The Alphastream Game Design Blog
(Originally poted in 2010 to my Wotc blog)
We return to lore and take a look at some of the major organizations on Athas. Some are secret organizations, while others are just ones where you might lose your head if you say the wrong things about them. You didn’t get this information from my PC!
As you might expect in a world ruled by incredibly powerful and cruel Sorcerer-Kings, it is very difficult to get away with creating a secret organization in Athas. Without question, the most successful one and the most likely to be mentioned in a campaign is the Veiled Alliance. And yet, it is a fairly small and fragile organization. The Order is even smaller and more focused. There are a few others detailed in Dark Sun supplements, but they are small enough to not deserve mention at a broad campaign level. However, both the Templars and nobles in each city deserve mention, for they often conspire secretly to accomplish their own goals. Merchant Houses also engage in many secret acts as they struggle to control commerce.
When DMing or creating a campaign, secret organizations can represent excellent ways to provide opportunities, information, and plot hooks (or twists). These organizations have power and knowledge, as well as cool mysterious motives. Better yet, the PCs have reason for caution, which is ripe for good RP. In most cases it is best to use a cloak-and-dagger approach. The organizations will contact the PCs through intermediaries and carefully test the PCs. Over time, such secretive organizations can serve both as ally and foe, for their goals and membership are diverse.
For players, secret organizations can be a tantalizing double-edged sword. On the one hand, they may offer power and resources that the PCs can use to further their cause(s). On the other hand, secret organizations are dangerous and involving oneself with them can create a reputation and bring danger – even if the opportunity itself is not a double-cross! Secret organizations often cause your PC to examine their worldview – where does the PC stand on issues like slavery, magic, Sorcerer-Kings, the ages of Athas, or the Dragon?
The Veiled Alliance (VA) is a secret organization operating in all of the seven city-states. It also has some members in a few villages and other remote locations. The primary goal, other than protecting itself, is to protect preservers. With most Athasians fearing and despising magic and blaming the state of Athas on all arcane casters, preservers face incredible dangers. When an arcane caster joins the VA, they gain access to hidden safe-houses, instruction by teachers, rescue in case they are captured, and transportation should they need to leave a city in secret. In exchange, members help recruit other members and swear to uphold the goals. Membership is for life; to protect the secrecy, any member that tries to leave is hunted down and killed.
In addition, a number of non-casters may seek to join the VA. Martial practicers make for excellent bodyguards, Psionic classes can use power similar to magic more freely, and so forth. These “auxiliaries” are also offered protection by the VA.
Finally, the VA seeks to oppose Defilers and to undermine the Sorcerer-Kings. While these two goals are secondary to protecting the organization and the membership, they receive a lot of attention from the Sorcerer-Kings and their Templars. VA cells are constantly hunted in each city-state. In turn, the VA seeks ways to find defilers and kill them (or in some cases reform them) and to uncover and oppose the will of the Sorcerer-Kings.
The VA protects itself very carefully, resembling a modern-day terrorist cell. When someone is recruited, they are brought into a small group and given one outside contact. Only the leader of that group has a contact to the next-highest rung in the organizational ladder. The members do not know what any other group is doing, nor do they know the contacts everyone else knows. In this way, the VA as a whole is protected. If a group is found and interrogated by Templars, the group knows little and can only pass on a small list of contacts. By the time that information is out there, the VA has likely taken action to hide those few members. Even if a group is infiltrated, it is hard to gain any true understanding of what is taking place. On the other hand, the group is sluggish because of this. The only way the VA can respond is via the chain of contacts, and this can take time. Leadership has the psionic means to create a group-wide communication for votes on major issues, but the difficulty of setting this up limits it to once or twice a year at most.
Members are typically kept in the dark as to what the VA organization is doing. A single cell may be told to retrieve an item. This item may be passed back through the group’s leader. The next day, a different cell may take the item and enchant it. On the following day, another cell may plant it back where it was found. This veil of secrecy can make for fun adventures where the truth of what PCs (or NPCs) accomplish is not seen for some time. DMs should strive to still give meaning to each action the PCs accomplish – they should see immediate results even if not the ultimate reasoning and cause for the action.
VA members have a number of signals they use to communicate with other members. For example, a common way of ensuring that a person is from the VA is to start with the phrase “My fathers is a templar”, which results in the other saying “My mother is a gardener” and the return phrase “You come of good stock”. Various hand gestures are also taught to members so that they can communicate wordlessly in time of need. Drop-off sites and intermediaries are also common tools for communicating across the membership.
In part due to the difficulties in communicating, the VA is a little different in each city-state. The supplement Veiled Alliance describes each city-state’s VA, including leaders, goals, and particulars about the city. In Nibenay there is little chance to overturn the Sorcerer-King, while in Tyr the Sorcerer-King is overturned and there is debate as to whether cease to operate in secrecy. In Gulg they seek to restore Athas to a verdant state, whereas this is not a goal in any other VA chapter. If you are interested in running a campaign that uses the VA heavily, this concept can allow you to choose a part of the organization (and a city) that fits your play style.
The Order is a secret fraternity of incredibly powerful Psionicists. These practitioners of the Way wish for psionic arts to be neutral and blanced. Somewhat similar to the view of druids, they see psionics as a natural force that must be protected against corruption and miss-use. First, they seek to study psionics in a pure way and aim to unlock further psionic power. Second, they work to ensure that psionic Will is only used to preserve the natural order of the world.
The Order’s membership is spread out, largely consisting of individual high level members. Several members live in Tyr. Members study the Way while staying alert to any developments that might show psionics being used in an unnatural way or which might afford new opportunities for study.
Because the Sorcer-Kings have been in place for so long, the Order does not seek to oppose them. However, they will take action to prevent anyone else from combining magic and psionics. Hunting rogue psionicists is one of the main activities of the Order.
While as a whole it is neutral, the Order can harbor dark secrets. Some view themselves as leaders that should unlock ways for the people of the tablelands to evolve – foreseeing a new psionic reality. Recent events have seen at least one member attempt to control all of Athas with psionic power.
To the common Athasian slave, it can seem that the life of a noble is filled with luxury and ease – nobles have it all, right? In truth, the wealth of a noble is precarious and only maintained by power, authority, and political cunning. Nobles devote much of their time to opposing the intrigues of other nobles… and furthering their own. The way nobles fit into society differs by city-state. In some they may hold greater power, arguing for their needs (and wants) with the Sorcerer-Kings and their emissaries. In Tyr, for example, the Senate worked with Kalak’s high and mid-level Templars to ensure their needs were met. In turn, Kalak had a stronger city and the nobles were more productive. In other city-states, the nobility is weaker and must be much more careful in requesting something from the Templars and Sorcerer-Kings.
In all cases there is ample reason for the nobles to band together at times to gain something they want. They may employ adventurers in attempts to undermine another noble or Templar. They may seek PCs to accomplish goals that would otherwise sully their reputation. And, they may need protection when another noble house or organization turns against them. Under the right situations, a noble may seem surprisingly like a merchant house or even the Veiled Alliance. (See the novel The Verdant Passage for the story of the noble Agis of Asticles).
Intrigue with the nobility can be an excellent way to shake up a plot involving late heroic or higher-level PCs. When tasks involve the Templars or Merchant Houses, the danger can be very high.
Templars act as the government for the Sorcerer-Kings. Each city has variations on the structure and organization of the government, but in all cases there is a hierarchy and plenty of political intrigue. Just like nobles, it is challenging and even life-threatening to gain power. Even holding onto one’s position requires constant vigilance against backstabbing and the machinations of peers, upstarts, and those above.
Because of this, at times the Templars themselves will act outside of the system and find adventurers to do their bidding. These may sometimes be dark deeds, but they can also include neutral activities, such as delivering a missive they do not want others to read. It is even possible to find work that has a positive benefit, such as helping a Templar take down another corrupt Templar. (Of course, that may further the first Templar’s own nefarious goals).
Intrigue can even include the nobility. A Templar often has to placate the nobles and in some cases may require their assistance. Templars collect taxes from the nobility, are involved with land disputes, and enforce the Sorcerer King’s edicts. Those nobles and Templars that work together are often in a stronger position.
I have mentioned Merchants in some of my earlier articles. Merchant houses traverse the wastes bringing goods from one city-state to the other. The quantity of goods and money passing through their hands is very high and ripe for corruption, greed, and intrigue. Interplay between the nobles that often supply goods or materials, the Templars that enforce trade laws and taxes, and the various merchant houses that compete against each other all can create very interesting adventuring possibilities.
The supplement Dune Trader does a great job of discussing the various merchant houses of Athas. Each one has different areas they control, different amounts of power, different cultures and organizational styles, and different trade specialties.
In many ways, the houses act as secretive organizations. They carefully hide the locations of outposts, their trade routes, their shift in goods they aim to sell, etc. On brutal Athas, each merchant house constantly competes with the others, and the competition is known to be bloody. While the houses all pretend to be civil overtly, they all know they are covertly seeking the destruction of the others. Bards are commonly loaned to another house as an entertainer, for example, with both houses knowing that it is common for bards to be assassins. This duality between public civility and secret warfare is a way of life for the houses. PCs should bare this in mind – accusations in public will be seen as a grave insult… and a reason to mark the person for death.
For DMs and PCs, merchant houses can be excellent adventure seeds. They can also act as villains or allies. For example, a merchant house could procure a good that is illegal. Or, they might be able to smuggle PCs into or out of a city-state.