If you know your older Dungeons & Dragons settings, then you might know the work of Timothy Brown. He’s been in the business long enough to know what he’s doing and, with Troy Denning, created the Dark Sun campaign setting for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. He’s very open to point out that his new Kickstarter-funded, system-agnostic setting, Dragon Kings, is the spiritual successor to Dark Sun, and, indeed, the two share a lot of themes. Though the Dragon Kings project as a whole includes a music CD and rules supplements for both Pathfinder and Savage Worlds, amongst other things, this review is for the World Book only.
The World Book is the crux of the project, the sprawling document of all the things to see and do on the world of Khitus. Clocking in at a total of 176 full-color pages, it is as large as some RPG books that also have to make room for rules. This, in the end, is perhaps Dragon Kings’s biggest strength and greatest weakness. Setting books are hard to organize. Where do you start? What can you put in Chapter 2 that won’t be confusing without the context of Chapter 3? Dragon Kings doesn’t quite avoid this problem, unfortunately; as I read, there were more than a few times I encountered a new term or concept that hadn’t been explained to me yet, but that I clearly needed to understand to completely comprehend what I was reading. Sometimes, that concept would be explained on the next page; sometimes, it would be chapters later. A glossary would have been helpful, especially with the number of cultural terms – titles, religious concepts, expressions – that the setting involves. It is densely packed, but there is certainly a kind of player that will like that and be willing to navigate the sometimes slightly labyrinthine text.
That said, once you start to understand how it fits together, the setting is both big and cohesive while still including plenty of variety. Khitus is a barren world past its prime; survival is a daily concern. Water is scarce. The titular Dragon Kings, individuals whose magical prowess allowed them to ascend to demigodlike levels and once guided the world and saw to it that it prospered, have been gone for centuries, and Khitus has suffered for it. Unprotected travelers have as much to fear from dehydration as elephantaur Watu slavers or the up-and-coming Oritahl, primitive reptilians who are only just starting to develop their civilization. There is a lot of Middle Eastern influence in the human cultures, as is common for desert settings, and successful caravan merchants are king while the bulk of civilized individuals scrape out a paltry existence.
The book itself is passable. The font appears to change occasionally for a paragraph here and there, and the graphic design is fairly predictable and doesn’t add much to the overall package. The art, provided by half a dozen different artists, is generally uneven: depictions of landscapes and creatures look pretty good, while most human figures appear oddly proportioned and roughly rendered. The included maps are attractive and detailed, however, and though I might’ve liked at least the full map included first thing rather than somewhere in the middle, that is a minor complaint.
Veterans of similar RPG settings may find that there is little they haven’t seen before, but Dragon Kings doesn’t seem to be trying to innovate so much as reach a little beyond what Dark Sun could accomplish. The relatively flavorless text can be a bit of a slog and will sometimes send readers scrambling to find some other important setting concept, but those who put in the effort will find a deep setting with plenty of adventure hooks to keep their more survivalist players involved.