This is a guest post written by my patron & friend Saevrick. He is a huge fan of DarkSun and Planescape, and there is a good chance there will be more from him about these subjects in the future. Enjoy folks! You can find Saevrick on twitter by clicking his name.
In 1991, then publisher and owner of Dungeons and Dragons, TSR published the original boxed campaign set for Dark Sun. Beneath the cardboard lid was a world so brutal, so apocalyptic, yet so rich with history and wonder, that to this day it still leaves me breathless. Its concepts were dark and new, brought to life by the vivid imagery of the insanely talented artist Gerald Brom, who’s very artwork laid the foundation of Athas.
I instantly fell in love.
Imagine, if you will, a world so ravaged by magic, that the very ground has been turned to a barren wasteland. Once expansive grassy fields and rolling countryside lay in ruin, stretching hundreds of miles, replaced by rolling dunes and rocky badlands, scrub plains and sapping salt flats. Clear lakes now resemble nothing but dried and cracked earth, and even the enormous sea is nothing more than a terrifying, choking sea of silt, where beast headed giants dare its depths to carve out their existence. The land is so parched of water that wars are fought over scraps of small oases to gain control of those life giving springs.
Metal is a scarce resource, and beyond repute in value. A steel sword is worth a king’s ransom, and most tend to be heirlooms or artifacts of ages long forgotten. So rare is metal that barters are exchanged in ceramic pieces. Weapons are forged not of iron, but of sharpened bone, wood, stone and obsidian. The latter seems most frightening to me, imagining the jagged, crimson gushing gash from ebony stone that shatters in the wound like glass.
Your favorite races will be unfamiliar in this land. While dwarves will still be stocky and small, they are broad and dense as the earth, hairless and sun baked skin, driven by only a solitary focus for the rest of their natural life. Elves are taller than most races, lanky, and run endlessly into the wastes in roving tribes. Halflings are wild and feral, living in isolated tribes, and have a wondrous affinity for flesh. Half elves are hated by both of their kinds, and have no footing in either world, always seen as half of something and all of nothing.
Arriving new on the scene are the rough and muscular muls, half breeds of dwarves and human-kind, bred for the public’s carnal desire of combat in gladiator rings or the terrible rigors of slave enforced labor. Thri-kreen, large insectoid humanoids, hunt silently and mercilessly in packs well into the night needing no sleep and little rest. Half-giants, humongous creatures born of magical nature, find their temperament constantly shifting between law and chaos or good and evil. You never know what a half-giant will wake up becoming at the dawn of a new day.
You will not find gnomes, orcs, pixies, trolls, or other races you may be so familiar with. These races were exterminated through bloody cleansing wars long ago, and the traces of these wars are the end result of why the world is so twisted and burned to its core. It is also why the sun itself is charred to a dark sphere. Born from this era were monsters and horrors so beyond our imagination that they continue to haunt my memories.
There are no deities watching over this husk of a planet—for they left long ago. Presumably they were at the losing end of the war against the primordials, and abandoned any hope they had clung to. Then the primordials too, simply disappeared. A vast expanse known only as the Grey swept around the sphere and cut Athas off from the multiverse. Only the elemental planes had any hope of catching the attention of the populace, and it is they who are worshiped and grant divine magic. But the nature of elementals are a fickle thing, and their power demands a sacrifice. While fire may grant a boon to heal an injured ally, it may leave a scorched, blistering pain in the injuries wake. Only through pain and ashes will come the rebirth of new flesh.
Their worshipers also tend to take a part of the elements into their personality. Fire clerics tend to be insane and lust for the carnage; an endless desire to see the world burn around them. Air clerics may be free of spirit and whimsical as the changing winds. And perhaps the most tortured are the disciples of water, for so little resides on Athas that they tend to go insane and primal protecting what little supplies they do find.
Those that dedicate their mortality to the elementals are not guaranteed their power. Sometimes a person must take a leap, and pray that their actions are taken into notice. Many a wind cleric may dive off a cliff to show their faith in the air to protect them, and while some are swept up into the embrace of wind spirits, others find nothing but rejection and demise on the rocks below. Faith, for good or worse, always comes at a cost.
The arcane is not guided by the Weave or by godly influence. Magic was simply discovered and born of raw energy from life itself, ripped from the very ground and vegetation. It is widely hated, for it is no secret that the magic of the defiler, a wizard who steals the life of the land around her, leaving what little plants and ground turned to ash, is the sole cause of the constantly expanding sands. The Veiled Alliance, a group of preserving wizards, has sprung up like a thieve’s guild, and makes promises of rebuilding the world anew and green. Yet they are seen as nothing but terrorists and are immediately slain whenever exposed.
Everyone from the lowest slave to the most vicious carnivore roaming the sand dunes has a touch of power residing deep within their psyche. Known as the Way, the psychic energies of all creatures is known and feared, yet respected. Seen as the only true will of the land, and the only power that is not frowned upon. A person is wise to pay caution any living being it crosses, whether it be made of flesh or plant, for neither are immune to the Will of the Way.
Large city-states hold all the sway and power, over seen by sorcerer-kings or queens. These powerful and terrible entities are looked upon with disdain, fear, or reverence. Their existence seems endless as does their power. They grant spells to their divine followers known as the Templars as if they were deities themselves. But these sorcerers hold a dark secret inside them that few will ever know, for they are in various stages of metamorphosis—seeking to one day be reborn a dragon.
Yet there is only one dragon on Athas—the Dragon of Tyr. A creature so strong of body, wizardly might and mastery of the Way, that the sorcerer-kings and queens erected walls around their cities to protect themselves from its might and rage. Yearly they buy off his cruel eye with thousands of slaves. They hunker in fear at the madness that overtakes the Dragon’s being.
Yet the Dragon serves a greater purpose than anyone will ever know.
But that is a story for another time.
There is so much more to explain about the world of Athas, and this is but a taste of the wonders that this campaign set unfurled before us. It is no wonder why it still leaves its claws into our own imaginations, and why this brutal, dark, and bloody fray into the world of the Dark Sun deserves so much recognition and respect to this day. It whet an appetite that we had no clue parched our souls, and with its absence, the scars are deeper still, and bleed crimson longing.
I personally yearn for a day that we can all walk the lands of Athas, and continue on the tales born under a dark sun rising again.
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Next time, we’ll explore a little bit of history. More importantly, we’ll focus on the might of the sorcerer-kings and queens, and the inventor of the arcane arts. Join me for “Crimson Dawn: The Champions of Rajaat”.
I hope you enjoyed our little trek into Dark Sun. If you’ve any suggestions for future writings, feel free to lurk in the comments below. Thanks for reading, you inix toenail filth!
It’s Dark Sun jargon, I swear! No, put the sword down…