Wednesday, December 28, 2016

A Different Dark Sun: Prefectures of the Radiant Desert

Over the years, there's been conjecture as to what exists outside of the Tyr Region, the "home base" of the Athasian campaign. A few official boxed sets and modules attempted to expound on this, with mixed results. Some, like the Last Sea region, are not held in particularly high regard by certain segments of the D&D community. Others, such as Eldaarich, were regarded as more of the same thing we experienced in the core rules region. You also had the tohr-kreen empire, far to the northwest of the Tyr Region, where psionic and scientifically-minded kreen held sway.

I was inspired by some banter on a board somewhere some years ago and it's been cooking in the back of my mind for a long time. I can't recall the source, but in the interest of full disclosure I can't say that this is 1000% my brainchild. Similarities to other attempts are unintentional.

I wanted to introduce culture and civilization that is different from the city-states of the Tyr Region. We aren't given much insight as to what else existed on Athas apart from very broad strokes about the halfling and human-dominated epochs. It has also been thousands and thousands of years since those times, and no one ventured far enough beyond the Tyr Region and returned to tell what existed beyond it.

Dark Sun is a post-apocalyptic fantasy setting with cultures based off of Sumerian (Urik, Tyr), Babylonian (Raam, I would hazard a comparison), Aztec (Draj), Harrapan (I feel like Nibenay was at least partially inspired by this, but it's kind of a pot-luck of a few ancient cultures), proto-Greek (Balic), and kind of a weird blend of West-Central African (Gulg) societies. It steers pointedly away from European fantasy tropes and cultures; the Tyr Region is in a perpetual late Bronze Age due to the limitations of natural resources.

Some of my historical comparisons may not be apt. My college-level ancient world history courses were a very long time ago and my brain is a leaky sieve when I'm not actively using a given knowledge. I would love to discuss/be corrected in the comments, as I am very interested in ancient cultures.

But there was a lot of stuff already going on in our world at the same time in our history. Enter the Radiant Desert, a society based off of post-apocalyptic Imperial China.

The Prefectures of the Radiant Desert

I never did see this movie, and heard it's pretty terrible. But it has some great inspirational imagery for an Athas-flavored culture based on Imperial China.

Far to the south of the Tyr Region, beyond the black desert of the Dead Lands, exists a quasi-imperial society known as the Prefectures of the Radiant Desert. Had Athas a true sea where the Sea of Silt now lies, it could be reached by naval travel down the Tyr Region's eastern coastline, but not even the most robust silt skimmers could survive the voyage while Borys of Ebe still lived. Those that tried usually ended up devoured by silt horrors or consumed in the Dragon's fire as he flew out to stop them from making contact with the distant land.

Why did Borys try to stop this contact? Because he knew he had a true rival in the south, not just his petty and subdued former comrades from the Cleansing Wars, and was not yet prepared to deal with her -- and best to keep her ignorant as to the society he kept in his thrall. Did he fear this upstart dragon? It is not known, and the truth went with him to his grave.

With the Dragon slain and numerous Tyr-storms spinning off from where his domain once lay, the way is once again open. The first of the storms to twist its way more south than west garnered the attention of this distant ruler, who used scrying magic and long-range flying scouts to seek the source of these storms.

The Crimson Empress

Guo Kang Ma is a comparatively young dragon king, completing her ascent some time after the decline of the world began and after Borys seized control of the north. With an iron claw, she rules over a dominion of small prefectures that spread across a few thousand square miles of territory beyond the Dead Lands. Like her counterparts in the north, she enacted a policy of enforced ignorance among the common folk of her realm. Literacy, magic, and owning weapons are banned to all but the merchant and noble castes of her society.

She is curious about the Tyr Region, but cognizant of the dangers that exposure to it will pose to her rule. If her subjects learn that the people to the north overthrew their own dragon, a seed of rebellion could germinate in her midst. Until then, enforced isolation is her policy, though conquest of the fractured city-states is something she also strongly considers.

Guo Kang Ma was not a contemporary of Rajaat's Champions, but rather a defiler who rose to great power through her own ambition and ruthlessness. When the myriad divided tribes of the south huddled together to survive in a dying world, she used the opportunity to unify them through terror and blood. Her warlords swept through the crumbling lands and subjugated the populace.

Her rule has not been without its benefits. As Athas withered, Guo Kang Ma knew that it was only a matter of time before her rule would become moot and she required the regular tribute of her citizens to maintain her magical power. She empowered mighty elemental priests to be the lords of her prefectures, but all give homage to the Crimson Empress. Agriculture and tending of the withered land is paramount, not only to sustain the fragile ecosystems and feed the populace, but also to provide the dragon and her exarchs with life to draw upon for their magic.

In the time since she learned of the Tyr Region, Guo Kang Ma began research into warriors that could make the long journey between the prefectures and the city-states without needing the support of supply lines or fear of the searing daylight. Soon, her dream may be realized -- the first of her Porcelain Guard already protect her palace alongside eunuch warriors, mass-produced golem-like soldiers that need neither water nor sleep.

People of the Radiant Desert

The Radiant Desert folk are sandy-skinned, stout folk with dark hair and eyes. Though humans make up most of the populace, there are also small communities of dwarves that live among the prefectures. This also allows a small number of muls to thrive as well, but most muls are immediately given unto the Empress's enforcers to serve as eunuch bodyguards. Dray, elves, half-giants, and halflings are unknown in the Radiant Desert.

There are thri-kreen in the Radiant Desert -- as all deserts are the dominion of the mantis warriors -- and their differences are negligible to their kin in the north. Should a Radiant Desert kreen pack encounter a Hinterlands kreen pack, neither would recognize anything other than a geographical preference. As thri-kreen are not welcome in the prefectures, there was little chance for any knowledge of the Tyr Region to proliferate before recent times.

So what's this place for, Marsupialmancer? Get to it.

The Radiant Desert is a potential high-level play antagonist for characters in the Tyr Region. It also serves as a cultural touchstone for people who want to play something different -- an exiled wanderer or lost scout from the Crimson Empress's vanguard could be viable character concepts. Certain archetypes could also come from here, along with all of their wild fantastical variants (tattooed monks, eunuch sorcerers, sohei, etc.).

Obviously there's a lot more to this culture and I've only scratched the surface of its possibilities in my homebrew version of Athas. Since it is relegated in my mind to an end-game concern, I've only developed that which might be immediately relevant in a character's mind -- though it could just as easily serve as a completely different place to run a campaign!

What's next, then?

Good question. I have some thoughts on defiling and preserving, but they need to cook some more and I have all the holiday vacation week to do that. I could also dip into some new archetypes that fit the setting (possibly some of the aforementioned ones) to add some variety. As I write that, I think that's what I'll opt for, unless I get a eureka moment with defiling/preserving rules.

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