The Introduction jumps right in, explaining what is unique about the Dark Sun setting. Athas is a dying world, where mere survival is a constant battle... and where any sensible person would concentrate on creating a stable sustainable environment, 'heroes' of course prefer to seek glory. The differences between Athas and more conventional fantasy settings is encapsulated in the Eight Characteristics of Athas - it's a desert planet, most people living there are pretty unpleasant selfish types, metal is scarce, arcane magic caused a lot of the current problems and still does damage if you try to use it, long-lived sorcerer-kings rule city-states as the main centres of power, deities seem to have lost interest in the place, the monsters are deadly, and even 'familiar' races are not quite what one would expect. Handy thumb-nail sketch, which makes me wonder if I actually want to visit... well, I do like deserts! There's a note about the original Dark Sun - published in 1991 by TSR using the AD&D 2e ruleset, and saying that while the timeline has been moved on a little from that portrayed in the original books, this version is a complete rewrite and so what you remember from them may not be the case in this D&D 4e setting.
On to Chapter 1: The World of Athas for the full low-down on what to expect. This setting is so different for other ones that you need to study it carefully to be able to play a native... unless your DM has some innovative idea for bringing characters from another setting in to this world, so that it as strange to your character as it is to you. However you got there - native or immigrant - you're going to be a hero, and so the first part of the chapter discusses what manner of heroes are to be found here and how to carve out your own legend. Quite a few ideas are given both here and further on in the book as to how to both embed your character in Athasian society and empower him for greatness. One notable feature of the place is that psionic abilities are an inherent part of the setting, an integral part of what makes Athas what it is, so if you are not comfortable with using psionics in your game, this may not be the setting for you. While a lack of deities and clerical classes is also an integral part of the setting, a few suggestions are given for those who want to be one of the few god-botherers in the entire world - but you will have to resign yourself to the fact that you may never meet another person who believes in gods at all, let alone your own deity!
Next comes a look at the possibilities for adventure on Athas: as you can imagine there are plenty! Whether tomb-raiding or engaging in courtly intrigue, building a trade empire or earn fame and fortune as a pit-fighter appeals, it's likely that a peculiarly Athasian spin can be put on it; this is certainly a setting ripe with opportunity. While a lot of Athasians are motivated by what's in it for them - and even heroes may have an eye on political advancement, their bank balance or on who is the local bard singing about this week - some rise above personal gain and act out of altruism, even if they prefer to try to do things right - ethical merchants, perhaps - rather than go around righting wrongs. The discussion then moves on to Athasian civilisation and the social order as it stands, and then to the history of the world - what little is known by most people anyway, those sorcerer-kings are not too keen on ordinary people learning to read let alone know how (and by whom) the world has been brought to its present state!
Chapter 2: The Races of Athas both runs through the new world-specific races and gives an Athasian spin to existing playable races. The two new races are the mul and the thri-keeen. Mul are incredibly tough humanoids, a result of mixing human and dwarf. Unsurprisingly, they make excellent fighters... although rather too many folk on Athas think that they make excellent slaves. Thri-kreen are insectoid in nature, experts at hunting and survival, often becoming rangers, druids or monks (perhaps the extra pair of limbs gives an advantage when practising the martial arts?). Character backgrounds - based on race, region or something else - are available to help customise each character, each gives an appropriate minor advantage. Then on to the existing races. Dragonborn, despite popular opinion, are not all slavers and sorcerers, although many practise at least one of these trades. Dwarves are still stoic and single-minded, but tend to earn their living as craftsmen, builders or farmers... and rarely manage much in the way of a beard! Eladrin are rare, haughty folk who are very good at psionics but they have abandoned arcane magic completely. Elves are nomadic traders - often rogues - and travelling entertainers. Goliaths or half-giants tend to be barbarians or fighters. Half-elves tend to be rejected by elves and distrusted by humans, making for a lonely life. Halflings are closely linked to nature, seeing themselves not as individuals but merely part of a whole... and are fierce and savage, regarding just about anybody or anything as a potential resource (or lunch). Humans are as ubiquitous as ever. Tieflings are nomadic raiders, or sell their swords to whomsover needs them. Other races may or may not be available at the DM's discretion, but it is possible to play the sole representative on Athas of just about anything with a plausible story of how you got to be there - planar travel is often a good start, or mutation (possibly assisted along by magical experimentation) or perhaps a member of a race that once lived here but died out, leaving a few in stasis... The chapter ends with some racial paragon paths to aim for.
Chapter 3 is titled Character Themes, and its purpose is to introduce a new option for building characters. Your 'theme' is a calling or vocation, a concept that might be met by a variety of routes, different classes or skillsets, something that defines you. It goes beyond race and class, ehancing those basic definitions to explain what drives you as an individual, distinct from everyone else who happens to be of the same race and class. Ten themes are provided for Athasian characters, as well as notes on how the idea works and on the mechanical side, giving additional powers that each theme may use as well as theme-based paragon paths to aspire towards. Athasian minstrels, the first theme presented, are often bards... but they can be rogues or fighters, even warlords or battleminds. They entertain, true, but may also spy or kill, or teach skills other than the lute in their travels. Thus it continues with the other themes. Dune traders can be of virtually any class, whatever it takes to travel the world in a merchant caravan, trading with all comers on behalf of your master or for yourself. Elemental priests venerate the elements and draw on primal power, and this path is common amongst those who seek the ability to heal. You can probably guess what a gladiator does for a living, but any race or class, slave or free, may for some reason enter the arena and fight in front of a crowd. Noble adepts may be of any race or class although of noble birth, but they have chosen to spend their time in the study of psionics. Primal guardians take it upon themselves to defend what remains of nature against further depredation and defilement. Templars are the long arm of the law in the city-states, enforcing the will of the sorcerer-kings, many receiving training in the arcane arts. Members of the Veiled Alliance likewise study matters arcane, but are dedicated to the 'preserving' form rather than the 'defiling' types of magic that caused the present state of Athas. Wasteland nomads seek the freedom of desert life while the final theme, the wilder, hones psionic powers whose origins elude him. Interesting ideas for how to integrate a character cleanly into this particular setting, although I'd have relished some guidance on how to create themes of my own.
Next, Chapter 4: Character Options explores the whole concept of making characters truly Athasian, rather than just any old D&D 4e character that just happens to be adventuring here. It starts off by looking at what makes arcane magic so distinctive, the idea that using it can 'defile' or damage the world by sucking out lifeforce from the caster's surroundings, but that an alternate methodolgy called 'preserving' enables an arcane spellcaster to operate without doing damage, although it takes more effort. Despite defiling having obvious effects, like plants crumbling to ash around your feet, most people regard ALL arcane magic as evil, so arcane spellcasters need to be very careful about letting on what they do for a living, especially as it is actually illegal in most places! Next comes an optional rule for Wild Talents which are minor psionic abilities available to virtually all natives of Athas, the place is so infused with psionic powers that even those who don't actually train in psionic arts have the chance of being able to do the odd trick or two - if the DM allows, all starting native characters may select or roll for a single wild talent. This is followed by a few new builds for existing character classes that are particularly suitable, such as the wild battlemind who uses raw untrained psionic power. Shamans can be animists, while fighters rather unsurprisingly can specialise in arena combat and a warlock may make a pact direct with one of the sorcerer-kings. Each build of course comes with an array of new character powers.
We then take a look at some epic destinies that characters seeking the highest levels of play can aim towards. Many place characters in roles which could lead to a legendary transformation of Athas, healing it of the damage that has been done in the past. The usual collection of new feats also appears. Many of the combat-related ones deal with weapons only found on Athas or with the specialist skills associated with arena fighting. There is also a section on rituals, many of which do not work as expected - or at all - on Athas. The DM is advised to exert control of ritual choices, but some new ones developed here are available for ritual-using characters to select. As can be imagined, in the harsh environment of Athas, good equipment can be crucial to survival so the final part of this chapter looks at useful gear, riding animals and magic items. It also explores the effect of the lack of metal on the weapons and armour available - metal ones are generally ancient heirlooms and beyond the means of all but the most successful adventurers. In the main, however, the use of alternate materials is a matter of flavour rather than a requirement to change the rules relating to use, although optional rules to reflect the increased likelihood of non-metals breaking in use are provided. Still, even if you do find a full set of plate armour, wearing it in the desert sun is not advised! There are some unusual new weapons described and illustrated.
All kitted out, Chapter 5: Atlas of Athas provides a glipse of this arid, harsh yet fascinating place. It begins with a desert primer - there is a lot more to deserts than rolling sand dunes. A whole range of environments of varying degrees of hospitality are covered, all posing a challenge to survival for all but the best-prepared traveller. Next comes the City of Tyr. The place is in turmoil following the fall of its sorcerer-king, plenty of opportunity for adventure here! While there's a lot of detail given, DMs wanting to set campaigns in Tyr might wish to obtain City State of Tyr (TSR, 1993) to supplement it. This is followed by a section on another city, Balic. Despite being ruled by a sorcerer-king, this city practises democracy on a surprising scale... but within certain prescribed limits. Transgress at your peril! Next comes the city of Draj, ruled by a mad sorcerer-king who believes himself to be a deity and requires citizens to worship him. As he is given to demanding blood sacrifice, most people do not dispute his godhood openly. Moving on we reach the Estuary of the Forked Tongue, on the edges of the Sea of Silt. Other places follow thick and fast - more cities, semi-civilised lands and outright wild places - plenty of descriptive text to help you set the scene but a distressing paucity of maps.
Finally, Chapter 6: Running a Dark Sun Game is aimed primarily at the DM. Delightfully, much of the emphasis is on creating the correct atmosphere of the alternate reality of this particular setting - this is a setting in which the exquisitely balanced combat-oriented D&D 4e ruleset is blended and meshed with tools to facilitate role-playing to the full by evoking all the things that make Dark Sun a very special place to visit. To this end, the chapter looks at appropriate campaign themes, a detailed look at travel and survival issues, advice on arena and survival encounter design, and treasures and other rewards suited specifically to Athas. A major theme on Athas, and one particularly suited to the 'characters as heroes' ethos of D&D 4e, is that the world is ruled by evil - both the sorcerer-kings themselves and the all-pervading influence of slavery - and that epic legends can be built around those prepared to dedicate themselves towards eradicating such evils. Likewise, if you take a more ecological view, attempts to repair the damage done to the world by defilers can create memorable campaigns. One interesting idea for those groups who are not interested in the details of surviving in the desert - which can make a whole adventure in itself if you do enjoy that kind of challenge - is the concept of a purchasable 'survival day.' This is a mechanical shorthand to allow characters to acquire what they need for a given number of days without the need for bookkeeping their quantities of food, water, sunscreen and the like. Of course, if for some reason the characters run out of survival days they are going to have to work out how to stay alive...
While most of the encounter types from the ruleset apply, activities in the gladatorial arena feature large in Athas - particularly if any characters are gladiators by choice or perforce. Thus plenty of detail is provided to enable you to create and run memorable arena encounters, pitting characters against other fighters or wild beasts while bringing the whole atmosphere of the spectacle to life. There are also notes about fitting wilderness encounters to the specific environment and some typical Athasian skill challenges that can be used to good effect. Examples given include attempting to join the Veiled Alliance of preseving arcanists and trying to hide from ones enemies inside a city - while these are things better resolved by role-playing rather than skill checks alone, backing up interaction with mechanics makes for an exciting challenge. The chapter ends with an adventure, Sand Raiders, in which 1st-level characters are set the task of finding a missing wagon from a trading caravan that has arrived at its destination a wagon short. Three intense encounters are laid out to introduce characters to the way things work, although you may wish to add some desert travel and survival elements (plenty ideas in earlier parts of this chapter to help you set them up) to round the adventure out a bit.
Overall, this is an impressive introduction to the setting, managing to remain true to the original concepts of Dark Sun while meshing in the D&D 4e ruleset and empowering role-playing as well as combat in a distinctive alternate reality... but it does need more maps!
[5 of 5 Stars!]