This review is my second in the Dark Sun Review Series I am writing to honor the new campaign setting being released. I wrote my first review of the set, of Marauders of the Dune Sea, last week, and my review of the Campaign Guide itself should finally be published next week. I have also posted game-play recaps of the non-public material Wizards has released for the Dark Sun setting. These include Bloodsand Arena, a Free RPG Day 2010 offering; The Lost Cistern of Aravek, a Dark Sun Game Day 2010 release; as well as the weekly retelling of Dark Sun Encounters: Fury of the Wastewalker. And if you still cant get enough Dark Sun, my own campaign has dipped its toes into the hot sands of Dark Sun, and the characters have been rolling endurance checks ever since.
Before I get into the Creature Catalog, I want to add a special message about the intent of these reviews. First of all, I am an unabashed fan of 4e Dark Sun as released by Wizards of the Coast. I never had the pleasure of playing the original 2nd edition set, though I have acquired a copy of it for posterity. I have however steeped myself in the lore of the land for this edition. This is a biased review by a fan, not an objective breakdown of its strengths and weaknesses. I will go into very specific details of what makes the campaign setting special, and hopefully give insight to those who read this with the hope of understanding what makes the setting, and the monsters, so unique.
One thing that this review will not do is to make comparisons between old Dark Sun and new Dark Sun. I have no working knowledge of Dark Sun of the 90s, and so I approach this iteration with no pre-conceived notions or prejudices. In the same sense, this review will not make comparisons to other campaign settings released for DnD 4e, which include the Eberron campaign setting and the Forgotten Realms setting. These releases have little bearing on the subject matter or publication methods of the Dark Sun Campaign.The cover of Creature Catalog features a striking example of the major Dark Sun art pieces, and it is one of my favorites. The cover is gorgeous, and the rich oranges and browns make this book really stand out. The entire book is very attractive, and just cries out to be held, fondled, and cracked open. The inside cover is classic black. According to 4e tradition, the featured monster on the cover is also the mightiest foe in the book – in this case the Dragon of Tyr. Ringing in as a scrappy level 33 solo controller, the Dragon (always capitalize that D) looks fierce indeed.
There is an interesting story concerning the cover of this book – it almost didn’t have one. According to Wizards, originally the book was slated to have a soft cover, but the printer made a mistake and printed them in hard cover (and apparently ate the cost.) This was fortuitous to customers, because not only because we get the book in all its hard cover glory, but we are only charged the surprisingly low soft cover price. This is a sign of destiny – one more reason that Dark Sun was fated to be the greatest campaign setting of all time. I can see why they originally called for soft cover. 144 pages makes for a slim tome, but it is well worth it, and even for full price, I would not hesitate to pick this up. Another interesting discovery I made while inspecting the cover has to do with the authors. Richard Baker is listed as the main author, but following him, are the names Ari Marmell and Chris Sims, which is different than the online sites, including the publisher Wizards of the Coast, who list the authors as Richard Baker and Bruce R Cordell.
I have been lucky enough to fight with or against many of the monsters in this catalog, at least up into the lower paragon tier. I was happy to find the majority of the Dark Sun creatures in the catalog are for the heroic tier. A quick rundown of the monster by level tables in the back shows that over half the beasties are level 10 or lower. While the upper tier of level 20+ probably accounts for 20 percent or less. This is a great ratio, and I hope it is one the publisher uses for all future monster books. I was surprised by the ratio at first, especially as Dark Sun is labelled as higher level and more dangerous than a typical setting. In the original edition, characters were assumed to start at 3rd level to account for the difficulty of the setting. Have no fears, though, as these monsters are truly fearsome, and they crank the damage up a level beyond the Monster Manual 3, which is known to have hit the turbo button for all its monsters. Until a character has been hit by a dart for over 20 points damage by the lowliest creature in here, it is hard to fully accept the difficulty. Imagine biie one-shotted by a kobold.
The first thing one notices when using the monsters in the Creature catalog is that they are Deadly with a capital D. Dungeons and Dragons IV has been out nearly 3 years, and as the game continues to mature, and players become comfortable with their characters and the rules, the designers felt that some of the challenges from the early years were not quite up to snuff with a thoroughly modern optimized party. Design changes took place last year with the Monster Manual 2, where the solos and higher level creatures were adjusted, and again in the MM3 where all monsters got a damage upgrade. Addtionally, with the MM3, the stat blocks themselves got an upgrade to assist playability. And now we have the Dark Sun Creature Catalog hot on the heels of the MM3. It looks like the same underlying philosophy was used to create the monsters, including the new stat block format, and then they were perfected with a heaping helping of extra Dark Sun Deadliness. This creates a group of monsters able to tear through lazy or strategically inept parties, and maintain a white-fisted challenge for even the most jaded group of power players. The monsters are tough, as the short happy life of Bennybe the rogue will attest.
Cracking those covers open, we are confronted with a slim 144 page volume chock full of around 200 monsters. Reading the small table of contents, we notice that unlike any previous monster manual, this book is split into 3 sections. The first section is called Creatures of Athas, followed by a section of Personages of Athas, and finally the book rounds out with a section called Encounter Options. This is a unique layout for a monster book. It is also a little confusing. For example, you might find a human templar of Tyr under Human in the Creature section, but you could find templars to other city states in the “Personages” section. I think once I am used to the book, it will become second nature to know which section to look under, but for now, it is unclear.
Turning past the table of contents, we see the next 4 pages are devoted to breaking down the monster stat blocks. This is fairly important, especially for those who don’t have the MM3, where the new stat block made its debut. On the other hand, not much has changed, and comparing this section to the Monster Manual, I see little difference. Still, this is an important section, and I could save time during play by remembering this section rather than searching through the PHB and DMG for answers that are right here.
Now we move on to the meat of the book. Coincidentally, the first monster in this book is the same as the original first edition Fiend Folio – the Aarakocra, a race of flying humanoids once associated with eagles, but now known as vulture folk. It is a long ignoble drop from their previous existence, but Dark Sun is known for forcing the familiar to fall from grace. Following the aarakocra entry comes page after page of meaty Athasian monstrosity. Most of the monsters are weird in some way, often having psionic powers, and many of the beasts are either reptile or insect. Or plant. My players will never forget the zombie cactus they recently faced. What an evil, evil cactus.
t looks like most of the classic Dark Sun monsters are here. As I said, I never played the prior edition, and I don’t want to compare the two, but I do know something of it, and I can see most of the legendary monsters represented here: belgoi, gaj, gith, and tembo, check; athasian giant, silk wyrm, and tembo, all present. Kanks and crodlu, elf dune runners, it is all here. I wonder how many of the creatures in this tome are totally new, as I don’t recognize all of the names, such as: Chathrang, Cilops, megapede. One thing that I find extremely useful is that there is a new racial entry for the main races of Dark Sun: dray (dragonborn), dwarf, eladrin, elf, Halfling, human, Half-giant (goliath), mul and thri kreen. This will go a long way to fleshing out a Dark Sun campaign world, and most of the entries have multiple monsters to span one or more tiers of play. The human, for example, has a total of 10 entries, ranging from a lowly level 1 minion, up to a level 17 creep.
Some of my favorite monsters from this book include the hejkin, a race of grubby grouches who speak dwarfish, to the id fiend, a terrifying level 1 solo which I cant wait to drop on an unsuspecting 1st level party. The tembo is terrifying, and recently resulted in a total party kill while playing a character for the first time since the 1980s. There is a solo or elite monster for just about every level in the book. I counted about 20 solos and maybe twice that number of elites. There are plenty of minions, too, with all the major races getting at least one minion, and many of the monsters as well. There are some great new mechanics to help out these minions. For example, the human slave doesn’t drop until the round after it is reduced to zero.
There is a side bar discussing dragons, and how on Athas there is only one true Dragon, the undisputed master of the habitable lands. Even sorcerer kings pay tribute to the Dragon of Tyr. However, there is a set of epic level drakes, which can take the place of de-evolved dragons. It is suggested that any dragons be less intellectual and more bestial in Dark Sun. It would be nice if they had broken down the four elemental drakes into age categories for some multi-tier fun, but I expect that will happen in an upcoming article or supplement.
The creatures in the catalog go a long way to making the Dark Sun world so dangerous. The next section, Personages, gives the Dark Sun world much of its flavor. This section is full of locale specific personalities and should be perfect for urban adventuring and political intrigue. Each sorcerer king is statted out for the major cities left on Athas, and besides the ruler, a few other choice NPCs are given for each city, whether they be the temple guards, the sorcerer kings most devoted lieutenants, a prominent merchant or powerful gladiator. The sorcerer kings are all epic level, and each of them should provide quite a challenge, while NPCs associated with them run the gamut from upper heroic all the way to powerful enough levels to be a match for the sorcerer kings themselves. One sorcerer king, Kalak, is missing, because Tyr has thrown off the shackles of royal domination.
I like this section of the Creature Catalog – it helps make Dark Sun the unique setting that it is. Having single, named personages, who are tied into the campaign world in specific ways makes the world of Dark Sun that much more distinctive. Another way to look at it would be that you could take the Creature catalog and pull just about any monster out of it and throw it into an encounter that made sense, but the monsters listed in this chapter need to be handled carefully for maximum Dark Sun Flavor. For example, there are templars for all the cities, but each templar sect has its own strengths and weaknesses, and fighting a templar of Tyr (which are listed in the creature section, oddly – probably because there is no Sorcerer king to stick them with) and fighting a witch-doctor templar of Lalali-Puy is a very different experience. Finally, I get giddy imagining an Epic heavy metal campaign of assassination of the sorcerer kings, one by one as we go through this chapter – much like our group worked its way through Dieties and Demigods in our foolish youths.The final section of the book is all about building Dark Sun encounters. The section begins with the idea of customizing monsters for Dark Sun out of the standard Dnd monsters. One example they give (complete with epic artwork) is the Silt Shark, based off the fleshtearer shark from Monster Manual 2. The customizing monsters introduction is short, and precedes the larger section on using monster themes. Themes have been with us since the Dungeon Master Guide 2, and the Creature Catalog devotes a few pages to expanding the list to include some popular Dark Sun themes, such as sun-warped, or arena-bred monsters for example. Because there have been so many monsters released, it is good that they have included this. I know that even with the great choices for monsters provided in this book, there is lots of room for more – and with this section, it becomes possible to take your favorite monsters and give them an injection of Dark Sun flavor to freshen them up, conceal their aging wrinkles, and make for more challenge.
We are coming to the last few pages of the Creature Catalog, and here we find another unusual addition. The world of Dark Sun is bizarre, and the ecology itself is one of the distinctive aspects of the world. It has been called post-apocalyptic, and this can be recognized in the fantastic terrains and hazards of the last section. Defiling is a mechanic in Dark Sun by which powerful spell-casters can hurt the world in order to channel more powerful magic. (In fact this is one of the basic tenets of the campaign – that careless usage of arcane magic irrevocably damaged the world.) Many types of defiled terrain are included, as well as other extraordinary landscapes, from salt flats to mirages, to Ztal hordes – massive colonies of tiny poisonous lizards.
Flowing seamlessly from fantastic terrain we move into the hazards section, and this too, while sparse, offers up some flavorful hazards to throw at adventurers. There are arena hazards, such as the worthy sacrifice, and wilderness hazards, such as the dust funnels and false oases. These are great, but I wish the section had been expanded to add even more unique traps and hazards. In fact, my only complaint about this book, really, is that I wish there was more of everything, and honestly that sounds more like a compliment.
I am not sure why this last chapter was included with the Creature Catalog rather than in the Campaign Setting. However, the section is entitled Encounter Options, and terrain is an important part of encounter design, so there is an argument for its inclusion here. Time will tell whether or not this method becomes the norm, but I have a sneaking suspicion it was done for space issues. The Creature Catalog is pretty slender, at least 14 pages less than any other hardback I own (the other thin books seem to be a minimum of 168 pages) but since this was never meant to be a hard cover, I really am stumped. The publishers must feel that rather than a monster book, so to speak, it is more an encounter book, but if that was the case, the last section could have really be expanded upon. I see this last chapter as one more aid to the Dm to give him the tools he needs to create his own challenging world of Dark Sun for his campaign.
Everything in this book drips of Dark Sun flavor, from the creatures to the major personalities of the world. From the monster themes to the fantastic terrains, this book is here to help you inject into your campaign a massive dose of Dark Sun. If I could only have one Dark Sun book, it would be this one. These monsters are the meat and potatoes (sometimes literally) of any adventure through the dangerous and difficult world of Dark Sun. Just flipping through it fills one with a sense of the strange dying world of Athas, where the struggle for survival is paramount. It would take very strong survival instincts indeed to survive all the nastiness contained in these pages.