D&D: Magic At The Heart of Dark Sun
With Dark Sun looming in the future for D&D, we venture to Athas, realm of psionics, blood, and burning sand.
Athas is a world of endless wastes, burning sand, and a crimson sun that is as unrelenting as it is ominous. There is little doubt that it is a dying world–looking around as you explore, you’ll see a world that is breathing its last gasps–water becomes silt, grasslands and jungles have given way to stony wastes and vast deserts. It is a savage world. A primal world.
It is a world where life thrives in spite of everything else. Where heroes are sorely needed, yet as rare and life-giving as the verdant oases hidden away in the secret parts of Athas. You could say that Athas, at its core, is a world that is rife with change or contrast. In fact, if you take a look at the history of Dark Sun, it is one of the few settings that had a major update mid-edition.
Mind you it came out at a time when D&D Novels were being churned out like rich creamy butter, spread all over the toast that was the D&D Audience at the time. But TSR really knew how to appeal to their bread and butter. And Dark Sun had an update about four years after the first Campaign Setting box was released. The Expanded and Revised edition brought with it progress to the central story of Dark Sun–bringing it in line with the events of the Prism Pentad.
The reason I mention all of this is to get at the heart of Dark Sun. Athas encompasses many things, but at its heart it is a world of change. Whether the change from a once living world to a dying one, from a world of savage cruelty to one of harsh conflict, or from a world of tyrants to one of chaos. Athas may be a dying world, but it’s one that is in transition–Dark Sun, for all its endless wastes and burning deserts, has never felt like a stagnant setting.
And I think that whatever we might see in 5th Edition will encompass that feeling. 5th Edition has lived up to its goal of marrying narrative and mechanics, and in books like Volo’s Guide to Monsters and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, we’ve seensomething of a return to the lore of the old First and Second edition days. Not a blind nostalgic revision, but rather a look at what made something exciting in the first place. And building on those foundations. So at the heart of Athas we have a world in transition. I think we’ll get that same sense when 5th Edition revisits it. With that in mind, there are a few powerful forces that drive the change. Today we’re looking at Magic in particular.
Magic in Athas is one of the most dangerous forces in the world. It’s also where Dark Sun stands apart from every other D&D Campaign Setting. Magic is still an integral part of the campaign world. But on Athas, it is hated and feared–with good cause. Back in the Red Age, arcane magic was unleashed upon the world of Athas, defiling it. Siphoning the life of the planet for fuel for their power, this is when the Sorcerer-Kings rose to power, under the reign of a powerful psion-cum-wizard-cum-major villain of the setting, Rajaat. Using the technique of defiling, Rajaat created a band of tyrants and sorcerer-kings who would rule over Athas–and they did it with magic.
A defiler of Dark Sun
Arcane Magic in Dark Sun comes in one of two flavors–there’s defiler flavored magic, which is all about draying life energy out of everything so that you have unlimited power; and then there’s the preserver flavored magic, which, is weaker but also doesn’t require life to be sucked out of everything.
That’s why so much of the world is barren and ruined. Even the Dark Sun of the campaign’s name is a dying one, afflicted by the magic that so plagues the world. And as a result, wizards (and probably sorcerers) are pretty much universally reviled. Defiler or Preserver, they’re likely to hide until they’re powerful enough that nobody can really mess with them.
But that’s just Arcane Magic. Even Divine Magic is different on Athas.
There aren’t many gods on Athas. Perhaps there once were in ages past. But now Clerics draw upon the primal power of the elements. In fact, back in 2nd Edition, they sound more like Warlocks than Clerics–an elemental cleric would make a pact with a patron element in exchange for power. There’s not really a priestly order or religion spread across the face of Athas. Druids, ironically, are a little more spiritual–they find the powerful spirits of the lands of Athas and serve them, gaining their powers filtered through these supernatural beings.
There’s a third option though. Speaking of Warlocks–we see another example of that concept played out. There’s an order of Templars who receive their power from the sorcerer-kings of Athas. Not gods, but definitely powerful enough to change the face of the world, they are capable of gifting their power to their followers.
So what does all of this mean?
Dark Sun is a world that feels different. Now in 5th Edition, so far, they’ve done an amazing job of making sure that the mechanics evoke the feeling of whatever lore they’re complementing. I could easily see a new set of backgrounds that revolve around being a preserver or a defiler (both of which will probably be connected to feats at a minimum, but more likely subclasses).
Clerics will probably get some thematic domains, or the primal forces that give them power will have various domains grouped under them. You already have things like Storm and Light Domains, it’s just a matter of figuring out how best to personify the elements. Does War belong to the burning flame, or to the stormy tempest? Or both? Warlocks, I expect, will have a very interesting time. This is a perfect chance, as we’ve seen to introduce new patrons–or to put a different spin on how they manifest their powers. Maybe they’ll be more accepted than Wizards–maybe they’ll be even more shunned.
We know that we’re probably not going to see as massive an expansion to the game as we did in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, but we’ve seen the Circle of Spores for Druids–and it stands to reason we might see something like a Circle of the Elements or a Circle of Dark Sun or something that grounds them in the campaign world. Magic is one of the defining things about this setting in particular, so look for any class that has access to spells to have something to help locate them in this part of Athas. So. Most of them.
There is of course another powerful force at play in Athas…but that, my friends, is a story for another time.
Do you have a burning question about Dark Sun? We’ll be exploring the world for the next few weeks–drop us a line in the comments.