Dark Sun Campaign Setting Review

My distant recollection of Dark Sun has always been thri-kreen, psionics, and lot of sand. I wouldn't exactly say I'm a fan of it like I'm a fan of Eberron or even Planescape, but I am a huge fan of the concept: a post-apocalyptic world combined with a non-standard fantasy setting. Magic drains life, so everyone and thing relies on psionics. There aren't any gods, so you can count the clerics out. Coins come in ceramic and weapons come in one of many flavors of bone or stone. One of the standard races is an intelligent, many-armed, bipedal insectIt's like, a fucking magical, medieval Mad Max.

How close is it to 2nd Edition's version? As far as I can tell it's very close, but then as I've said I didn't actually get to play it a lot, just read, and that was a long time ago. There's no "setting reboot" as far as I can tell: the map looks the same, dragon-king Kalak is still dead, and Tyr is still a purportedly free city. Sure, there aren't any elemental clerics (clerics that act like normal clerics but get spells from various elements), but that's perfectly fine because we don't need them what with the myriad of equally competent "healer classes" and elemental priest theme for the real sticklers out there. Again though, didn't play it much, and so wouldn't have given two shits if they did "blow it up".

Unlike the books for Forgotten Realms and Eberron, Dark Sun Campaign Setting is for both sides of the screen. As best I can figure, chapter 1 has some stuff that DMs and players should both know, 2-4 seem to be player-only, while 5 and 6 look to be for DM's eyes only.

Chapter 1: The World of Athas gives you a brief rundown of how Athas rolls, such as the types of heroes that might exist there, a paragraph of exposition for each "heroic" theme, and a sidebar on why divine characters shouldn't make the cut. The section on Athasian Civilization divides up the social pecking order--with sorcerer-kings on top--so DMs new to the scene have a clear idea of where everyone stands, provides you with a table of races and the languages that they speak (but don't write), and a calendar that's based on the "subtle motions of the sun". Secrets of Power gives the foot-notes version of Athasian history, I guess because people don't actually know the history of the world since they aren't permitted to read or write. On one hand, this would normally be fine since the players might never discover this, but on the other hand its never directly stated that halflings were responsible for setting up Athas the bomb, and I can live with that.

Chapter 2: Races is 15 pages long and reintroduces muls and thri-kreen--complete with paragon paths and feats--with the same story but a different look in the case of the thri-kreen.
Muls get a +2 to Constitution and a variable to either Strength or Wisdom (your choice), get a bonus on Endurance and Streetwise, can pick to either qualify as humans or dwarves for the purposes of feats, get an extra healing surge, and get incredible toughness (racial encounter that let's you automatically end one of several conditions as a minor action).
Thri-kreen get a static bonus to Dexterity, and can choose from Strength or Wisdom as their secondary. They get an Athletics and Nature bonus, always count as running when jumping, have their own variation on trancing, and can use thri-kreen claws to make a melee attack against 1-3 creatures as a racial encounter. Its keyed off of Strength, Dexterity, or Wisdom, and the more critters you attack the bigger the damage bonus gets. One of my friends griped that they don't have natural armor and can't use their claws whenever, but that's fine since the 3rd Edition thri-kreen had an assload of racial levels that meant while you were getting up to the point where you could make multiple claw attacks, the real characters were getting attack bonuses and feats that were actually useful.
As for other races, dragonborn are the new dray, while goliaths are the equivalent of half-giants. I'm fine with this arrangement since I'm not a huge fan of having races that are virtually identical. However, not all of the races get mentioned: tieflings, halflings, and even kalashtar are in, but gnomes and devas are right out (and for good reason as far as the setting fluff is concerned). This might piss off some players, but there's still hope in the form of a small sidebar on page 30 that talks about making a concession for a player that really want's to play something out of the norm.

Chapter 3: Themes introduces mechanics for the third component of the character concept trinity, right after race and class. As the name implies they add additional thematic options to your character, allowing you to bring it to the table in a mechanical manner. There are ten featured in this book (each with their own pair of paragon paths), with more on the way for both Dark Sun and other worlds. They aren't intrinsically tied to any specific class so if you wanna make, say...a druid templar, go for it.

Chaper 4: Character Options touches the touchy subject of arcane magic and introduces the mechanic for defiling magic, gives a few alternate starting class features, new feats, epic destinies, and gear. Every type of armor gets some kind of hide and/or shell-based parallel, including all the masterwork materials. For example, instead of feyleather you have baazrag leather, and instead of tarrasque plate you get braxat lord. If you happen to find metal armor, its always pegged as a +2 item and might impose a -5 penalty to Endurance to resist heat at the DM's discretion. All the old weapons are back, so enjoy cleaving monsters apart with an axe made from a jawbone, or impaling them on a blade embedded in a turtle shell attached to your wrist. I'll probably end up using the carrikal the most since I fucking love the way it looks (trikal comes a close second). A sidebar on page 122 lets you use the optional rule for weapon breakage, but recommends you use fixed enhancement bonuses (mentioned in Chapter 6). There isn't a lot of added miscellaneous adventuring gear, though I find the distillation kit somewhat humorous as it lets you get a days worth of water by "cooking waste and toxic fluids" for six hours. 
Finally, there's also a couple pages devoted to Athasian magic items. 

Chapter 5: Atlas of Athas gives you a desert primer on specific terrain types before giving you an overview of the major locations on Athas, such as the seven cities, forest ridge, the tablelands, and more. Each section gets about 2-4 pages a pop, containing character backgrounds, adventure hooks, and general information about the important features and history to be found there.

We wrap things up with Chapter 6: Running a Dark Sun Game, which is invaluable for DM's, explaining to you all the themes that help convey the feel of a brutal, gritty Dark Sun adventure such as the desert itself, ecology, psionics, and arcane magic. There's a table for overland travel over various types of desert terrain, mechanics for using survival days, and sun sickness, a new disease that causes you to lose healing surges and take attack and defense penalties before eventually dying. The section under Encounter Building gives advice for running arena and wilderness encounters, wrapping things up with new skill challenges. Treasure and Rewards recommends using fixed enhancement bonuses instead of having them attached to weapons, since they can more easily break, as well as providing a lot of alternative rewards similar to boons from Dungeon Master's Guide 2. For example, gift of fire is a level 6+ elemental gift that lets you deal bonus fire damage for a turn. 

In closing, this book is awesome. Oppressive sorcerer-kings, an unforgiving wilderness, cannibalistic halflings: all these and more are conducive to a very different game than one that I'm used to running (and my players playing). I missed out big time in 2nd Edition, and I don't intend on waiting around again to drag my players kicking and screaming through the searing wastes.

My Girlfriend is a DM posted up part 1 of their own Dark Sun review, so go read it, too.

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