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D&D General 1991 Dark Sun Setting Overview and Speculation

squibbles

Explorer
I really like the Dark Sun setting and especially the 1991 Dark Sun Boxed Set—though, sadly, I have never played using it. This is my attempt to rationalize the Dark Sun setting as it was originally described, while ignoring content that came later.

Fair warning: this post is LONG, pedantic, and anal retentive.

What I’m going to call the explored world of Athas is described in the Wanderer’s Journal thusly:

"Athas, or at least the explored portion, consists of about one million square miles of desert. In its center, covering an area of about 120,000 square miles, is a vast, dust-filled basin that I call the Sea of Silt. […] Surrounding this dry sea is a band of Tablelands, ranging from as much as 400 miles wide to as little as 50. The Tablelands consist of many types of terrain: golden dunes, stony barrens, dust sinks, white salt flats, rocky badlands, and plains of yellow-green scrub-brush. This is where civilization—if you can call it that—still lingers. […]​
The Tablelands are encircled by the various ranges of the Ringing Mountains. These ranges all run north and south. To the east and west of the Sea of Silt, the mountains form solid walls separating the tablelands from the unknown regions beyond. To the north and south of the dusty sea, they form a series of parallel ribs. The deep valleys between the ridges lead away from central Athas like a series of long (and hazardous) corridors.​
In every direction, beyond the mountains lie the Hinterlands. We have little knowledge of what abides there. Many men have set out to explore the depths of this unknown region, but I have never met one who returned." (The Wanderer’s Journal, p. 3-4)​

The Wanderer’s Journal is organized such that it covers the broad strokes of the explored world first—general information about society and terrain—and then moves to describing the details of the Tyr region—specific information with which the Wanderer has personal experience. The Wanderer presents the Tyr region as being broadly similar to the rest of the explored world and as having some level of interaction with other regions through trade and travel. The major roads on the Wanderer’s map lead off its edges to both north and south, indicating sustained connectivity. And, as he states:
"The Tyr region lies on the western shore of the Sea of Silt. Judging by what I have heard from other explorers and travelers, the land around Tyr is fairly typical of the regions bordering the Sea of Silt, with about half of its entire area taken up by Tablelands." (The Wanderer’s Journal, p. 67)​

The explored world around the Sea of Silt—as an interconnected region—has been retconned in subsequent products, making the Dark Sun setting a lot smaller. In the Revised Dark Sun Campaign Setting, the people of the Tyr region are generally ignorant of even the next closest set of cities. Terming Kurn and Eldaarich as lost city-states, it asserts: “few inhabitants of the Tyr Region know the names of the northern cities—let alone that they even exist. For most, rumors of cities to the north are just that […]” But, in the 1991 set, the Tyr region is not asserted to be insular or ignorant of its neighbors—as I have quoted above, the wanderer literally describes the whole explored world’s geography.

In the rest of this post, I’ll obsessively work out the land area, population, and geography of the explored world and discuss what it says about the Tyr region and 1991 Dark Sun campaign setting writ large.

So, returning to the Wanderer’s description of the explored world, it consists of:
  1. A million square miles of desert.
  2. With the Sea of Silt in the middle.
  3. With the Tyr region on the sea’s western shore.
  4. Bounded east and west by the Ringing Mountains.
  5. Bounded north and south by ribbed valleys of the Ringing Mountains.
  6. With everything around it being unpeopled Hinterlands from which no travelers are known (by the Wanderer) to have returned. Note that the parts of the explored world which are NOT the Hinterlands are implied by comparison to have some degree of sapient habitation.
Rendered in its full glory with MS paint, the explored world looks about like this:

1620852761454.png

So, how big is that?

Well, 1,000,000 square miles is about the area of Argentina (1,056,640 mi2) or Kazakhstan (1,042,400 mi2) and the Sea of Silt at 120,000 square miles is somewhere between the area of the Caspian Sea (143,000 mi2) and the Persian Gulf (97,000 mi2).

Taking the Persian Gulf as a starting point—since many of its surrounding landmasses are arid and since Dark Sun has always had some degree of Biblical near eastern theming—how much territory would Dark Sun’s explored world cover? About this much:

1620852848614.png

And, within that area, how much does the Tyr region cover? If we extrapolate from the Wanderer’s map, which has a 30-mile scale, the area contained within the Tyr region is about 100,000 mi2 (if you include the hinterlands bits but not the map border). The 4e maps use a 75-mile scale instead, giving them a roughly 590,000 mi2 area—but that’s updating the scale of the Tyr Region to accommodate that the explored world is gone from the setting. In 4th Edition, “Beyond the borderlands of [the Tyr Region] lie desolate wastes; some people believe that the Tyr Region is the last habitable area on Athas, and that all the people remaining in the world live in these lands” (Dark Sun Campaign Setting, p. 130).

Lame. From here, I’ll assume the 30-mile scale is correct.

If you overlay a 104,000 mi2 rectangle over the Persian Gulf, i.e. literally the US state of Colorado, it looks as pictured below. And this orientation feels to me like it corresponds pretty well to the Wanderers description of the explored world.

1620852953023.png

So, how many people live in that area? According to the Wanderer’s description of the Tablelands—which, as I take it, is not meant to include the Ringing Mountains, Forest Ridge, or Sea of Silt:

In the Tyr region alone, there are tens of thousands of square miles of plains, and I am sure that fewer than a million people live in that area—most of them in cities, villages, or other groups located near a good source of water. By and large, the plains are empty and wild, populated by untamed tribes and savage beasts. (The Wanderer’s Journal, p. 46)

So, almost 1 million inhabitants. That is nearly 10 people per square mile, which is on the low end of the widely used—and malignedMedieval Demographics Made Easy essay (and generators based on it). I think that level of population density feels a bit high—but not unreasonable. For reference, the Arabian Peninsula (that’s Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait) had a population density of about 7.5 inhabitants per square mile IN THE YEAR 1950.

But, if we accept the 10 person/mi2 population density, that is still a bit low to support the level of urbanization in the Tyr region. The 1991 Campaign Setting doesn’t list city populations, but the Wanderer does give the numbers of soldiers in several cities’ armies. They are gobsmackingly high: “Andropinis' personal army consists of ten thousand highly disciplined foot soldiers…” (p.67), “Hamanu can personally send more than ten thousand slave soldiers led by a thousand lance-carrying half-giants into battle.” (p. 75). For single city-states, standing armies of those sizes induce starvation—so these would necessarily be militia armies, like hoplites or republican legionaries, who fight (at most) for a campaign season and then go home to tend the harvest. Inter-city wars would probably be pretty indecisive—one set piece battle followed by a brief and, therefore, unsuccessful city siege during which the defender’s unwalled territory is pillaged. Though, on occasion, city sieges would be successful as was Hamanu’s siege of Yaramuke.

Ahem… population density, sorry…

The Revised Campaign Setting does give city population numbers (so we’ll have to tolerate it, for now).
Tyr: 15,000​
Urik: 30,000​
Raam: 40,000​
Draj: 15,000​
Nibenay: 25,000​
Gulg: 12,000​
Balic: 28,000​

Altogether, that’s 165,000 of the less than 1 million people in the region. That’s a very high urbanization rate for a Medieval society—medieval Europe was about 5% urbanized—but for an ancient one with a robust centralized bureaucracy (like Dark Sun’s templars) and sophisticated irrigation technology it’s not totally crazy. The Roman Empire at its peak had urbanization rates of 25% to 30%, while Spain in 1300, with a comparable population density of 10.9 people/mi2, had an urbanization rate of 12% (probably due to Andalusian technological sophistication). Finally, comparing to the world’s most famous city state, Athens had an estimated 20,000-40,000 residents in the 5th Century B.C.E.

In each of those historical cases, though, urban concentration was supported by a large pool of nearby agricultural clients. When Athens was the size I quoted above, it was being supported by 80,000 to 150,000 Attic farmers and still needed to import foodstuffs. But while some Dark Sun materials, like Beyond the Prism Pentad (p. 13), do mention city states as having client villages throughout their periphery, it’s nothing near the appropriate order of magnitude.

I’ll square this circle by making some assumptions about Athasian society and technology.
  1. There are indeed many client villages serving the cities of the Tyr region—not enough to agriculturally support them, but still quite a few. These people are incredibly insecure; the city states tax their food production but provide minimal security, so raids and famines always affect them first. Declines in city population can be offset by intermittently abducting people from this periphery.
  2. The land around each city is very intensively farmed. Each city is served by sophisticated irrigation systems, can dig deep wells, and is highly competent at storing its surplus water and grain. Athas’ precious iron is used to make plows, and the fields are tilled with the muscle power of Erdlu or Kanks as well as human beings. Incidentally, these movable goods increase the payoff of successful raids.
  3. Even with all this, though, the cities of Athas are primarily fortified shelters—and not centers of specialized goods production. Most of the people who live in the cities are agricultural workers and people who own, administer, or maintain agricultural infrastructure. They move about the fields by day but retreat into the city walls at dusk or during raids as, for example, in Balic where “hungry giants raid semi-weekly” (p. 12). Proportionately few urbanites are the artisans and traders described by the Wanderer; they are present but only as a powerful minority.
However, the grandeur of the Tyr city map in the 1991 set suggests a far more impressive civilization than the fortified shelter builders I have just described. The Golden Tower, Grand Gate, gladiatorial stadium, ziggurat, and city wall are constructed at a cyclopean scale. But, remember, the ziggurat building peoples of ancient Mesopotamia exerted central control over a large fertile river valley; they had lots of surplus to support major building projects. The city of Tyr doesn’t. It would make sense, then, that much of this monumental architecture was built sometime in the past, when Athas was greener, or accreted over centuries of effort. Kalak’s ziggurat, the only one of these buildings that we know is recent, has been under construction for 20 years and is ruinously costly.

Perhaps—and there’s a certain romanticism to this—Athas’ surviving cities are ruins. They’re not abandoned like Bodach, Guistenal, Kalidnay, and Yaramuke, but they’re still the decaying remains of a better age. Their inhabitants’ ancestors built the pyramids, walls, and palaces but their present residents can no longer easily replicate that.

So, let’s extrapolate this to the rest of the explored world:

The Wanderer claims that “the land around Tyr is fairly typical of the regions bordering the Sea of Silt” (p. 67), that cities “respond to the rigors of barren Athas by organizing in the same general manner” (p. 12)—i.e. by being small, heavily agrarian, fortified shelters—and that “Every city is led by a king” (p. 12). The explored world of Athas, then, must contain many more cities and many more sorcerer kings than are described. That the Wanderer states, as a generality, sorcerer kings “may be addressed as "Magnate" in one place and "Vizier" in another…” (p. 12)—despite that none of the ones in the Tyr Region call themselves “Magnate”—clearly suggests this. So then, if the Tyr Region occupies ~100,000 mi2 of the ~1,000,000 mi2 that make up the explored world, there should be another ~60 ‘fortified shelter’ cities and ~60 defiling sorcerer kings in that sandbox…

Jeez.

Do they all have their own micro-sized cultural enclave? Wait… why do all the Tyr region’s cities have micro-sized cultural enclaves?

Yeah, yeah, sure, rule of cool. Fair enough…

But let’s speculate: The small size of the explored world relative to the probable surface area of the planet Athas, the purported absence of sapient life in the lands beyond it (though, oddly, the Wanderer notes that many large animals live in the Hinterlands), and the cultural diversity of the city-states suggest to me that the explored world’s inhabitants all MOVED THERE FROM SOMEWHERE ELSE. The Mesopotamian, Indian, Aztec, Central African, Cambodian, and Greek inflected cities of the Tyr Region—none of which are especially adapted to a Mad Max-esque wasteland—could well be descended from larger culture groups that immigrated there centuries ago when the rest of their world died. Maybe the cultural diversity of a whole planet has been condensed into an enclave the size of Kazakhstan.

Finally, one last piece of speculation I wasn’t sure where else to put:

I anticipate that the eastern side of the Sea of Silt has a somewhat more habitable climate than the Tyr Region. The placement of the Tablelands and Forest Ridge suggests that the west of the Ringing Mountains is its windward side. Clouds are blown against the Ringing Mountains’ western face, depositing rain on the Forest Ridge as they rise, and leaving the Tyr Region in the range’s rain shadow. If this is due to westerly atmospheric circulation (and Athas’ atmosphere works like Earth’s), then the same is true for the eastern range of the Ringing Mountains. Rainfall would be deposited on their western side too—within the Tablelands. Also, since westerly winds blow between 30- and 60-degrees latitude north and south, that places the explored world well beyond Athas’ equator, which suggests that the equatorial regions of Athas are even more hellish than the parts the Wanderer describes.

-----

Okay, by this point I have almost certainly lost all of you. But I have 100% talked myself into the idea that what I want from future Dark Sun publications is a book about the eastern shore of the Sea of Silt—new cites, new sorcerer kings, new borrowed cultures, and a status quo that is not in any way hidebound to the lore of the Tyr Region. Its timeline could start from Kalak’s death, the end of the Prism Pentad, well before, well after, or be completely different—each gaming group would decide for themselves and any new lore would be timeline agnostic.

Tell me what you think. Thanks for reading.
 
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Urriak Uruk

Debate fuels my Fire
Okay, by this point I have almost certainly lost all of you. But I have 100% talked myself into the idea that what I want from future Dark Sun publications is a book about the eastern shore of the Sea of Silt—new cites, new sorcerer kings, new borrowed cultures, and a status quo that is not in any way hidebound to the lore of the Tyr Region. Its timeline could start from Kalak’s death, the end of the Prism Pentad, well before, well after, or be completely different—each gaming group would decide for themselves and any new lore would be timeline agnostic.

Tell me what you think. Thanks for reading.

Well, I'm impressed by your post. That's quite a lot of geographical analysis, and it's well researched.

As for myself, I definitely would want Dark Sun 5E to mostly be about the Tyr region. That said, I wouldn't complain if I saw hints at potential regions beyond, including the Thri-Keen Empire beyond the Jagged Cliffs. I would also love to see hints of whether the Sea of Silt can be crossed with "sand skimmers," and I'd even like a hook for developing a Dark Sun underdark.

Still, nothing more than hints and potential hooks. These are just great tools for DMs to develop their own Dark Sun world, I don't want to rock established fluff too much.

Anyway, I'm saying my own Athas has drow pirates with sand-skimmers on the sea of silt, and a mummy-vampire aristocracy ruling in upside-down pyramids beneath the earth.
 

Mercurius

Legend
Great post. I skimmed most of it, but will re-read more carefully, and appreciate the thoughtfulness.

One thing about city populations. I think a better comp for Dark Sun would be early antiquity Mesopotamia, as you mentioned a bit later on. We don't have clear demographic info as far as urbanization is concerned, but it makes some sense that it would be higher, with "cultural enclaves," as you put it. Plus, the city populations are realistic for ancient Mesopotamia. In the first couple millennia, I think Ur maxed out around 80-100K. Later, Babylon was several times that, but it was a different era.

But the point being, I wouldn't compare it to Medieval Europe.

I like your idea of people essentially living off the ruins of the past. This resonates with the "alternate view" (or esoteric) view that Egypt is actually the remnants, or descendant, of a far older civilization (Atlantis and/or whatever was in the Sahara before desertification).

As a side note, I'm guessing you've seen this unofficial Athas world map - kind of fun:

1620857414844.png
 


see

Pedantic Grognard
However, the grandeur of the Tyr city map in the 1991 set suggests a far more impressive civilization than the fortified shelter builders I have just described. The Golden Tower, Grand Gate, gladiatorial stadium, ziggurat, and city wall are constructed at a cyclopean scale. But, remember, the ziggurat building peoples of ancient Mesopotamia exerted central control over a large fertile river valley; they had lots of surplus to support major building projects. The city of Tyr doesn’t. It would make sense, then, that much of this monumental architecture was built sometime in the past, when Athas was greener, or accreted over centuries of effort. Kalak’s ziggurat, the only one of these buildings that we know is recent, has been under construction for 20 years and is ruinously costly.
One thing to note here is that magic lets you cheat labor requirements for construction, at least as long as you can keep the spellcasters interested. Wall of stone cast by Kalak, for example, would create over 260 cubic feet of stone (using 2e rules, as a 25th-level caster). Five times a day for as many days as he can keep his interest up . . .
 

squibbles

Explorer
Well, I'm impressed by your post. That's quite a lot of geographical analysis, and it's well researched.
Great post. I skimmed most of it, but will re-read more carefully, and appreciate the thoughtfulness.
Awww shucks, guys.

As for myself, I definitely would want Dark Sun 5E to mostly be about the Tyr region. That said, I wouldn't complain if I saw hints at potential regions beyond, including the Thri-Keen Empire beyond the Jagged Cliffs. I would also love to see hints of whether the Sea of Silt can be crossed with "sand skimmers," and I'd even like a hook for developing a Dark Sun underdark.

Still, nothing more than hints and potential hooks. These are just great tools for DMs to develop their own Dark Sun world, I don't want to rock established fluff too much.

Anyway, I'm saying my own Athas has drow pirates with sand-skimmers on the sea of silt, and a mummy-vampire aristocracy ruling in upside-down pyramids beneath the earth.
Well, to each their own.

I would likely enjoy Dark Sun content regardless of the subject. Though I would appreciate it if they didn't replicate 4e and thereby freeze the setting in amber--set new stuff in the time before the destruction of Yaramuke and Guistenal, set it 200 years after the Pentad, set it in Kurn and Eldaarich, set it in Waverly and deeper into the sea of silt.

New content is awesome. Repetition is merely okay.

Also, drow silt pirates from an underground upside-down pyramid mummy realm sounds cool as hell.

One thing about city populations. I think a better comp for Dark Sun would be early antiquity Mesopotamia, as you mentioned a bit later on. We don't have clear demographic info as far as urbanization is concerned, but it makes some sense that it would be higher, with "cultural enclaves," as you put it. Plus, the city populations are realistic for ancient Mesopotamia. In the first couple millennia, I think Ur maxed out around 80-100K. Later, Babylon was several times that, but it was a different era.

But the point being, I wouldn't compare it to Medieval Europe.
Medieval Europe is a comparison of convenience, I admit, mostly owing to my familiarity with all those essays and online population calculators.

The trouble with the Mesopotamia comparison, though, is that, while Dark Sun evokes its imagery and biblical themes beautifully, ancient Mesopotamia in any era is far too bountiful to be an analogue for the region the 1991 set describes. So is Egypt. They are civilizations famously built around major rivers--of which Athas has none.

Maybe the ancient Nabateans (best known for building Petra) would be a better reference civilization... if I could find good numerical estimates about them somewhere.

As a side note, I'm guessing you've seen this unofficial Athas world map - kind of fun:
I have seen several fan maps of Athas and of its explored world region. Here's another one for good measure (from the Athasian Cartographers Guild):

1620864675505.png


I take issue with them, though--as well as with the official maps' great rift, lava gorge, and dead land--for being overly fantastical. Athas isn't so much a place where magic has crazy world-shaking effects, its a place where magic has gradually desertified everything to the point of uninhabitibility. The planet's desolation is horrible but is supposed to be relatable for us humans here on earth. These maps' big swaths of black and red always put me off a bit.
 

squibbles

Explorer
I’ve always thought of Athas as a world that has ‘moved on’ (like off of Stephen King). For my games distances change and time goes a bit wonky out in the wastes.
It's been a while since I read the Dark Tower series. I don't remember quite what 'moved on' means other than being a litany that characters repeat to express their lowered expectations of the state of the world.

Care to say more?
 

Mercurius

Legend
Medieval Europe is a comparison of convenience, I admit, mostly owing to my familiarity with all those essays and online population calculators.

The trouble with the Mesopotamia comparison, though, is that, while Dark Sun evokes its imagery and biblical themes beautifully, ancient Mesopotamia in any era is far too bountiful to be an analogue for the region the 1991 set describes. So is Egypt. They are civilizations famously built around major rivers--of which Athas has none.

Maybe the ancient Nabateans (best known for building Petra) would be a better reference civilization... if I could find good numerical estimates about them somewhere.
Yes, or Mesopotamia in the late Neolithic, so 6000-4000 BC. Also, with newer theories (or revived older theories) that there was a cataclysmic event around the Younger Dryas that ended a prior civilization (Atlantis), another comp could be 12-9,000 BC, with a greatly reduced world population and people living in the ruins of a past civilization. Either way, I hear your point, but still think early Mesopotamia (4-3,000 BC) is the best known Earth comp.
I have seen several fan maps of Athas and of its explored world region. Here's another one for good measure (from the Athasian Cartographers Guild):

View attachment 136875

I take issue with them, though--as well as with the official maps' great rift, lava gorge, and dead land--for being overly fantastical. Athas isn't so much a place where magic has crazy world-shaking effects, its a place where magic has gradually desertified everything to the point of uninhabitibility. The planet's desolation is horrible but is supposed to be relatable for us humans here on earth. These maps' big swaths of black and red always put me off a bit.
That ones prettier and was the one I was actually looking for. The one I posted was drawn from it, I think.

I don't mind the fantastical nature of it. Plus, there is some green there to provide oxygen, although not much. Of course you could try your hand at a world map...

Do you know where they got the idea for the "coastal" outline, whether it was based upon anything official?
 

squibbles

Explorer
Yes, or Mesopotamia in the late Neolithic, so 6000-4000 BC. Also, with newer theories (or revived older theories) that there was a cataclysmic event around the Younger Dryas that ended a prior civilization (Atlantis), another comp could be 12-9,000 BC, with a greatly reduced world population and people living in the ruins of a past civilization. Either way, I hear your point, but still think early Mesopotamia (4-3,000 BC) is the best known Earth comp.
Dang, is 'Atlantis' a serious scholarly thing now? That's wild!

Do you know any good article links?

Do you know where they got the idea for the "coastal" outline, whether it was based upon anything official?
Good question, but I'm afraid I don't. I've only ever dipped my toes in the Athas.org message boards and similar--it was always a bit too dense for me (...which now perhaps appears ironic).
 

Larnievc

Explorer
It's been a while since I read the Dark Tower series. I don't remember quite what 'moved on' means other than being a litany that characters repeat to express their lowered expectations of the state of the world.

Care to say more?
It seemed as if the boundaries of reality were breaking down in remote areas. Other realities would bleed into the world as it had just become old, tatty and tired. ‘Thinies’ where worlds would overlap (like the elemental planes) would intrude into the prime plane would exist.
 

Mark Hope

Adventurer
This is a magnificent post - massive respect for the work and thought that went into this. I'm a huge Dark Sun fan and really I can't take issue with anything you've written here. Great stuff :). Like you, I was struck by the stuff in the WJ that described the Sea of Silt as being as the centre of the explored world - it's a shame that this concept was never further developed, because it's a pretty important one for a good understanding of the world imho

The population levels of the cities of the Tablelands are a source of constant debate (first listed in the Veiled Alliance book). 4e had a decent approach to this, which you have espoused as well, namely that each city-state has plenty of client villages surrounding it. This means that the population figures are urban-only. 4e says that there are about as many again living in the surrounding areas, so Tyr, with 15,000 in the city, has about another 15,000 in its surrounding villages. I don't know that I agree completely with these figures, but I do find the concept sound. Lynn Abbey, in her DS novels, added some detail to Urik's surrounding settlements, which is a good template to work from for DM who want to do the same for their own games.

And I completely agree with the idea that the various cultures of the Tablelands came there from elsewhere. If you adopt some of the later DS lore, the sorcerer-kings were once the leaders of great armies and I have always thought that they brought great trains of troops, followers, settlers, and refugees into the area as the Cleansing Wars (or whatever ancient cataclysms you prefer) devastated the surrounding world. The Tablelands are the last safely habitable part of Athas (or one of the last) under this approach and I think it fits well with the setup that we have. In my games, I rule that the people of Gulg are the actual original inhabitants of the area - there are a few bits and pieces on Gulg that suggest this - and now dwell in all that remains of their formerly lush habitat (the Crescent Forest).

I also think that the proximity of the Pristine Tower is significant. The cities ruled by the sorcerer-kings are arrayed in a loose group to the west of the Pristine Tower and I have, over the years, toyed with the idea of it being the focal point of some geomantic web that the SKs and Dragon are maintaining in order to keep Rajaat where he is, but I've never taken this idea anywhere.
 

briggart

Explorer
Yes, or Mesopotamia in the late Neolithic, so 6000-4000 BC. Also, with newer theories (or revived older theories) that there was a cataclysmic event around the Younger Dryas that ended a prior civilization (Atlantis), another comp could be 12-9,000 BC, with a greatly reduced world population and people living in the ruins of a past civilization. Either way, I hear your point, but still think early Mesopotamia (4-3,000 BC) is the best known Earth comp.

That ones prettier and was the one I was actually looking for. The one I posted was drawn from it, I think.

I don't mind the fantastical nature of it. Plus, there is some green there to provide oxygen, although not much. Of course you could try your hand at a world map...

Do you know where they got the idea for the "coastal" outline, whether it was based upon anything official?
If you mean the sharp division between the greenish lowland and the yellowish tablelands, those are the Jagged Cliffs, which are described in Windriders of the Jagged Cliffs and in Three-kreen of Athas.

Anyway, IIRC the world map above was a draft for an official product/setting bible that was abandoned with the move to 3e, and released to the community. Then Brian Sanchez made the smaller region maps for his home campaign, and posted them on a thread in old Wizards boards, together with some of his campaign notes for each area. Not 100% sure on the first part, it's been a really long time.
 

Mark Hope

Adventurer
Anyway, IIRC the world map above was a draft for an official product/setting bible that was abandoned with the move to 3e, and released to the community. Then Brian Sanchez made the smaller region maps for his home campaign, and posted them on a thread in old Wizards boards, together with some of his campaign notes for each area. Not 100% sure on the first part, it's been a really long time.
No, the world map was just a fan thing which Brian expanded on (along with a few others). WotC did hand over a bunch of materials to us at athas.org but the map wasn't one of them :)

I love the map, though. There was a version that had been wrapped onto a globe as well that was particularly awesome.
 

briggart

Explorer
No, the world map was just a fan thing which Brian expanded on (along with a few others). WotC did hand over a bunch of materials to us at athas.org but the map wasn't one of them :)

I love the map, though. There was a version that had been wrapped onto a globe as well that was particularly awesome.
I stand corrected, thanks!
 


opacitizen

Explorer
Excellent post, though I somewhat miss the inclusion of crucial world-building/altering factors as magic, psionics, and (giant or otherwise impactful) creatures and monsters.
 

dmar

Villager
I always thought it was unrealistic and weird that the Tablelands were symmetrical, with mountains on both sides. This removes the somewhat setting-breaking need for a forest in the eastern edge.

Also, there's the micro-cultures next to each other. Something they realized had to fix for Ravenloft and can be done there thanks to the nature of the setting.
I am guessing, as the environment is so harsh, that travel between this cities should be more difficult and infrequent, thus explaining the cultural differences. Trade happens between city-states and client villages. Conflict between then is extraordinary, raids by tribes and monsters the most common conflict. Make each city-state more relevant and different, give the sorcerer-kings a personality, etc...

My guess is it's begging for a bigger, about 2x, scale.
 

squibbles

Explorer
Thanks for the explanation of the Athas map @Mark Hope & @briggart I'd have never known otherwise.

It seemed as if the boundaries of reality were breaking down in remote areas. Other realities would bleed into the world as it had just become old, tatty and tired. ‘Thinies’ where worlds would overlap (like the elemental planes) would intrude into the prime plane would exist.
I'm not sure I'd want to do that with Dark Sun, but it's a sensible way go, for sure. In any case, thanks for the succinct description.

The population levels of the cities of the Tablelands are a source of constant debate (first listed in the Veiled Alliance book). 4e had a decent approach to this, which you have espoused as well, namely that each city-state has plenty of client villages surrounding it. This means that the population figures are urban-only. 4e says that there are about as many again living in the surrounding areas, so Tyr, with 15,000 in the city, has about another 15,000 in its surrounding villages. I don't know that I agree completely with these figures, but I do find the concept sound. Lynn Abbey, in her DS novels, added some detail to Urik's surrounding settlements, which is a good template to work from for DM who want to do the same for their own games.
Yeah, that'd make sense. An equal population in villages isn't enough to support the cities agricuturally--and they'd probably struggle to feed themselves--but if the cities are principally fortified shelters, as I described, they would still benefit from having a surplus rural population. And, from the point of view of the villages, the cities would offer at least some protection, even if it's only the protection of having lots of other people nearby. Some individuals would prefer to sacrifice their independence for that marginal increase in security.

And I completely agree with the idea that the various cultures of the Tablelands came there from elsewhere. If you adopt some of the later DS lore, the sorcerer-kings were once the leaders of great armies and I have always thought that they brought great trains of troops, followers, settlers, and refugees into the area as the Cleansing Wars (or whatever ancient cataclysms you prefer) devastated the surrounding world.
That's a good point. I hadn't thought of it this way, but I suppose the pentad/later lore implicitly explains that puzzle.

One thing to note here is that magic lets you cheat labor requirements for construction, at least as long as you can keep the spellcasters interested. Wall of stone cast by Kalak, for example, would create over 260 cubic feet of stone (using 2e rules, as a 25th-level caster). Five times a day for as many days as he can keep his interest up . . .
I somewhat miss the inclusion of crucial world-building/altering factors as magic, psionics, and (giant or otherwise impactful) creatures and monsters.
Fair critiques. It's always dubious to apply IRL assumptions to a constructed world for which IRL assumptions do not apply.

I assumed away the use magic to some degree because of the heavy tradeoff of defiling. How useful is it to create 260 cubic feet of stone if it costs you a several yard radius of the city's painstakingly cultivated vegetation? Maybe that tradeoff is worthwhile, but it's a big one--it is inconvenient enough to deter anyone who has to live in a place from using convenience spells freely in that place. As a defiler, you'd mainly want to cast spells in places you have no intention of coming back to, or to deliberately desolate your enemies' turf.

Regarding Athas unique creatures and monsters, I did mention some of them briefly. Erdlu or Kanks would both be bred and ranched intensively as well as being used for muscle power--which would considerably raise the utility of raiding and banditry. I'd expect most Athasians to have a visceral hatred of this in the way that the people in the American west looked down on horse thieves.

Giant creatures--as a technology--present a tradeoff similar to defiling. The mekillot caravans that the 1991 set pictures so evocatively are very high cost; they need lots of meat and lots of water, and this would seriously dampen their impact. Each major merchant house likely wouldn't run more than a handful of mekillot caravans, if any.

The prevalence of monsters out in the world would, I think, do the same thing to Dark Sun that it does to any D&D setting; make it into more of a 'points of light' world--harder to travel and maintain communications, harder for small groups to survive, more of a self-help outlook, heavy militarization, walls wherever they are affordable, concealment wherever they are not. This seems to me to be built into the 1991 set's descriptions already. And, again, it reminds me of the American west.

Psionics... well, I dunno. They're prevalent enough on Athas that they affect every part of daily life. But I don't have very good intuitions about what they would affect. What do you all think?
 
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Urriak Uruk

Debate fuels my Fire
Well, to each their own.

I would likely enjoy Dark Sun content regardless of the subject. Though I would appreciate it if they didn't replicate 4e and thereby freeze the setting in amber--set new stuff in the time before the destruction of Yaramuke and Guistenal, set it 200 years after the Pentad, set it in Kurn and Eldaarich, set it in Waverly and deeper into the sea of silt.

New content is awesome. Repetition is merely okay.

Also, drow silt pirates from an underground upside-down pyramid mummy realm sounds cool as hell.

I do understand the desire for progression in a setting, and I'm someone who enjoys the method of how Warhammer has taken both 40k and Warhammer Fantasy (or Age of Sigmar) and given them steady progression in story. And I like how the Forgotten Realms has taken a steady progression in 5E with new adventures that seem to progress the timeline, instead of merely updating for 5E old adventures.

That said, I do think Dark Sun in 5E needs to be close to the time of Kalak's fall (either right before, or shortly after). Part of the strength of that setting is the lore of the Sorcerer Kings and their tyranny, and I do believe that to set Dark Sun 5E in a different region in a different time period is a risk that WotC should not take. People really do like that established lore (myself including), and I don't have great faith that WotC can create entirely new stuff that is tangentially tied to the old, with the same caliber I enjoy from the old stuff. And I also enjoy the freedom of having some "unexplored territory" that I can homebrew my own lore to if I'd like.

That said, I would love new Dark Sun modules to accompany 5E Dark Sun, including those that progress the timeline and explore the region beyond the city-states.
 

That said, I do think Dark Sun in 5E needs to be close to the time of Kalak's fall (either right before, or shortly after). Part of the strength of that setting is the lore of the Sorcerer Kings and their tyranny, and I do believe that to set Dark Sun 5E in a different region in a different time period is a risk that WotC should not take. People really do like that established lore (myself including), and I don't have great faith that WotC can create entirely new stuff that is tangentially tied to the old, with the same caliber I enjoy from the old stuff. And I also enjoy the freedom of having some "unexplored territory" that I can homebrew my own lore to if I'd like.

This I would agree with. I think a lot of Dark Sun fans primarily remember the 2e days and the 2e art. Furthermore, I agree a draw to the setting is the tyrannical sorcerer kings and their templar. The wilderness is extremely inhospitable, and the cities make the wilderness look welcoming by comparison. That is an interesting idea even if hyper grimdark has worn a little thin in recent years.

I think a 5e setting book needs to support play prior to the Prism Pentad novels. The whole problem is that the books start out with a much more interesting setting than exists at the conclusion. This is the problem with Dark Sun, Dragonlance, and Planescape (although I think Planescape has big problems even with the original lore). The most interesting bits of the settings happened before the "current" time, and they're just less interesting settings for adventure because of it. Many of the Magic: The Gathering settings have this problem, as does the Star Wars universe, the Lord of the Rings universe, the Harry Potter universe, etc. The draw to the world is partially that initial setting and conflict.

That said, I would love new Dark Sun modules to accompany 5E Dark Sun, including those that progress the timeline and explore the region beyond the city-states.

Eh, I could take that or leave it. I think there's still quite a lot to do in the region of the city states. I'm not sure that FR was actually well served by moving everything away from Cormyr, Sembia, and the Dalelands to the Sword Coast. Basically, I don't have faith in WotC, either.
 

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