Review: D&D 4th Edition Dark Sun

This is a brief take after my reading of the new campaign setting for 4th Edition Dark Sun.  I have a lot more to say, but I’m trying to be succinct.  If you have particular questions, meet me in the comment thread.

A while ago I got a copy of Dark Sun for 4th Edtion.  I’ve recently finished reading the complete Prism Pentad for the first time, and might talk about those in another post.  Suffice to say – the quirkly illogic of old-school D&D combined with the brutality of the setting to make an interesting read all around.  Not all of the books are equally good (the 4th one is the worst of the lot, and I might even say skip it) but I read the whole five books, which says something.

I picked up the new 4th Edition Dark Sun Campaign Setting, wondering how 4th Edition’s invincible player-characters would combine with the life-is-cheap brutality of Athas.  The answer: you get a lot of 4th Edition wedded to a tiny bit of Dark Sun.

As an implementation of the Dark Sun setting, I think that the new campaign book basically fails.  There is some text about how tough Athas is, but there is very little that actually makes it tough in terms of system.  You have to spend about 5gp a day to live, and if you don’t,  you start losing healing surges from lack of water and so on.  Compare this to the most physically strong character in the books, Rkard the Mul, being laid low by having to walk out in the open for three or four days, reduced to a near-dead state, and Athas really loses it’s bite.

What I wanted was a grim, desperate land where travel itself, usually at best handled by a montage or a couple skill challenge, could kill you just as readily as the overwhelming collection of murderous, psionic fauna.  What you get is a way to drain 5gp a day out of your pocket.  Which, when a first level encounter might net the party hundreds of gold pieces, has little to no sting.

More than anything else, 4th Edition’s take on Dark Sun convinced me that the setting needs it’s own system.  D&D is not about being murdered by your harsh environment. It is not about deceit and back-stabbing and political maneuvering.  Both of these things feature prominently in the Prism Pentad books.

Where Dark Sun and 4th Edition overlap in a sweet spot is in gladiatorial combat.  I could see a game based on a cadre of gladiators in Tyr going really well – you get the monster-of-the week phenomenon without needing a lot of explanation, and you get to showcase what 4th Edition does – small-scale tactical combat with kewl powerz.

Once you leave the gladiatorial arena, though, 4th Ed falls apart as an engine for Dark Sun stories.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 shards of obsidian.

6 thoughts on “Review: D&D 4th Edition Dark Sun

  1. I remembering hearing of an rpg, might be in playtest, that focuses on survival as the main challenge – but the short answer is “no”. Loads of games that do tactical combat, some games that do social conflict well, a very few that look at resource management on a large scale, but none that focus on survival in a harsh environment as a primary conflict.

    As expected, I sketched out the rough outline of a Dark Sun rpg, but no idea if it will go anywhere.


  2. I played in the 2E Dark Sun when it was first released and played it for some time. I don't remember it being “instant death” or all that dangerous beyond the monsters you faced. yes it was a harsh game but no one in any of my games died from the weather/environment.
    Of course, I think letting the weather be the end of a character is silly and anti-climatic, but that is me.
    Personally I like the 4E version as much as the 2E version.


  3. I wouldn't want any anticlimatic death – that's one of my beefs with the d20 system(s) – a die-roll can mean death when it doesn't serve the story at all.

    The thing I want is the sense of “Oh crap I have to go outside?” I want traveling from place to place to be as dangerous as the combat encounters you have along the way. I want losing your survival supplies to be more terrifying than losing your magic weapons. That's all.


  4. Probably an intense “survival” game just isn't in D&D DNA. It is a game that started as tabletop wargaming and will always revolve around combat to one degree or another.

    A good challenge would be to come up with a game that makes foraging for food and slowly dehydrating very exciting.


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