We played in a Dark Sun delve at PAX. We did a standard three-encounter delve through a gladiatorial arena, in which we fought, among other enemies, a savage halfling and some githyanki guards. I grabbed a couple of the 1st-level pregen character sheets (human warlock and goliath fighter) and noted a few fun Dark Sun-specific rules (critical fumbles, inferior equipment, and character templates, which seem to be the heroic-tier equivalent of paragon paths).
Flavor-wise, the world of Athas seems to cleave close to the 2e version: a darker and deadlier D&D; scarce metal; sorcerer-kings; templars; savage halflings; defilers.
Inferior Weapons: Because metal is scarce, beginning characters have inferior weapons. Our fighter started with a bone battleaxe, and got a metal battleaxe as treasure during the adventure. The composition of the weapon affects the chance to break a weapon.
Breaking Weapons: If a character wielding an inferior weapon rolls a 1 on an attack roll, they have a choice: they may miss as normal, or they reroll their attack; if they miss again, their weapon shatterings. If the character happens to have a non-inferior (metal) weapon, they may do the same thing, but I think they have a smaller chance to break their weapon (on a roll of 1-5 on the second roll, I believe). This means that rolling a 1 has some of the flavor of a critical fumble, except that it is actually advantageous: it gives you choices.
I’m curious to see the full rules for this. It seems like a fun rule to use in early levels, but once you get a +3 sword you’re probably not going to want to break it in exchange for a reroll. On the whole, I like this rule: I think that something that elicits a cheer should always happen when you roll a 20, and something that elicits mockery should always happen when you roll a 1. Breaking your sword qualifies as mockery-inducing.
Inferior Armor: Again, because of the scarcity of metal, metal armor is rare. New armor types are introduced, presumably in the gap between hide (AC +3) and chain (AC +6). One character had “chiton plate armor”. Our fighter had hide armor, which is either because all armor is expensive or because the fighter was massively un-optimized.
Templates: This seems to be new: in addition to class, we also have something called a “template”. For instance, my warlock had the “templar” template. The template seemes to provide a new encounter power. Mine let me slow an opponent and the fighter’s let him pinball one opponent into another opponent. They seem like pretty standard encounter attacks – except that 1st level characters now have 2, not 1.
Defiling: “Arcane defiling” was listed as an “arcane feature” on my warlock’s character sheet, so I presume that all arcane characters may take either the “defiler” or “preserver” arcane feature. The defiler option was flavorful: if I missed on a daily attack, I could reroll in exchange for doing damage (half surge value) to all my allies within 20 squares. I didn’t miss with my daily, but if I had, I don’t know if the cost/reward would have been worth it. Usefulness aside, having this feature definitely made me feel like a badass evil guy.
All in all, 1st level dark sun characters seem to have a lot more options than standard 1e characters: my warlock had 3 extra powers (2 granting rerolls and one encounter power). To balance it, their AC is lower (at level 1 anyway). No idea whether monsters’ attack bonuses are lower as well, or if monsters just have an improved chance to hit. (The DM did mention that the BBEG, with one area attack that targeted every PC, needed a 3 or lower to miss. This was brutal, since the attack caused every PC to be restrained (save ends). Not a fun way to start a fight.)
One of the pregens was a thri-kreen shaman. According to the character sheet, the cleric had a 10 will defense (despite an 18 wisdom) which our DM claimed was a “thri-kreen thing”, although I suspect that it was, in fact, a misprint.
Another pregen character was an elf battlemind. The DM confirmed that elves were hardy desert nomads. Since an elf doesn’t work particularly well as a battlemind, it is possible that Darksun elves have different attribute bonuses, although it is also quite possible that this was simply an un-optimized character.
There was also a barbarian of some kind. Don’t remember any Dark Sun-specific details.
All in all, I left the game feeling more disposed to play Dark Sun than I started. I liked the rules tweaks. Some of them seem to work well at level 1, but I’m not sure how they will work over 30 levels: but I’m intrigued enough to pick up the book in August.