The new 4e Dark Sun setting books are pretty good. They've changed up their format a little bit, and rather than doing a GM's book and a Player's book, they just did one setting book and one monster book. I was a little bit skeptical of this approach, but as it turns out, I like it very much. It made Dark Sun pop in a way that the previous settings hadn't quite managed to.
Now, some of this may be all about legacy. The first two settings are both thoroughly documented beasts from previous editions which had to get distilled down into some manner of workable version for the much more minimalist 4e presentation. Dark Sun had different parentage.
For those unfamiliar with it, Dark Sun was one of the Boxed Set setting released in support of second edition D&D, along with Planescape, Birthright and Spelljammer. Like Planescape, it was in large part defined by its art style (courtesy of Brom) and it was well-loved and mechanically interesting, trying to express ideas like tougher PCs, ubiquitous psionics and bone weapons without he fairly crude tools 2e provided. It wasn't always a great match, but it more than made up for its shortcomings with its clear, brutal style and creativity in presentation.
Dark Sun suffered a bad fate at the hands of a revised edition that showcased all the worst parts of novelization. Basically, the setting had been changed over the course of the books as a troupe of heroes had gone around and killed all the big bad guys who had a large role in defining the setting. Revised Dark Sun kind of hinged on how awesome those guys were and how much you were getting their sloppy seconds.
The 4e version kind of rolls back the clock on that, picking a moment of change (just after the death of one of the Dragon Kings) and taking a snapshot there. It's a good choice because it puts a nice level of tension and potential change into things without mandating anything. Players could be at the center of changing the world, or they could just go off in their own direction without things changing drastically. That's good design.
The art is...well, it's maybe unfair to pick on the art. It's ok - too clean in places but excellent in others. The problem is that in my mind it's being compared to some truly iconic art, and much of it suffers by comparison. Still, the good is quite good, and some of the monsters really shine.
And monsters bring me to the part that I found most impressive. The monster book _is_ the GMs book. A lot of the hooks in the main book are fleshed out in one monster entry or another. There's no easy way to document these connections, which is perhaps a bit frustrating, but at the same time the fact that the reader can make the connection as they go draws him in a little more, so I think it's a net positive.
I'm not sure I can state strongly enough how good an idea this is. Putting the material in the monsters book basically imbeds the setting elements right into the tools. There's no abstract layer between them required to bring them together - it just happens. These monsters are associated with this setting feature. Done.
I really like this direction for setting books. Where Eberron and the Forgotten Realms were well enough put together, they are not setting that lend themselves well to overview. There's just too much stuff. Dark Sun, on the other hand, is actually a fairly small setting, for all that it contains bigness within. It's a limited geographic area on a world that might otherwise be dead, with civilization clustered in only a few places. The volume of text in these books really feels like it's just about the right amount.
Now, no books are going to be completely flawless, and a few weaknesses pop up in the main book. The bulk of the book is setting information, usually 2 or 4 page spreads on each area of interest, with a larger spread for Tyr, the theoretical hub of any campaign. Sadly, Tyr is probably the least interesting part of the setting. In and of itself that's no problem - something has to be least interesting - but why it (and a few other entries) fall flat struck me as very interesting.
See, the dullest entries in the book are the most normal. The ones that fill in names of locations with a line or two of detail. They're very clearly written in accordance with a specific format which hearkens back to older adventure design, and the weakness of it ends up standing out more strongly in a book that mostly eludes it. The pattern is this: where a writer assigns two lines apiece to outline five "normal" parts of a setting (shops, NPCs, stuff like that) it feels like filler. But when that same writer takes 10 lines to talk about, well, almost anything, the setting comes alive with hooks and interesting elements.
It's very curious to me, since it seems to be no shortage of talent on the writer's part. Rather, I think the bullet-point location format proves to be a bit of a lead weight because things like the name of a cheese shop are the parts the GM can most easily fill in on her own. Giving the same writers a little more breathing room produces much better results.
So I'm filing that one away as potentially useful down the line. I don't think it's a blanket condemnation of short summaries - there's plenty of evidence that you can put a compelling hook in a single sentence - but it definitely warns against small details purely for the sake of small details (at least for me).
All in all, I'm pleased I picked it up, and a little worried that just as WOTC hits their stride on a setting book, the entire idea of setting books is tossed up in the air by the emergence of the Essentials line. But such are the vagaries of the hobby.
1 - I believe there may also be a mega-adventure for it as well but I, er, kind of don't care.
2 - Of these four settings, three of them were brilliant and evocative. One was very stupid, but evocative.
3 - Many of the Dark Sun adventures were physically unlike any other published adventures, including folders of flip-top books with information for players on one side and the GM on the other. Even if they weren't great adventures they were bold experiments.
4 - And I mean that literally, some entries go from flat to snappy at the drop of a hat.