I will not be comparing the Athas.org version with the original manuscript. I will give my opinions on the completed Secrets of the Dead Lands. I have decided I will break down the review into separate parts, by reviewing it chapter by chapter. I will not criticize the artwork or maps, as this is a free book, that was put together by fans.
The book is 169 pages and, although it's a small thing, I appreciate that it uses the original Dark Sun logo. Skimming through the book, it appears to be laid out well and, thankfully, contains a table of contents.
There are a plethora of maps, which are extremely useful, and enough artwork to breakup the sea of text. The pages have the borders I've come to expect from Dark Sun books and, all in all, looks very professional.
Chapter 1 - Legends of the Dead Lands
The first chapter begins, as most Dark Sun book do, with a short narration. The narration in Secrets of the Dead Lands is an entertaining read. There are also lyrics from an elven song. This would be great for player characters to hear sung in, or near, an elven camp.
The chapter continues with a brief overview of what the Dead Lands are. In brief, it is an area where obsidian has coated the land and it is overrun with undead. It mentions something called "bugdead" and I am interested to learn more about these creatures.
It does mention that the undead believe that 'their world ends at the edge of the black glass."
I am a little confused how this could be the case. In a setting filled with psionics, certainly some of the undead would have access to the power of clairvoyance. How can an immortal being not have bothered to look a few hundred miles north to the Tablelands? I hope this is explained later in the book.
The chapter continues by explaining the book layout and giving suggestions on how PCs from the Tablelands might hear about the Dead Lands. It reminds me of the rumor tables, often found in older adventure modules. Although these are not a single line, but a long form explanation. Very useful.
It begins with the Halflings and talks about the Halflings oral story-telling traditions. It talks about Twylo, a halfling known as a greedy troublemaker. It gives the DM a few verses that give some insight about the Dead Lands. While I wish it had provided the entire story, I realize that they only had 169 pages to work with. If I were to present this story in my game, I would have Halfling children begging an elder Halfing to "continue the story of Twylo." I would then take what the book provides and expand upon it, but would not have to write an epic narrative.
The chapter continues with an elven poem about an elf named Fyendil. The book does not outline the entire poem, but it can still be used. When the PCs enter a tavern, an entertainer could be reciting the poem. This poem is about an elf, but doesn't necessarily have to be delivered by an elf.
Next, is the dwarven perspective. The dwarves, the book continues, aren't overly interested in history. However, as a long-lived race, there are a couple of dwarves who have seen the Dead Lands from afar and another who has gathered information about it, for the templars of Tyr. After the fall of Kalak, the PCs might learn about the information gathered by the dwarf, but they are unlikely to find out about it while he is in power.
The last race it discusses are the thri-kreen. Thri-kreen of the Tablelands are unlikely to know much, which makes sense. However, it does talk about the Kreen Empire and their information. It talks about how expeditionary forces, from the Kreen Empire, have all disappeared. That is fine, but kreen are capable of being skilled psionicists and can scout the area with psionics.
Finally, it gives some rumors and experiences of the Dead Lands from individuals from various city-states. As expected, there is Balic and Tyr, but I was surprised to see Draj listed. It then mentions a story from Nibenay, but it is not laid out as the other stories are. All of the stories are well written and give plenty of adventure hooks for a dungeon master to expand upon.
Then, it gives the option, if a dungeon master allows, to simply make a skill check to see if the characters know anything about the Dead Lands. Although it has been a long time since I have played third edition, the difficulties of the check appear quite high, which is appropriate. Although, the difficultly chart presented seems to be laid out in an incorrect place on the page. It splits the Nibnese story, which is just an odd location for it. It's not very distracting though and is a very minor gripe.
The chapter then dives into the history of the region and is a very interesting read. I will not spoil it, but there are names you will know, some others you will recognize, and new ones as well. In my game, if I presented this information, it would be from the point of an unreliable narrator. Granted, it is unlikely that this information will be presented to PCs at all. There are few who remember it and it happened thousands of years ago.
Lastly, the chapter concludes with a discussion of the bugdead and a treaty that loosely binds the humanoid undead kingdoms together. The treaty is not strictly adhered to and the humanoid undead kingdoms seem to fight each other more than the bugdead. This section is written well and explains the current state of affairs in the Dead Lands.
All in all, I am pleased with the information in the first chapter of Secrets of the Dead Lands. It is well written, well presented, and interesting enough to want me to read more. While I was reading the book, I got a lot of ideas for adventures for my own Dark Sun game. Although, I would definitely wait until the PCs are, at minimum, level 10. Which is wonderful, because the PCs could hear about this fabled land for a long time and get excited when the opportunity to find out the truth about it is presented.
Feel free to download and read this book yourself. The first chapter is definitively worth your time and attention.