The Alphastream Game Design Blog
(Originally posted in 2010 on my WotC blog)
Dark Sun will not contain any new classes. Instead, new themes are provided to help bridge the differences between a regular campaign and the uniquely savage campaign that is Dark Sun. Beyond themes, the classes themselves often have some pronounced differences story-wise, which can impact role-playing.
As best we can tell, themes are selected for free, at no cost, and grant a character a power (so far we have seen encounter powers) and may perhaps provide other minor boons. It is likely that feats and other choices can feed off of Themes and provide more options. In all cases, the power is based on the thematic concept the PC is adopting. Requirements are not clear, but they are likely to be loose if there are any.
Here is an example of how they work. A player envisions being involved with the secret arcane organization known as the Veiled Alliance, but decides they will be a guardian for them instead of an actual caster. The PC may be a fighter or other martial class, but then chooses the Veiled Alliance theme and selects an arcane-styled power from that theme. A different player might make an arcane caster that has the gladiator theme, envisioning a slave that hid how they win their gladiatorial matches until they finally were awarded their freedom. If anyone finds out…
And, of course, you don’t have to break stereotypes. The mul fighter can also be a gladiator, working the more obvious angle to be a grizzled veteran of the gladiatorial pens. How he won his freedom is a tale he will not tell to just anyone.
While there is no hard and fast rule, it can be a lot of fun to make your theme a key part of how you role-play your character. You may want to think of the theme as the path you chose in life, and your class as how you travel that path. You are a Wasteland Nomad, and always will identify with living off the wild. You are a noble adept and learned from the finest tutors… now you are skilled at leading others…
Or, you may want to think about your theme as a secret ability or background. Something that has influenced you greatly, but which may reside in the background and not be immediately noticeable. Maybe you turned your back on your noble upbringing. Maybe you developed wild psionic talents which have given you an edge best concealed until needed.
Let’s take a look at the pre-generated PCs for D&D Encounters (you can see them here via the WotC official download) and analyze what the classes and themes might mean:
A Cosmic Sorcerer is first and foremost an arcane caster. Arcane casters are greatly feared by the Athasian populace. This is in part due to the history of what magic did to the land, in part because the Sorcerer-Kings declare it illegal, and in part because defiling magic destroys the land. The vast majority of Athasians will either shun, run away from, or seek to harm an arcane caster. They may also try to find the nearest Templar.
As a Cosmic Sorcerer, the PC follows the path of the stars. Strength is valued, which fits in with the setting. And, the PC may be mercurial, affected in some way by celestial changes. Does this tie into some ancient Athasian truth? Perhaps some secret of the halflings or another ancient race? A link to some powerful templar? Is it in defiance or agreement with many of the elemental faiths out there?
As a member of the Veiled Alliance, the PC has a secret that often needs to be protected. Not only are they a wielder of magic, but they seek to further the cause of preserver magic and strike down the very Sorcerer-Kings that prohibit it!
RP note: The description has a link to Jarvix, also of the VA, and his sister is Phye. Phye is a member of the nobility, so perhaps Barcan was also. Or, he may have never been granted that pleasure by their father – perhaps he was an outcast from an early age.
We talked about elves before. They are typically out in the wilds and thus being a Marauder-style Ranger fits well. However, they do not do well in captivity. Somehow, this elf became a gladiator. Did he do it for games held between elven tribes? For a city-state after being captured, when he fast-talked his way out of longer captivity? Did he do it for coin or an attempt at glory?
The life of a gladiator is a difficult one. The master/trainer must be obeyed, with success granting perks and small bits of freedom (perhaps, it is often promised, complete freedom for a slave). The crowd’s favor must be won. And, the opponent must be studied and bested. Failure at any of these usually results in death. The life of a ranger is often one of exploration in the wilds. Perhaps the thrill of the wastes gave way to the thrill of the arena?
RP note: The description explains that Castri came from the streets and grew up as a tough. When he lost in the arena he was saved by a slaver and somehow came to be left to wander free. Did the slaver die? Did Castri trick him? Did the slaver let Castri go? There is a lot of room RP-wise, even if you choose to use the description. It could also be interesting to thing about how the elf came to the city – was he left behind when Templars attacked his tribe (who were likely bringing illicit goods into the city)? Did he grow up in the elven market?
Tieflings are new to Athas, not having existed in previous editions, but are said to come from the wastes. Psions are very much in tune with Athas, as many people and creatures have some psionic talent. However, there is a big difference between having some talent (the Will) and mastering it through careful study (the Way). The Will and the Way has become Jarvix’ path.
In addition, he has chosen to serve the Veiled Alliance. Being a psion may allow him latitude the other mages do not enjoy. After all, no one can accuse him of sorcery! As a telepath, perhaps the VA is considering training him as a spy?
RP note: Jarvix is described as an anti-social outcast and orphan who was enslaved but then freed in the recent events in Tyr. A sage working for the VA helped him and changed his life. Perhaps he brought rumors (along with others) to Altaruk of the fall of the Sorcerer-King Kalak in Tyr, and is now heading back. The description says he looks for talent and recruited Barcan into the VA.
To what extent has he mastered his old anger and anti-social nature? How does this manifest in his psionic attacks? How does he learn from and also teach Barcan? A lot of fun can be had here by two willing players!
An Ardent is a psionic leader, typically one that leads from the front. Phye is a noble adept, meaning she grew up among the nobility and enjoyed a life few on Athas can imagine. Her training likely came from tutors brought to the estate.
Ardents are likely respected on Athas – many creatures combine fighting and psionics or help others fight through psionics. Because there are no gods on Athas, there are no divine leaders. All healing comes from primal forces, from psionics, or through martial capabilities. The only exception is the Templars. They receive powers directly from the Sorcerer-King they follow, and many believe them to be gods.
The nobility is often hated and feared, but it is a hatred based on desire and jealousy… and the knowledge that they should be given respect. Crossing a noble brings swift death. How this has shaped Phye’s personality is an interesting question.
RP notes: Phye is described as leaving behind the nobility her father provided. She went looking for her brother and never turned back after finding him. How does she identify with others that are not noble and arguably beneath her? How does she identify with the nobility? Does her upbringing affect her leadership style? How will she protect her brother’s secret, and that of Jarvix? She, like her brother, is of good alignment… a rarity and sometimes a liability on Athas.
A Battlemind is a psionic defender, using the powers of the mind to stop blows, harry opponents, and alter battle through defense. A thri-kreen is often motivated to protect their clutch and packmates, so the combination works very well… so long as Shikirr agrees that the PCs are part of his clutch!
A Wilder is likely one that has picked up a wild psionic talent. This may be an extra psionic secret most battleminds would not uncover, or perhaps it was a talent that started Shikirrr on the path to becoming psionically capable.
Playing a tough alien-like thri-kreen should be a lot of fun. Your kind loves the hunt, but how do you respond to being hunted?
RP note: Shikirr’s life has been transformed by slavery. Shikirr still wishes to find his old pack, all while having to relate to the other races in this caravan. How will he take to the other PCs? Will he favor some over others? Will he see another as a competitor for leadership? If a PC falls and supplies are scarce, will Shikirr ask to eat the body?
Yuka is a warrior, a fighter that excels at dirty close fighting. Fighters are respected on Athas, for it is a brutal world that values martial strength as a concrete measure of power.
As a Wasteland Nomad, Yuka has grown up in environs most city-dwellers cannot comprehend. The trackless wastes are filled with horrid creatures, vicious raiders, slavers, and many environmental dangers.
RP note: The danger of this is revealed in Yuka’s description. Having lost his parents, Yuka now heads toward the rumors he heard of green forests amongst the mountains. How has a life amongst the wastes, losing his parents to the environment, and seeking a dream amongst mountain peaks all transformed him? As a mul, he may be viewed as a gladiator or an escaped slave, which he may resent.
Next: we will take a look at the City-States of Athas. Some of the PCs hail from a city-state and each is as radically different as the Sorcerer-King that leads it.