Continuing the discussion from Grand History of Athas:
The above-mentioned thread popped up as a suggestion when I was creating another post, and it has inspired me to post my own version of Dark Sun history. It exists mainly in outline, and up until now, mostly in my head. Feel free to correct or make suggestions for improvement.
This post was also inspired by the Building a Better Backstory thread on rpg.net.
The canonical history of Athas has a lot of problems in my view. To me, the biggest problem is that it doesn't fit the feel of the original boxed set. The impression I got from the Wanderer's Journal and the initial promotional materials is that Dark Sun is an ecological parable, an allegory for our own age, a demonstration of the effects of hubris and overweening, unrestrained power. Thus it has always been my vision that the Green Age was very largely Yet Another D&D World, very similar in most respects to worlds like those of Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk. The primary difference was the lack of gods, so that no overarching force existed to prevent the ecological catastrophe that was to come.
That catastrophe arose from the invention of defiling magic. What is now called "preserving" magic had long existed as normal arcane magic, as it does on many other worlds (in the original boxed set, preserving magic was mechanically identical to standard 2e magic use). At first kept secret and taught to only a few followers, defiling magic perverted magic use and allowed for much more powerful spellcasting. While standard/preserving magic drew its power from the general life force of the planet, defiling magic drew its energy only from the life force in the immediate vicinity of the caster. This had two effects. First, it destroyed or weakened the living beings in the vicinity, as their life force was withdrawn to power the spell. Second, since the energy was "stolen" from nearby creatures rather than the overall life energy field of the planet, the magical energy from the spell (i.e. the residue that was not converted into heat, motion, etc.) did not go back into that life energy field (energy cannot be created or destroyed, remember?), but instead was released as a new kind of field; a defiling energy field, one might call it. More about that in a bit.
What exactly happened next is unclear, but there's no question that, once there were enough, and powerful enough, defilers to risk revealing themselves, there began a series of wars, both between defilers and preservers and between defilers and other defilers. These wars blasted the landscape and ravaged the world, turning the sylvan Green Age into the current Brown Age (or, well, at least the Tyr Region. It's possible that the rest of the world looks much different). The resulting hardship killed many species and transformed all others as they struggled to survive in the new, harsh environment. (Evolutionarily speaking, this is a "punctuation" in the "punctuated equilibrium" model of natural selection. Thus, drastic changes can happen in a relatively short period. If we add in the effects of all the magic released in the wars, it could be as little as 10,000 years.) Domesticated animals, protected by intelligent beings, might have survived—except that those that survived the wars and environmental devastation that followed were slaughtered for food millennia ago, including the cats and dogs.
Those demihuman species left over are much hardier than their ancestors, and many new species have arisen, with additional ones discovered on occasion. The “energy field” that defiling magic unleashed has allowed many species, including most intelligent species, to develop psionic powers of one sort or another, and many demihumans find that they can develop their latent psychic abilities (which were present to some degree even during the Green Age) into a powerful force.
All of the above meshes with everything in the original Boxed Set. There are a couple of things it doesn’t explain, though:
- What happened to all the water?
- What happened to all the metal?
- Where did the gods go? Did they ever exist? If not, what explains the occasional temple uncovered beneath the shifting sands or in the subterranean levels of cities?
The water problem can perhaps be solved by fudging physics a bit. If you look at fantastic fiction, when all the life force is drawn out of a being, that creature generally becomes a desiccated husk. In other words, water is life, or at least part of life. It’s not too much of a stretch, then, to say that water can be defiled; i.e. can be used to power defiling magic. Indeed, Sadira defiles water once in the novels, so there’s canon support for this idea. So perhaps the water all got defiled away in the epic-level defiling of the mage wars. We just have to ignore the fact that water is at a low-energy state, and therefore cannot be used to power anything.
The metal—I don’t know what happened to the metal. I don’t even recall seeing a canon answer to this question. Perhaps the Dragon eats it, or powers spells with it.
As for the gods, the 4e DSCS provides a hint: "Long ago, when the planet was green, the brutal might of the primordials overcame the gods. Today, Athas is a world without deities." I’m not aware of any other canon lore that supports this, but I see no reason it couldn’t be true. This is also one of the things that makes me think that Forgotten Realms might be a good fit as the proto-Athas, as primordials seem to be heavily involved in FR lore. But I know very little of that, so that might make less sense than it seems.
At least some of the later lore can be integrated into this story. The Blue Age can certainly have existed before the Green Age; why not? And look! Forgotten Realms had a Blue Age! The Blue Age could have been halfling (and Kreen)-only, and all of the demihuman races could have evolved from them. Why not? Raajat could have been the one to discover defiling (not preserving, just defiling) magic (his exact canon story doesn’t really make sense; why can’t he just be a powerful halfling mage, who discovers defiling magic after years of research and study? Or he can be a pyreen, whatever exactly that is, that discovered defiling magic by grasping the fundamental nature of magic due to his knowledge of life-shaping. I don’t really care, as long as the story hangs together and is compatible with the narrative above).
The Cleansing Wars could indeed have happened. Perhaps those are the mage wars I mentioned earlier, or perhaps the Cleansing Wars began after the planet had already been substantially devastated, and Raajat (or someone) decided that for his race to survive on this post-apocalyptic planet, all other demihuman races had to die. I do love the canon idea that Borys, his levy, and by extension the sorcerer-kings themselves, are absolutely necessary to the survival of the remaining population of Athas, or at least the Tablelands. It’s just so very Dark Sun: Massive, awful and seemingly pointless evil is required to prevent a far greater evil, and by trying to defeat the first evil, the PCs risk unleashing the second. So Raajat trapped in some ancient artifact that has to be powered by the deaths of thousands makes perfect sense to me, and very much fits the tone of the setting.
A couple of final notes:
Dragons: Dragon Kings makes something clear that gets muddled in the 4e DSCS: To be a dragon or avignon requires that the character be both a high-level wizard and a high-level psionicist, something that is probably only possible on Athas. I like the idea that all of the sorcerer-kings are dragons of one degree or another.
Sun: I’ve never liked the whole “the Pristine Tower changes the Sun” thing. That seems like a whole other magnitude of power than is suggested anywhere else, and really overshadows the devastation wrought by defiling, which should be the main underlying theme of the setting. Instead, I imagine that something (perhaps the Tower, perhaps something in the wars, perhaps something else) changed the atmosphere, turning it olive-colored and making the Sun appear red. Or perhaps Athas’ star is nearing the end of its life-cycle, but again, I feel that that interferes with the main theme of human (or demihuman)-caused environmental devastation. Side note: In my campaign, it is almost impossible to get a sunburn, because the sun emits very little UV light (or very little of it reaches the surface, due to the atmospheric changes I mentioned). This is consistent with the color of the sun, and also explains how Rikus can run around in the desert all day wearing almost nothing and not die of exposure. I don’t want my PCs to have to dress like bedouins, and this rule allows that.
Undead: I’ve always considered Dark Sun the most ‘secular’ of the D&D settings, due to its lack of gods. That is why I try to use a more physics-based (or at least pseudo-physics-based) approach to explaining the features of the campaign world. It is also why I don’t allow self-willed undead in my campaign. Necromancers can certainly animate dead flesh or bone, but there is no such thing as a “spirit” or “soul” that persists after death. Where would it go? With no gods, there’s no Heaven, or Hell, or Valhalla, or what have you, so would that mean that everyone becomes a ghost when they die? That’s not at all addressed in canon that I’ve seen, but it would seem to be a major flaw in the setting as it’s presented. This rule of mine creates some trouble regarding dwarven banshees, but that rule was broken to begin with anyway; since a dwarf was always supposed to have a focus, the only dwarves that didn’t become banshees would be those who died in the act of completing their focus, or in the brief time before they chose another one.
Well, there’s my thoughts on Dark Sun metaplot. I’m not an expert on Dark Sun lore, so let me know if I’ve said something wrong. Help with fleshing out this outline would also be greatly appreciated.