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Athas is the name of the fictional planet on which the campaign setting known as Dark Sun is set, for the Dungeons & Dragons fantasy role-playing game. It is a desert planet, due to the decay of its sun, and overuse of a form of magic (Defiling) which drains the planet's life force.
Athas was introduced in the original Dark Sun Boxed Set. The 1996 Dark Sun Campaign Setting, Expanded and Revised featured a portion of Athas eight times the size of that from the original set, and reflected the extraordinary political and physical changes that the world has gone through since its debut.
The devastation of Athas is the result of magic run amok. Most of Athas is an empty desert, interrupted by a handful of corrupt city states controlled by power-mad sorcerer-kings and their spell-wielding lackeys. Slavery is commonplace, gladiatorial duels provide entertainment for the elite, and treachery and death permeate the culture. As rain falls only once per decade in some areas, water is more precious than gold. Travelers risk dehydration from the scorching heat, ambushes from brutal elven raiders, and attacks from giant tentacles lurking in the dust-filled Sea of Silt.
Due to the scarcity of natural resources, few wizards have access to books made of paper pages and hard covers; instead, they record their spells with string patterns and complex knots. Metal is also rare, affecting both the economy and the quality of equipment. The ceramic coin, made from clay and glazed in various colors, is the primary medium of exchange, worth about a hundredth of a gold piece. Weapons typically consist of obsidian, bone, and wood, and are prone to break. Only a single dragon exists in all of Athas, a monstrosity with supra-genius intelligence whose appearance heralds disasters of catastrophic proportions.
Due to the harsh conditions of the planet, all the forms of flora and fauna have evolved to be extremely hardy and powerful as compared to the other races from other D&D worlds. Most, if not all, races on Athas have a unique self-defense mechanism that consists of psionic ability, enhanced strength, augmented agility, increased mass, lower food/water intake, superior visual/aural capabilities and/or various physical weapons.
There are many differences between the similar races found in other D&D worlds as compared to that of Athas. Athasian races are considered to be more highly evolved than that of other worlds. For instance, an Athasian elf is faster, stronger and larger than elves from other D&D worlds. An Athasian human is also capable of being much stronger, faster, hardier, smarter, wiser and more charismatic than other humans of alien origins.
This evolution is because of the following reasons:
- Many natural resources have been depleted by Defiler magic. These resources include: water, minerals and life-force.
- The harsh environs have induced a societal change to a primitive and basic government control. Athas adopts a Darwinian approach whereby the weak perish, the strong survive and the strongest rule. Therefore, the weaker of the species have long been weeded out, leaving only the stronger ones to pass on their beneficial genes.
- Unlike other worlds, there are no "commoners" in Athas. Every "villager" is trained to defend herself against voracious creatures of the wild. No one is spared from such training. Those who can't train will just have to be the meals of raiding monsters in their next attack.
In such a world as Athas, a death by natural aging is considered to be a great honour and an event worthy of celebrations.
There are a number of distinctions between magic users: clerics, who draw their power from elemental sources and frequently come into conflict with one another; druids, who draw their power from nature (or what's left of it) and are often the most vocal and violent opponents of defilers; defilers, who draw their power from sacrificing the lifeforce inherent in all things to fuel their spells, including their own at times; preservers, more commonly referred to as mages or wizards, who draw their power from the lifeforce of plants in the same way as defilers, but do not draw enough energy to kill the plants; and psionicists, who draw their power from their own minds, and technically are not mages, as magic and psionics are two completely different forces. Psionicists are often considered the most 'pure' as their power doesn't come from external sources, though power-hungry psionicists frequently become defilers. Sorcery is almost unheard of, though it has been noted in dragon-descended individuals and those that would transform themselves into dragons.
A reviewer for the British Arcane magazine observed: "Life on Athas is particularly tough and short. Never mind the monsters; failing to take enough water on a desert crossing can be fatal."
Chris Wilson writing for Time describes the world as "the long-suffering desert planet of Athas, a richly imagined world" with "traces of Dune mixed with Jedi-like powers and a healthy side of murderous human-sized praying mantises".
John Baichtal of Wired described Athas as "the swords and sorcery equivalent of Mad Max: a desert world where water, steel and kindness are in short supply, where magic destroys the environment and the kings and queens are exclusively evil. Elves are untrustworthy merchants and halflings are cannibals. New PC races include muls (half-dwarves) and thri-kreen (insect men) add to the setting's uniqueness. It’s a riot!"
- Swan, Rick (September 1992). "Role-playing Reviews". Dragon. Lake Geneva, Wisconsin: TSR (#185): 65–66.
- Ramshaw, Cliff (February 1996). "Games Reviews". Arcane. Future Publishing (3): 64–65.