Tuesday, July 7, 2015

My Grand Theory of Dark Sun

This is a collection of various Dark Sun-related posts I originally wrote on Google+ back in 2011 when I was running a short-lived campaign in that setting. Hopefully, others will find these posts useful.

Dragon/Avangion Transhumanism

In Dark Sun, the transhumanist path known as dragon metamorphosis has flaws built into its very nature by Rajaat - the nascent dragons become violent, destructive, and paranoid, cooperating with others only under the greatest of difficulties. This, no doubt, was part of Rajaat's plan when he built the possibility of draconic ascension into the arcane path of defiling magic he developed - the dragons were to be his tool to wipe Athas clean of any aberrant creatures that developed since the Blue Age.

Preserving magic has his own transhumanist path as well - avangion metamorphosis. Before the start of the era of the boxed sets, there weren't any known avangions, yet none of the published material suggests that there any alternatives to this path of transhumanist ascension for preservers. Thus, it isn't far-fetched to assume that avangion metamorphosis is just as much an inherent part of preserving magic as dragon metamorphosis is a part of defiling magic.

Yet we shouldn't forget that it was Rajaat who developed preserving magic in his first place - thus, the eventual appearance of avangions must have been part of his plan, just as the creation of dragons was his plan.

So, what was his intention? My best guess is that avangions were to be his autonomous terraforming engines - once Athas had been scoured of the wrong kinds of life, the avangions would dispose of the remaining defilers (including the remaining dragons which hadn't already killed each other) and then begin to restore life to Athas - and of course, Rajaat would teach them about the right kind of life to restore. There are already hints that avangions go through personality changes that would predestine them for such a role, just as dragons change to fit their intended role. It's probably not in the very nature of avangions to become conquering warlords, since Rajaat wouldn't want them to lord it over the resurgent halflings in his New Blue Age...

The real agenda of The Order

In Dark Sun, there was a powerful group of psionicists called "The Order", whose agenda as written was that no powerful psionicist ever did anything to change the fate and politics of the Tyr Region in any way.

Needless to say, this was extremely boring, especially for PC psionicists. So, what should be done to make the Order interesting?

My take is that their "political neutrality" is a filthy lie. Instead, the Order started out as a cabal of psionicists who learned about Rajaat... and that the sorcerer-kings needed to periodically sacrifice the life force of large numbers of people to keep him imprisoned. Thus, while they know that the sorcerer-kings are evil, oppressive tyrants, they also know that taking them down would be far worse for the world.

On the other hand, they also know that the sorcerer-kings are paranoid and prone to aggression against each other - if left on their own, they would eventually wipe each other out and thus end the stream of sacrifices. And thus, the mission of the Order was born - they exist to maintain the status quo between the sorcerer-kings, keeping them distracted from progressing along the path towards draconic ascension by causing strife and problems between them, but at the same time scheming to prevent total war between them. They are, essentially, the Illuminati of the Tyr Region, and they are so good at manipulating others psionically that none of the sorcerer-kings have been able to prove their existence, though some probably suspect that there are groups of psionic masterminds out there.

And of course, like any good Illuminati groups they have all sorts of side projects which PCs might come across. One example might be psionic breeding projects to create more powerful psionicists, in the hopes that these might eventually be able to contain Rajaat on their own, taking over from the sorcerer-kings who continue to dwindle in numbers and thus need to be replaced sooner or later...

Qanat irrigation system

At one point I did some brainstorming for a desert village the PCs would come from - a small agricultural community somewhere north of Tyr. For this, I did some research on how desert communities can get water for agriculture, and learned more about a truly badass irrigation system highly appropriate for Dark Sun which I had actually seen in Oman when I visited that country for a geology field trip.

Basically, this system takes advantage of the fact that the groundwater will rise to higher elevations in the mountains, due to the pressure of all that rock. And to get to that groundwater, the people in the valleys would dig narrow tunnels into the mountains, which were usually several miles long and were dug with fairly primitive tools. Furthermore, to ensure that the pressure drops steadily throughout the tunnel, they would also periodically dig vertical tunnels to the surface. This system, called the qanat system, is a marvel of ancient engineering, and the oldest ones still in use are 3000 years old.

Now picture a small community in a remote village of Athas, digging through the mountains for generations so that their small village has a steady supply of water not reliant on the infrequent rains...

Is this cool, or what? Of course, many of the city-states will likely use a similar system, especially Tyr and Urik which are not too far from convenient mountain rankes...

Grand Theory of Athas

 I've been re-reading the old Dark Sun boxed set, and stumbled across these paragraphs:

"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..."

This rekindled my interest in figuring out what the rest of the world of Athas is like - after all, we know that Athas is a whole planet, and the Tyr region is only a small part of it. And from the above, we can assume that the Sea of Silt used to be a mere inland sea in the middle of a much larger continent. So, what might lie beyond the Tyr region?

To answer this, we also need to answer several other questions:

- If the Tyr region is just a small part of such a big planet, then why are pretty much all the former Champions of Rajaat - including the Dragon himself - based in or near that region?
- If there are other major civilizations out there, why haven't they made any contact with the Tyr region?

Here is my attempt at explanation: When the Champions turned on Rajaat and imprison him, they were perfectly aware that their pact to maintain the prison would be difficult to maintain. After all, they had committed treason once, some of them even twice - why not once more? Even if one of the Champions wasn't interested in aiding Rajaat, they were still selfish enough to abandon their fellows and stop sending the needed sacrifices to maintain the prison.

Thus, they agreed that all of them would build their new city-states close to the Pristine Tower - the modern Tyr region - so that they could keep an eye on each other. Any sorcerer-king who attempted to build his primary residence elsewhere was assumed to abandon his duties to maintain the prison and treated accordingly. And thus they remained, over the two thousand years that followed.

This explains the settlement choices of the sorcerer-kings. But what of civilizations beyond the Tyr region? Might not have major empires arisen elsewhere?

Here is my own hypothesis: The world was devastated after the cleansing wars, and the sorcerer-kings needed a steady stream of sacrifices to maintain Rajaat's prison - and large number of people for their own realms. But while their pact forbade them to build their strongholds elsewhere, it didn't forbid them to kidnap people from other lands. Thus, the sorcerer-kings led great expeditions using magical mass teleports to capture people (largely humans, but also of other races) from distant lands as both slaves and sacrifices. And since such expeditions were more efficient if they targeted major population centers, the remaining islands of civilization were the first to suffer. Each sorcerer-king found his own kingdoms to plunder - and the ethnic makeup of these kingdoms still find their reflections in the population of the city-states today.

But after a few centuries - perhaps up to a millennium - this practice ceased as no major civilizations remained. The only major race which the sorcerer-kings never bothered to abduct were the thri-kreen, as they made poor sacrifices and slaves. In the absence of the other races, the thri-kreen bred rapidly and quickly overwhelmed most of the remaining human, dwarven, elven, and halfling settlements, and basically inherited much of the world - but their pack-based structure made it hard to maintain large, civilized empires.

Thus, the sorcerer-kings withdrew to their own cities, and a further thousand years passed down to the present time. The historical distortions and falsifications perpetrated by the sorcerer-kings ensured that none remain who truly remember where their ancestors come from, though some distorted legends might yet provide clues. There may be yet a few remote locations in the world where humans and other races have rebuilt something akin to civilization, but they are too far away and too isolated to truly reach the Tyr region - and their old legends of the draconic Stealer Of Men would likely make them fairly isolationist in any case.

I think this theory also fits very well with the larger theme of Dark Sun - that the greedy nature of the inhabitants of Athas (to be specific, the greed of defilers, and to be more specific, the greed of the sorcerer-kings) was what brought the world down to its present state. Thus, the sorcerer-king aren't just responsible for the decline of civilization in the Tyr region - they are responsible for the decline of civilization in the entire world.

On the up side, the environment elsewhere might be in a far better shape - after all (according to the original rules, at least), thri-kreen cannot learn arcane magic and thus can't defile, and therefore these regions might have had the time needed to regenerate. Perhaps most of the world looks like the Crimson Savannah...

Campaign Outline

Here is a general overview of my upcoming GURPS Dark Sun campaign as I imagine it to play out:

The PCs start out as people living in a small agricultural village (about 250 people) named Tamuk somewhere to the northeast of Tyr - close enough to be in that city's trade network, but far away enough to be effectively independent. The PCs know each other and all the other villagers - they were either born there or immigrated some time ago. At the beginning, they are not really archetypal "adventurers", though they have the potential to become so (of course). They will have a number of adventures in the village and its environs (reaching as far as nearby Kled). This is done so that they can familiarize themselves with the world, their characters, and the GURPS rule system.

At some point, the politics of nearby Tyr will brutally interrupt the village routine - the greed for resources that Kalak displays while building his ziggurat threatens the independence of the village as a noble house attempts to gain control of it. While the PCs will (hopefully) be instrumental in fighting that off, they realize they need to gain better information about the situation in Tyr, and hopefully gain some allies. The PCs are entrusted with a village secret that may be a very useful bargaining chip, and sent to Tyr.

They arrive about two weeks before the ziggurat is finished, and all hell breaks loose. What precise role they will play through these events is still somewhat unclear. For this event the canonical revolution of Sadira, Tithian, Rikus et al. will still happen more or less as written, though in my campaign the Order has secretly supported them in order to stop the madness of King Kalak (as the destruction of a city-state would have reduced the number of annual sacrifices which are needed to bind Rajaat to his prison).

After that, the PCs are thrust into the wider world to explore it and make friends and enemies as they want. From there on I will use "canon" as inspiration, but I won't feel bound to it. If the campaign runs long enough, I fully expect that if the campaign runs for long enough it will be the PCs who kill Borys the Dragon - only to discover that they are now in danger of releasing an even worse scourge in the form of Rajaat and now must work to keep him imprisoned as well (hopefully without sacrificing a thousand people every year).

After that, they have basically saved the world and can watch as civilization slowly rebuilds and the world begins to heal...

...though if there is time to continue the campaign after that, I may take some inspiration from Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann and escalate things even further. There are some obscure mentions of "space halflings" somewhere out there in the setting, after all...

(Note: Unfortunately, the campaign ended rather earlier than that, though it did end with the PCs killing King Kalak and the surviving PCs wandering into the sunset as half-elementals...)

But what of the Pyreen?

Another issue needs pondering for the deeper background plots of my campaign: What of the pyreen?

These so-called "peace-bringers" are a curious lot. Their appearance is a mixture of all the other humanoid races. They love nature (they are all powerful druids) and hate defilers - in fact, their leader plans nothing less than the death of the dragon himself! They are immortal, yet don't seem to reproduce (or else their numbers wouldn't be dwindling).

And we also know that Rajaat was among their number, although he was a deformed and ugly specimen. And this is where things get very curious indeed.

My best guess is that the pyreen were artificially created by the ancient rhulisti (halfling) life-shapers as some sort of diplomats and/or living exemplars of nature - these life-shapers were concerned about the constant wars between the New Races, and thus created these "blended" beings to bring peace and harmony to the lands (hence "peace-bringers"). However, when Rajaat was accidentally created deformed and thus cast out from the peace-bringer corps (so to speak), he blamed his own tortured existence on the existence of the New Races themselves - if they hadn't existed, he wouldn't have been created and thus wouldn't have to suffer like this.

This still doesn't quite explain how Rajaat got quite so powerful later on - it took the combined might of all the Champions to merely imprison him, and even that was a close thing that required frequent human sacrifices to maintain. On the other hand, the remaining pyreen are not strong enough to fight the sorcerer-kings directly, and they know it.

However, this raises another interesting question: Don't they know that if they somehow manage to do away with the sorcerer-kings and the dragon, they will likely cause the release of Rajaat?

Or perhaps do know, and either don't care... or they think they can handle Rajaat somehow, though one wonders why they feel confident enough for that.

Either way, this will likely put them into conflict with the Order, whose agenda involves maintaining the status quo - including the sorcerer-kings - as I have outlined earlier.