This is a guest post for the #5eplanes blog carnival by the Ashes of Athas admins: Teos Abadia (@alphastream), Chad Brown and Derek Guder. Check out the Ashes of Athas events at Winter Fantasy.
The aspect of cosmology that is most certain in canon sources is that getting to Athas is very difficult. Unlike other campaign settings, planes such as the Astral, Ethereal, and various outer planes are largely inaccessible. Instead, the harsh desert world of Athas is only directly touched by two planes. The Gray is the Athasian plane of the dead, where all dead beings go. Most are slowly dissolved over time, though undead and powerful spirits may survive for a long time. The Black is similar to the plane of shadow and deep within it is the Hollow, a demiplane holding the terrible creature known as Rajaat.
Various supplements and versions of the campaign setting make it clear that Athas is closed to planar travel. Spelljammer sources describe the crystal sphere as similarly closed. However, the extent to which Athas is closed is unclear in official canon sources. Demons and devils can exist on Athas and somehow be summoned to it. A number of sources make it clear there are portals to the elemental planes, typically in very inhospitable places (volcano, Sea of Silt, raging sandstorm, etc.).
The sourcebook Defilers and Preservers provides several possible explanations and illustrations for planar layout, but makes it clear that all of the presented options are wrong in some way. The book contains the most useful description of the Gray and Black, suggesting the Gray wraps around Athas somehow and impedes planar travel, while the Black is within Athas, as if it were under its surface. However, these ideas aren’t really present in other sources.
Earth, Air, Fire, and Water describes the elements, para-elements, and the priests devoted to these elements (in Dark Sun priests were either elemental clerics or servants of the powerful and evil sorcerer-kings). This is one of my favorite sourcebooks, as it provides tremendous flavor for the setting. The elements are depicted as forces that care only for the preservation and growth of their natural/pure form. The environmental devastation of Athas has thrown these forces into opposition. As with second edition cosmology, the para-elements are created when two elements mix together. For example, Sun exists between Fire and Air.
In creating the Ashes of Athas organized play campaign we really liked the concept of the struggle between the elements. We particularly liked the idea that there could be conflict and confusion between worshipers of the pure elements and the often destructive para-elements. This honored the concepts of EAFW pitting priests against one another, but made the battle lines clearer. In Dark Sun power sources (such as psionics and arcane) can often be combined. So, we also liked the idea that the elements could be further corrupted. What would happen if you added the taint of the Black or Gray to Fire, Sun, or Magma? You might get Ash, which would devastate Athas even further.
Based on these concepts we threw around some ideas regarding the right positioning of elements and resulting para-elements. In a few cases we changed things from what had been suggested previously. Because these elements and the struggle over them are a big part of Athasian life, we placed them directly on Athas rather than trying to show separate inner planes. The creation of para-elements would usually be harmful to Athas. Magma, Silt, and the far too intense Sun were destructive. Only Rain was beneficial, but was extremely rare.
We then surrounded Athas with both the Gray and Black. While D&P establishes the Black as existing within Athas, we particularly liked it as existing deeper within the Gray. If the Gray surrounds Athas, then within it exists the Black.
Finally, we had the rare situation where the elements and para-elements combined with the Gray (or Black). In this case Ash, Smoke, Dust, and Salt were created. These might be planes, but they could just be forces created in the rare occasion when the planes touch.
Here is what we drew up to capture these concepts:
Athas exists, surrounded by the Gray (and within the Gray, the Black). The planes of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water all manifest on Athas, but due to the raw and unbalanced nature of Athas they can form unique para-elements that are often destructive. The elements and para-elements aren’t planes to visit, but rather forces on Athas. The forces are in opposition. Earth and Water struggle against the encroaching Silt, for example. Priests of para-elemental forces tend to be evil and often seek the destruction of the world. Priest of the elements are more restrained. They wish for their element to be strong, but still desire a world where nature can exist. Truly evil forces seek to corrupt the elements, creating a more vile version of Athas than even the one existing today.
We like the flavor behind this cosmology. It isn’t quite canonical, but we think it does a great job of capturing what the various canonical (often conflicting) sources are striving to achieve.
Posted via LiveJournal app for iPad.