December 30, 2010

Dark Sun: Campaign Setting

Recently WotC rereleased the Dark Sun setting for 4E. This article is part of a series that examines a release from 2E Dark Sun and sees how and if it can be integrated with the new 4E version of the world setting.

The product we’re looking at today is the Campaign Setting Boxed Set, published in 1991. It is a boxed set that includes 2 softcover books; the Rules Book which runs for 96 pages and The Wanderer’s Journal which runs 96 pages. In addition, there are two spiral books comprising an introductory adventure; the Dungeon Master’s Book and the Player Aid Cards. Included are two foldout maps.
This is the set that started it all, the core release for the Dark Sun campaign setting.

Rules Book
This is divided into 15 chapters and, as expected, is a treatise on how to roll up and run a character in this new campaign setting.

Chapter 1: Ability Scores
This one page “chapter” outlines how to roll up a character’s abilities. It follows the 2E methods. There is no reason to not use the 4E methods.

Chapter 2: Player Character Races
The 4E setting has all the same races available, along with the Dragonborn (Dray), Eladrin and Tiefling. 2E has the Half-Giant, but that is covered in 4E with the Goliath race. Some charts are provided for ability modifiers based on race, but simply using the 4E modifiers is the easiest way to go. 2E also put level limits on classes based on race, but 4E did away with such restrictions so the accompanying chart detailing these is of no use. There are of course differences between 2E and 4E racial abilities, even without adding the Dark Sun setting. Some more obvious differences are listed by race below.

Dwarves in the 2E setting are given the concept of a focus; a goal that consumes their lives. Mechanics are provided for how this focus can affect a dwarf. The 4E book mentions something similar to this but in broader, more general terms, making it more of a role-playing effect than a mechanical effect. If a DM wanted to include the 2E version of focus it shouldn’t be hard to insert.

Elves are much the same from a role-playing aspect in both editions. However, the 4E Dark Sun elf is the same as every other 4E elf as far as mechanics are concerned. The 2E elf was markedly different from the typical 2E elf, mostly in regards to their capacity for endurance and running. A player could take feats to mimic these advantages if he was looking for a 2E elf version in his 4E game.

Half-Giants in 2E had a mechanic where every morning they would change their alignment to reflect their mercurial shift of attitudes. 4E has mostly done away with the 2E version of alignments so this would not be able to work the same, so instead the 4E book simply relegates this to a role-playing choice and only briefly mentions their propensity for mood swings.

Thri-Kreen in the 2E setting viewed elf as a delicacy. This is specifically done away with in the 4E setting, where it noted that Thri-kreen only eat beasts. This was probably done so there would no conflict within a party if players happen to choose those two races for their characters.

There are some nice charts for height and weight if players wanted to roll on them to flesh out the look of their characters. Also included are some aging charts, but since 4E does not deal with the concept of aging or the ability changes that occur therein, this chart is of little use.

Chapter 3: Player Character Classes
On a fundamental level classes are different between 2E and 4E. There is no clear way to draw a comparison between the two. However, 2E did provide us with a Gladiator class, for which a player could use the Gladiator theme.

2E characters started at 3rd level, but that is not needed in a 4E campaign since starting 4E characters overall are stronger than starting 2E characters. This includes the greater hit points allotted to a Dark Su character, since 4E already provides a higher starting hit point pool.

The chapter proceeds to go into detail on each of the classes, but none of this material is of any use in a 4E campaign due to the significant differences in class structure and concept. Suffice to say, it is simply easier to just go with the 4E classes and forget about the 2E versions.

One interesting concept near the end of the chapter is of the Character Tree. Basically this is when the players each create 3 characters at the start of the campaign and then swap between them as the campaign progresses. The characters would then level up as a set. Rules are provided for leveling, when a character could be played, and how they would interact with the aprty and each other. This was mostly done so if a player lost a character during an adventure he would have a readily available character to replace the dead one, one that was of a comparable level to the lost character. Times have changed since those days. These days it is more acceptable to bring in a new character at a level equal to or near the party’s level and not require the new character to start at the beginning of progression. Thus, there is little to need for a Character Tree while playing in a 4E campaign.

Chapter 4: Alignment
4E has taken a different approach to alignment, downplaying its effect in game play. This chapter is almost the exact opposite of this concept. It discusses how alignments can affect a character’s actions when things get rough, such as when the party is low on resources and in desperate straights. The chapter provides for a system wherein a character can change alignment during those times and may commit abnormal actions due to the shift of alignment. Since 4E doesn’t have these clear lines of alignment this would be harder to implement and in the end probably not worth the effort to try.

Chapter 5: Proficiencies
Proficiencies are the 2E version of skills. Overall the chapter is of no use in a 4E campaign. Just use the 4E skills and feats as desired and the new proficiencies (new to 2E) will be covered.

Chapter 6: Money and Equipment
Money conversion between 2E and 4E is a pain in the neck. Money graduation, copper to silver to gold is different. In addition, there are ceramic pieces which replace copper pieces, but these ceramic pieces can be further broken down into bits. In addition, the cost of something depends on what material it is made out of, metal being more expensive. Taken all together there is no easy conversion between the two editions. While various prices are included for new items, without a good conversion system, it is not of much value.

The chapter goes into a quick barter sub-system. If a DM wanted to, he could convert this into a skill challenge but 4E eschews bartering and negotiation and prefers to just allow for straight up buying and selling.

Chapter 7: Magic
This chapter goes into the magic of Dark Sun. It divides clerical magic into spheres or types of magic. 4E does nothing of the sort and there is no easy way and not any real reason to do so for a 4E campaign. Defiling magic and trees of life are also discussed but they are already covered in the 4E book. The chapter ends with a quick look at magic items, specifically how they use different materials (such as fruit for potions). This is all already in the 4E book.

Chapter 8: Experience
The chapter starts with a new way of giving experience points, individual awards. This is the act of rewarding specific actions that a class or race does during an adventure. Experience for killing monsters is given to the aprty as normal but these individual awards are given to each character separately. For example, warriors gain extra xp per level of the monster killed, rangers gain extra xp for tracking, thieves for using their thief skills, elves for running long distances, etc. Each award is discussed in further detail in the chapter.

This is an interesting concept. It rewards classes for doing what they do best and encourages role-playing in certain manners for the races. Instead of a generic overall reward of xp it is more geared for specific actions, which brings a different feel to the accumulation of xp. I’m not sure this is for all games (and is not something I personally would want to do with xp) but it can easily be adapted to a 4E campaign.

Chapter 9: Combat
The chapter starts with a discussion on arena combats. It lists several different types of combat games. The chapter further goes into battling undead (pretty standard), character death (hovering on death’s door optional rule) , waging wars, followers, and piecemeal armor. Most of this is pretty much covered already in the standard 4E rules, though the last one, piecemeal armor, is something relatively new for 4E. Basically instead of an armor providing a blanket number of armor class, the armor is broken up into smaller pieces (such as breast, one arm, etc) and each piece provides a point or two of armor class. 4E has nothing like this, but I believe the concept could be converted to the 4E rules.

Chapter 10: Treasure
A series of charts are presented for the distribution of treasure. In no way is this at all compatible with the 4E rules. Discussion is had about specific magic items and how they relate to the Dark Sun setting, but none of this really applies to a 4E campaign. 4 New magic items are provided and an enterprising DM may wish to convert them to their 4E equivalents.

Chapter 11: Encounters
This chapter covers what 2E monsters are appropriate for a Dark Sun campaign. None of this is of value in a 4E campaign. However, there are a number of tables that provide a list of random monsters to be found in each type of terrain. Most of these monsters can be found in either the Dark Sun Creature Catalog or in the core 4E monsters books so there shouldn’t be much of a problem with using the tables. If nothing else, they can give a DM an idea of what types of monsters can be found in what type of terrain which should help with adventure design.

Chapter 12: NPCs
This short chapter provides a DM with some standardized reactions of Dark Sun NPC spellcasters; how they usually react in different situations. It is all rather stratified, but could give a DM an idea if he were to be stuck for one.

Chapter 13: Vision and Light
This one page chapter is covered in the core 4E rule set.

Chapter 14: Time and Movement
Dark Sun has some “new” rules for survival and movement and this chapter provides those. This is already covered in the 4E book. One noted discrepancy is the Athasian calendar which is set up slightly differently than in the 4E book.

Chapter 15: New Spells
The last chapter of the book takes a look at some old spells and sees how they are different in a Dark Sun campaign. We also get 12 new spells. A GM could use these as ideas for a 4E campaign, but as written they are of no use.

The Wanderer’s Journal
Whereas the Rule Book presented the ways and means of creating and running characters in a Dark Sun setting, this book outlines the actual setting. It is divided into 5 chapters.

Chapter One: The World of Athas
This chapter is more of an overview than a detailing of the setting. It briefly goes into Culture, History, and the Supernatural. It all rather basic and the History section really goes into nothing; I believe they were saving some surprises for the novel series to come out.

Chapter Two: Athasian Society
This goes into the unique aspects of the setting and what the important parts of the setting are. It covers a wide range of topics. These include the Barrenness of the world, the scarcity of Metal, the prevalence of Psionics, the differences in Magic (specifically defiling magic and the Veiled Alliance), the City-States and their inhabitants, Gender and Race, Villages, Merchant Houses including the Merchant Code, Tribes, and Hermits. The chapter provides 30 pages of information which is used to give the feel of the world, both for the players and the DMs. Much the same information is covered in the 4E book. The 4E book actually did a good of condensing down the most relevant information while still being all-inclusive.

Chapter Three: Athasian Geography
Here the book divides the Tyr region into 4 sections; Sea of Silt, Tablelands, Ringing Mountains, and Hinterlands. It describes each in broad strokes. Each has the same topics covered such as Methods of Travel, Flora and Fauna, Ruins, Geography, and Encounters. Again the 4E book provides much the same information.

Chapter Four: Atlas of the Tyr Region
The book starts to get into some details now. We start with a description of the City-States. In actuality, the 4E book provides more information for each city, but then they culled information for the cities from sources other than this book so they had a lot more to work with. After the City-States come Villages, Oases, Islands, Ruins, and Landmarks. Near as I can tell all the information found in this chapter is also found in the 4E book.

Chapter Five: The Monsters of Athas
The book ends with 11 new monsters. The Dark Sun Creature Catalog has all of the monsters in 4E form, except for the Jozhal. The Jozhal was probably dropped because it is a non-combative monster.

Introductory Adventure
This is presented in the two spiral format; the Dungeon Master’s Book and the Player Aid Cards. It is not divided into parts but is instead written as 24 potential encounters.

The adventure starts with the players as slaves in a caravan being taken from Urik to Tyr to be sold. An elven tribe is angry with Urik for taking some of its members as slaves and attacks the caravan, by which the characters end up getting released into the wilderness.

A few desert encounters are provided and eventually the characters make their way to Kled, a Dwarven village. The previous elves are poisoning the local waters in retaliation for Kled helping Urik (which they did not do) and also kidnapped the druid in the area so the druid could not clean the waters. Eventually the characters deal with the elves and rescue the druid.

It is a pretty straightforward adventure but can be a lot of fun nevertheless. I certainly remember it being fun back when I ran it many, many years ago. Monster conversion should be really easy due to the monster choices. The Player Aid Cards are a series of pictures used to showcase certain scenes in the adventure and are well done.

Fold-Out Maps
There is a map of the region. It covers much the same stuff as the 4E map, with slightly less around the edges. There is also a map of Tyr.

Between the Rules Book and the Wanderer’s Journal, there are 55. Most are by Brom and Baxa. Not a lot are of value for showing the players scenes their characters can see, but there are some nice pieces when the book describes the city-states as each gets its own picture that shows off it architecture and thus part of its “feel”.

Overall: Sadly, the Rules Book and Wanderer’s Journal are not of any use in a 4E campaign. Their information is either outright not compatible, such as in the Rule Book, or are so generalized, such as in the Wanderer’s Journal, that using them is not worth the effort as the 4E setting book does an excellent job of covering the same points. Likewise the map is the same as the 4E map.

As for the included adventure, it is fairly linear without much chance for deviation unless you are willing to allow the players to completely leave the adventure. If you don’t mind simple, it works fine as an adventure. It highlights that elves are not all nice and pretty as they are on other worlds, which makes for an eye-opening experience for a player new to Dark Sun.
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