Common Characteristics of Athas

The world of the Dark Sun campaign 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 ancient red sun is often its own adventure. Newcomers to Athas have many things 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 seemingly endless seas of dunes, lifeless salt flats, stony wastes, rocky badlands, and thorny scrublands. From the first moments of dawn, the crimson sun beats down from an olive-tinged sky. Temperatures routinely exceed 100 degrees by midmorning and can reach 130 degrees 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, precipitation is little more than a humid mist that falls for a few weeks before giving way to long months of heat and drought. The world beyond these islands of civilization is a barren wasteland where nomads, raiders, and hungry monsters roam. Athas was not always a desert, and the crumbling ruins of a planet once rich with rivers and seas dot the parched landscape. Ancient bridges spanning dry watercourses and empty stone quays facing 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 merciless savages overrun the deserts and wastelands. The cities are not much safer; each chokes in the grip of an immortal tyrant. 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 blooms. Only a fool hopes for such riches.
  3. Metal Is Scarce: Most weapons and armor are made of bone, stone, wood, and similar materials. Mail or plate armor exists only in the treasuries of the sorcerer-kings. Steel blades are nearly priceless; many heroes never see such weapons during their lifetimes.
  4. Arcane Magic Defiles the World: Reckless use of arcane magic during ancient wars reduced Athas to a wasteland. To cast an arcane spell, a magic user siphons power from the living world. Nearby plants wither to ash, crippling pain wracks animals and people, and the soil is permanently sterilized. It is possible to cast spells with care, avoiding any more damage to the world, but defiling is easier and faster 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 use their arcane abilities without fear of reprisals.
  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 profess to serve gods. Some are brutal oppressors, while others are subtle in their tyranny. The sorcerer-kings govern through priesthoods or bureaucracies of greedy, ambitious templars. 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: Today, Athas is a world without deities. No clerics, no paladins, and no prophets live on Athas. And religious orders are dedicated to sorcerer-kings who claim godhood. Old shrines and crumbling temples lie amid ancient ruins, testimony to a time when the gods spoke to the people of Athas. Nothing but the sighing of the desert wind is heard now. In the absence of divine guidance, 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. Meanwhile, shamans and druids call on the world’s primal powers, which are often sculpted by the influence of elemental power.
  7. Fierce Monsters Roam the World: The desert planet has its own deadly ecology. Many creatures that are familiar sights on milder worlds have long since died out or never existed on Athas. The world 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 almost 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 nomadic herders, raiders, peddlers, and thieves. Halflings aren’t amiable river-folk; 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.

Common Characteristics of Athas

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