Thursday, September 23, 2021

Why the Sun is Dark and the Realms are Forgotten

From the Sorcerer's Skull's recent posts about Dark Sun have gotten me musing about the relationship between the world of Dark Sun and other fantasy worlds within the WOTC orrery.

Magic in Dark Sun is scarce, and comes at a high price, especially compared to places like the Forgotten Realms, where magic is plentiful and virtually free. 

Suppose that the relationship between these planes isn't just one of coincidence or natural variation, though. What if it's not just that Athas has less magic and Faerun has more? Suppose that the relationship is one of cause-and-effect. What if the Realms are rich because Dark Sun is poor? What if Dark Sun is poor because the Realms are rich?

The basic idea here is that mana is a finite resource. Every time you use it to cast a spell, you're also using it up. (Or perhaps it replenishes itself, but slowly. Over geological time, not human time scales.) 

Faerun is a lush, tropical land supersaturated with mana. With mana so abundant, people use magic with abandon. Magicians are everywhere, and every other adventurer carries a magic sword, sings magic songs, punches with a magic-infused fist. People summon fire elementals to cook their breakfast, cast illusions to amuse their kids, rely on healing spells in lieu of any other form of medicine, brew potions so they can drink magic, make trinkets so they can wear it.

Athas is a desert. It's desiccated. There's very little mana left. Accessing it is is hard, few people have the ability to access it, and they only spend it on spells that are important. Even the most callous and depraved Sorcerer King or Templar Defiler isn't going to harvest the souls of a thousand worshipers or kill all the crops in a hundred mile radius just to iron their shirts, or light their cigarettes, or play a little light jazz to set the mood for a date. Even if they're going to waste their magic, they're going to waste it ostentatiously and dramatically as a show of strength, to impress an ally or overawe a foe. To waste magic in private really would be too much of a waste.
 
Dark Sun Creature Catalog cover by Wayne Reynolds
 
 
There are a couple possible relationships.

Perhaps Faerun is the past and Athas is the future. 

In ye olde days of yore, the Realms could use magic for anything, so they used it for everything, including the pettiest, stupidest shit you could possibly imagine. Goodberries on your cereal in the morning. Disposable Tenser's floating discs to carry home your groceries. Bardic inspiration before you take a test. Scrying when you don't feel like walking to the library. Leomund's tiny hut to keep out of the rain. Mordenkainen's magnificent mansion for a weekend getaway. Glamours on everything. Continual lights on everything. Sleep spells to knock you out when all auras and dweomer's you've been staring at all day start to mess with your circadian rhythm.

Eventually the supply of mana just can't keep up with all the demand. Peak Mana arrives when wizards have to start going farther and farther afield, work harder and harder, longer and longer, to bring back a diminishing supply of mana. Sadly there's no such thing as renewable energy in this world. Some genius invents solar power and starts extracting elemental fire straight from the heart of the sun. Some other geniuses come up with wind, geothermal, and hydroelectric energy, letting them convert the air to smoke, the seas to salt, the ground to dust. The inexhaustible bounty of the Realms is exhausted, and there simply isn't enough mana from any source to maintain civilization in the style to which it had become accustomed. 

Then comes the Collapse. Then there is no Faerun anymore. Then there is only Athas.

Or perhaps Faerun and Athas are separate. Perhaps Faerun is a resource extractor, and perhaps Athas is a resource.

If Dark Sun and the Forgotten Realms are different planes, then when Faerun starts to run low on domestic mana, they'll begin plundering their neighbors for supply. Perhaps they start by whaling - capturing dragons, demons, angels, and gods to press them like olives, crush them like grapes, until hot, wet, living mana pours out to fill the pipes and keep the faucets running. 

But as the herds then and the fisheries grow sparse, Faerun's prospectors will turn to other worlds. Some planes are easy to reach, and have deep wells of easily tapped mana. Some planes are like shale oil and tar sands. They're hard to get to, their climate is hostile, and it takes so much more work and effort to extract their mana, like wringing it from a damp dishrag. Athas is the tar sands. Athas is wrung out.

Magicians in Dark Sun divide themselves into Preservers and Defilers. The locals do their best to monitor their Mana Footprint, to cut back on their Mana Emissions. They name and shame. They reduce, reuse, and recycle. But it doesn't matter, because theirs is a problem that can't be solved by individual conservation or local action. Every mage in Faerun is a Defiler ... of Athas.

This is why the Realms aren't forgotten exactly, but they are a closely guarded secret. When the Mana Barons and their pirate crews set sail, they fly no flags, they carry no papers. They dare not bring with them anything that could identify the name or location of their homeworld. 
 
Dark Sun Campaign Setting cover by Wayne Reynolds
 
 
The really exciting part of either idea comes when the people of Faerun and Athas finally get to meet.

When people from Faerun come to Dark Sun, they arrive as imperialists. They've landed with their cargo holds empty, and won't be leaving until they fill them up with mana. They're not particularly concerned about how big a mess they make, or how many people they hurt, while doing it. Indeed, there are surely some among their number who are mostly there for the chance to commit violence and atrocities in a context where their home government will not only tolerate their depredations, but reward them for it. 

Others may be motivated by patriotism. Still others find meaning in their work knowing that they're helping to maintain the high standard of civilization, imagining that the Faerun too would be a desert ruin without their efforts. And some are just there for a paycheck, doing the only job they could find at the time they needed work, their only consolation the knowledge (or at least hope) that the money they're sending home is enough to support the people they're sending it to.

When citizens of Athas arrive in the Forgotten Realms, they want revenge. If they're there, it's because they've finally realized who destroyed their world, and they're going to make those fuckers pay, and stop them from plundering anyone else.

The only real question, when the hotwired Spelljammer crashes through Elminster's tower like the Old Mage built it out of Jenga blocks and plows through the center of Waterdeep like a plow through that verdant, mana-rich soil, when a mob of gladiators and psychics and giant mantises tumble out of the wreck wearing leather bondage outfits and carrying weapons made of the bones of the last people they killed, the only real question is whether they have a plan to bring the fight directly to the Big Mana companies who've been financing all the drill sites on Athas, or if they're just going to start breaking things and killing people in an indiscriminate frenzy of vengeance.

Either direction of visitation sounds like a pretty good game session to me.

11 comments:

  1. I'm glad someone wrote this up and expanded after our discussion on discord, because I really think it's an interesting idea.

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    1. It was a good conversation! I've got one more post coming up based on talking about Dark Sun with you and the others.

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  2. Hmm, a world where people frivolously and myopically waste resources and fail to appreciate the wonderment of their world, built on the exploitation of their own and many other peoples, until they architect their own demise, eh? I wonder where you got that idea :p...

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    1. I'm just, like, really creative, okay? Original content, do not steal.

      I think Dark Sun was always at least a little bit of a cli-fi setting. Leaning in to that aspect would be a great way to update it, I think.

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    2. Haha for sure, it is a cool idea and one I had not necessarily considered.

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  3. I still think the sun has something to do with it! Why do spells have to be refreshed each day? Why are durations listed as "until sunset" or "until sunrise"? Why do vampires and other undead fear the light?

    For just 4,000gp a month, you can fund my Thaumic Solar Expedition! Renewable energy, sourced from the core of the sun without all that tedious mucking about with fire elementals. It's safe, reliable, and almost certainly not the origin of those skull-shaped sunspots.

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    1. There are some similarities between the FR I described and the Endon of your pre-apocalyptic Magical Industrial Revolution setting, aren't there?

      Mining the sun for raw magic and accidentally killing the source of all life in the process sounds like a pretty cool apocalypse. Winter is coming, indeed.

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    2. Yup! While I avoided colonial/imperial/wider setting aspects in MIR (for scale and scope reasons), the idea of stealing mana from another plane to support the burgeoning magical economy fits the theme perfectly.

      "Drainage! Drainage, Elminster, you boy. Drained dry. I'm so sorry. Here, if you have a plane, and I have a plane, and I have a portal. There it is, that's a portal, you see? You watching? And my portal reaches across the ether, and starts to drink your plane... I! Drink! Your! Plane! I drink it up!"

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  4. This is fantastic. It would fun to run a campaign in Athas all about Dark Sun things, and have this be a big secret the players could stumble on. Maybe everyone in dark sun has competing crackpot theories about why things are so bad.

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    1. I could see that being a lot of fun. Every major NPC (or faction?) has a theory, it's up to the players to figure it out and decide what to do about it.

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  5. Back in 90's, Zulaan, my DM, designed a homebrew campaign setting with a planet having one half inspired by Dark Sun and the other half inspired by high fantasy/FR. With a lot of neutral or conflicts zone in the middle.
    For french reader, i wrote some fanfic about it some years after at http://yragael.free.fr/ The dynamics I developed was DS-side hated FR-side, and FR-side was ashamed/afraid of DS-side (the dominant people of FR-side are the descendants of the ones that ruined the DS-side millenias ago).

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