D&D4E, Dark Sun

DS4e – Core Races, Part 2

So, four days later, I’m back at this. My apologies for the delay – my workload from school picked up, my stress level went through the roof, and when I wasn’t killing myself working with Flash (one of my courses is on animation) I was getting ready for my trip. However, found out yesterday that my departure’s been delayed, which means I’ve got nothing to do today. So, at long last, I’m diving back into the Dark Sun races post I left woefully incomplete.

So no mucking about, let’s get to this thing.

Half-elves

A pair of 4th Edition half-elves.
A pair of 4th Edition half-elves.

The half-elf has undergone a pretty significant makeover in the transition from 3rd to 4th Edition. For three editions now, half-elves have been the bastard offspring of two different races – and like most bastard children in the medieval era, polite company wanted nothing to do with them.

In 4th Edition, however, they’ve undergone a significant shift – from a scorned half-breed to a beloved example of the best that both races have to offer. They’re open-minded and insightful, confidant and charming – making them natural leaders and diplomats. The end result is a pretty cool race that, thematically, doesn’t really have a place on Athas.

Half-elves in Dark Sun, by way of comparison, are even more loathed than they were in standard Dungeons & Dragons. Some tribes of elves are known to not only kill half-breeds on sight, but exile elven women who give birth to them – effectively damning mother and child to die under the merciless Athasian sun. Dark Sun half-elves were also very strange, with most of their racial abilities coming from their fierce independent streak. I wouldn’t be surprised if the half-elf’s +2 to Diplomacy checks gets swapped with Nature, along with a similar change to their Group Diplomacy ability (which normally gives nearby allies +1 to Diplomacy checks), but otherwise I’m not sure there’ll be many mechanical changes.

A half-elf of Athas in her natural habitat - solitude.
A half-elf of Athas in her natural habitat - solitude.

The other two big racial benefits received by the Dark Sun half-elf were A) the half-elf could play as any character class (which is now true of every race and thus isn’t really a benefit) and B) the half-elf could “befriend” a pet, king of like the 3rd Edition Ranger’s animal companions. Of course, as 4th Edition has eliminated the whole concept of “allies as class features” (no animal companions for rangers or druids, no warhorse for paladins) that feature is almost certainly going to be dropped.

Given the fact that pretty much every benefit the Dark Sun half-elf received doesn’t work under the new edition, I have to assume that the half-elf will make the transition pretty much as-is, with a few possible minor changes (like Diplomacy to Nature) and a redefinition of the race’s flavor component.

A 4th Edition halfling, lunging with a pair of blades.
A 4th Edition halfling, lunging with a pair of blades.

Halflings

If Bilbo Baggins and Hannibal Lecter had children, the resultant offspring would be the halflings of Athas.

Dark Sun’s halflings were very much outsiders, even more so than the half-elves. They came from a region called the Forest Ridge – a tropical jungle which was itself on the far side of the Ringing Mountains, isolated from the rest of Athas. The halflings were feral and dangerous, considered any living thing that wasn’t a halfling a potential source of food, and had a very internal-focused culture that made it very difficult for outsiders to even fully communicate.

A feral Athasian halfling.
A feral Athasian halfling.

I really only see one problem with the halflings of Athas vs. the halflings of 4th Edition. Halflings are small, and halflings are fast. Every D&D player knows that halflings are small, and halflings are fast. The 4th Edition halfling is almost completely built around being small and fast (bonuses to Dexterity, Acrobatics & Thievery checks, and two other traits that make enemies more likely to miss them). However, the Athasian halfling was also wise and a part of an ancient culture that had a special union with nature. The 4th Edition halfling doesn’t really suggest that. I don’t know that this concept necessitates a mechanical change to the race – but I don’t know that it doesn’t either.

The end result? I figure a 50/50 chance that halflings will see significant mechanical changes for their Dark Sun incarnation. I just find this one to be too close to call, and I can’t find any official commentary on halflings in DS4e.

Humans

A 4th Edition human.
A 4th Edition human.

For as long as I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons, humankind has been the benchmark against which all other player races have been measured. In every edition, humans have always been cited as being incredibly versatile and adaptable.

In 2nd Edition (and the original Dark Sun), this meant that humans were the only race capable of playing as any character class, and reach maximum level. In 3rd Edition, it meant that instead of getting a lot of specific racial features, humans got a free skill and a free feat – on top of what every character already got. 4th Edition humans continue to follow in the mold of 3rd Edition: +2 to one ability score, one extra at-will class power, one bonus feat, one bonus skill, and +1 to all defenses. Very well-rounded, very open to customization.

Frankly, there’s no need to change anything for Dark Sun. Make sure all the humans are scowling in the concept art, give them all a tan, and call it a day.

An Athasian human.
An Athasian human.

As an aside – and completely off-topic – ever since the shift from 2nd to 3rd Edition I’ve seen online comments stating that the whole “humans tend to be the dominant race” concept is flawed, and should be reworked. Apparently the logic goes that the dominance of humans was based on their ability to progress in more character classes, and farther in those classes, than any other race. Therefore when dwarves (who had no arcane magic-users) came into conflict with humans, their wizards smacked them down – when elves came into conflict with humans, their higher-level clerics and fighters provided the needed edge, etc. etc.

That certainly contributed to their dominance, I’m sure, but is really a secondary factor. The primary factor? Birth rates. You see, virtually every race in Dungeons & Dragons is longer-lived than humans. Yet – and I’m speaking as a person who has owned virtually every racial sourcebook (Complete Book of Dwarves, Complete Book of Elves, etc.) – there’s never really any mention of the dwarven or elven nuclear family being noticeably larger than that of humans. Which suggests that humans? Way outnumber the other races. Eleves take an entire century to hit physical maturity – meaning four or five generations of humans will be born, grow up, have children of their own, and die before a single elven generation is ready to perpetuate the species.

Anyways, that really has nothing to do with anything, just a minor rant I’ve been holding inside for some time.

Tieflings

A pair of tieflings, a new race in 4th Edition - and possible spawn of the Pristine Tower.
A pair of tieflings, a new race in 4th Edition - and possible spawn of the Pristine Tower.

Finally, we reach the third race that is brand-new to 4th Edition, and thus has no established place in Dark Sun. Dungeons & Dragons veterans will recognize tieflings as being humans with a minor trace of of infernal (read that: demonic) blood. In 4th Edition, however, they’re a race unto themselves – the descendants of a now-fallen empire who struck foul bargains with infernal creatures. So, you know, still got the demon-taint, just a different flavoring of it.

Dark Sun doesn’t have any gods to speak of, and in the absence of any sort of divine presence angels and demons seem to stick out like a sore thumb. I for one don’t really think the Judeo-Christian feel of Dungeons & Dragons’  Angel/Demon/Devil concept really works with Athas. That might just be my personal opinion, but I don’t actually recall any references to them in any of the old Dark Sun material – which itself says something (again, in my opinion).

However, Chris Flipse (one of the administrators over at athas.org) made a rather brilliant comment during his interview with the Dragonlance Canticle (the interview is in two parts, and I don’t recall which part the comment is in) – brilliant enough that I wish I’d thought of it! Basically, he mentioned a structure called the Pristine Tower – an ancient spire of white rock that was once the site of a great investment of power and energy. These days, anyone who is injured near it – even so much as a scratch – turns into a hideous, mutated creature. So that’s certainly one option for the tiefling’s backstory.

Mechanically, the tieflings are fine. Clever, confidant, deceptive and bloodthirsty – they’re pretty much a natural fit for Dark Sun, and I think they’ll make a really solid addition.

The Rest

Okay, so there’s the eight player races introduced in the PHB1. However, between the PHB2 & PHB3 nine (or ten, depending on how you count) additional races have been introduced: deva, githzerai, gnomes, goliaths, half-orcs, minotaurs, shardminds, shifters (two varieties), and wilden. Not a single one of them has an established place on Dark Sun! What about them?

At the Dark Sun panel at the D&D Experience, Robert Schwalb explained the official policy on Gnomes – basically they decided not to bother talking about non PHB1 races that don’t have a place already defined for them in Dark Sun, leaving it up to individual Dungeon Masters whether or not to incorporate them into their campaigns. In the future, I may blog about the PHB2/PHB3 races and my thoughts on incorporating them into a Dark Sun campaign – but that will, at the very least, be after DS4e is out and I’ve got my hands on a copy.

Until then, I won’t be discussing the “extra” races – with one exception you’ll be hearing about soon. More on that next time.

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