Ah. The Levy. Foundational to the great narrative of modern Athas.
The Dragon’s Levy is a fundamental concept for the generally accepted power-politics of the entire world, as described by the core canon novels of the Prism Pentad, and some of the most beloved game publications.
But with the Levy come many great hard realities, and even meta-narrative difficulties, for the campaign world at large. If the Levy was as described, certain things necessarily must be, and even some significant changes or problem sets for the campaign world arise and need dealing with. There are enough of these hard realities and problem sets that I cannot and mean not to deal with them all here, but I shall at least provide a modest list.
HARD REALITIES AS A CONSEQUENCE OF THE DRAGON’S LEVY
- City Populations Too Low, and Must be Higher
The fairly poorly written Veiled Alliance by Allen Varney I believe was the first clear mention of the population numbers of the Seven Cities. These numbers are far too low, I fear. They stand in hard contradiction to the Wanderer’s Journal, which clearly mentions standing military units of many thousands. According to Varney, Balic for example has a population of but 27,500, yet the Wanderer’s Journal mentions Androponis’ personal army of 10,000 “highly disciplined foot soldiers”, and presumably this is in addition to his templars, and in addition to the rotating standing militia divisions, which comprise 1/10th of the city’s total adult population, both slave and free. Such a military would be utterly unsustainable with a total population of but 27.5K. I understand that the Wanderer is not necessarily an accurate observer, but he is supposed to be generally correct, and not wildly off the mark (he is a future avangion after all… ).
Now, in this context, imagine the impact of the Levy upon the city. Year after ceaseless year, 1,000 souls being taken to the Dragon. Whatever Androponis might do, his city would never be able to sustain such losses. In my campaign I have magnified the world (as have many of you), increasing the scale to comport with reason and the novels, and have generally multiplied the population of the cities by a factor of 10 (as advocated by our colleagues Redking and Naggaramakam), and that is reflecting the cities proper only. I generally assign at least half again that number to the city suburbs and satellite villages. Only by doing so can the Tablelands support the armies suggested, and support the amount of death or carnage so often described, and support the armies of would-be PCs who might aspire to marshal their own private forces, as is described in the original boxed set. If the city populations were so low, a sorcerer-king would never allow private militaries of any meaningful numbers at all. I want my PCs to aspire to command troops in the thousands, as described in the original publications. Original Dark Sun envisioned the wide use of the Battle System rules, and I aspire to do so as I may.
But whatever the case, if Varney is to be accepted, and the original size of the Tablelands enforced, the effects of an annual loss of 7,000 intelligent souls, be they from the cities or the open desert, would have utterly devastated the Tablelands long ago. That is the loss of 70,000 souls every ten years. That is two whole city-states according to Varney. How many desert tribes and villages are out there to fill the levy? Even if the SKs largely filled the levy with these, surely they would have been depleted long ago.
Therefore, the population of the cities and the Tablelands at large must be expanded, which strongly implies the expansion of the original map scale. Even with the numbers I have described, with the Balican peninsula having a population of maybe 400,000 or so, the loss of 1,000 people every year would be harsh indeed, and year after year would put tremendous pressure on Androponis to keep the city from falling into a population collapse spiral, and thereby earn the wrath of the Dragon, once he at last is unable to pay.
- The Dragon Requires Intelligent Life for the Levy
Redking is correct: humanoid / intelligent life is required for the Levy.
In order to fuel Rajaat’s prison, the Black Sphere, it surely must be that intelligent life is required. If this were not so, it would from a purely administrative perspective be much easier to fill the levy with mekillots, raised on giant royally owned ranches. In this way, the sorcerer-kings would not have had to impose such a drastic sacrifice of their own people each year, which even if somehow kept secret, must have run the risk for possible rebellion and coup attempts. Better surely to pay the levy with an army of kanks, inixes and mekillots each year. And indeed, if intelligent life were not required, would the Dragon not scour Athas for every beast, and defile every forest? Such would seem a much easier prospect than organizing sentient beings for mass sacrifice.
Faced with these obvious issues, it seems therefore a matter of strict policy that the Dragon required intelligent life from the levy each year. He desired a regular, reliable system of expendable intelligent life, via a method that was not overly troublesome to him.
In accepting this, I do not deny the Dragon would have collected energy from other sources besides sentient life. His ranging defiling across the world surely brought him much more life force from vegetation and beasts. Perhaps these powered his lesser spells, the mundane 9th level spells he surely cast frequently to reinforce the defenses of Ur Draxa, and to pursue whatever other projects he may have had (such as annihilating meddlesome PC parties). And of course any traditional treasure as given in the levy, as referenced by Rovewin in the Valley of Dust and Fire, may have supported these alternate projects. It could be speculated Rovewin that in earlier centuries, when there were more cities and presumably more territory for the Dragon to profitably defile and raid, his needs were less stringent and as yet perhaps not as well defined. As is traditional in raising tribute for an overlord, a vassal probably grasped at whatever was more easily available and at whatever might seem to please his master more, and I imagine the levies often had bonuses and extras such as what is described in the Scroll of Eibok, especially if a sorcerer-king needed to make up for a previously bad year.
As to why the Dragon required intelligent life, it most likely was a required “material component” for the spell he used to keep Rajaat’s prison locked. Perhaps it was not fully understood at first. Perhaps, for example, the Dragon found that animal life was merely 1/10 the value of intelligent life, and vegetation only 1/100, for the purposes of keeping the imprisoning spell maintained. In earlier centuries this may have been more acceptable, but as the world withered, the Champions may have learned to be more economical, and to focus on the remaining resources that would get the job done, all the while probably calculating that eventually they would at last run out of energy to maintain the Black Sphere.
And lastly, the necessity of intelligent life would also explain why the Dragon could not simply use his forest of trees of life. He would certainly understand that drawing power from these trees was a method of symbiotically drawing energy from Athas at large, for the elemental roots of the trees were inextricably linked with Athas itself. But he would also have understood that this was useless, or at least not economical if you accept the 1/100 value I proposed, because the required or at least most powerful fuel to the imprisoning spell was intelligent life.
- The Dragon Either Reigns Supreme Across Athas, or There Are Challengers Great Enough to Keep He and the Sorcerer-Kings in Check
The second boxed set and our collective inclination has filled much of Athas with cities beyond the Seven Cities of the Tableland. In the far-flung and exciting maps of DarkHelm, we see mysteries cities from the other side of the continent, and even in the late 2nd edition era, maps of the Kreen Empire filled our mind with imagination.
But for all these cities beyond the Seven Cities of the Tablelands, one question demands to be asked: as unchallenged master of the world does the Dragon collect his levy from these cities too, or is there some other power, perhaps another advanced being, checking his authority? For how many times are we to accept that each new city is somehow secreted away from the Dragon and sorcerer-kings’ collective knowledge? Dregoth at least hides underground and wards his presence with 10th level magic, and let us be generous at least for the sake of argument with New Kurn, Eldaarich and even Saragar by the Last Sea, and say that these too are hidden somehow from the Dragon’s surely tremendous, world-spanning knowledge. But this becomes a tiresome argument when it is used again and again for even more distant cities, and I refuse to accept the notion of an eternally blind Borys the Dragon, who is blind to every other city besides those closest to him. Surely, if possible, the Dragon would take the levy from cities apart from the empire of the previous Champions, to keep the strain on their resources to a minimum.
However you wish to envision this matter, either the Dragon collects his levy from far abroad, or not. And if not, some power must stop him, for it makes no sense that he would focus his attention on the cities of his peers when other cities far afield could also be taxed.
It must be that Borys requires a certain minimum amount of soul-power to fuel the Black Sphere every year. We are left to speculate what this minimum is. If it is higher, say 1,000 souls for whatever Rajaat’s level is, that seems to necessitate many other cities abroad that also must pay the levy (I would venture that Rajaat’s level is about 50th).
But you may see how this question broaches uncomfortable and perhaps unwelcomed substantive questions about the expanded campaign setting. If you enjoy the Kreen Empire, do you envision some advanced being protecting them from the Dragon’s levy, or are they “animals” and do not actually count as intelligent beings capable of fueling the levy? Are the remote cities on the excellent and entertaining maps we have variously drawn over the years each protected by some elemental lord, psionic superpower, or other contrivance, or are they each paying their share of the levy.
To keep my point simple, I myself have it that Borys the Dragon ruled all of Athas unchallenged. There are no other advanced beings of great enough power to challenge his rule, and the combined might of the remaining champions he leads, for surely they would unify to force any city outside the levy system to submit. I also hold it that Athas is a dying world. If there are any other great cities in the remote corners of the world, they are sparingly few, and would surely pay their tax to the Dragon. Perhaps they already have, and too well, and that is why they do not exist anymore, or are shells of what they were.
We know from the novels that the Dragon was concerned when even 1,000 souls for the levy was in question. I think the world of Athas has decayed to such an extent that there are few other cities, and no other ruling Champions (or else, for terrible fear, they would have been present for the events of the Cerulean Storm), across the whole of the planet. And any cities that there are, at least any of size enough to endure the levy, are each of them taxed just as fully, if not more harshly, than the cities of the Champions. And to add to this, the Dragon likely collects his own personal share of intelligent life-force as he roams about the world, seeking for villages, tribes and petty cities to defile. If he has has been doing this for a thousand years or more, that is likely a great many cities, settlements, and peoples that no longer exist, and why I think it more likely that near all of Athas is desiccated, save for areas with troublesome inhabitants. Here and there lesser advanced beings and difficult cultures might give him pause to tax. Nok and the halflings of the Forest Ridge would be an example, for the halflings are too dispersed and likely in not great enough numbers to easily and regularly levy a tax. But even these enclaves must have trembled at the possibility that one day the Dragon would come.
Bottom line, the notion that there are numerous cities somewhere remote upon Athas, and all untaxed by the Dragon’s levy, is untenable. In every case there must be a realistic explanation for why it survives untaxed, or has not already been despoiled by the Dragon already in the many centuries since the levy began. In the case of dispersed populations, such as the halflings, or perhaps some of the Kreen Empire, it could be argued that the Dragon elects to avoid these as being too much trouble for too little gain, but any great city of Kreen, halfling, or any other folk would surely be taxed by the Dragon. Indeed, in early centuries, in an effort to spare his former colleagues from the brunt of the levy, the Dragon likely would have destroyed many of these far-flung cities and kingdoms, defiling them into ash to fuel the Black Sphere.
PROBLEM SETS FOR THE DRAGON’S LEVY
- The Kreen Empire
It is said that north of the nations of Jeral, Jhol, and Jez, lies a
kreen nation of immense power and size, an empire of kreen. The
rumors say the empire is ruled by a hereditary emperor (the Haazi,
or leader of change) with abilities far beyond those of normal
kreen. The Haazi supposedly has many zik-chil servants who aug-
ment the emperors abilities and ruthlessly modify other kreen to
serve as an elite, imperial guard. Rumors hint the empire has huge
cities built with the aid of creatures unknown in the Tyr Region.
These rumors have barely reached the Tablelands, and the
truth is certainly unknown to most of those who dwell there.
-Thr-kreen of Athas, p.84
I have had mixed feelings about the Kreen Empire. I submit what should be obvious: the Kreen Empire is a retcon, and not part of the original conception for the campaign setting. Nonetheless, it is fascinating, and has a place in official canon, at least from the 2nd box era, which is of a lower tier in my estimation, as much of the fluff, although very enjoyable, was ultimately retcon (Oronis, Daskinor, etc.), and invented after the fact. But the Kreen Empire was somewhat of a more clumsy retcon. If we accept the Empire as published, presumably, the Dragon for whatever reason, ignored this vast realm (or did he?).
You could accept the racist approach, that at least as far as the imprisoning magic went, kreen were treated as animals, with hit dice of far lesser value than the “normal” intelligent races. This would be in line with the philosophy of Rajaat, who seem to have neglected the creation of a Champion of Kreen Crushing. We are led to believe this is because Rajaat viewed them as animals, and/or they were from the pure Blue Age, and as pure beings ought not to be destroyed. This I suppose is an acceptable stand, for it would explain why Borys avoided the Kreen Empire as it evolved: as animals, their value in empowering Rajaat’s imprisonment was low, and they were likely quite dispersed, and otherwise powerful enough to be troublesome. If this is an acceptable determination to you, dear reader, I suppose that is your business.
If this is not acceptable, and the Kreen “count” just as much as the other races, then the Dragon’s seeming avoidance of the Kreen Empire is problematic for the coherent narrative within the setting. Is the “Haazi” emperor and his zik-chil improved imperial guard so powerful that the Dragon fears them? I think not. As suggested, their multiple cities are many and populous, and with no sorcerer-king to preside over and advocate for them, the Seven would have surely insisted the monstrous Kreen Empire be levied into oblivion before their cities received the full weight of the levy. For why would any of the Champions want to be equitable in distributing the cost of the levy to a monster race of kreen.
This is a significant problem in my estimation, and there is no easy answer. I do know I dislike the notion of a prosperous Kreen Empire that is largely aloof and unaffected by the Dragon. If it must exist in one’s campaign, my current inclination is to let it be crushed and desiccated, much as the rest of Athas is. Perhaps the Dragon levied them to near extinction in the past, and only recently have they dredged themselves up from near extinction, and rebuilt their empire, perhaps using their biological engineering skills to quickly make fertile again their lands. Or perhaps they really are animals, near useless as fuel for Rajaat’s prison, and as such Borys and the Seven truly have largely ignored them, and over the centuries they have grown into a great power. Regardless, the Kreen Empire is problematic within the framework of the Dragon’s levy, and demands resolution by any DM who meaningfully includes them (for which hopefully my notes here help).
- Endgame: The Levy Will Eventually Deplete the World Entire
As geniuses with centuries of time to contemplate, the Champions may have calculated that eventually the Levy would deplete the world. Unable to conceive of any way to truly destroy Rajaat, unable to find the Dark Lens (the use of which would have relieved the greatest stress of the levy), and otherwise unable to extricate themselves from payment of the levy, they likely would have begun to calculate that eventually the natural energy of Athas would reach an endgame phase of critical collapse.
To me, the initial phases of the endgame were already manifesting at the beginning of the events of the Prism Pentad. Pressure for payment of the levy seems to have been very high upon the Seven, and I speculate that much of the greater world had already been depleted by the Dragon. Increasingly, all that remained to be drained was in the core lands. Even Nok, it could be argued, sensed this, and foreseeing an endgame, created the Heartwood Spear to defend himself for when at last the dragons would come for his forest and his halflings. Indeed, foresight of the endgame may have been part of the calculations for Kalak to attempt his great jump into becoming a 30th level dragon with one grand spell. For Kalak may have recognized that ultimately, as the Seven Cities withered, Borys would have drained each of them, one by one, and finishing off the failed sorcerer-king with his city as it fell for failing to pay the levy. In the end, it would be only Borys, or some union of the remaining sorcerer-kings who slew him in self-defense, only replacing his duty to maintain the Black Sphere with one of their own number. In either case, in the end there could only be one as the world failed, and perhaps Kalak wished that to be himself.
But the problem with all this, if you accept it, is that the world might be even more barren and brutal beyond the Tablelands, which are the immediate environs of the remaining sorcerer-kings. With rare exceptions, it is beyond the Tablelands where the Dragon would have had every reason to focus his defiler efforts, and not the personal core domains of his remaining colleagues, who surely must have wanted to maintain their realms for as long as possible. But if all this is the case, it casts doubt upon all the great maps of vast forests, meadowed realms and surviving cities beyond the Tablelands, for these should have endured the fully weight of the levy far before the Seven Cities. If the sorcerer-kings fear to miss a single year of the levy, and the Dragon punishes his own colleagues so harshly for failing to pay, then surely the levy must be taxed all the more harshly and ruthlessly in the realms beyond, so much so that I doubt much if anything is left in those distant lands. If this is the case, it is all the more reason why the endless grasslands of the Kreen Empire are problematic. Much of what remains outside the Tablelands should be in ruins, or otherwise have a very good explanation for why the Dragon has spared it.
“If you were willing to help Ktandeo against the sorcerer-king of Tyr,” Agis said, “it must have been because you feared for your forest.”
The halfling nodded. “One dragon, the one you foolishly call the Dragon, as if it were the only one, already claims Tyr, as it does everything from Urik to Balic. When another appears, one of them will be forced across the Ringing Mountains.”
“And what does that mean to the forest?” Agis pressed. “The same thing it means to Tyr: annihilation,” Nok answered. “The dragon that passes over these mountains will devour every living thing it finds: plants, animals, people. It will allow nothing to escape.” “Why?” Sadira asked.
“Dragons grow more powerful when they kill,” Nok answered. “And dragons covet power above all else, or they would not be dragons.” -The Verdant Passage
…And if you accept what Nok says here, implying there are other fully metamorphosed dragons in the world, the problem is only compounded…
Hopefully my prolix thoughts on the subject of the Dragon’s Levy are helpful.
For quick answers:
Secret Levy. Redking asked after the secrecy of the levy. In short, I imagine it is either quite secret, a very high secret, and yet and/or a cultural monstrosity, as it seems to have been in several city-states. The exact method of selection, execution, and the site of the sacrifice probably should be determined for each city-state, especially before game play, if you are campaigning in a particular city while the Dragon yet lives. This would be an interesting thread / campaign supplement: the official levy method of each of the Seven Cities. I think Urik, Nibenay and Gulg are detailed in the sources, but probably all need work to understand appropriately to introduce into any real game. “Escape the Levy!” also seemed like an interesting if horrifying adventure to me.
Levy as Slaves. Indeed Redking, surely, from time to time, choice slaves, either by quality, need, or both, are not defiled, but rather brought to Ur Draxa. But if I were in the levy, I wouldn’t count on the lucky ticket to Ur Draxan slavery (and death before slavery anyways, right?!).
Humanoid Life Energy Required to Keep Rajaat Sealed in the Hollow. This is clearly stated throughout the Prism Pentad, and for which I have argued above, Senator Cieszlak. As I stated above, if animals and plants sufficed, much would necessarily be different. As to the why? Well, living thinking souls traditionally are ascribed much more power and value over animals and plants. Even in the context of the Dark Sun setting, living thinking souls of power and intensity might endure in the Gray as spirits, and if their death is traumatic enough, even return as undead. The same may not be said for plants and animals. Indeed, this may be an argument for why kreen are not appropriate for fueling the Black Sphere, as there are no kreen ghosts, and I do not see them as spirits in the Gray after death, for instead they have their ancestral memory, and bottom line I suspect they do not have traditional souls.
Getting Out of the Levy: Jadenfayle, I suspect if there was an easy and clever way to get out of the levy by some loophole or supernatural sleight of hand, the sorcerer-kings would have already tried it. There is no easy way around it I think, save for revolution, Heroes of Tyr style.
Eldaarich Exception: The notion that Eldaarich could get out of the levy is foolish, and I eschew this. The Dragon and other SKs would never have stood for it. If Daskinor is mad and unreliable enough to show up to face the Heroes of Tyr and then Rajaat, I suppose I can barely accept that. However, if he is so unstable so as to not demand his templars organize for the annual levy, the Dragon would have slain him long ago, and/or his fellow SKs, and the city would either have been defiled to the ground to fuel the Black Sphere for a bunch of years, or have received a governor who could guarantee the levy.
Kurn Exception: The notion that Oronis could slouch out of paying the levy is also foolish. “Kurn is slowly dying” would not have been acceptable to the Dragon. Borys was not asking, saying “pretty please.” It was “pay or die.” Kurn and Oronis is of course another significant problem set, and although I have enjoyed this curious sorcerer-king from time to time, the idea that he survived and has been unable to be detected by the Dragon for centuries is… problematic. Even if he benefited from a kind of benign neglect, this would have only been possible by continuing to pay the Dragon’s levy… not a very good act for a new avangion. And even if he did, and was actually an evil avangion with good intentions, surely he would have been summoned for the events of the Cerulean Storm. His absence would all but certainly have evoked an unpleasant visit by the Dragon or one of his agents, and it is hard to imagine the ruse of “just another city-state” would have continued much further. But the Kurn / Oronis issue can be explore more in-depth elsewhere.