The Timeline of Athas (seriously, players, do not follow that link or read the rest of this article. You have been warned) is a long history of the chronology of the Dark Sun world. I’ve never liked it much; in fact I found it rather destroyed some of the beauty of the setting for me. So I’m going to heavily modify it.
This is a first attempt; merely an outline and discussion of the sort of changes I want to make.
We will, for now, leave everything until the birth of Rajaat in -13,783 as it is. This is…not long into the Green Age. What the heck? Maybe we’ll have to change more than I thought..
Let’s first do an outline of the Timeline then (dates are rough; I’m only dating by King’s Age, plus I think they’re dated from FY12, plus plus they apparently assume a 0th King’s Age):
-14,630: Creation of World’s Age Calendar. The Blue Age has been going on for unknown eons. Halflings only intelligent species on Athas (save perhaps for winged Thri-kreen).
-14,014: Blue Age ends; Green Age begins. Pristine Tower turns sun from blue to yellow. Standard D&D races evolve from halflings—extremely rapidly, it would seem.
-13,783: Birth of Rajaat.
-8,162: Discovery of (defiling) magic.
-4,312: Preserver jihad.
-3,542: Champions created. Cleansing Wars begin. Pristine Tower turns sun from yellow to dark crimson. The Red Age begins.
-2,002: Rajaat defeated and imprisoned. Remaining Champions turned into Sorcerer-Kings. Borys transformed into the Dragon.
This is all wrong. We need time for the new races to evolve from halflings, and for the current versions of those races to evolve from them. I don’t care how the Green Age developed (perhaps something has been slowly siphoning off the water for eons), but it needs to last for far more than the…what? 4000 years it did. Actually 4000 years wouldn’t be too short—if the demihuman races didn’t have to evolve in this period. So we either need to drastically lengthen the Green Age, or provide for the evolution of demihuman (other than halfling and kreen) races prior to the beginning of the Green Age.
How did all the water disappear? One can simply say it was magically destroyed, but that seems facile. Even magic generally doesn’t truly destroy things; it sends it someplace else. Well, that’s one possibility: It left. It went underground (vast underground Athasian oceans would be interesting), or into another dimension. There are two physics ways of getting rid of water. You can turn it into water vapor, or you can break it down into hydrogen and oxygen. If you did that, the hydrogen would rise into the upper atmosphere, making it difficult or impossible to recreate the water. Great! But what would cause that? You can only break down water through an infusion of energy. Where would that energy come from? The obvious answer is the sun. This is an interesting idea, as the Pristine Tower obviously interacts with the sun in some way. If we keep the canon notion that the sun was once blue, then yellow, then red, then it could be that the Pristine Tower drained the sun’s energy to destroy the water. But why? And that doesn’t fit well with the notion that defiling destroyed the world.
The end of the Blue Age can coincide with the discovery of (preserving) magic, though.
I’m also okay with the life-shaping of the Blue Age. But in the Green Age, magic supplanted it. Knowledge of life-shaping was lost to all except a very few. Rajaat, a mighty wizard, discovered this lifeshaping, learned it, realized that the energy source for magic was life, and hacked magic to create defiling magic. To this day, he is the only one who understands magic and life force to the depth that he does, which is why he is immortal, and such a formidable opponent. He is the closest thing to a true god Athas has. He shared the secret of defiling magic, but not the understanding that allowed him to develop it.
There is a coincidence of interest in my timeline here: Preserving magic was associated with the shift from the Blue Age to the Green Age, and defining magic with the shift from the Green Age to the Brown Age. So somehow, the rise or development of magic was, twice, correlated with the disappearance of massive amounts of water from the world. Why? How? Is water associated with magical power in some way? Water is necessary to life, and life force powers magic; surely there’s a connection there, but I’m not sure what. Did the water vanish gradually, or all at once? Perhaps the Pristine Tower was somehow necessary to develop magic in the first (and second) place, and that process both destroyed the water and changed the sun as described above.
I would vastly prefer the destruction of water to be gradual; that fits the theme of the setting much better. The development of preserving magic somehow coincided with a vast-but-gradual reduction (over tens of thousands of years, ideally) in the amount of water in the world, until it stabilized in the Green Age that we know. Then defiling magic did the same, leading to the Brown Age. The question is, what were the mechanisms involved, and how can they be reversed? Rajaat certainly seems to believe that a new Blue Age is possible. And there seems to be at least one party member in each Dark Sun campaign whose goal is to reverse the devastation of defiling and create a new Green Age. It would be a shame if that was impossible. But where the hell is all the water? That there’s little life makes sense; it got defiled away. But the Tablelands aren’t full of ash; they’re full of sand that it would seem that more water could rejuvenate. Okay, fine, the ash blew away somewhere, but where the hell is the water? The only thing I can think of is what is suggested by the settting itself: Defiling has desiccated the world. The water has to have been defiled away. As I’ve said elsewhere, water is life. Defiling leaves ash; ash is dry. Clearly defiling destroys water. Exactly how and why, I’m not sure. I don’t like the idea that defilers actually get energy from the water, but they might. Defiling an ocean certainly would give a lot of power, then. Or perhaps it’s just that there is life in every drop of water, and the process of defiling somehow destroys the water along with killing the organism. But since defiling grants energy, and defiling destroys water, the water almost has to give energy; water is or contains life force. Or…perhaps destroying the water neither gives nor takes energy; it is merely a byproduct. This would make perfect sense if the water was merely evaporated, but it’s hardly the case that Athas is extremely humid. So it has to be actually broken down and destroyed. This wouldn’t be a problem; it is magic after all. But the defiler gains energy from this process. That the water actually detracts (probably significantly) from the energy gained doesn’t make much sense, and wouldn’t explain why the oceans are missing. So it has to be the case that, in this magical world, water contains energy, at least when there is life in it (as there is in essentially all water in a medieval world without distillation). Perhaps, though, we can merely say that defiling water gives up more energy than it takes; that makes sense. Certainly water wouldn’t be your first choice for something to defile. And defiling distilled water would actually take energy! That would be a funny way to trick a defiler.
And there we go. A drop of ocean water teems with life, whether the defiler knows this or not. Repeatedly defiling water will give up much energy from its microorganisms, as well as destroying the water (probably by chemically splitting it, but perhaps by other means; no need to codify this yet). Many 10th-level spells could indeed desiccate the world (this also means that an improved, even more powerful “wet” defiling could be developed, that leaves the water and turns the world to muck instead of desert, but even Rajaat doesn’t know that [edit: Or maybe he does, and that’s why he’s more awesomer than everyone else]). Also, it looks like defiling water leaves silt instead of ash, due to the nature of microorganisms vs. more structured life.
Wow. That explains nearly everything except the metal (and how the Blue Age ended. Oh, and the red sun. Hm). I still say that large quantities of metal were needed to power Dragon magic (as opposed to defiling magic in general). Yeah; massive quantities of metal is a material component of some 10th-level spell—or better yet, of the dragon transformation spell itself! All known mines (on a world, or at least in an area, that was relatively metal-poor to begin with) were depleted to fuel these spells. This doesn’t quite match with canon; it is obsidian, not metal, that is crucial to the dragon transformation. At least for Kalak. Perhaps it was needed for the sorcerer-king transformation. That may make a lot of sense, especially if the S-Ks grant elemental magic spells as per the original rules. This could explain a lot, actually. To attract the living vortices required massive quantities of each element. Perhaps the last of the ocean water was used in the sorcerer-king transformation, rather than in defiling. That would fit the S-Ks; they’d burn the world if they could be kings of the ashes. So massive quantities of the purest elemental material was necessary. Metal—in roughly the same proportions as it exists in the world—for Earth, pure water (how did they get that?) for Water, clean air (easy enough; no shortage of that) for Air, and for Fire—well, who knows. There is one semi-active volcano in the region. Somehow the water thing doesn’t fit, though; the S-Ks probably wouldn’t want to kill their own people off. It would make more sense if they were stealing the water from elsewhere, or didn’t think it would matter much. Meh; a trivial detail. Besides, this makes them that much more evil. The details can be worked out later. There’s an epic story there. I’d love to hear a bard’s version of it. Hell, all Athasian stories should be told in bardic (i.e. Homeric) fashion, instead of as short stories and novels. Maybe I should write some.
Note, in conjunction with the above, that I’ve never said that Athas has no connection with the Inner Planes, just that it doesn’t seem that way to most Athasians, including priests. It seems to them that they get their powers from the elementals themselves (I think; is that what I said?), that are beings that live in or emanate from the land itself. (Otherwise, pulling metal from the plane of Earth or water from the plane of Water would seem to be easy solutions to many of Athas’ problems. But it doesn’t work that way; the planes, such as they are, are tied to the land).
I’m not sure how I want to handle elemental priestly magic. 4e changes it, but does not radically alter it, so it remains intact in principle (unlike what it does with Templar magic). So I suppose we leave that as canon, whatever that is.
When did the gods leave? Were there ever gods? Let’s see what canon says.
I wish we had more information about the Brown Tide, and the Nature—benders (that reminds me; I need to change at least one elemental class to Avatar-style Benders).
Don’t forget to integrate this with the Forgotten Realms blue age, which from that brief description looks like it could integrate with my picture of the Athasian blue age nicely.
Reading the description of the Weave, it occurs to me that magic must be sentient to some degree. Magic draws on the collective life force of the planet. But unlike with clerical magic, you do not ask the source of arcane magic for its boon (this is in contradiction with my original, pre-Dark Sun conception of magic, where more powerful spellls were granted by arcane Powers that could be angered); you direct it and shape it. It is sentient in a sense, but not intelligent or aware. It is very like the Force. A defiler corrupts this semi-intelligent energy field by drawing energy to power spells directly from the local flora and fauna, but still relies on this overarching energy field to obey his directives(?).
To rephrase the above: A mage (on Athas at least) draws life force into himself, whether from the energy field that permeates the world, or directly from local living things. This energy, this life force, is itself alive; indeed, in some real sense, it is life itself, the essence, the breath of life. This living energy is then shaped by the mage via various arcane means: words, movements, material components, etc. to fit his purposes. It is under his control and inside him, but not part of him. The living energy responds to directives; it has no choice, as it is not sentient. Magic is then the science of how to direct and shape this energy. It is also the energy itself. The reason you use words and gestures is that it in a sense understands what you want, and acts on that intention or wish. Mental-only spells are possible (even in canon D&D IIRC, at least in 3e), but harder, as it is much easier to express your intentions and shape the magic using external means; not because the magic can’t “hear your thoughts,” but because the mental discipline required to shape it using only your mind un-focused by physical action is enormous.
Psionics, on the other hand, is an innate ability. It is trainable, but not “scientific” in the same way that magic is. It involves tapping one’s internal resources. It does not involve tapping external energy. However, due to defiling, there’s a lot of “life force” laying around that isn’t part of the overarching energy field, and is therefore available to be absorbed by local living beings. Various creatures have evolved to absorb and use that energy, including all(?) demihumans. Thus it is literally the case that psionicists, or at least psionic-capable creatures, have more life force than others, and therefore are a rich source for defiling (though I imagine that a skilled psionicist could actually resist being defiled; that should be an ability if it’s not already).
I’m thinking that the nature-benders were the first mages; they tapped into the life-force of the planet, using the knowledge of the life-shapers, to create the first magical effects. How that depleted the oceans (if it did) I have no idea. Nor do I really care. The Blue Age does not concern me right now. So let’s try an updated timeline:
The Blue Age
Water covered the whole of Athas, with a few islands, marshes, and archipelagos remaining. Halflings are the only intelligent species, with an advanced, lifeshaping, world-girdling, peaceful civilization. This situation has persisted for longer than any legend records, possibly millions of years, more likely tens of thousands.
Nature-benders arise. They discover preserving magic, based on lifeshaping. Massive wars between the lifeshapers and the nature-benders ensue. Ultimately, the nature-benders win. Somewhere in this process, the seas are drained (or, more likely, begin draining), leaving continents. The Green Age begins. The lifeshapers go into hiding. Canonically, the war lasted for 31 years. I’m not eliminating the possibility of a Brown Tide, asure sun, Pristine Tower, etc., but they’re not integral to the story.
Early Green Age
The nature-benders and their descendants evolve into the various demihuman races, including but not limited to dwarves, elves, humans, and gnomes, but not including half-giants, dragonborn, or thri-kreen. Presumably, this is because various peoples got separated on their various continents. As no one knows how to build ships that can cross oceans without lifeshaping, and the lifeshapers are gone, inter-continental travel is very difficult (and there may have been many continents at first, as the oceans slowly sank). A kind of dark age begins, as even the existing magic-users got decimated in the wars, and magic, though powerful enough to defeat the lifeshapers, was not as developed as it later became, and the lifeshaping that civilization had been based on had been defeated. A long, dark period of speciation, war and strife begins. This lasts an indeterminate amount of time; perhaps milennia (with evolution enhanced by magical or even lifeshaping residue—an alternate history might be that the victorious halflings factionalized and decide to speciate via lifeshaping means…I kind of like that better), or perhaps millions of years of evolution by natural selection. Dragons and other magical creatures arise, due to the magical fallout from the mage/lifeshaper wars. This period should be a minimum of tens of thousands of years.
Middle Green Age
The Green Age in all its glory. This is very like a standard D&D world, with high magic; most standard races except dragonborn, goliaths, and possibly eldarin; dragons, magical beasts, kingdoms, knights in shining armor, etc. Psionicists may have existed, but were quite rare, and never reached epic level. Divine magic is present, probably—but where did it come from? And when? This is a question for the canon. The King’s Age calendar (probably) begins, or perhaps this happens near the beginning of the Late Green Age.
Late Green Age
The Primordials overthrow the gods. The gods retreat from Athas (as it now began to be called), cutting it off from the Outer Planes (or perhaps the Primoridals do that. I’m not really sure what a Primordial is, or what it wants). Elemental magic is developed as a substitute for divine magic (this brings up all sorts of metaphysical problems. What happens to souls when they die? Did they go somewhere before? And what’s going on with spelljamming? Also questions for the canon). Rajaat is born (this may happen in the Middle Green Age). Some time (possibly thousands of years) after the Great Cataclysm (of the Primordials overthrowing the gods),
The Time of Magic
(Somewhat of a misnomer, but I’m using the labels in The Wanderer’s Chronicle.) Rajaat, a brilliant but power-mad epic-level mage (halfling? Pyreen? what?) discovers life-shaping. Or maybe it makes more sense if he’s a life-shaping halfling, familiar with the entire history of the world from the Blue Age onward, that ventures out into the world and learns magic. Yeah, that’s the ticket. Unlike all of his halfling compatriots, he has no animus toward magic, and decides to learn it. He is the only accomplished life-shaper ever to become a high-level wizard, and when he does so he begins to grasp the core of magic in a way no one else ever has. This right here is what the gods would have prevented if they had been present, but they’re gone (it is perhaps the case that a high-level life-shaper/wizard would have arisen long before without their interference). The rest of the timeline is pretty similar to the Timeline of Athas from the 81st King’s Age on, except that the dates are very different. The mage wars began at least10,000 years ago. Which can work if the King’s Age calendar began in the late Middle or early Late Green Age. The Wanderer’s Chronicle says that “The Green Age began approximately 14,000 years before the current age.” That’s a good date for the end of the Green Age, which is, roughly, the end of this period. During this period was the Preserver Jihad, also known as the Mage Wars. Rajaat and the deilers that he trained attempted to destroy all Preservers, so that none could challenge them (likely, the war was started by the preservers theselves, once they realized the danger of defiling magic. Unfortunately, by then it was too late; the defilers had become too numerous and powerful, and defiling is more powerful—or at least easier—than preserving). It was during the Mage Wars (which, per canon, lasted a thousand years) that psionic abilities first became possible on a widespread basis.
And now we discover a possible hole in my theory. For the Cleansing Wars to be possible, the Champions have to be powerful wizard/psionicists. Well, technically, that’s only true for them to be able to become sorcerer-kings and dragons, but in this picture, you have to have evolved the ability to use psionics at a high level, and the S-Ks use it at the highest level. So for this to work there has to be a large period of time after the Mage Wars and before the Cleansing Wars. 10,000 years at a minimum. There does not have to be an equivalent amount of time between the Mage Wars and the Cleansing Wars—hell, the Cleansing Wars don’t even have to happen, though then you’d have to come up with another explanation for the Sorcerer-kings and the Dragon. But if they do happen, it seems somewhat weird that all of the difference between standard D&D races and Dark Sun races (and monsters, and fauna, and flora) happened before the Cleansing Wars. It’s conceivable that only the psionic evolution happened before the Cleansing Wars, and the physical evolution—much of it, at least—happened after, and there’s some appeal to that—two punctuations in the evolutionary record, not just one—but that would mean either that the Sorcerer-kings are many thousands of years old, or that this evolution happened very quickly. Neither option appeals to me. As it is, the S-Ks are at least 3,500 years old, which seems enough. I am wary of changing that; it’s too present. So a third option here is that there were many thousands of years between the Mage Wars and the Cleansing Wars, when defilers ruled the land. This makes sense; it led to much (but perhaps not most) of the current devastation.
Questions: What do/did the gods want? Why did they let the transition between Blue and Green Age happen? Or did they vanish during the Blue Age? If so, what explains the temples that dot the landscape, and the divine aspects of the Prism Pentad? I wish I could leave this vague, but if I’m going to run a Green Age campaign, I have to know. And there are no atheistic green D&D worlds that I’m aware of, so I’ll have to either leave the gods in or heavily customize in a way that might clue my players in that it’s Athas (hehe. Perhaps I’ll have the world name be Athas, but they don’t find out unless someone actually asks). If I’m going to use Forgotten Realms, what are the moons like? What are their names? What’s the year length/rotational period? I can certainly have this Primordial victory be a Realms-shattering event, but when? What are the consequences? How does this interact with other Realms-shattering events? Should it?