Lighthouse for the Blind
The World of Athas
“I live in a world of fire and sand. The crimson sun scorches the life from anything that crawls or flies, and storms of sand scour the foliage from the barren ground. This is a land of blood and dust, where tribes of feral elves sweep out of the salt plains to plunder lonely caravans, mysterious singing winds call travelers to slow suffocation in the Sea of Silt, and selfish kings squander their subjects’ lives building gaudy palaces and garish tombs. This bleak wasteland is Athas, and it is my home.”
—The Wanderer’s Journal
Beneath a crimson sun lie wastelands of majestic desolation and cities of cruel splendor, where sandal clad heroes battle ancient sorcery and terrible monsters. This is Athas, the world of the DARK SUN campaign setting, a dying planet of savagery and desolation. Life hangs by a thread in this barren land, and now it is up to you to write your own story in blood and glory.
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 splendor 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 bad lands, thorny scrublands, and worse. From the first moments of dawn, the crimson sun beats down from an olive tinged sky. Temperatures routinely exceed 40 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 armor are made of bone, stone, wood, and other such materials. Mail or plate armor 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. Life-shapers draw upon the essence of the living, the dead, and those not yet even born to transform themselves and the very landscape around them. Martial-artists combine the diverse cultural traditions of Athas with the will to survive, balancing the peace of the last remnants of civilization on a razor edge. And secret-keepers hoard the mysterious legacy of Athas, using the forgotten words of power to make horrific pacts by bargaining away their very soul.
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 mixes and mekillots. Wild creatures such as lions, bears, and wolves are virtually 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 (half-giants) are brutal mercenaries who serve as elite guards and enforcers for the sorcerer-kings and their templars in many city-states.
ABOUT THE DARK SUN CAMPAIGN SETTING
The original DARK SUN campaign setting, by Troy Denning and Tim Brown, was published by TSR, Inc., in 1991 for the 2nd Edition DUNGEONS & DRAGONS game. Strikingly illustrated by renowned fantasy artist Gerald Brom, DARK SUN offered a compelling new vision for the DUNGEONS & DRAGONS game, one that broke free of the traditional medieval trappings of fantasy roleplaying. Troy Denning went on to write a five part novel series, the Prism Pentad, telling the story of the revolution in Tyr and the downfall of the sorcerer-kings. More than thirty game supplements, adventures, and boxed sets supported the setting, along with novels, short stories, and articles in Dragon magazine.
This new version of the DARK SUN campaign setting returns to the days immediately after King Kalak’s overthrow, when freedom glimmers weakly in a single city-state and ancient evils begin to stir once again. You can still find 2nd Edition DARK SUN game products online or in used bookstores, but this new edition of the setting is a reimagining of the campaign world as its story begins. People, places, and events described in older products might be different (or absent) in this edition.
A NOTE FROM THE GAME MASTER
DARK SUN is often considered the most thrilling campaign setting by D&D veterans, and for good reason. As you can see above, the world of Athas is wildly different from virtually every other high-fantasy game world – I hope you’ll enjoy its unique flavor. The description given above was tweaked from the first official printing of the setting in decades, albeit for D&D 4th edition. It turns out that there was no truly official support for DARK SUN during D&D 3rd edition – the version we’ll be using for this game. The volunteer-run website Athas.org is considered the semi-official authority for 3rd edition DARK SUN material, but it fails to include rules or references to many of the published material out there (including other semi-official sources, such as the Dungeon and Dragon magazines). The original printing during 2nd edition incorporated psionics into a campaign setting for the first time, and DARK SUN was also the break out setting for epic-level rules. I wanted to preserve that spirit with this game by incorporating many of the most intriguing published materials of 3rd edition, while still keeping the flavor of the setting. This makes things more complicated, but I hope more enjoyable, since now you’ll be confronted with a world that challenges everything you thought you knew about dungeons, dragons, and roleplaying.
Good luck out there.
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