. I am of the opinion that most combats go on a bit too long in 4e anyhow, so giving players an additional encounter power seems like an efficient way to do it. In fact, it might be beneficial to provide an extra 1st level encounter in a standard session, just to speed combat up a tad.

      One comment a friend of mine has made is that the world description apparently does not fully encompass his recollection of the setting. Specifically, he recalled a lose-lose situation surrounding the world, wherein each city state had a yearly tithe of human sacrifices to keep a genocidal wizard magically imprisoned. It seems that the lose-lose back story is currently not part of the 4e setting. Anyone know more about this? Opinions?

  2. Kkortekaas
    August 26, 2010 at 10:58 am — Reply

    While my group hasn’t switched over to 4th edition as of yet, I very badly want to pick up the whole 4th edition Darksun line because Darksun, as you’ve alluded to is just plain awesome-sauce

  3. August 26, 2010 at 11:28 am — Reply

    My group hates 4e with the power of a million exploding Dark Suns. ;p

    No, seriously. They don’t like it. Any chance you’ll review something that isn’t made by Wizards of the Coast?

    • August 26, 2010 at 12:07 pm — Reply

      If you want a new product review then no, We only get SOME D&D stuff out here in the high plains and only a random smattering (like supplements but no core book) of non-D&D stuff. The “Games you Should Be Playing” articles are building up slowly, all that stuff is from other publishers.

  4. TorontoFrog
    August 26, 2010 at 12:37 pm — Reply

    Great review.

    Dark Sun had always been one of the two D&D settings I like the most with Eberron (screw Forgotten Realms, Ravenloft and other Greyhawk!). I have not had the chance of reading the setting adaptation for 4e, but I will certainly get it. I love the non traditional way of playing D&D. Wizard of the coast is doing a good job to keep the interest in 4e alive and this Dark Sun campaign setting brings a new twisted way of enjoying their property!

    I think, as a now experienced game master, that these settings brings more meat around the bones, but all informations, new builts and new rules or history should be taken as facultative. As an example, my current campaing, which started in 3.5 edition, is set in an Eberron-like setting but not using all Eberron guide rules. As usual with RPG, the only limitation is your imagination.

  5. Navarre
    August 26, 2010 at 12:41 pm — Reply

    The Thri-Kreen (or Mantis Warrior) was originally published in the 1st Edition D&D Monster Manual II by Gary Gygax. They were among my favorite monsters because I saw a lot of potential for them to be developed as a race due to their intelligence and unusual habitat.

    They were a major race on one of my D&D game worlds. I am glad to see they weren’t entirely forgotten by Wizards of the Coast.

  6. Roosterj
    August 26, 2010 at 12:54 pm — Reply

    Great review Rodrigo.

    Having read through the various themes, I didn’t find them overpowered, and similar to the optional background rules of the PHBs. Power Creepy, yes. Mirrodin power creepy… naw. It also opens up a number of interesting possibilities for homebrew game play (Sigil factions as a theme = awesome.)

    The thing that irks me about DS (and why I don’t expect to play in a campaign) is the thematic exclusion of a power source by the publisher. Decisions about such decisions should be made by the gaming group (IE Four against the void’s exclusion of divine power due to celestial fights.) I am aware that there is a block on page 9 of the campaign setting that gives possibilities for the power source, but all provided options are pretty poor. Part of me wonders if this exclusion was done for party strength reasons, as certain abilities of the divine classes would be too powerful in a rare-magic setting.

    In short, I like options during character creation. DS, in it’s published form, limits creation options (and therefore possible themes for campaigns.) The 4e version captures much of the 2e vision, so if you’re a fan of the old school DS, you’ll probably like this as well.

    • August 26, 2010 at 2:27 pm — Reply

      I see what you’re saying, They are essentially tossing out a huge chunk of player options. But to me it seems like both a risky, and by that same risk, a strong decision. It annoys me that the description of clerics in the PHB (of the last two editions) essentially says, “Most clerics worship a deity, but not all, some worship ideals, and some don’t even do that, it’s all good, turn undead right? so yeah, that’s cool.” I get that D&D tries to be both flavorful and generic, Dark Sun just made a stand as far as that. And I really appreciate it.

      As far as Divine Classes being too powerful in the setting, I don’t think that’s the case since all classes basically function the same way. Other than dealing more radiant damage in general than other classes (and situationally your star pact warlock can be more radiantdamagey than your smashy cleric) there is no real difference.

      • Roosterj
        August 26, 2010 at 2:44 pm — Reply

        I was thinking more along the lines of healing ability. I’ve been a part of the DS encounters, and more than once a situation could be dramatically influenced by a cleric’s strong heals, resistance spells, or buffs that other leaders don’t simply have at early levels. A pally’s lay on hands is in the same vein.

        I agree with the strong decision comment, and having seen the sunny/stormy clerics in the Essentials Red Box… well, it doesn’t look better.

        Thanks for the reply.

        • Damascus
          September 30, 2010 at 12:22 am — Reply

          I’ll have to go see if our local Red Box has Sunny/Stormy Clerics in, it sounds like an interesting watch? Any actors I’d know? ;)

  7. andy
    August 26, 2010 at 2:43 pm — Reply

    The only experience I have with D&D is playing the encounter sessions at my local gaming store each week, this chapter has been set in the Dark Sun Campaign. I think it is just the way the d&d encounters is set up by Wizards but it lacks real story and walking through a waste land gets old quick. Collecting survival days is kind of lame, so are the pre-gen characters that were given to the players. I guess Dark Sun is better suited to players who are more experienced and want a change then for newer players like myself. I’m just glad this season of encounters is over in three weeks and a new one will start with D&D essentials.

    • lordrandy
      August 27, 2010 at 2:20 am — Reply

      man your group sounds alot like mine??

  8. August 26, 2010 at 3:48 pm — Reply

    Re: the free power that comes with a theme.

    Listening to the GenCon Dark Sun seminar, they explained that this was intended to be the equivalent of having players start at Level 3 (like in Dark Sun 2E).

  9. GiantGnome
    August 26, 2010 at 4:35 pm — Reply

    Great review, Rodrigo

    I play in one campaign set in Mystara, a play-by-post in what I think is the generic D&D4e-setting, and GM one in the Forgotten Realms, so I am full on High Fantasy settings.

    For my next campaign, I was thinking of checking out either Dark Sun or Eberron, as I figure these would be nice change of theme..

  10. seneca
    August 26, 2010 at 4:36 pm — Reply

    The thing about darksun is that its all about power creep. Only the strong survive. I still have the original boxed set in my closet and characters from dark sun were intended to be powerful but the counterbalance was the amount of water you needed to survive. A half-giant could absolutely smash the enemy, but drank a well of water a day.

    Also if you looked into it old version characters had access to psionic powers and when you choose a power sometimes you got several powers, then you also got any powers that were considered pre-requisites for that power. Then once you had those powers you had the pre-requisite to those powers as well. You could easily grab a ton of psychic powers and be better off than any wizard who had to pay harshly for thier spells.

    Still it is an awesome setting.

  11. August 26, 2010 at 5:44 pm — Reply

    Toward the end of my gaming years in college, my group’s DM picked up the 2E boxed set for Dark Sun, and I read through much of the material and thought it would be a really cool setting. Alas, we never played a Dark Sun campaign and stopped gaming as a group shortly thereafter…M:TG was eating up all our time by then anyway.

  12. Matthew
    August 26, 2010 at 6:44 pm — Reply

    i dont think its pronounced “mule” as there is no “e” i think its “mul” and is derived from some kind of combo of ancient dwarvish words. i think i read that somewhere in the book actually…..

    • Roosterj
      August 26, 2010 at 7:14 pm — Reply

      Pg 21 of the setting guide, “Pronunciation varies throughout the Tyr region; the word could be pronounced as Mool, Mull, or Mule, although this last variation is considered derogatory and might start a fight… sages who care about such maters regard mull as the most accurate pronunciation.”

  13. Aldo
    August 27, 2010 at 1:35 am — Reply

    Hey Rodrigo awesome review. Any chance we could have a small dark sun campaign podcast in addition or Ina break of 4vsV? Back in the day our DM tried really hard to get us into dark sun but it didn’t work out, now years later I look back at Athas and miss the lost chances to play in such a cool world

  14. Aldo
    August 27, 2010 at 11:05 am — Reply

    To Lordrandy,
    Does it? I think for us it was hard to be in a world were everything was desert, were we had to deal with minuses to our bone weapons, and were in the pregen adventures we felt we were just spectators to rikus’ adventures. But NOW I realize that we saw the campaign that way and didn’t give our DM a chance to show us all of the other parts of Athas that were more than just desert, and that it was a good setting to try something different. Did you guys got to play it too for a while and then dropped it?

    • lordrandy
      August 28, 2010 at 4:30 am — Reply

      this week in my home brew cam, I’m taking all the dice out and making us roleplay. No powergaming… looking for the best weap stat…let us all go back home to roleplaying and then make the game better afterwards, just my 2 cents.

  15. seneca
    August 27, 2010 at 3:20 pm — Reply

    If you want a good look at the world of athas they have a few novels out there. They are old, but I do remember that the Templar one was rather good for its time.

  16. chillidawg72
    August 27, 2010 at 4:30 pm — Reply

    I haven’t had a chance to look at the supplement yet. Did they include Half-Giants?

  17. August 28, 2010 at 2:51 am — Reply

    I don’t have a link off hand, but one of the Penny Arcade/PvP D&D podcasts was them running the Dark Sun setting for a while. Only went about four parts, but was a nice glimpse into what it’s like playing it.

  18. THOMAS
    September 14, 2010 at 6:59 am — Reply

    Hey Rodrigo why don’t you run the Critters through this campaign set for a little it would be fun

  19. Steven_h_d
    November 15, 2010 at 12:15 pm — Reply

    Wish us luck, we are going to start in Feb 2011.
    BTW on the cerlic thing, the dieties have left, but the demons have not
    enter drow cleric, be sure to pay for her services……or pay the demonspawn your soul. lol
    It is up to the DM that is running the campain to keep it even, if you have no cleric, then bards and shamans that are earth based rathar than deity based can serve. Elemental Priest themes.
    For us we are going with a stable of three toons, it is expected that one or more may die in this world. Hopefully not all you backups will also fall. The DM rules is each time you level so does ONE of your backups, just dont let the other fall too far behind. Wouldnt do to have a 3rd level enter a battle for 21 level toons.

  20. Steven_h_d
    November 15, 2010 at 12:17 pm — Reply

    Yes half giants = goliaths are included

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