Updated: Nov 15, 2021
The true history of Athas is concealed by the sorcerer-monarchs. The realities of the Cleansing Wars, the First Sorcerer, and the Green Age are unknown by almost all who live under the dark sun. This adds to the sense of mystery and desolation that gives the Dark Sun setting much of its unique feel. But what do you do if one of your players chooses a non-weapon proficiency like Ancient History? This week’s blog gives you a few ways to handle such an issue and includes a pdf with handouts you can give to your players.
The most obvious and easiest solution is to simply ban all non-weapon proficiencies that could reveal those aspects of the settings that you, as DM, wish to keep secret. The game already makes most characters illiterate, and you might also ban Ancient History Local History and proficiencies like Arcanology from later 2e supplements. This reinforces the idea that the truth about Athas’ past is simply lost. Athasians have been robbed of their history by their rulers or by the complete disintegration of the societies that came before. You might allow templars (who have access to the libraries of their rulers) a chance to learn certain facts, but on the whole, the past is a mystery and remains so.
Myths and Legends
Another option is to provide your players with myths, folk-tales, and half-remembered truths about the past of Athas. In the absence of any real history, Athasians will have come up with stories to explain their place in the world. Dark Sun supplements already contain some of these that you can use. The opening chapter of Dragon Kings, “Legends of Athas”, features several such tales, and you can find others in supplements such as Valley of Dust and Fire and the excellent Wisdom of the Drylanders from athas.org. Using this method gives you a way of sharing common folk beliefs and adding richness and depth to your game while keeping specifics out of reach.
Here’s an example folk tale from Wisdom of the Drylanders that talks about the place of the Dragon in the Dark Sun world. This and other legends are compiled in the pdf at the end of this blog.
In the Beginning – A Child’s Tale
On the eve of the Age of Kings, Dragon destroyed the land, sea, and the sky. The sky was filled with stars, until Dragon swallowed most of them, leaving only the brightest. The sun was a brilliant yellow fire in the sky, until Dragon burnt it to a red ember. The sea was full of water, until Dragon sucked it dry and breathed dust into the place of the waters. The land was full of cities, trees, wells, and grass, until Dragon began to gnaw, and it gnawed until almost none were left.
Gorged, Dragon lifted its head, and saw that a few cities, fields, and wells remained in distant pockets on the land. But as it reached out its claws to devour the last city, a great slumber came over the beast. Thanks to the power of the Seven Kings, it has slept for many ages, and will sleep for ages more, if you do not wake it with your crying about your hungry belly.
If you want to provide your players with a meaningful glimpse at Athasian history, however, you can carefully curate the real history of the world and let them learn specific excerpts without giving away the deep secrets of the game world. In the To Tame A Land game I’m streaming over at Lawful Stupid RPG, I use this method. All characters have heard the myths and legends mentioned above, but those who take slots in Local History or Ancient History receive more detailed handouts and may make a non-weapon proficiency check to recall something from eras they have learned about.
The Local History proficiency covers the last 1,000 years of Athasian history and is drawn largely from the records of the merchant houses. While the sorcerer monarchs conceal history from their subjects, the merchant houses keep detailed records of significant events. Because of this, my Local History handout is skewed to contain information that was of importance to the merchant houses, but it still sketches out the broad strokes of recent history in useful terms. You can find it in the pdf at the bottom of this blog.
The Ancient History proficiency covers four broad eras: the Green Age, the Time of Magic, the Defiling, and the Age of Kings. For each era, I provide the player with a high-level overview of major historical events and trends, but filtered through the lens of passing millennia. When a character takes a slot in Ancient History, they choose one of these eras and receive a handout detailing that era. You can find a handout for each era in the pdf at the end of this blog.
Not all of this information is accurate and none of it is complete. I deliberately leave out specifics that are deliberately concealed by the sorcerer-monarchs and things that I think would ruin the feel of the setting or which I wish to reveal through actual play. So there are no direct references to subjects like Rajaat or the Champions, or specifics about where the Dragon comes from, and there is no reference whatsoever to anything that comes before the Green Age or how many King’s Ages there have been. Some things remain unknown.
So go ahead and download the pdf and see if these handouts can be of use in your games. If you have another way of handling this issue, drop a comment below or let us know on social media.