Ashes of Athas
The World: Eight Characteristics of Athas
The world of the Dark Sun setting is unique in several ways. Many familiar trappings of the Dungeons & Dragons game are missing or turned on their heads. Athas is not a place of shining knights and robed wizards, of deep forests and divine pantheons. To venture over the sands of Athas is to enter a world of savagery and splendour that draws on different traditions of fantasy and storytelling. Simple survival beneath the deep red sun is often its own adventure.
Newcomers to Athas have much to learn about the world, its people, and its monsters, but the following eight characteristics encapsulate the most important features of the Dark Sun campaign setting.
1. The World Is a Desert
Athas is a hot, arid planet covered with endless seas of dunes, lifeless salt flats, stony wastes, rocky badlands, thorny scrublands, and worse. From the first moments of dawn, the crimson sun beats down from an olive-tinged sky. Temperatures routinely exceed 35 degrees C. by midmorning and can reach 55 degrees or more by late afternoon. The wind is like the blast of a furnace, offering no relief from the oppressive heat. Dust and sand borne on the breeze coat everything with yellow-orange silt.
In this forbidding world, cities and villages exist only in a few oases or verdant plains. Some places don’t see rain for years at a time, and even in fertile regions, rain is little more than a humid mist that falls during a few weeks each year before giving way to long months of heat and drought. The world beyond these islands of civilization is a wasteland roamed by nomads, raiders, and hungry monsters.
Athas was not always a desert, and the parched landscape is dotted with the crumbling ruins of a planet that once was rich with rivers and seas. Ancient bridges over dry watercourses and empty stone quays that face seas of sand tell the tale of a world that is no more.
2. The World Is Savage
Life on Athas is brutal and short. Bloodthirsty raiders, greedy slavers, and hordes of inhuman savages overrun the deserts and wastelands. The cities are little better; each chokes in the grip of an ageless tyrant. The institution of slavery is widespread on Athas, and many unfortunates spend their lives in chains, toiling for brutal taskmasters. Every year hundreds of slaves, perhaps thousands, are sent to their deaths in bloody arena spectacles. Charity, compassion, kindness—these qualities exist, but they are rare and precious. Only a fool hopes for such riches.
3. Metal Is Scarce
Most arms and armour are made of bone, stone, wood, and other such materials. Mail or plate armour exists only in the treasuries of the sorcerer-kings. Steel blades are almost priceless, weapons that many heroes never see during their lifetimes.
4. Arcane Magic Defiles the World
The reckless use of arcane magic during ancient wars reduced Athas to a wasteland. To cast an arcane spell, one must gather power from the living world nearby. Plants wither to black ash, crippling pain wracks animals and people, and the soil is sterilized; nothing can grow in that spot again. It is possible to cast spells with care, preserving the world and avoiding any more damage to it, but defiling offers more power than preserving. As a result, sorcerers, wizards, and other wielders of arcane magic are reviled and persecuted across Athas regardless of whether they preserve or defile. Only the most powerful spellcasters can wield arcane might without fear of reprisal.
5. Sorcerer-Kings Rule the City-States
Terrible defilers of immense power rule all but one of the city-states. These mighty spellcasters have held their thrones for centuries; no one alive remembers a time before the sorcerer-kings. Some claim to be gods, and some claim to serve gods. Some are brutal oppressors, where others are more subtle in their tyranny.
The sorcerer-kings govern through priesthoods or bureaucracies of greedy, ambitious templars, lesser defilers who can call upon the kings’ powers. Only in the city-state of Tyr does a glimmer of freedom beckon, and powerful forces already conspire to extinguish it.
6. The Gods Are Silent
Long ago, when the planet was green, the brutal might of the primordials overcame the gods. Today, Athas is a world without deities. There are no clerics, no paladins, and no prophets or religious orders. Old shrines and crumbling temples lie amid the ancient ruins, testimony to a time when the gods spoke to the people of Athas. Nothing is heard now but the sighing of the desert wind.
In the absence of divine influence, other powers have come to prominence in the world. Psionic power is well known and widely practiced on Athas; even unintelligent desert monsters can have deadly psionic abilities. Shamans and druids call upon the primal powers of the world, which are often sculpted by the influence of elemental power.
7. Fierce Monsters Roam the World
The desert planet has its own deadly ecology. Athas has no cattle, swine, or horses; instead, people tend flocks of erdlus, ride on kanks or crodlus, and draw wagons with inixes and mekillots. Wild creatures such as lions, bears, and wolves are nonexistent. In their place are terrors such as the id fiend, the baazrag, and the tembo. Perhaps the harsh environment of Athas breeds creatures tough and vicious enough to survive it, or maybe the touch of ancient sorcery poisoned the wellsprings of life and inflicted monster after monster on the dying world. Either way, the deserts are perilous, and only a fool or a lunatic travels them alone.
8. Familiar Races Aren’t What You Expect
Typical fantasy stereotypes don’t apply to Athasian heroes. In many Dungeons & Dragons settings, elves are wise, benevolent forest dwellers who guard their homelands from intrusions of evil. On Athas, elves are a nomadic race of herders, raiders, peddlers, and thieves. Halflings aren’t amiable riverfolk; they’re xenophobic headhunters and cannibals who hunt and kill trespassers in their mountain forests. Goliaths—or half-giants, as they are commonly known—are brutal mercenaries who serve as elite guards and enforcers for the sorcerer-kings and their templars in many city-states.
The Free City: Tyr
As far as most Athasians are concerned, Tyr has always existed. Certainly it has endured through the entire Desert Age, and even with the fall of its sorcerer-king, it seems likely to endure for centuries to come. And throughout all the long years of its existence, it was a city-state enslaved.
That has all changed.
In the courts of the other city-states, rumors of King Kalak’s overthrow are only whispered, but in Tyr, the repercussions howl through the streets. Many scheme to succeed Kalak, and the templars and other power groups vying for control struggle to keep the city-state from disintegrating into anarchy at the hands of people eager to enjoy their freedom. Nobles and merchants clamor for influence, and commoners and freed slaves openly celebrate, challenging civic authority and social boundaries at every turn.
The sorcerer-kings have ruled the Tyr Region for longer than anyone can remember. For generations, no one contested their power and lived to tell about it, but everything changed recently when a spear impaled Kalak, the sorcerer-king of Tyr. Kalak’s death and Tyr’s liberation marked the beginning of a new era, shaking thrones that had not been threatened in countless years. Rumors of Tyr’s newfound freedom have begun to spread like wildfire across the Seven Cities, giving pause to sorcerer-kings who hoped that thoughts of rebellion would not spread to their own domains.