The Burnt World of Athas

The official Dark Sun website

Dragon's Bowl and Worldbuilding

Another in our DS4 designer diary reposts, this one comes from Rich Baker.

Originally retrieved from

Hi there, thanks for stopping by!

This week's update: I've finished up my rewrite of Avenger, and I'm still chugging away on Dark Sun design and development.

I'd love to talk about some of the mechanical stuff in Dark Sun--how does the mul character race work, what's a templar, and so on. But I don't think we're ready to reveal too much on this yet, so I'm going to stick to the geography again this week. The other day, I created mountains-specifically, a ring of highlands and low peaks around the Dragon's Bowl. Now, I've been accused of butchering the geography of existing worlds before, so let me explain a little about my reasoning. It's bothered me for a long time that the Dragon's Bowl, this thousand-foot deep depression, lies only a few miles from an arm of the Sea of Silt. Given the fact that the Wanderer's Journal goes on at length about how windborne silt fills the air for miles inland on a windy day, it seems clear to me that over time the Dragon's Bowl would fill with silt. In other words, it ought to be another dust sink. So that stretch of stony barrens between the Bowl and the Sea had better be some pretty high ground, something that dust wouldn't blow over or through. At least on the southeast edge, there need to be some hills or mountains there.

That got me to thinking about depressions and craters, and wondering what the Dragon's Bowl was originally intended to be. Was it supposed to be something like Egypt's Qattara Depression? The Dead Sea? Death Valley? Interestingly enough, the fact that it's ringed by 1000-foot cliffs made me think of another big hole in the ground I've seen ringed by 1000-foot cliffs - Crater Lake. Crater Lake is, of course, a collapsed volcano (Mount Mazama). So *that* got me thinking about a volcanic origin for the Dragon's Bowl, which in turn led me to thinking about volcanic calderas like Yellowstone or Ngorongoro in Africa. If the Dragon's Bowl was a darned big supervolcano that went off a zillion years ago, it could very well have collapsed down into its current configuration. And, of course, speaking of craters, the Dragon's Bowl might be an impact crater, like Meteor Crater in Arizona (but much bigger). Now, both the caldera explanation and the impact crater explanation help solve my initial conundrum about the Dragon's Bowl-because either would leave low mountains/highlands/impact ridges around the Bowl's edges. In fact, the Dragon's Bowl rim might actually be a couple of thousand feet in elevation, so the floor is actually well above the Sea of Silt (Crater Lake is a good 5,000 feet up, after all). So, I took my Sharpie and added some low mountains and broken highlands around the Dragon's Bowl.

Some folks would say that I really overthought this. It's a fantasy world, and the answer could be "it's magic" or "the gods willed it so." That's certainly true, and I probably could have left well enough alone... but some Dark Sun fan's going to pick up the campaign guide next year, look at the map, and he *won't* wonder why the Dragon's Bowl isn't filled with silt, like I did. I think that's why it's important to look after details like this in world-building. Inconsistencies focus the reader's attention in the wrong places, so you want to make sure that the inconsistencies you place in the world are the ones you really want to be there. Sure, inconsistencies may also lead to creative opportunities in the explanation, but you really want to pick your fights there.

Here's an inconsistency that, in my view, demands explanation: silt. Silt doesn't behave the way dust, sand, powder, or anything in our experience would seem to behave. It's a completely fantastic terrain, one that has no correlation to real-world deserts. If the Sea of Silt was a gigantic dead sea bottom, cracked and parched, with muddy spots left, I could imagine that. We've all seen lakes that dry up (or are drained). But it's a seabed full of dust that doesn't blow away, and doesn't compact down to something like sand or clay. Early in the Dark Sun revision process, I toyed briefly with the notion of pushing to make the Sea of Silt into a parched sea bottom in order to solve this inconsistency... but ultimately that would have wreaked real havoc with the existing narrative of the world. So with the Sea of Silt, I backed off.

I talked it over with the other designers, and we decided to let silt stand as it was described back in the 1991 boxed set. But that certainly demands at least some sort of explanation. If the Sea of Silt couldn't occur naturally but is there anyway, then clearly it must be what it is from extra-natural causes. We had another notion rattling around that Athas is a world more heavily influenced or sculpted by elemental powers than the typical fantasy world... so maybe the silt is a kind of terrain that you might be able to find in the Elemental Chaos. It's a mix of air, earth, and water that exists as something of an intrusion of elemental properties into the natural world of Athas. Something long ago *transformed* the sea into dust. The water didn't just evaporate or drain off (at least, not completely); it was changed into something else. If Athas is a world where the gods are absent, was this the work of a Primordial? Does that Primordial remain in Athas, maintaining the Sea in its current state? Or is it the effect of a colossal spell that was cast during the Cleansing Wars, much as the sun was darkened by Rajaat's creation of his Champions? Here's a spot where cleaning up an "inconsistency" pushes you into fantastic world-building and creative answers to a question. My fellow designers and I came up with an answer we liked; in about 11 months you can see for yourself which way we decided to go.

That's all for now. Next time, I think I'll duck back over to War at Sea and talk about a favorite topic of fans there: Is there a US bias, and if so, why?

Baker 7357ee

Rich Baker

Hi, there! I'm game designer and author Richard Baker. I worked on Dungeons & Dragons for TSR Inc. and Wizards of the Coast from 1991 until just this year. Now I'm ready to try some new things! Some of my notable game credits include: Birthright Campaign Setting, Alternity Science Fiction Roleplaying Game, Forgotten Realms 3rd Edition, Tome of Battle: Book of Nine Swords, Manual of the Planes 4th Edition, Conquest of Nerath boardgame, Axis & Allies Miniatures, Axis & Allies Naval Miniatures, and Axis & Allies Air Force Miniatures.