I haven’t had time to read this yet, but I did have time to flip through each page and graze on the interesting stuff.
First, like most of the 4e books, the production values are high. Good pictures, good binding, etc. I did notice a “see page XX” error, which is one of the errors I just don’t understand. Hit Ctrl-F, type XX, and correct those things.
I was a huge fan of Dark Sun for 2e, collecting a good bit of what was published for the game. Even though it eventually went weird places–as settings in the hands of multiple authors are prone to do–I still loved it because it was so different from the other settings. So gritty, so bleak, so much more swords and sorcery than high fantasy. I also liked the way the new rules for the 2e version of the setting changed the way you played AD&D. Weapons breaking, no armor, tracking water consumption, defiling, the races, no clerics–all of that changed the way you played the game, meaning that more than Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms, Dark Sun made you play a different version of D&D.
You can probably see where I’m headed here. The nature of 4e is to be modular, and that was not the nature of 2e, despite what the kit books tried to do–or even worse, Skills and Powers. But 4e survives as 4e D&D by adding a new power source here, adding a new class there. The problem I have with the Dark Sun box is that aside from the actual description of the world, it doesn’t fundamentally change the way I would play D&D if I were playing in Dark Sun. The new classes and races feel pretty much the same as the ones from PHB1 and 2 and 3. They feel balanced. They feel playable. They feel sterile. (Ooh! Mul reference.) The new rules have the same feel. If the DM would like, he can use the rule for weapons breaking. More modularity. Same 4e D&D, just under a different sun. One big point of light . . . An example: psionics. 2e psionics, particularly Wild Talents– were random as anything. One character could light candles, another could explode heads. Here, they are all carefully balanced: choose a feat, get some minor abilities. (Sure, there’s an optional random roll method, but is that even in the spirit of 4e?)
[Sometimes I feel like 4e has given us too many choices that ultimately don’t really mean all that much. Either the game is perfectly balanced, and any choice produces a viable and capable character just like everyone else in the party, or there is a better build–in which case there is only the illusion of choice–and everyone is still like everyone else in the party. (Can players role-play to make their characters differentiated? Sure. But the best games either provide a rules-scaffolding to create character differences or they stay entirely out of the matter and limit the number of possible choices or rules in order to maximize the amount of characterization outside the rules.)]
In any case, the new Dark Sun setting feels like more of the same for 4e. It could easily have been another PHB or DMG, and it would have felt much the same. I think it will take a dedicated DM to make this setting feel like the old setting did.
Is there anything I did see that I liked? Well, I think that for a 4e splat book, it’s pretty good. I like the idea of themes, and wish that was a standard part of the core rules. I think defiling is better now than it was in 2e, but it still feels like a square peg in a round hole. You can choose to defile, which can sometimes hurt your allies. Or you can choose to defile, which sometimes just makes plants die–without giving you any game benefit. In the midst of tons of rules, you get a rule that is essentially flavor text.
Overall, the setting stuff looks good; the book is pretty; and the new rules integrate into 4e well. However, there’s the rub. They fit so nicely, I could incorporate most of them into the War of the Burning Sky campaign I’m running now, and I doubt my players would even blink.