The Burnt World of Athas
The World is Inhospitable: Athas is a hot, arid planet covered with seas of dunes, lifeless salt flats, stony wastes, rocky badlands, thorny scrublands, and worse. In this forbidding world, cities and villages exist only in a few oases or verdant plains. The world beyond these islands of civilization is a barren wasteland roamed by nomads, raiders, and hungry monsters.
The World is Savage: Life on Athas is brutal and short. Bloodthirsty raiders, greedy slavers, and inhuman savages overrun the deserts and wastelands. The cities aren't much better; each chokes in the grip of an immortal tyrant. Slavery is widespread on Athas, and many unfortunates spend their lives toiling for brutal taskmasters or dying in bloody arena spectacles. Free Companies of mercenaries ensure the rich and powerful stay that way, while Merchant Houses vie to corner Athas' limited resources. Charity, compassion, kindness—these qualities exist, but they are rare and precious. Only a fool hopes for such riches.
Resources are Scarce: Precious water is hoarded by the powerful, but even they have to grapple with scarcity. Most arms and armor are made of bone, stone, wood, and other such frailer materials. Mail or plate armor exists only in the treasuries of the sorcerer-kings. Steel blades are immensely valuable weapons that many heroes never see during their lifetimes.
Arcane Magic Defiles the World: The reckless use of arcane magic during ancient wars reduced Athas to a wasteland. Defilers are able to heighten their spells at the cost of sucking life from their surroundings. As a result, wielders of arcane magic are generally reviled and persecuted across Athas regardless of whether they preserve or defile. Even divine magic users have to be wary of superstitious commoners misconstruing them or Templars looking to add power to their ranks. Only the most powerful spellcasters, or those properly connected, can wield the power openly without fear of reprisal.
Sorcerer-Kings Rule the City-States: Terrible defilers of immense power rule all of the city-states. These mighty spellcasters have held their thrones for centuries; no one alive remembers a time before the sorcerer-kings. Some claim to be gods, and some claim to serve gods. Some are brutal oppressors, where others are more subtle in their tyranny. The sorcerer-kings govern through priesthoods or bureaucracies of greedy, ambitious templars, lesser defilers who can call upon the kings’ powers. Their power is unmatched, but that doesn't mean there is no one plotting a world without them.
The Gods are Absent: Athas is a world without deities. Clerics draw their power directly from elemental power (though some heretics claim to draw power from elsewhere). Certain abilities, such as raising the dead, are unheard of except in children's tales or whispered rumors. Paladins and warlocks draw power from sorcerer-kings or equal beings. Shamans and druids call upon primal powers. Chi and psionics originating from inner power are safer sources of magic and exist widespread in a weak form. While scholars know of the existence of other planes only the Gray and the Black have any known connection to the world. Of course people exist who claim to serve or to be deities. But worship of any being besides a sorcerer-king is a treasonous act if discovered.
Fierce Monsters Roam the World: On Athas people tend flocks of flightless erdlu birds, ride on insectoid kanks or lizard-like crodlus, and draw wagons with inixes and mekillots. Wild creatures such as lions, bears, and wolves are almost nonexistent. In their place are terrors such as the id fiend, the baazrag, and the tembo.
Familiar Races Aren’t What You Expect: Elves are a nomadic race of herders, peddlers, and raiders. Halflings are xenophobic headhunters and cannibals who hunt trespassers in their mountain forests. Goliaths, or half-giants, are brutal mercenaries that serve as elite guards and enforcers for the sorcerer-kings and their templars in many city-states. Dwarves are tough nomads who become singularly dedicated to self-created goals such that their souls will never rest if they leave the task undone. Half-dwarf Muls combine the best of dwarves and humans to make hardy, dependable slave labor for the sorcerer-kings. Other races, such as gnomes, ogres, trolls, and goblins have never been heard of by most, and are thought to have been eradicated in the ancient wars of the sorcerer-kings.