In worlds to build on, we discuss the various roleplaying game settings that are out there to explore. Each world has unique concepts that may make the world an interesting one to explore. Today’s feature is Dark Sun.
Content Warning: Cannibalism, Slavery, Body Horror, Extreme Violence
Take one part Dragon Age, one part Fallout, sprinkle in some Mad Max, top it off with psychic powers and you have the burnt world of Athas, the world of Dark Sun. Originally released in 1991 by TSR for Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition, Dark Sun was a world where mighty Sorcerer-Kings destroyed the world on an insane crusade a thousand years ago. Now, they rule over a dying world with a tyrant’s grasp.
Survival is the key motivator on Athas, with water and food being more precious than money. The world is brutal, and most do not survive outside the relative safety of the city-state walls. Many are people slaves and dream of freedom from the tyrannical yoke of the Sorcerer-Kings and their Templar.
The world of Athas is one destroyed by the wanton use of arcane magics. In most fantasy settings the arcane magic of the world operates off an invisible energy source. Examples include The Weave in The Forgotten Realms or Chaos in The Witcher. In Athas, arcane magic gets its fuel from the life energy of the world. Be it plants, people, or even the sun, to use sorcery you must harm or kill the land around you. This creates two vastly different types of sorcerers: Preservers and Defilers. Preservers drain only enough for a spell, often going out of their way not to kill any plant life. Defilers do not care; they just salt the earth to use their spells.
The Sorcerer-Kings of Athas practice an incredibly special kind of magic known as Dragon Magic. This technique blending psionics and magic allows them to pull the life force of people
to fuel their spells. This makes their magic especially dangerous, as they can harm their enemies to further harm their enemies. Using Dragon Magic, the Sorcerer-Kings maintain a stranglehold on the people while being able to preserve their lands. The Sorcerer-King of Nibenay, also called Nibenay, for example, uses his magic to keep himself hidden from his populace. He maintains his enchantments and observations by sacrificing his own Templar (A Sorcerer-King’s priesthood or soldiers) to fuel his magic. Thus, keeping the valuable Blue-Agafari Wood groves Nibenay is famous for safe.
The Not Arcane
Other kinds of magic are prevalent in Athas though, such as divine magic and druidic magic. Though practiced differently, in Dark Sun these two kinds of magic are remarkably similar. Unlike most settings, Dark Sun has no gods to grant divine magics. The closest would be the Sorcerer-Kings but they can only grant magic to their own Templar. The magic they grant is more akin to arcane magic than divine. The clerics of Athas follow the elements instead, venerating four cardinal elements. Other elemental clerics follow para-elemental forces, such as the sun or magma.
Druids function the most like their counterparts in other worlds, they venerate nature, and gain power from it. The difference is the Druids’ role and their abundance. On Athas, Druids avoid many of the inhabited areas. Instead of sticking to the few places where trees and plants still thrive. These Druids often act as protectors and revitalizers, not functioning in traditional Druidic circles. More akin to cells, they are too busy acting as guardians and a thorn in the side of the Sorcerer-Kings.
The most prevalent form of supernatural power in Athas is not even magic. Psionics, often called The Way is a supernatural power utilizing the body and the mind as a wellspring energy source. Nearly every person on Athas has a psionic gift. Those who hone their minds are a force to reckon with. Able to read minds, influence moods, and strike opponents with telekinesis. Unlike magic, The Way has limits in its execution but does not damage the environment like magic.
A huge change in Dark Sun from other established worlds in Dungeons & Dragons is how many of the races are dramatically different from their counterparts in other worlds. Many of the recognizable fantasy races such as Orcs and Gnomes are completely extinct. The remaining staples like Elves, Dwarves, and Halflings are radically different. When you add in all the new and modified races, Athas has.
On Athas, Elves are still lithe and ageless but are clans of nomads. Elves are distance runners, often entire clans will travel between city-states on foot, running for 8 hours a day easily. Nothing is more embarrassing in Elven culture than needing a riding beast.
The Dwarves of Dark Sun are still stout and tough but lack the beards or hair of the traditional Dwarf. They also take stubbornness to a new extreme, taking a focus. Their focus is a task that if they do not complete before they die, they become horrid Dwarven Banshees.
Halflings are a far cry from their hobbit-like cousins on other worlds. On Athas, most Halflings live in tribal communities in the last chunks of forested space and practice cannibalism. Not as a survival tactic but just because. They are the original race of Athas, with the other people coming much later. Most people fear running into Halflings more than they do the Templars of a Sorcerer-King.
A race new unique to Athas is the Mul, a kind of half-dwarf much like half-elves. The Muls combine the might of their Dwarven parent while having the flexibility of their Human parent. The Mul represents a blending of the old and new, a special race to Athas linked to existing ones.
Finally, we have the Thri-Kreen. Often called Mantis People, the Kreen are insectile folk with four arms who live in small clutches. Some strike out on their own as adventurers and mercenaries. They view most actions in the scope of a hunt and will eat any other intelligent species if need be. Unlike the Halflings though, the Thri-Kreen are survivalists at heart so it’s all about what they need.
Athas plays host to a variety of blasted landscapes, exotic locations, and unique cities to explore during your games. These range from the city-states of the Sorcerer-Kings to the beautiful but deadly sea of silt. Some locations are from the days of the Green and Blue Ages when Athas was a vibrant world. Others are completely born of the blasted landscape leftover from the wars enacted by the Sorcerer-Kings.
The city-states of Athas are each ruled by a Sorcerer-King and each bears some resemblances to ancient cultures of the earth. In Balic, the clothing and architecture are reminiscent of ancient Rome. The city also has a massive harbor where silt ships come in and out of the city frequently. The Sorcerer-King Andropinis rules the city with his council of Patricians. These nobles offer gifts and act as a kind of “sounding board” for the king. They are privy to many secrets of the king’s court, and are blinded, deafened, and have their tongues cut out. During council meetings, Andropinis communicates with them via The Way.
Places Most Dangerous
Many strange and wondrous locales, like the Dragon’s Bowl, exist within the world of Dark Sun. A crater formed in time immemorial, ranging nearly 70 miles across. This macabre landmark is full of bones of various races from across Athas. It is rumored that the dreaded Dragon of Tyr was born here, and occasionally returns after rampaging across the region.
A relic of the Green Age, the Pristine Tower is a massive structure of alabaster stone standing alone. This area is littered with unique plants and animals found nowhere else on Athas. Rumor is if you are injured under the influence of the tower, you will warp in strange and horrifying ways. People have had an arm replaced with a tentacle sprouting extra eyes, others change into trees slowly and painfully.
Dark Sun is a holdover from the Second Edition era of Dungeons and Dragons. As such it is slightly out of date with contemporary sensibilities. The world relies heavily on very mature topics that can still be impactful if handled properly at the table. Typically adventures in Athas focus on the struggle for freedom, the fight for the environment, and hope. Adventurers are heroes trying to right wrongs, build a world for future generations, instead of wealth and power.
You can find more info about Athas and Dark Sun in general over at Athas.org. PDFs and Print-On-Demand copies of older Dark Sun material can be found at the DM’s Guild as well, or old copies at your friendly local gaming store! Experiencing the grim world of Athas can be done on audiobooks as well, the Prism Pentad books are some of my favorites!
Check out Dark Sun today! Adventure in the burnt world of Athas, and save a world where evil has already won, and are now squabbling over their burnt prize!
What are some of your favorite game worlds?