Was the Wanderer always meant to be an unreliable narrator?

Was the Wanderer always meant to be an unreliable narrator or did they forget/change a lot of stuff from the initial Wanderer’s Journal?

When I first read the Wanderer’s Journal many years ago, I was blown away by the setting. It was totally unlike any other fantasy world going around at the time. It still remains by far my favourite D&D world setting and right up there in terms of my favourite fantasy world of all time.

Rereading it again recently, I was struck by just how much was later changed in later supplements. Not just by the addition of things like the halflings as the first race, the cleansing war etc, but a whole host of things.

I actually prefer the world as is presented in the initial Wanderer’s Journal, with all its mysteries and implications. Not everything that came later is bad but a lot just doesn’t seem to mesh with what was presented at first.

So is it a case that they were deliberately giving misinformation at first (and if so why?) or did they just forget or change it later on?

Even the geography changed - right at the start it is described as a million square miles of explored land (about a quarter of the size of Europe) completely encircled by the Ringing Mountains, with a Poland sized Sea of Silt in the middle. The Tablelands occupies the narrow band of land between the Sea and the Mountains, with the Tyr Region being only a small part of that land, with the rest of it being described as much the same as the Tyr region, including that it is occupied.

The description of Draj references it to trading with ‘some cities to the north’, while the entry on North and South Ledopolus states that they are trying to build their bridge to shorten the caravan route from Gulg to Balic and ‘other cities south of the Tyr Region.’

And then a lot of that changed. The Ringing Mountains disappeared in places, all the explored land was suddenly unexplored, the cities in the south vanished and those in the north turned out to be just two, Kurn (all but abandoned as far as everyone else knows) and Eldaarich, neither of which do much trade. (If there were to be only two cities, they really should have said a couple as some cities does have some implications for more than two.) I’ve always liked the idea of their being more city-states out there, little known and hard to get to due to the difficulties of traveling far.

Even the nature of the Sorcerer Kings was changed. A couple of times it is said that almost all are defilers, which has interesting implications. (There is Oronis but the Wanderer didn’t know of him at the time of his first Journal.) Right at the very start of the Journal it also says that the SK squander their armies on ‘raising gaudy palaces and garish tombs.’ You don’t build tombs if you aren’t expecting to die. The Wanderer seems to think they are centuries old, possibly a thousand, while the city-states are thousands of years old, and that while none have died in his, his father’s and his father’s fathers lifetime, that they can die, as evidenced by two abandoned city-states.

There is also his theory given in the Draj entry, that Tectuktitlay started as a young and weak Defiler, led a small band of followers to the place where Draj was founded and as it prospered he became a Sorcerer-King.

The way it is written, it gives the implication that 1) you could become a sorcerer-king and 2) sorcerer-kings were not immortal but could die, which is why they were building tombs for themselves. That sounds a far more interesting world than what was later to be given; ie the Champions, in that old SKs could die and new ones rise up to replace them. And trying to break into the tomb of a dead SK would be rather interesting.

Oh, yeah, and the Dragon as well. Right at the very start it speaks of it despoiling entire cities, which is kind of a bad thing to be doing if it relies on the cities to be providing it with a tribute of slaves (but that isn’t mentioned in the initial Journal.) It is described as pretty much just wandering around feeding its insatiable appetite on whatever it comes across - merchant caravans, herders and their herds, villages, city-states, and the SKs are named as babes compared to the power of the Dragon.

There are a number of other things as well, such as populations and army sizes - Urik alone is mentioned as having 10,000 slave-soldiers and a 1,000 half-giant soldiers, not counting merchant and noble house soldiers. To feasibly support such a large army would require quite a larger population than given. And talk of how in times of famine the city-states would raid each other for food and slaves, which sound a lot like Celtic cattle-raids, a concept that isn’t raised again but would make a great plot for an adventure.

There is more but I’ve gone on longer than I expected. The point is, if they already did have the back history worked out, why go to the effort of presenting a world rather different than what later came out and a world, to my mind, that was actually better than what we later got.

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The Wanderer’s Journal is an in-universe perspective of a single, well-travelled, literate person. He doesn’t know how many cities are to the north or south of the Tyr region, only that he’s heard tell that some exist.
Similarly, when he refers to tombs, he’s probably referring to the ziggurats in Tyr, Draj and Kalidnay, or the Naggaramkan of Nibenay. No one knows what the structures really are (foci for draconic transformation spells), so it’s assumed they must be elaborate tombs.
Athaa is a land where few people travel outside their own settlement, where news from outside is rare, where little is written down. In that circumstance almost no one has reliable information - even the SMs will be reliant on whispers and cryptic messages from their spies and have to try and corroborate that through scrying.
As a literary device the Wanderer is excellent. If PCs are going to use his journal as more than a pointer to the truth of a situation, they’re probably doomed.

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The problem is that it wasn’t just the only information provided to the PCs. At release it was the only information provided to the DMs as well so they had to accept it was the truth to run a campaign.

It does work brilliantly as a piece of fictional work to give the players an unreliable taster of the world but DMs need factual.

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Way I see it, having an unreliable narrator is a setting’s way of giving the players permission to alter things as they see fit. The Wanderer was likely always meant to be an unreliable narrator, but I suspect he was meant to point DM and PC alike in a good direction towards the truth.

Sure the DM always has liscense to tweak any setting they use as they see fit, but the Wanderer showed how little was truly understood of the world. It was up to the DM to decide the broader history of the world. What happened to the Green Age? Who were the SMs before the current rulers? What is the Dragon? None of these questions are answered, but all are implicitly asked.

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That first Wanderer’s Journal could easily have been the “elevator pitch” for the setting, just polished up a bit for release. It does certainly draw you in and summarize the setting well (even if some of the details are invalidated later on).

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I doubt anyone can truly answer that question, but I’ll tell you both what I’ve heard from people who worked on Dark Sun and what I can find looking at clues:

On an episode of the Bone, Stone, and Obsidian Podcast, one of the interviewees was the head designer for Elves of Athas, an early Dark Sun supplement, who confirmed that he had no idea whatsoever of the true history of the world or even a lot of details of the city states. Similarly, the Dune Trader sourcebook has a pile of infamous continuity errors. Really, few Dark Sun products managed to be internally consistent, much less consistent with the rest of the setting. (Good example here: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water claims in 2 almost back to back paragraphs that the paraelemental planes of Athas are the same as the ones of the Great Wheel and that they are completely different, which is it?)

Even the head designers, Tim Brown and Troy Denning, seemed to have communication problems, with books worked on by one (ex. Dragon Kings) being heavily contradicted by the other (ex. parts of the Prism Pentad). Or just look at the description of the box set Dragon of Tyr compared to Dragons Kings compared to Prism Pentad. According to Troy Denning in an old interview, they could never even agree on whether or not there were once gods on Athas, or the number of Champions of Rajaat.

There are other weird things too. A truly old dragon magazine held Psi-Shadows, a monster designed to be a call forward to the upcoming Dark Sun campaign, that feels a bit like a very early version of shadow giants, but works completely differently in all respects. Or how about the many monsters in the monstrous compendium for Dark Sun that were never even given a reference in the Prism Pentad.

As best as I can tell, the truth is that there was a lot of disagreement, things just thrown in there, and, most critically, a lack of open communication between people working on the setting from the very beginning. I don’t believe the Wanderer was meant to be unreliable, at least not to the degree that he looks with the benefit of hindsight, but the secrecy shrouding the setting was not just targeting the players, or DM’s, but the designers themselves.

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Me unreliable? Pfft!

But yeah, it’s been answered. It’s the perspective of the Wanderer, like a journal or such. DMs should feel free to accept or alter whatever they see fit in their campaigns.

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Good post, OP.

The setting changed. Troy Denning wrote his books, which overturned the setting as originally described by the Wanderer.

That said, I think that the Wanderer was writing his journal in good faith but it was highly speculative. For one, I believe that the Wanderer got it wrong about the wars between the city states. I think that the wars are mainly theatrical, similar to the wars in the novel 1984.

Even the Verdant Passage gets it wrong. In the Verdant Passage there is a reference to raids of Tyrian granaries by other city states. Thus the granaries are protected by a huge stone slab which are psionically moved into place whenever Tyr is attacked. By the end of the Prism Pentad you realize that those kinds of raids simply don’t happen.

Like you, I am a first boxed set originalist. The athas dot org templarate much prefers the Revised Campaign Setting. Therefore, I have proposed that Athas could have different histories.

Maybe Rajaat and Haflings were part of it. Maybe they weren’t. The point is that history on Athas is occulted. 98% of people on Athas no nothing of real history.

Don’t get me started on the demographics. The problem is that the staff at TSR didn’t understand demographics. Go with the fluff, and forget the numbers they provided.

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Thanks for that. So it looks like it was more a result of lack of communication and co-ordination rather than a conscious choice. Possibly as a result of TSR wanting to throw out as much as possible as quickly as possible.

I’ll probably be sticking to my version of head canon, which kind of ignores much of the fluff after the initial Wanderer’s Journal but will utilize a lot of the mechanical stuff if it works.

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You’ve spotted a fundamental issue of all fiction- in a fight between consistency and narrative, narrative must win for the sake of the story.

Besides, I’ve always liked the idea of a story from one vantage point, which necessarily suffers from all the biases and mistakes you would expect from an eyewitness account.

Nearly every narrative mistake can be dismissed with this kind of hand waving. For example:

-Counting heads is hard, so numbers will always be unreliable in eyewitness accounts.

-For the Dragon, he only despoils cities who piss him off, and only to set an example. That’s probably why the Wanderer knows of this scaremongering story.

-The tombs were probably being confused with the word monuments, and the tombs don’t have to be necessarily for the SM’s themselves. Maybe the Wanderer knows they’re defiler material components.

-The changing map could simply reflect simple ignorance, and the same problems which have always afflicted map makers – unreliable information from explorers and the politics of their patrons.

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It seems to me that the wanderers information being wrong was at least partly by design. The wanderer himself says a lot of the information in his journal is from second hand accounts and other less than reliable sources. This I assume was designed so that the DM would be free to make final decisions about their campaign.

It just had the added benefit that if the writers changed directions the original boxed set wouldn’t be seen as of no use.

As a personal anecdote I was running a campaign based on the marvel universe. Warned my gamers my campaign would be set at a time based on my own experiences with those comics and I would not always adhere to marvel cannon otherwise I wouldn’t be able to tell my story. Well I had a player who insisted on arguing every point where characters were supposed to be and what was out of character for them to do based on issue # idontgiveadarn.

I prefer the wanderers journal approach.

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