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Wizards of the Coast has introduced a new line this summer, called Dark Sun, which is a remake of a 1991 product. But what exactly is Dark Sun? It’s a complicated setting that takes a minute to describe.
Dark Sun is a post-apocalyptic fantasy setting involving a world called Athas, the swords and sorcery equivalent of Mad Max: a desert world where water, steel and kindness are in short supply, where magic destroys the environment and the kings and queens are exclusively evil.
But the Dark Sun of 1991 wasn’t merely a new D&D world, the characters populating it were markedly different. There were no paladins; elves were untrustworthy merchants and halflings were cannibals. New classes included gladiators and templars — the servants of the kings — and wizards were divided into defiling and preserving camps. Defilers’ spells drained the earth of life, while preservers’ did not… at the price of significantly weaker magical power. There were some fun innovations like a random psionic power for everyone and ability scores that could surpass the levels of ordinary PCs. New PC races including muls (half-dwarves) and thri-kreen (insect men) added to the setting’s uniqueness. It was a riot.
Did I mention I played a lot of Dark Sun?
And so, when Wizards announced the new release, I was pretty stoked, but also curious how they would adapt the world to new rules. They sent me the Dark Sun Campaign Setting and Creature Catalog books to check out, and I have to say that I was very impressed with how the designers kept the spirit of the game intact while bringing the rules closer — but not too close! — to the 4E standard.
The changes are dramatic in terms of game rules, while minimal where it pertains to the feel, the atmosphere, of the original. None of the old classes like preservers, templars and gladiators are there, but a new rule called “themes” lets you play the role of a dune trader or Veiled Alliance (the preserver underground) operative, while still being able to pick any race and any class you want. Wizards has introduced “new” PC races like tieflings and dragonborn, and tweaked the thri-kreen. There are too many rule changes to go into but take it from someone who loved the old DS, the new one has the same zing to it.
One final note, if you’re interested in the setting, I definitely suggest the Campaign Guide because it’s a great primer for both PCs and DMs to immerse themselves in the world. There’s nothing in there that PCs can’t see, but a bunch that will help them understand the world and learn how to make a proper Dark Sun character. Whereas the Creature Catalog is pretty much DMs only!
To get more of a sense behind the design decisions in the new DS, I interviewed Rich Baker by email. Rich is the design manager for D&D and was the lead designer on the new DS. He also wrote for the original 2E Dark Sun rules, giving him a great perspective on the setting’s evolution. He had a lot of fun tidbits to share:
GeekDad: Okay, Dark Sun. Perhaps the biggest conflict of setting is preservers vs. defilers. How does that work now? Are preservers still weaker than defilers?
Rich Baker: Well, we don’t separate defilers and preservers into different classes in this edition. It was always pretty clear in the old Dark Sun fiction that wizards were pretty much just wizards, and that the decision to preserve or defile was made spontaneously each time a spell was cast. To reflect this, we wanted a mechanism that was always available for wizards to “turn to the dark side” and draw extra power for an important spell – a temptation that would always be in the back of the player’s mind. Preserving is the default option; if you don’t do anything special, you cast your spell normally, no plants die, and no one near you is wracked by your spellcasting. However, all arcane casters have a bonus power called “Defiling” that they can use when they cast a daily spell. Defiling kills the plants around you and causes some damage to your allies, but it lets you reroll attack or damage rolls, in effect “powering up” a big spell. We tied it to daily spells so that you’d only throw the extra step into your spellcasting when it was a spell you really cared about, rather than each and every time you used your powers. There are feats (and a paragon path) that let you improve your defiling abilities.
GD: I notice you’re making an effort to describe the DS cosmology in terms of regular D&D planes (e.g., Feywild, Shadowfell)… how much stuff did you have to change?
RB: Not that much, really. Athas was always strongly connected to the elemental planes, and the Gray was a pretty good analogue for the Shadowfell. We adjusted the Astral Sea a bit for Athas; since the gods were defeated and driven off (or killed) many centuries ago, the astral dominions are pretty much empty ruins for the mortals of Athas. And of course we added the Feywild, which the Athasians know as “the Lands Between the Wind.” For Athas, the Feywild is a set of discontinuous pockets of magical desert—petrified forest, genie anvils, painted hills, that sort of stuff. It’s not the verdant forest world you would expect in another campaign setting. We wanted to square the cosmology of Athas with the game’s assumed cosmology to protect elements such as monster origins, knowledge skills, and other deeply buried stuff that would have forced us to create a long list of exceptions to existing game rules for very little benefit at the table.
GD: It interests me that you made such an effort to follow the storyline described in Troy Denning’s Prism Pentad, Dark Sun novels published over 15 years ago. Did you consider this source to be inviolable or was it mainly for inspiration?
RB: We wanted to make sure that our new edition of Dark Sun began with the same starting point as the Prism Pentad. We decided to create a version of Dark Sun in which the Prism Pentad storyline would be *possible*, but not mandatory. We considered several different options for picking up the Dark Sun storyline—for example, resuming the story after the end of the Prism Pentad, or jumping ahead a century or two and presenting a vision of Dark Sun after the events of the Prism Pentad had worked themselves out over the long term. But ultimately we decided that the best, most pure vision of the world, the moment when Athas was most full of possibility and adventure, was that moment when Tyr rebels and the tyranny of centuries shows its first crack. That’s the vision of Athas we wanted people to play with.
GD: There were two ways that the original setting distinguished itself from regular D&D: higher attribute scores and psionic “wild talents” for everyone. Is this still the case?
RB: Sort of. Back in 2e, the higher ability scores ensured that most characters had a +1 or +2 bonus in their various abilities—it’s actually pretty hard to roll an 18 or 20 with 5d4. Well, in 3e and 4e, the broader bands of ability score bonuses ensure that you can get those bonuses with rolls as low as 12. Dark Sun characters use the same ability score generation that core D&D characters do, but those more ordinary-looking ability scores provide good bonuses. To put it another way, all of D&D has come up to the standards of the 2e Dark Sun setting. Oh, and we do provide wild talents, but they’re pretty minor abilities. If you want serious psionic gifts, you should take the wilder theme or multiclass into a psionic class.
GD: Why did you introduce new-to-DS races like tieflings and dragonborn to the world?
RB: We felt that anything you could find in the 4e Player’s Handbook ought to be available, or at least addressed, in the Dark Sun setting. Many young players who have started their D&D careers in 4th Edition regard the dragonborn or tieflings as just a big a part of the game as the classic races. It would be a shame if a kid who loves playing dragonborn couldn’t find his favorite character race in a setting that would otherwise rock his world. But we threw unique Athasian spins on the tieflings and dragonborn, just as the other races have their own unique takes in Dark Sun.
GD: What are Themes?
RB: A theme is a third piece of your character identity that describes your heroic origin and your place in the world. Together with race and class, it helps to anchor you to the setting. For example, your character is an elf ranger. Do you fight in the arena? Are you a desert raider? A caravan master? An agent for the Veiled Alliance? Any of those concepts would be a pretty unique spin on the basic chassis of “elf ranger.” The gladiator, wasteland nomad, dune trader, and Veiled Alliance themes help you to tell different stories about your elf ranger, and anchor you to a different part of the setting. Conceptually, themes are a little like 2nd Edition’s character kits, but they have their own set of mechanics in 4th Edition, and they’re available to characters of any class. Your theme provides you with a bonus 1st-level encounter power (sort of like a racial power, really), and makes available a number of substitute powers or power swaps at higher levels. For example, when you hit 3rd level, you can choose to take a 3rd-level ranger power, or a 3rd-level gladiator power. Themes also open up feats and paragon paths. We’re pretty excited about what they can do for your character.
GD: Muls seem to have been streamlined — a player has to choose whether they follow their dwarf half or human half for purposes of choosing powers. Why didn’t you make them more unique?
RB: I’m not sure I agree that they’re not very unique. They’ve got an excellent racial power that just screams “I’m tough!” and they’ve got the old “I can go for days without resting” edge that they had back in 2e. That’s one of the things I love about 4th Edition — racial powers let you give each race something that no other race gets. I guess they don’t have their own set of racial feats, but the ability to pick between dwarf and human feats (two of the strongest racial feat groups, really) is pretty interesting.
GD: Is there an element from the old set that you were dying to get into the new version, but weren’t able to fit in?
RB: I would have liked to include more of the peripheral areas, such as the island of Ur Draxa, the Last Sea, the Jagged Cliffs, and other off-map areas. We touch on some of them lightly, but space constraints really pushed us to focus strongly on the heart of the original setting. For that matter, I would have loved to expand the map broadly in all directions and show off more of wasted Athas, whether we’d done it before or not. But what we’ve got is still plenty of world to adventure in.
GD: What is your favorite part of the new Dark Sun setting?
RB: Boy, that’s tough. I love the way 4e mechanics helped us to tell a story more faithful to the original vision than the older D&D rules. For example, back in 2e templars had powerful healing spells through a pretty unsatisfying rules kludge. Well, in 4th Edition, we know that the role of party healer doesn’t have to be filled with a divine caster. Your party leader might be a warlord, an ardent, or a shaman. That frees up templars to be what the story always wanted them to be. Beyond that, I’m very proud of the additional ruins, sites, and threats we’ve created to populate the deserts. Even if you’re an old Dark Sun 2e fan, you’ll find a ton of new places to explore and new adventure possibilities in this edition. What could be better?