Constant battles among the city-states

In the original box set, it talks about the city-states constantly battling small skirmishes for food, supplies, and slaves. The revised box set downplayed this aspect.
I’ve never really used this aspect of the setting much. But I’m thinking it may be an interesting way to show how the players aren’t the center of the universe. Maybe they arrive at a city state and it’s under siege by another? Well, no getting in now and the water is running low. Oh no!
I am interested in others experiences and opinions on the topic.


Mmm Road to Urik seems like a war between the cities. I’m just starting Asticlian Gambit and it looks like Gulg and Nibenay could start fighting in any moment.
IMHO, it could be that small armies fight outside the cities. Like someone found a new mine, oasis, forest, etc, and the closets SK send groups of fighters and Templar to claim control over that resource.
An invasion or a direct attack to a city looks like a world shacking event and should happen only if one SK really believes he/she has a real adventage over his/her enemy. I could totally do that as part of a long term campaign and the result will affect how the adventure continues.


There is every reason to believe that the wars between the city states, when they do not result in the destruction of a city like Yaramuke, are largely theatrical - at least in Athas during the time of the campaign setting.

We are assured that there are wars, but nothing much comes of it. This reminds me of the situation in the novel 1984, the state of war which is described in “The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism” - a fictional book in a fictional novel.

This is known only to the Sorcerer Kings themselves. All the city states are held in a constant state of readiness, justifying the harsh conditions imposed on the populace.


One thing about the city states going to war with one another is that sorcerer king trumps army as a general rule.


Maybe there is an unwritten rule between sorcerer kings so that they don’t fight each other directly. Maybe for them war is just a game.


I’ve always seen the Tablelands as a Cold War analogue. Most of the time the city-states behave cordially to one another, albeit through gritted teeth. Occasionally something will be found or for a domestic reason an SM will send troops out as a show of force. The closest CS of course has to put on their own show of force and skirmishes ensue.

I figured Gulg and Nibenay were an exception to this with constant low level skirmishing, ambushes and assorted trickery going on but only in the Crescent Forest (Ivory Triangle box has a map of significant battles in the forest). Draj and Raam could skirmish between Fort Ebon and Fort Firstwatch - probably with Draj initiating the battles to secure captives for Tec’s pyramid.

Tyr and Balic are generally too out of the way (or too valuable in the case of Tyr and its iron mines) that they probably don’t get smacked too often. Urik is the wild card in the pack. A martial SK combined with being close enough to project power to Raam, Nibenay or Tyr means its not out of the question Hamanu might launch probing attacks or retaliatory strikes against any of these. I thought I read somewhere that Urik once besieged NIbenay for a year but had to give up after running out of supplies (can’t find the reference anywhere though).


The way I saw it, a state of total war between the city states where one is actively trying to conquer the other is something the sorcerer kings could normally not afford to attempt. Keep in mind that during a military campaign logistics are crucial to success, without a stable supply line an army will crumble under its own weight. Not only does this mean a city state is forced to invest a truly immense amount of resources into the attempted invasion, there are also precious few areas between city states for the armies to prey on for supplies. For the longest time the way armies kept their supply lines stable was by living off the land they passed through (this usually involves robbing the local populace blind at the business end of a sword). Since this is a far less lucrative option in the Tablelands we have to assume that the vast majority of supplies are coming straight out of the sorcerer king’s graineries, if you thought famines were bad in the city states before you ain’t seen nothing yet.

But lets put a pin in that point and look at the second reason marching an army through Athas is a horrendous risk. The fact that this is Athas we’re talking about here. The land is teeming with all sorts of horrific monsters and opportunistic raiders. Any stragglers are in severe danger and it is worth bearing in mind that when an army is on the march its size is effectively doubled in the form of civilians following the army providing various services such as camp followers, smiths, carpenters, guides, etc. You’re basically ringing the dinner bell when you try and march thousands of men, women, and yes even some children through the tablelands all at once. Sure the soldiers can defend much of the force, but they can’t be everywhere at once especially in numbers sufficient to deter oh say a Braxat.

However the third reason total war is relatively rare in Athas is simply the matter of the sorcerer kings themselves. Depending on the edition you’re playing these guys are either a suitable replacement for an entire army or at least powerful enough to turn the tide of a battle between thousands on their own. Obviously the reigning sorcerer king would want to accompany his army if he is intending to conquer a rival city, otherwise the defending city’s sorcerer king would be all but guaranteed to turn back the invading army. There’s a slight problem with this though, namely the fact that the invading army has no sorcerer king currently at their home city. This means any city with ambitions of conquest has to worry about a rival city potentially capitalizing on the opening they are leaving at home. Sure the sorcerer king could make pacts with nearby city states to safeguard against this, but it seems clear none of the sorcerer kings trust or like each other.

Now with all of this said it is clear that total war between city states has happened in the past. The invasion of Tyr was a special occasion since they had no sorcerer king to protect them against Hamanu, but this also left Hamanu feeling confident enough to send his army forth without him personally there. The sacking of Yaramuke is more interesting still since this is a distinct exception to the rule. However my reasons were simply meant to explain why city states don’t usually try to conquer each other. Clearly it does still happen, but they are very rare and extremely bloody occasions. After all any losing army is unlikely at best to survive the trip home.

All this said, the idea of the city states mounting countless skirmishes with one another over mines, oases, and the like makes perfect sense. There is far less risk involved and still plenty to gain. Also it gives the city states the opportunity to posture at one another and twist their rivals’ arms in diplomatic talks. Hell it also means the city state has a chance to tax those pesky dune traders that are so fond of flaunting their independence.


I had a DM in college obsessed with war campaigns in whatever setting he could get players for. In DS, this lead to a year-long campaign in which Draj and Raam were battling over a newly-discovered jade-mine. Neither sorcerer-monarch left their city, it was strictly armies facing off in the wasteland. We were Raamites(Raamians? Raamers? We never could agree) tasked with finding ways to neutralize the overpowered Draji forces. While we had the revised box set, our campaign was set before the Prism Pentad. We eventually tricked Daskinor into believing Draj was going to invade his city next, so he sent saboteurs to disrupt Draj’s economy by burning the hemp fields. Our party had purchased a mekillot-load of cannabis-flowers beforehand, so we decided to start our own merchant house. We were better at stirring up trouble than we were at trade, so we went broke


We always used Raamese.

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One way to look at it is dividing the city states into the actual city (with Sorcerer Monarch and various groups of citizens) and the surrounding regions.

These regions consist of Nobles and their slaves (mostly farmers and soldiers) and could function exactly like districts in the Hunger Games. They need to sell almost all their produce to maintain their estates and armies of soldier-slaves and to pay taxes.

The freemen, through guilds and templars, probably have a monopoly on all crafts. The city guard may actually be pretty small and have a police function, with the nobles responsible for the army function including city defense. Sorcerer-Monarchs probably have small elite forces that can be send where needed. The nobles’ soldiers could also be owned and assigned by the Sorcerer-Monarch to make nobles even more dependent.

In addition you have Traders, that are like citizens of Merchant Houses or Elven Tribes as separate countries. These could war with each other or with Nobles of other cities.

If I recall correctly City States have populations of around 40k, half of which farmers. To control these the nobles would probably need around 5k soldiers. This would leave 15k of various sorts of citizens and travelers living inside the city walls. Anyone has ideas or sources of realistic numbers?


Another view on the numbers can be found in this topic:

It mentions the numbers from a source (The Veiled Alliance), which as someone remarks are way too low to pay the levy. Like my previous suggestion these must be considered as only the city populations, without the outlying farm lands.

Unlike my (unfounded) assumption each farmer family could feed itself and at least as many other people, they mention up to 95% of a medieval population may be agricultural!

This would mean each state is surrounded by at least twenty times their number. Even if any number would be easy to beat for a Sorcerer-Monarch, top ranking Templars and their army, the constant struggle would make it unlikely they would bother or risk themselves constantly.

This would make constant war way more likely, fought by their minions (like the Urikite army of Family Lubar in the Crimson Legion) using quantity over quality.


I always took the “constant” skirmishing to be proxy wars, at least in most cases. Let’s say there is a trade dispute between merchant houses. One City backs one Merchant House, another City-State backs another. The Sorcerer-Kings could send troops, templars, mercenaries, money, defilers… Any number of things to aid whichever side they chose, with the real aim of hurting his counterpart and not “helping” whatever cause that is nominally being backed. If a Sorcerer-King loses too many proxy wars, too much military/economic power, or too many allies, that is when they are going to be ground down to a weak enough position to be vulnerable, and likely be pounced upon by armies and other Sorcerer-King(s) in their own City-State. The fact that it is written as “…city-states battling constantly…” likely just means the proxy fighting is blatant to anyone in the know.


You could have a huge proxy war, just like Drow trying to increase power by weakening rivals. Sorcerer Monarchs shouldn’t be passive, they should have goals and be constantly up to something. And their nobles, templars and traders also have their own agendas.

Each Noble and Merchant house needs to be aggressive to stay relevant, grow and deter others from making a move. Villages and slave-tribes might pop up constantly too. It would be like Mount and Blade: Warband if you know it. Personally I’d like the Sorcerer Monarchs kind of allied, so not seeking to destroy each other that seriously. A proxy war might also be entertaining for them and keeps their armies well trained.

Also, with limited resources you’d get as many people as the land can support, a war diminishes them and peace lets them grow unchecked until you have overpopulation again. Kinda like the crusades, these wars and arena fights are to get rid of overpopulation (criminals and rebels in particular).


I think ultimately you have immortal god-rulers who have presided over the all-but-complete destruction of their world through the course of millennia. For whatever reason they choose to and/or are unable to move on elsewhere, and immortality is going to get boring after a while.

Wars between the city-states really seems to be more of proxy games of chess borne via boredom or treated as games with concessions and prizes (via trade rights or whatever else) that are practiced within careful and possibly unspoken rules and constraints. I think the last time there was an honest-to-goodness real war, it resulted in Hamanu curb-stomping Yaramuke and killing another champion.

Take Gulg and Nibenay: by the numbers, there’s no reason why Gulg should survive a real concerted effort by its neighbor to destroy/conquer it. The following exchange has probably played out multiple times:

Nibenese Templar: “Oh mighty shadow king, if we just do this XYZ battle plan we have a 99% chance of utterly destroying those degenerate Gulgans and being in a position to monetize all their resources!”

to which Nibenay replies with a languid and disinterested “Naaaaah . . . do this other ABC thing instead. It only has a 2% chance of success and we’ll lose half our forces but it’ll be fun to watch and if you don’t obey I’ll magically torture and experiment on you and your whole family over the course of the next 500 years.”

Nibenese Templar: Blinks “Yes, mighty Shadow King!”


And of course we have the stabilising influence of Borys (until FY10 at least) - he doesn’t mind the SKs bickering and scheming against each other but outright wars of conquest (a la Urik v Yaramuke) are out - if only to preserve the source of the Levy needed to keep the First Sorceror locked away.


The SKs have the equivalent of nuclear weapons in the context of potential for ecological destruction.

It would be a trivial matter for an SK to turn up at the fields surrounding a rival’s city and start razing/defiling those fields through epic psionic enchantments. That would render the population of the city without an agricultural base. Of course, the victimized SK could do the same in revenge.

This is a tactic that can’t be deployed unless the other SK is dead. Obviously, it’s rare.

I think that the 3.5 Dragonlance supplement Legends of the Twins should be the model on which we present the Dark Sun setting. Don’t like Rajaat and the halfings? Fine - something else happened in Athas’ hidden history. Think Kalak is a cool guy and wouldn’t have allowed himself to get killed? No problem. The problems in Raam finally boiled over and now Raam is known as the Free City of Raam. Think that Dregoth’s plan to be a god on Athas is lame, and that Dregoth would know better? No problem - Dregoth is planning to move his chosen people, the dray, to another prime material plane world beyond the gray, but not before he gets revenge on his enemies.

The Prism Pentad, which I enjoyed, railroaded people into a scenario which is largely at odds with the mystery of the original Dark Sun boxed set. We can do better.


Love the idea, and completely agree. Dark Sun is already a setting with lots of permutations and different people accent different events/canons. PP 1 was a good read but was a lot of plot hooks (heartwood spear being the “only weapon that can kill…” what amounts to the runt of the SK litter, etc) PP 2 was great… and after that the books didn’t just “jump the shark”… they jumped the entire “Shark Week”. Completely smothered the setting in its cradle, essentially, played all of the big cards, and just left subsequent writers/DMs to go in a million different directions, each with their own take and style

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The Prism Pentad is a nice story, and could be exactly that: the story the Sorcerer-Monarchs spread to mask the truth with half-truths!

Sadira is actually Sielba, Yaramuke’s former queen and Hamanu’s lover. Sick of running a city they made up a story to explain her disappearance, allowing her to work in the shadows for the past two millennia. Or rather, work in the Sun creating her sun magic. They needed a nice hero story and alternate identity.
Rikus is actually also a decent psion, enhanced hearing, boosting weapons instead of having an overpowered sword. Maybe such an advanced psion he’s basically ageless? Or is he a necromancer, with an evil gem in his chest? Or a psion carrying a necromancer gem spirit? Same with Neeva, she might be more than meets the eye. Did Agis really die?
The order could actually be a dozen factions, kinda organized but not at all united.

All killed SM’s are actually just busy. Preparing magic defenses or fighting in the grey/feywild/shadowlands, in year 11 Athas will be open again for mindflayers, outer planars, gods and other beings that can get power if they get their minions on athas!

Not all dragon wannabees have always been working together. There may have been a many dozens, 15 of which got a vortex. Those without needed to kill one to steal the vortex, those with one will want to remove this competition. Insert magic: the gathering style combat with lots of land destruction.
The remaining ones should kinda sorta work together, assuming some degree of sanity.
What to do with my enemies enemies enemy ? What to do when the 9 Hells, the 7 Heavens, Lolth and her Drow, the rest of the Abyss, the mindflayers and Eladrin want to come to Athas to kill each others, gain power, plant trees or party?

Hmm, someone wanted constant battles? :grin:

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I’ve always seen the war between Nibenay and Gulg as a useful ploy by Nibenay (with Lalai-Poi complicit). It keeps the populace distracted and trains the army. They could be crushed at any time if it was ever truly important but there were plenty of reasons everyone got where it wasn’t.

Now, with peace and prosperity the economy should be booming. The populace is sufficiently motivated and the army is modernising. They can get plenty of experience against bandits/slaves and the Gith of the mountains, further improving trade and prosperity. The existential threat seems to be the Dray and Dregoth now…

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