Sunday, October 2, 2022

(Dark Sun) Defilers and Preservers: The Wizards of Athas

As I get older, it becomes harder and harder to resist the urge to become a reactionary crank. "This isn't how they did it in my day," I'll think, and the only thing that will stop me from looking like a ridiculous old person is my ability to preemptively remember that my day has passed. The new generation is doing things in a new way, and they are not misusing the legacy of my youth, they are merely adapting it to needs I could scarcely have imagined. That is the fate of all things that were built to last.

Where this becomes surreal is when your hobby is reading decades-old roleplaying books and you have the exact same emotional response to changes that have long-since been settled. "Why-oh-why have they absolutely butchered the setting's backstory. Can't this 27-year-old book go back and recapture the magic I felt when I first read its 31-year-old prequel?"

Which is to say, Defilers and Preservers: The Wizards of Athas, by Nicky Rea, has a "history of magic" section that summarizes the 1st edition metaplot (at least as far as arcane magic is concerned), and it kind of bums me out, seeing it all in one place. I think it's because of how impressed I was by the original boxed set's restraint. It had a melancholy vibe to it - "as far as anyone remembers, this is the way things have always been, though, of course, we can see the scars that prove otherwise." Here, we learn that history has a protagonist, his name is Rajaat, and the reason things suck is because Rajaat sucks. He invented both preserving and defiling magic and taught defiling to his secret, evil students in order to further his goal of global genocide. The ensuing war lasted so long and used so much defiling magic that Athas was rendered barren. Also, at various points in its history, people drained magical energy from the sun, turning it from blue to yellow to its current-day red.

At the risk of being a grump, none of this really called out for an explanation. I just assumed that the world was barren because the ancients used it up, that the sun was red because it was impossibly old. Call it a lack of intellectual curiosity, if you will, but I was perfectly willing to accept the status quo. I only really needed to know how the PCs were going to change it.

That's a lot to lay on a 96-page class-focused supplement, though. Really, the contentious part was when TSR decided that Athas was going to have a backstory that would be fleshed out in various adventure modules and tie-in novels. I can't blame Defilers and Preservers: The Wizards of Athas for summing it up.

Nor can I blame it for the new cosmology. Presumably it followed the same trajectory from novels to revised boxed set to the supplement on my shelf, and it is only my relative lack of investment in the line that has led me to first encounter it here. Nonetheless - the Gray? The Black? I won't say I hate that these demiplanes are so blandly named, because that's pretty close to my standard naming aesthetic. What I will say, however, is that they are transparently a hack to keep Planescape out of Dark Sun. The Gray "separates Athas from the Astral and the Ethereal, making planar travel difficult." Also, it's where ghosts are, and it would be completely unnecessary if you didn't insist that all the TSR settings had to share a single over-arching meta-setting (actually, they share two, and we also learn that Athas' crystal sphere is similarly impenetrable to normal spelljammers).

The hardest part of reading this book was trying to put all of my inane, old-man complaints to the side so I could consider the book on its own. What would it be like to come into this without baggage or expectations, simply as a wizard enthusiast looking for a new variation on their favorite class?

I would say that it's the third-best wizard book in all of AD&D, but with, like, huge gaps between 2nd and 3rd and between 3rd and 4th. It fundamentally gets the point of kits, unlike The Complete Wizards Handbook or The Will and the Way, but it doesn't quite have the sense of whimsy and inventiveness that make up the best kit selections. Most of the kits are social roles like "arena wizard" or "tribal wizard," that make sense for the setting, but are otherwise pretty straightforward. Then there are a few like the Cerulean Wizard, the Shadow Wizard, and the Necromancer which fiddle with energy sources but don't dramatically change things up.

Two kits deserve special mention, though. The Restorationist is bland, but functional, being a kind of preserver+ that uses plant magic to reverse ecological damage to Athas. A valid niche that can be contrasted with a preserver that's just trying to get along. But then you've got the Exterminator, which is a defiler who is not just careless, but is actively waging a war against all plant life. It's baffling, even when you consider that someone might have a grudge against dangerously mutated carnivorous plants. It only really makes sense as forced symmetry. If preservers can get a kit that's more preserver than preserver, why can't defilers get their own version of defiler+? (Because it's silly, that's why.)

The rest of the book is mostly what you'd expect. A few new Proficiencies to compete for your already-limited slots, more spells, and the decision to reprint only the wizards' chapter of Dragon Kings. All very useful if you want to play a wizard in a revised-era Dark Sun, but nothing that's going to break through the jaded exterior of a grognard who's determined not to enjoy something new.

Final verdict - my opinion is worse than useless. Objectively, this is a well-made book with a lot of potential to spark the imagination. But it's not my version of Dark Sun, so I couldn't help sulking about it.

Ukss Contribution: I did like some of the new spells, though. My favorite was "Cooling Canopy." The wizard summons a small cloud to hover over their head and shelter them from the harsh desert sun. Pure flavor for any game that does not have a dedicated sunstroke system (note: revised boxed set might), but it's so cute an image that I don't even care. Casual cloud parasols as low-end weather magic is absolutely something I can get behind.

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