Dragon Kings is a new fantasy setting written by Timothy Brown, one of the co-creators of the Dark Sun setting. The World Book is a system-agnostic presentation of the setting, but there are planned supplements with rules for Pathfinder, 13th Age, and Savage Worlds. The pdf is available on DriveThruRPG for $19.99 while a pre-order of the hardcopy costs $49.99 from the Dragon Kings website. The setting enjoyed a successful Kickstarter campaign last fall.
Dragon Kings is positioned as a spiritual successor to the Dark Sun setting that was released for AD&D 2e and then updated for D&D 4e. Some of the core concept of the world of Khitus in Dragon Kings are very similar to Athas from Dark Sun. Both worlds are slowly dying and covered in harsh desert wastelands, and both feature arcane magic that is dangerous to wield. Both have powerful spellcasters who take the form of dragons, scarcer metal, and more prominent psionics. This puts Dragon Kings in a somewhat weird spot since pdfs of Dark Sun for either AD&D 2e or D&D 4e are available to its fans on D&D Classics.
One World Among Many
The first chapter of the world book is a quick overview of the history of Khitus. It establishes that the world was a barbaric and harsh world that then had an age of enlightenment under the watchful eye of the Dragon Kings. When those powerful men and women disappeared without explanation, the world began to die. Without their counsel, human civilization turned against itself, and without their magic, the environment has become increasingly harsh.
The Struggle for Khitus
The world book’s second chapter provides details on the various major organizations that are vying for power. These include priests of the old gods, wizard colleges, merchant houses, and secretive assassins. The chapter gives details on thirteen major factions and then a handful of less influential groups.
One trend that the chapter established is what I feel like is an overuse of fantastical names. While each faction tends to have an alternate name, their main names tend to be things like Dramidge, Qath Manhir, or Shadazim. While those names can be flavorful, I feel like they’re hard to remember and lack any immediate associations for new players. Using the alternate names (The Bearded Ones, The Brigand’s Guild, and the Right Minders) seems like a better option in play unless you have a group that is really enthusiastic to dig into new setting terms.
My favorite faction from this chapter was The Pale (Bev al-Khim). These pale-skinned merchants serve as agents of whatever power dwells in the Black Fortress and are slowly extracting everything of value from Khitus by paying for it with unmarked silver coins. I think they have the right level of mystery to make a good behind-the-scenes villain while not being too blatently evil. I can see a good campaign where the Pale are financing several other villainous plots that the player characters thwart before finally confronting the powers of the Black Fortress directly.
One downside to this chapter was that the descriptions of the two big wizard colleges seem to make it hard to play a wizard or sorcerer. One of the colleges, the Bearded Ones (Dramidge), admits only men without any real explanation of why and requires its members to avoid having friends or loved ones. The other college, the Shrouded (Rakar), consists of slave masters who redirect sorcery’s backlash onto their slaves in order to avoid paying its costs themselves. Neither of those seem like they would have members who work well in a normal, heroic adventuring party. The section does mention that there are independent wizards, but it was a little disappointing that the sorcerous colleges didn’t seem friendly towards having player characters as members.
Races & Realms
Ten cultures from Khitus are the focus of the third chapter. There are five human tribes: Attites, Chindi, Makadan, Nordor, and Prajalu. Beyond the humans, there are lizardfolk known as Cold Skins, insectoids known as Krikis, elephant centaurs known as Pachyaur, and small, tree-dwelling humanoids known as Penmai. The elephant centaurs have their own cultural split between the slave-keeping Watu and the non-slaving Brachachon.
Each of the cultures has a good amount of detail covering tribe customs, clothing, and history. The human cultures each had distinct elements, but I think the chapter really shined with the non-humans. Each of them had truly non-human cultural elements to make them truly different from the humans. Amongst the insectoid Krikis for example, only the warriors really show human-like intelligence while the rest of the hive leads shorter lives (just over a month for most workers for example).
My favorite culture in the chapter was the Cold Skins. The lizardfolk of Khitus are a race that is just starting to achieve human-like intelligence. In ages past, they have been more like animals, but recently they have begun to embrace tool use and develop a more advanced society. The average Cold Skin is still somewhat animal-like, but each generation a handful are as smart as humans. These more intelligent lizardfolk do their best to guide their people and introduce new ideas and technologies that are often taken from the surrounding humans.
One drawback of this chapter is that while reading the different cultural descriptions it is hard to place them on the map. While the map labels where some of the races dwell, I had a hard time placing others while reading their histories. The next chapter helps clear this up by giving details on which culture is dominant in each of the map’s cities.
The fourth chapter gives an overview of the most important cities of Khitus. The chapter details 22 different cities in alphabetical order. Fitting with the setting’s theme of a dying world, most of the cities are struggling or in decline. A few of the cities have truly unusual aspects such as Pavouk being populated by countless spiders that live side-by-side with its citizens or Brokkan having its downtown haunted by a dark wanderer. Personally I think the few paragraphs on each city provide just the right amount of detail to give good hooks for a gaming group to use without getting bogged down in lore.
Traversing the Wastelands
The world book’s fifth chapter covers terrain and hazards of the deserts of Khitus. Different types of desert terrain such as dunes, boulder fields, and dried seabed are given overviews. The hazards described in the chapter include everything from quicksand and dehydration to ghost lightning.
An important topic of the chapter is the Iron Virus. This mysterious form of contagious rust is responsible for the increasing scarcity of steel and iron in the setting. While weapons and armor still are crafted of steel, great care is taken to prevent them from coming into contact with afflicted metal. The most promising solution to the Iron Virus is a alloy known as ganshyer that is a mixture of ordinary steel and a mysterious metal known as bright lode that is found only within the Krikis Hivelands.
The second subsection in this chapter gives an overview of the caravans that travel the wasteland. I expect caravans to be a major method of travel in Dragon Kings campaigns, so I expect this section to be useful to GMs.
The chapter ends with descriptions of a handful of interesting sites that are scattered throughout the wilderness of Khitus. These sites include floating motes of earth, a molten region known as the Pock, and ancient ruins. The only one that really grabbed my attention was Grarraque’s Rest which is a small town of outcasts within the corpse of an ancient monster. The Dragon Kings defeated the Grarraque and then created a swarm of flesh-eating scarabs to continuously devour its regenerating form. I could definitely see an adventure featuring a villain’s plot to kill off the scarabs in order to revive the ancient monster.
Traces of the Daragkarik
The sixth chapter covers the continuing influence of four of the Dragon Kings. One of these four is still alive on Khitus and rules as a tyrant over her city, but the rest live on only through their priests. All four have good hooks that I could see players using in their character backgrounds or GMs working into quests.
The bestiary, which makes up chapter seven, has 24 entries covering beasts that can be found on Khitus. Most of the entries cover the wild and domesticated animals of the world such as lizards used as mounts and beasts of burden, a few types of snakes, giant rock worms, and domesticated rodents. Each entry has a color illustration of the creature and a few paragraphs describing both its abilities and how it fits in the world. Because the world book is system agnostic, none of the entries contain any sort of game stats, but most have enough detail that a GM could put together a stat block based on the entry. This chapter was also another place where Khitan names (ex: Huckratha) will make it harder to match monsters to their names than just using the alternate names (ex: Coal Crab).
The eighth chapter of the world book discusses the use of magic in Khitus. Both arcane and divine magic carry more risks than in most other settings with the Dragon Kings being the only spellcasters who seemed to operate without being at the mercy of either distant gods or the repercussions of sorcery.
Arcane magic in Dragon Kings draws upon a vast reservoir of magical power, but unfortunately for wizards that reservoir has a dark sentience and doesn’t like to be disturbed. When a wizard makes a mistake or draws on too much power, they are subject to Sorcery’s Wrath. This malevolent power seeks to emotionally scar the offending wizard in order to discourage future spellcasting. The section gives details on different afflictions that can be inflicted on spellcasters and those closest too them in response to their drawing the attention of the dark power.
Priestly magic on Khitus is unreliable because the old gods long ago abandoned the world and have not yet been convinced to return. As a result of this divine inattentiveness, sometimes a priest’s spells will simply fail. Priests must also constantly work to expand the number of worshippers of their gods in order to convince the deity to continue granting them power.
In Dragon Kings, both arcane and divine magic can be enhanced through music. Using this harmonious magic allows additional spellcasters or even non-spellcasters to enhance a spells power, but also make the casting riskier due to the coordination needed throughout the group.
Gods & Demigods
The world book’s ninth chapter is focused on the old gods of Khitus. These gods were widely worshipped before the rise of the Dragon Kings, but they have since been distant and their faiths were largely abandoned until recent times when Khitans once again turn to them in hopes of their power protecting their worshippers from the increasing dangers of the world.
Ten gods and their priests are covered by the chapter. The majority of the old gods are animalistic deities such as Jaythe the Panther or Arvaritos the Spider, but their divine influence goes beyond animals. For example, Alyut, the Split Serpent, is a god of deception and trickery rather than simply being a god of snakes.
Khitus in Flux
The tenth chapter is an overview of ways that the world of Khitus is currently changing. This includes conflicts between factions and tribes as well as the world’s deteriorating climate. A GM could easily use any of these changes as the theme of a campaign.
Powers of the Mind
The final section of the world book is an appendix on psychics. These mental powers are not subject to Sorcery’s Wrath or the whims of the old gods. Most of the appendix consists of a list of different types of psychic powers that are present on Khitus.
The 174-page pdf is relatively high quality. It is full color with good artwork throughout. I noticed some minor editing and layout issues, such as a couple of headings being the wrong level for their content, but overall the book seemed to have few mistakes. While the table of contents and other references in the text aren’t hyperlinked, the pdf does include bookmarks that correspond to the table of contents entries. The map of Khitus is provided both as a complete map on a single page and a zoomed in version spread over eight pages.
I enjoyed reading through the world book and could definitely see using the setting either for a campaign or just as a source of ideas to borrow. I like non-traditional fantasy settings, and this one is full of great ideas like the Cold Skins, the Pale, and the Krikis. The world book also did a great job of presenting material in a way that filled my head with story hooks as I read.
I think my biggest disappointment with the setting was that the treatment of wizards seemed to make them a challenging character type for the setting. The major wizard colleges didn’t seem to mesh well with heroic characters, and the nature of Sorcery’s Wrath could be tough on both players and GMs since it involves emotional harm to the character that they have little control of. As a result of that, I’d be tempted to either exclude wizard player characters if I was running a game or try to come up with some alternative colleges or methods of dealing with the downsides of sorcery in the setting.
The world book also feels somewhat incomplete without the various rules supplements being available yet. Hopefully those will be ready soon. From a game design point-of-view, I’m very interested in seeing how the setting gets adapted to three very different game systems (13th Age, Pathfinder, and Savage Worlds). Personally, I feel like Savage Worlds might be the best fit, but the more epic scope of 13th Age should make for an interesting and world-changing campaign.
While Dragon Kings definitely has many similarities to Dark Sun, I think it also has enough differences to stand on its own as a setting. Their high-level concept of a dying, desert world is similar, but details like the alien black fortress, the missing dragon kings, the krikis hivelands, and the returning old gods should let campaigns in Dragon Kings feel different from those played with Dark Sun. At the same time, it could be easy to pull ideas from either setting into the other to create a customized mishmash. For example, it would be easy to drop the krikis hivelands somewhere just off the edge of Dark Sun’s map of the Tyr region.
If you enjoy non-standard fantasy settings or are a Dark Sun fan looking for some new ideas, then I’d recommend picking up the Dragon Kings pdf. If you’re on the fence, there is a free Gazetteer available here. It provides a small amount of setting detail and a preview of what the artwork and maps are like in the world book.
Disclosure: I received a free pdf of the Dragon Kings world book from Soldier-Spy in exchange for writing a review.