At the request of commenter “The Hockey Czar”, I’m going to review the Dark Sun adventure I played in last weekend. I also had the chance to DM this adventure as well, and I’m going to have a separate post on that experience as it was my first 4e game on the other side of the table. The adventure, Death in the Arena by Christ Tulach features six characters that show off flavor of Athas: use of Psionic classes, lack of Divine magic, new races: Goliaths (as half-giants), the Mul (half-dwarf), and Thri-Kreen (humanoid praying mantis), attention to nature and magic that ravages the environment. Each of the characters also has a Theme which is an additional background choice that provides an extra encounter power, societal role, and I assume, paragon paths. The two big ones that I liked were Templar (a priest of the sorcerer-king) and Gladiator. Any character can take a theme regardless of class, although my guess is that some classes are suited better for some themes (for instance fighter or barbarian for gladiator).
The adventure itself was a lot of fun. SPOILER ALERT for the rest of the paragraph. The party starts off divided into two groups of three competing to win an artifact from the days when Athas was green and happy. The adventure rolls right into a skill challenge where each side makes a case to get the artifact. The negotiations end poorly with a series of interesting combats in the arena. These show off some of the new monsters (the big guys had cool psychic blast attacks) and made use of some interesting terrain. The flavor text of the battles brings to life gritty combat in a hot pit surrounded by thousands of cheering or jeering spectators (showing off for the crowd is worth a few bonuses as well). In the first battle the two groups are in separate yet simultaneous combats; something I haven’t seen in a long while. It challenges the DM to keep things fluid but to fun effect (you get to be a spectator in the other combat while being participating in your own). The combats are followed by a series of chase skill challenges, culminating in the final battle. The last battle was a bit pedestrian and anti-climatic compared to the first few, but the marketplace scene made for a lot of interesting strategy. The party wins by collecting the artifact and the text leaves off unsatisfactorily at the start of a grand adventure for the future.
The adventure, which will run at various conventions through GenCon, shows off the new campaign setting Dark Sun. For those of you don’t remember it from second edition, it’s a rough hot world where magic has literally boiled the land and burned the seas to the point where civilization is limited to a handful of city-states ruled by tryrannical sorcerer-kings and pockets of wildnerness controlled by mean-spirited demihumans. Oh yeah, and all the gods have been killed or driven off such that the priestly templars derive their powers from the sorceror kings (there’s a new sorceror-king pact build for warlocks). In 2E players were encouraged to roll up multiple characters and nott get too attached. Thankfully the setting seems better suited to 4e: while still very tough, the conditions, skills, and treasure bring that sense of danger without having to constantly overpower and kill characters (mileage varies by DM). If Eberron is Indiana Jones + Steampunk, Dark Sun is more like something you’d get if Ridley Scott directed Mad Max.
Some other features of Dark Sun:
- Metal is scarce. Characters start off with bone weapons and carapice armor, metal is used as gifts and is a sign of wealth. To go along with this there is a new mechanic where if you roll a 1 on an attack, you can choose to let your weapon break and roll again (metal weapons have a chance of surviving). This is a neat bit of flavor, but everyone in the adventure wisely choose to protect their weapons when this came up…we needed them. I think this choice is the point of the mechanic, but it remains to be seen how this actually plays out.
- Magic kills. Casting spells literally draws life energy from the flora around you. Arcane characters are generally despised for this. There wasn’t really a chance for this to matter in the adventure since it was a one-shot. Arcane casters can either be defilers or preservers, depending on their level of respect for the native plant-life.
- City states. The adventure takes place in the main city of Tyr, ruled by the Sorceror-King Kalak.
- Harsh environment. Although the adventure took place in the relative saftey of the a city, the hazards of a harsh world were mentioned in the flavor text, and we can expect dangerous terrain and elemental wastelands, so save up those healing surges.
Not surprisingly I had a lot of fun despite the DM being pretty bad. I am looking forward to the campaign setting coming out this summer, although I don’t want to switch to it from our normal campaign. I hope they do series like the D&D Encounters or LFR with it. In fact the preview adventure could benefit from a little expansion into first adventure of a campaign arc. The best part about the adventure were the characters. They all had interesting back stories and deep (for a one-shot) motivations. I almost cared a lot more about their indivdual stories than the adventure’s plot, especially since it ended so abruptly. On the plus side it took less than the scheduled 4 hours, and every extra minute was a boon at PAX.
If you get a chance, check it out, the setting looks very cool. If nothing else, you may be able to bring certain elements to into any standard campaign.