Dungeons & Dragons is a roleplaying universe full of beastly creatures and fabulous treasure, but one of its greatest and most enduring strengths is its wealth of deeply developed campaign settings, from the Forgotten Realms to Dragonlance. In 1991 the harsh desert world of Athas entered the realms of D&D with the Dark Sun setting. Exploring themes of slavery and survival, Dark Sun releases would continue through 1996. More than a decade later, at GenCon 2009, Wizards of the Coast revived the setting by announcing that Athas and the Dark Sun world would be the D&D campaign setting for 2010. The new Dark Sun sourcebook for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons released on August 17, 2010 alongside the new Creature Catalog, and here’s a look at what you can expect when you crack open this new and weighty hardcover.
The first sections of the book introduce players to the world of Athas. This is fantastic introductory material for those new to Dark Sun, as well as for anyone who previously played Dark Sun campaigns but now wants to see what is new and different in the desert world. Athas is a markedly different environment than the typical sword and sorcery fantasy world. Largely a desert planet, Athas is a parched and sandy orb beneath a dying sun. Eons of strife and corruption have leeched away any semblance of softness or haven. The gods long ago abandoned Athas as a lost cause, and arcane magic now further corrupts and defiles the already bleak world. The desert land is dotted with powerful city-states, most of which are controlled by all-powerful sorcerer-kings that serve as dictators and even as self-imposed deities. Metal is scarce in this world, and most weaponry and equipment will be cobbled together from the hides and wood of the land.
In short, it’s a nice place to have a roleplaying session, but I wouldn’t want to live there.
Just as the landscape and society of Athas differs from your usual Dungeons & Dragons setting, the races of Dark Sun also are decidedly different from what you’ll be used to seeing. Elves are not noble people, but rather are sly and agile desert raiders. The usually affable Halflings now are savage and often cannibalistic creatures. There are even a couple of new additions to the lineup. The Mul are a tall, sturdy, and severe race that rises from dwarf and human crossbreeding. Even more unique are the insectoid Thri-kreen, a species of six-limbed desert pack dwellers covered in chitinous body armor. New guidelines for character creation and interactions are included for both new races and for the variants on all the old standards. Racial paragon paths are also provided for archetypal templates such as the Half-Giant Thug, the Mul Battle Slave, and the Thri-Kreen Predator.
Character Themes are another new addition here, giving players an additional component to add into their creation and development process. Themes act as a character’s calling or archetype, beyond the implications of just the race and class combination. Each character theme provides some additional context for the character in a life on Athas, and it also grants the character an additional and special power that is specific to the theme. The Dark Sun sourcebook describes ten possible themes, from the Elemental Priest to the Wasteland Nomad to the Gladiator, each of which has a lot of great information and suggestions about building that type of character.
The fourth chapter is all about character options, and it guides players in adapting what they previously knew about Dungeons & Dragons into what they need to know for a Dark Sun campaign. Magic works differently on Athas, for instance. Gone are the hoary bearded sages that fling spells at will. Rather, arcane sorcerers are reviled here, as their spellcasting literally sucks the life out of the land and leaves it forever barren, further destroying the already dying planet. This section of the book gives tips on playing characters that must hide their magical natures, and it also creates new feats and abilities suited to a life of harsh desert survival and gladiatorial arena combat. You’ll also find a section on Dark Sun equipment that describes in detail that weaponry and accessories you’ll encounter on Athas, most fashioned from wood and rock rather than the usual forged metal.
An Atlas to the planet of Athas also is included. D&D always has excelled at worldbuilding, and that really shows here with over sixty pages about the city-states, the wild areas, and their environmental and collective features and histories. This section of the book is full of gorgeous maps, and there’s even a big pull-out map of the Tyr region included at the back of the book. The atlas makes for fascinating reading, and there are enough inspirational descriptions and story hooks in just this chapter to fuel many entire gaming campaigns.
The final section of the sourcebook is a Dungeon Master specific chapter about running a game in the Dark Sun setting. There are lots of great tips and instructions for building encounters, as well as for getting your players across the desert, challenging their survival, and rewarding them with appropriate Athasian treasures. A short adventure called “Sand Raiders” rounds out this chapter and is a good introduction to the setting for level 1 characters. Dungeon Masters will want to supplement this section with the Dark Sun Creature Catalog, which also hit stores in August. It’s a second hardcover that goes in depth with the monsters and notable characters your players will encounter on Athas.
The new Dark Sun setting is a great continuation and revamping of the classic setting from the ’90s. All the peril and strife of a hard life on a desert planet is still there, but it’s been streamlined, enhanced, and further brutalized to fit into the 4th Edition ruleset for Dungeons & Dragons. If you are looking for a new campaign setting for your roleplaying, or even if you just want to see a fascinating example of unique fantasy worldbuilding, check out the Dark Sun Campaign Setting and the Dark Sun Creature Catalog, both in stores now.