D&D4E, Dark Sun, Nerdstalgia

At the intersection of Nostalgia Avenue and Kickass Lane, Part I

As I’ve previously mentioned, I created this blog mostly to nerd out with brother-from-a-different-mother Glen. It offered me the opportunity to educate him on the 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, which he’d not yet had a chance to look at, and also gush about the return of my favorite setting. In the throes of great gush-itude, I made a number of predictions and guesses about what would be happening. Some were right, some were wrong, but there’s one I feel like hit the nail right on the head:

Make no mistake about it – there is going to be plenty for you to hate in DS4E, if you’re the sort of person inclined to hate it. When the original Dark Sun material comes into conflict with the game’s need to keep all individual elements in balance with one another? The developers aren’t going to trash game balance – they’re going to change shit about the setting. I for one am fine with that. Dark Sun, as it was originally, was a 2nd Edition product – DS4E will be a 4th Edition product. They won’t be the same – because you can’t drop 2nd Edition philosophy into 4th Edition rules, and expect it to work. It won’t.

Now that wasn’t exactly a tough prediction to make – you’ll hate it if you’re inclined to hate it – but I think it was pretty apt because things are different. They have to be, for it to work. Baker & co. had to choose between a properly balanced game product that played a little fast and loose with the setting in a few places, or an unbalanced game product that adhered to the setting canon perfectly but brought with it all the baggage of 2nd Edition. I may miss the quadruped thri-kreen, but I’ll never accuse them of getting their priorities wrong because they got them exactly right. To anyone still riding the hate-horse because things have changed, I say this: if you loved 2nd Ed. Dark Sun so much, who is stopping you from playing it?

Alright, enough of that, let’s really dig our teeth into the book here. I’ll be reviewing the Dark Sun Campaign Setting book exclusively here – maybe later I’ll dig into the Creature Catalog.

The Dark Sun Campaign Setting is a 222-page hardcover book that retails for $39.95 USD. As you’d expect from a Wizards of the Coast publication, the production values are excellent and the artwork is full-color and beautiful. I’ve got a few minor art gripes, only one of which I’ll mention below when I go voer chapter two, but with the rare exception every piece is nicely done and evocative of the setting. You can really get a feel for how this world is different and how its people are different from the typical, Tolkien-based fantasy setting.

Also in the package is a two-sided poster map, one side showing you the Tyr Region and the other providing you with an in-depth map of the city-state of Tyr itself. I like the poster map very much (it’s beautifully drawn) but have two problems with it – one genuine and one nit-picky. The genuine problem is that, at some point Wizards began including their poster maps by folding them down to fit inside the book and then binding them into the cover. The one portion of the map that is bound into the book’s spine is perforate so you can just easily tear it out, and then unfold your poster map to be useful. Maybe it’s just me, but I fucking loathe this method because on a spine of this length I find it extremely difficult to get the perforation to tear straight and always wind up taking tiny chunks of paper out of my otherwise beautiful and glossy poster map. I remember when I had a subscription to Dragon Magazine (the dead-tree, Paizo publication, not the current digital magazine) and every month it came with a post battlemap – which was also inside the magazine, attached by a tiny glue strip that was easy to remove without damaging either the magazine or the map. Whether the perforation method is being pursued for cost reasons or some other reason, I can’t really tell you but I hate it.

My nit-picky problem is that I’m fucking sick and tired of god damned Tyr. Jesus Christ, did the Tyrian Chamber of Commerce pay you fuckers off to constantly advertise how great it is? For five novels and three iterations of the campaign setting, it’s Tyr, Tyr, Tyr, Tyr, Tyr and I’m sick of it. Making it worse is that a map of every city-state is inside the book, at the same quality as the Tyrian map (the Tyrian map is also inside the book if you want to look at your poster map and strain your eyes at the same time). I’d have ordered my book through their website, and even paid a few extra dollars beyond the shipping, if I could have gotten any psoter map I wanted (say, ummmm, Balic). Anyways, it’s a minor point, but it’s just sort of pissing me off. Alright, on to the book itself.

Chapter One: The World of Athas gets the ball rolling nicely with a twelve page summary of Athasian society, culture, and how it differs from typical settings. While It never goes into too much detail, it neatly covers the lack of divine characters, a quick list of the world’s dangers, the social classes of the cities, literacy, coinage, languages, the Athasian calendar, a little bit of its history, the prevalence of psionics and the shunning of magic, the differences from the standard cosmology (in a nutshell the Feywild is being torn apart as a side effect fo defiling, and if you even manage to get the the Astral Sea – the typical home of the gods – you’ll find it an empty, desolate ghost-town of a plane). It amnages to do this is twelve pages, and I feel provides ample information for a complete novice to truly get a feel for what they’re embarking upon.

The only gripe I have with this section is it omits something when discussing the calendar. They mention, briefly, how years are named in two parts and mention the current year (Priest’s Defiance), previously year (Desert’s Slumber) and the upcoming year (Wind’s Reverence). They also mention that it is presently the 190th King’s Age – but they leave you completely ignorant of A) how long a King’s Age is or B) how to figure out the name of any year other than the three named ones. I own the old products, so I’m fine, but for the space it would have taken up I think it would have been worth including. Other than this, however, this section is fantastic and does a lot to help encourage those new to Dark Sun – and soothe we old hands, showing us the Athas we love and remember is still there.

Chapter Two: Races of Athas kicks things off by providing us with two Dark Sun-specific races – the mul and the thri-kreen. Muls pretty much shape up as I expected, with a few abilities I didn’t anticipate – specifically Born of Two Races, which lets them take either dwarf or human feats (and which I should have predicted) and Mul Vitality which gives them an extra healing surge. Also, the previously mentioned condition resistance appears in the form of Incredible Toughness, an encounter power that shrugs off a dazed, slowed, stunned, or weakened condition. Thri-kreen, meanwhile, I knew a lot less about in advance but seem to conform to my expectations. They get a +2 to Athletics and Nature, as I expected, and they get a boost to jumping which makes sense. I’m sure lots of people will be unhappy with the new thri-kreen, but I happen to like threm – and they get a lot of the old stuff (incredible spring attacks, paralyzing bite) in the thri-kreen paragon path anyways.

After the introduction of these two new races, the rest get a brief treatment. All of the Player’s Handbook 1 races, plus the Goliath, get discussed over seven pages. With the exception of the character backgrounds, there’s no mechanics here – this is strictly a discussion about how the various races function, socially and culturally, in the very different world of Dark Sun. I mentioned an art gripe with this chapter, and this is where I find it. I love the artwork here, my only problem is that there isn’t enough of it. Specifically, as each races is radically different from its “traditional fantasy setting” counterpart, why isn’t a picture of each race included to show you what they look like? Of the three missing races, most egregious is the absence of the eladrin and the tiefling as both were non-existant during the original Dark Sun product run – more than any other races, they ought to be depicted in this section. Other than that minor gripe, however, I think these chapter does a good job catching everyone up on what it’s like to be a resident of Athas and how the various races are different from their counterparts.

Lastly we get three paragon paths – the half-giant thug, the mul battle slave, and the thri-kreen predator. All of them are cool, and nicely fit both the setting and the race, and I can see playing as any one of them. I’d have liked to see more paragon paths – they obviously felt they had to include a paragon path for each new race, and added one more as they’d radically changed the “flavor” of the Goliath – but I also recognize that there are space constraints.

At the time of writing it’s been seven days since my last update – and in that previous update, I said I was going to be updating more frequently (technically every seven days is more frequent than every nine!), so I think I’m going to do this review in two or three parts. I’ve been busy this past week as, at long last, I prepare to get my Dark Sun campaign underway. I’ll be talking about my campaign, my sessions, and my players (who are dedicated to driving me insane) soon.

D&D4E, Dark Sun

DS4e – Hitting the Reset Button

One of the more interesting things about the new, 4th Edition take on Dark Sun is that they’re doing something I normally abhor – but in this case am actually right on board with. Am I making an exception for Dark Sun just because it’s Dark Sun, thus proving my pathetic fanboyish-ness? Probably – but I run a blog about Dungeons & Dragons. So I’m not exactly “Mr. Cool” to begin with.

The Prism Pentad series really gave Dark Sun most of its details and iconic characters. Rikus and Neeva, Agis of Asticles, Rajaat War-Bringer, Borys of Ebe, Tithian the Turd (though he may not have gotten that nickname until the Chronicles of Athas books) were all introduced by the Pentad. Well, to be fair Borys already existed, but just as “The Dragon.” It made the sorcerer-kings truly cool by revealing who they were and how they had come to power – then proceeded to take these amazing, awesome characters of near infinite power and kill most of them.

Similarly to what Hayden Christensen did to Darth Vader, the Prism Pentad series did to the sorcerer-kings – took something you used to think was cool, then ruined them. The sorcerer-kings didn’t become lame like Vader did, but it’s a moot point because the majority of them died, which meant – if you ran an “official” Dark Sun campaign – they weren’t of much use to your game anyways.

My favorite sorcerer-king was always Hammanu, who happened to survive the Pentad series, only to get bumped off in Rise and Fall of a Dragon King. Spoiler Alert. Don’t worry, the entire Chronicles of Athas series has been retconned as being non-canonical anyways – Lynn Abbey (and possibly the other contributing authors, I’m not sure) were pretty well known to have taken some “liberties” with the established material. Besides, there’s a statute of limitations on spoilers for novels published 14 years ago.

Anyways, the point I’m getting at – in my patented rambling fashion – is that the progression of the Dark Sun timeline was a mixed bag. The original Dark Sun was very mysterious, with little of the history of the world known or understood. The Pentad revealed most of that history – and, to give Denning his due, it was brilliant – but at the same time, some of the mystery and confusion was lost. And there is a very vocal contingent on any Dark Sun-themed board or community that wishes the “revised” Dark Sun campaign setting (the one that incorporates the Pentad) had never happened.

So it’s not that surprising that DS4e will be winding the clock backwards. Apparently the wayback machine will be transporting Sherman and Mr. Peabody to the time immediately following The Verdant Passage – i.e. directly following the death of Kalak, and prior to the war between Tyr and Urik. It’s weird, because retcons typically piss me off, but I’m cool with this. In fact, in my own eventual Dark Sun campaign I intend to wind the clock back even further, to the time when sorcerer-kings were seen as undying gods-made-flesh. The minute one of them bites it, the entire society and culture of the entire Tablelands is almost certainly going to begin to shift and change.

My attitude toward the Pentad, when I run the game, is that it’s a great novel series and an excellent go-to guide for Athas’ history – and that’s it. I guarantee, that even if I do start bumping off sorcerer-kings, the progression will be a very different thing than what’s detailed in the Pentad.

If nothing else, most of my friends are very literate. I don’t dare follow a roadmap that exists anywhere but inside my head if I want to keep them on their toes.

I’m excited to say that, my last Shameless finally garnered some commentary from people I’ve never met before – at long last, a chiming of thought and opinion from someone I didn’t date or go to school with. This is a trend I want to continue, so I’m going to start ending some of these posts with a call for commentary. How do you let novels and other sources of “official” canon affect the plotlines of your games? And, as a follow-up, when basing your campaign on a novel or movie, what do you do when you later find out one (or more) or your players has read it or seen it?