From the earliest moments of the day, until the last glimpse of twilight, your life is constrained by the giant crimson ball in the sky. This is the world of Athas, the land of the dark sun.
Fables of a mythical ‘Green Age’, where trees once covered the dunes and plains do not cool the brow of man stranded outside at mid afternoon. Tales do not change the 130 degree heat, nor do they slow the bone scouring sandstorms.
Athas is a world that was subjected to unbridled power. Eons past, Wizards warred with each other for dominion, and powered their spells by drawing life from the very planet itself. Such power transformed the descendants of all who survived.
Latent powers of the mind, have manifested in nearly every form of sentient life as a method of coping with the harsh world. A Slave is just as likely as a Nobleman to be born with the powers known as The Way, or Psionics.
This is the world of Athas, a world where the cost of power is paid by all, but where the ultimate law is that of the strongest.
Once there were more, but now there are but seven city-states in all of the known lands. Each city is different in customs, dress, laws, culture, economies, demographics, but each is controlled by an immortal god-like ruler.
The Sorcerer-Kings are the absolute rulers of each of the seven city states. None broker any challenge to their power, and each is in in turn served by hundreds of devoted acolytes. These acolytes, sometimes known as Templar’s are granted divine and legal powers by the god-kings in return for their servitude. Serving as the administration and police forces of the city-states the Templar’s are reviled by all others.
As the largest bastions of humanity, the cities attract any and all manner of intelligent life. Life in a city may be harsh and cruel, but life outside the high city walls is certain death for all but Elves and the Thri-Kreen.
Most of the cities are divided into castes, where society is formed into a heirichial pyramid. At the bottom and most numerous are the Slaves; the farm slaves, the Soldier Slaves, Domestics, the Artisans, the Concubines and the Gladiators.
Just above the Slaves, one would expect to see the Merchants, who do not possesses citizen ship, but retain a certain level of diplomatic immunity from the Templars. Above them, the common freedman, who may live a harsher life than a slave, but he can at least say that he is free.
Above all of these, are the Nobility and the Templars. Depending on the city-state that one is discussing, either may hold more power or influence, but they are often equal in the number of slaves and coins that they control. Of course the Sorcerer-Kings can be found at the top of the pyramid, sometimes, as is the case with Tyr, literally.
Stretching East to West, for nearly 800 miles, the Tablelands is the moniker given to the lands found between the city-states. No two cities are closer than 75 miles and in most cases, the nearest city is at least 200 miles. That leaves countless miles of uncharted barren sands, rocky hills, and silty wastes to cross should one leave the trade roads.
Intersected by ancient roadways that connect the cities, a traveler would do well to fill every water-skin they carry at any Oasis they pass. A man can live without food for a week, but under the heat of the dark sun, not even the toughest barbarian can go for more than three without water.
Strictly speaking, the Tablelands are not composed solely of sand and rocks. Hidden pockets of lush greenery dot remote areas, higher elevations and a small crescent forest reaches between the cities of Gulg and Nibenay.
Yet even out on the plains, scrub grass may sporadically grow, showing a hint (and a hope) of life to those who know how to look.
Athas fell to ruin through the machinations and misuse of Wizardry. No one knows how sudden the fall was, though evidence suggests it was rapid. Wanderers of the desert speak of great storms that shift the dunes themselves, revealing ancient fortifications, towns and even cities. A testimony to the power of ancients, entire rooms of metal weaponry are sometimes found in these ruins. Finding such a horde is the ‘simplest’ way to buying one’s way into a life of luxury.
Scattered throughout the edges of the Tablelands are hidden villages. Often composed of slaves that escaped their masters, these villages depend on secrecy and self sufficiency. Others are not hidden in the traditional sense, but are mobile tribes composed of Elves of Thri-Kreen. With no fixed location, they roam the wastes as weather and resources allow.
The Ringing Mountains
Forming the Western edge of the Tablelands, the Ringing Mountains prohibit all travel westward. Rising into the sky, with their tips obscured by the haze of the dark sun, the Ringing Mountains are even more dangerous than the wastes over which they loom. Home to tribes of feral Halflings and fel beasts, any who enter the mountains are best forgotten.
While the Ringing Mountains border the West, the Silt Sea borders the East. Outside of the gardens of the richest Nobles, bodies of standing water are nearly unheard of on Athas, yet tales and ruins tell us that once a body larger than the Tablelands could be found to the East. Now, one finds a massive basin, filled with fine silt that rises like a fog and obscures the Eastern horizon.
The effects of Magic and Psionics have left a mark upon all of the races of Athas, just as the survivor mentality has changed the skills that one needs to live.
Characters in Athas begin at second level, and use a 30 point point buy for creation . This reflects the hardening that the dark sun forces upon all who survive to adulthood. Only the strongest survive.
In all cases except where noted here, I will be using supplements for Dark Sun rules. Where information conflicts they rank in this descending order:
- This blog article
- Unearthed Arcana – The Mystic Class by Wizards of the Coast
- Unearthed Arcana – The Ranger, Revised
- Dark Sun Player’s Handbook for 5th Edition D&D, by Gabriel Zenon Wach
- The ‘normal’ D&D 5th Edition Players Handbook
- The Sword Coast Adventurer Guide
Every player character is remarkable, and has a greater than average chance at exhibiting a Psionic Wild Talent. Each character has a cumulative 25% chance per level of developing a single Psionic Talent (as per page 27 of the Unearthed Arcana – The Mystic Class). The talent is chosen at random by the roll of a 1D12. The Mystic class never develops Wild Talents.
The Character Tree
This is modified slightly (shown in red underline), but otherwise verbatim from the 1995 re-release of Dark Sun.
“DARK SUN campaigns are set in a violent world. Powerful magic and psionics, desperate hordes of raiders, and the unforgiving environment conspire against player characters. This makes death a very real possibility for player characters. To offset this in DARK SUN campaigns, players are encouraged to use character trees. Although they play with only one character at a time, they have four to call upon at the beginning of any particular game session thus minimizing the time needed to start up a game after a PC’s death.
A character tree consists of one active character (which the player is using as his player character) and two inactive characters. The active character takes part in the adventure, performing actions in the campaign world. When a new adventure begins, the player may switch to one of his inactive characters or keep playing his previously active character.
The character tree’s chief purpose is to give every player a pool of adventurers to choose from for different situations or when one of his characters dies. The player is familiar with these characters and can apply their strengths more readily than he might be able to with freshly created characters. If care is taken, the character tree can be a valuable tool for the player in an extended campaign.
To create a character tree, a player completely rolls up three characters, using the rules presented earlier in this chapter. Once this is done, the player selects the character that he intends to run for the first adventure, making that one his “active” character. The other two are considered inactive.
Every time the active character goes up a level of experience, the player may also advance one of his inactive characters one level. The inactive character
chosen must be of a lower level than the active character. Adjust the experience point total on that inactive characters sheet to the minimum number for the new level attained.
The three characters that make up a player’s character tree are unrestricted as to class or race; any combination is acceptable. However, the alignment of these characters is restricted. All of the characters in a character tree must be like-aligned as to good, neutral, or evil. Devotion to chaos or law makes no difference, however. For example, one character tree might have a chaotic-good dwarf Fighter, a lawful good Thri-Kreen fighter, a neutral-good human bard, and a chaotic-good elf Wizard. The Thri-Kreen couldn’t be lawful evil or even lawful neutral and still be a part of this character tree.
If a character is forced to change alignment so that it no longer fits within the tree, that character must be discarded (or, optionally, the player may discard the other three, inserting three new characters into his tree and adopting this new alignment). Discarded characters must be given to the DM for use as NPCs, likely against the party.”
Player races as per the Dark Sun PDF by Gabriel:
Permitted races from the Player’s Handbook
- Human, Variant
All other races and sub races are non-playable.
The Unearthed Arcana – The Mystic Class by Wizards of the Coast outlines the Mystic class, which acts as the Psionic class found in prior editions of D&D. The Order of the Wu Jen is the only aspect of this PDF which is restricted from players, and reserved for NPCs.
Player classes as per the Dark Sun PDF by Gabriel:
All other Classes and and sub classes are non-playable.
Revision Notes & Musings
I claim none of the artwork used in this article.
- First Release, Saturday, March 25th
- One of the reasons that I have taken so long to write this up, is the sheer amount of PDF’s, out of print material, and rules that I need to consult and cite. At the same time, I’ve held off ‘just encase’ an official release of Dark Sun was released. With the next official release of D&D slated for August/September, I’ve accepted that I’ll want a Dark Sun game before it comes out, so I’ll semi-homebrew it.
- Over the years I’ve found a number of sources that give the flavor of Dark Sun;
- The world of Mad Max as shown in Beyond Thunderdome and Fury Road.
- The world of Dune, by Frank Herbert
- Second Edit, June 2nd
- Minor adjustments due to the announcement of the Tomb of Annihilation