Within the walls of a city-state, every person has a specific place in the social order. Sorcerer-kings rule, supported by nobles and templars—the priests and warriors of the monarchs. Merchants and craftsfolk, as well as warriors in their employ, enjoy positions slightly higher than those of beggars, farmers, herders, and laborers. Slaves toil in the lowest level of society, giving their lives in forced labor, gladiatorial spectacles, or outright sacrifice.
On the other hand, those who dwell in villages or nomadic tribes in the wilderness value freedom and competence, and they believe, perhaps rightly, that city residents lack both. (Of course, the most independent tribes still have leaders and members with more wealth or status than others.) Liberty comes at a high price, however, since the wastelands of Athas are treacherous even for the well prepared.
The sorcerer-kings at the center of urban life are sovereigns who rose to power long ago through unchecked arcane might. In all remaining city-states except Tyr, the monarch has ruled for generations; each sorcerer-king is a formidable defiler and employs magic to prolong his or her life to near-immortality. In some cities—most notably Draj and Gulg—the people view the sorcerer-king as a divine being. Worship of and obedience to the ruler is usually mandatory, with templars tasked to enforce this state religion.
Within his or her city, each sorcerer-king has absolute authority. Most reside in fortified palaces teeming with minor officials and intimidating sentries, and they rarely emerge without grand entourages and marching files of watchful guards. In the face of the king’s power, common citizens can ask for nothing more than to be defended, fed, and sheltered. The sorcerer-kings fiercely protect the secrets of arcane magic and brook no rival mages in their cities.
Directly under the authority of the sorcerer-king are the templars: priests, officials, and disciples loyal to their ruler. Although a sorcerer-king can be expected to defend and nurture his or her city, the templars manage its day-to-day necessities, from law enforcement to religious services. Some templars wield magical power granted to them by their monarch, but even if they lack such might, all templars enforce the will of the sorcerer-king. They can punish lawbreakers, dismiss complaints against favored citizens, detain and abuse those they wish to harass, and seize materials for the good of the state. They are hated and feared by commoners, and in any given city-state, the templar organization is rife with corruption and perfidy. The sorcerer-king seldom intervenes in templars’ affairs, no matter how crooked they might be.
The aristocrats of Athasian society usually control farmland and water through hereditary titles that the sorcerer-king granted to their ancestors long ago. They are expected to maintain their holdings and to have private military forces ready to maintain order and repel invasion when necessary. Most noble houses keep large stables of slaves as laborers, soldiers, and gladiators. Competition among the nobles, as well as between nobles and templars, is fierce.
In some cities, the heads of the noble houses form a council that advises the sorcerer-king. At any time, the monarch can call upon the resources, living and otherwise, at a noble’s disposal.
Athasian merchants as a group include merchant dynasties, tribal merchants, and independent merchants (or free citizens, discussed below).
Merchant dynasties (or houses, as they’re often called) are a class of free folk who maintain emporiums, resource-gathering outposts, and trade routes in the city-states and across the hostile wastes. They are citizens of no city and exist outside the normal power structure, although their wealth and influence rivals that of the most prominent nobles. Each merchant house is a family or an alliance of dealers with its own small army of guards and slaves that keeps goods flowing from one region to another. Intrepid dune traders and larger caravans carry merchandise from place to place. Merchant dynasties operate large emporiums in various city-states and pay taxes to the sorcerer-kings in return for this privilege. Even the most rapacious templars avoid harassing members of merchant houses without good cause. Doing so would risk not only the templars’ personal buying power but also the welfare of the city-state.
Tribal merchants operate in a commercial manner similar to that of a merchant house. Many elven tribes are merchants of this type. Some forge alliances with merchant houses, whereas others compete with the great dynasties. Unlike merchant houses, mercantile tribes rarely establish headquarters and outposts. Instead, they travel as an eternal caravan, gathering and selling wares all over the region.
The bazaars of merchant tribes—especially those run by elves—are good sources of illegal or exotic items and experiences. Such marketplaces are also reputed to be shady in other ways, selling shoddy products, running confidence schemes, and committing outright robbery. Merchant tribesfolk try to avoid engaging in too much behavior that might invite the scrutiny of the templars. When a settlement becomes too unfriendly to a particular tribe, the tribe moves on and avoids that place for a few years.
Slaves make up a large portion of the urban population. Some are born into slavery, and others are tribal folk or villagers from distant lands who were seized by slavers and sold into captivity. Templars and nobles also have the power to condemn debtors and criminals to slavery (although dangerous people are executed if enslaving them is considered too risky).
Wealthy Athasians keep slaves as a show of prosperity as well as a source of cheap labor. Most slaveholders have few moral qualms about the practice, arguing that it is better to enslave others than to allow them to starve in freedom. A slave’s treatment depends on his usefulness and the affluence of his owner. Reliable and loyal slaves are likely to receive better treatment. Prosperous owners often see their slaves as disposable, whereas poorer owners take better care of their slaves to look after their investment. High-minded folk sometimes crusade to end slavery or at least guarantee standards of decent treatment, but callous brutality toward slaves is commonplace. In many areas of Athas, a slave’s life is regarded as belonging to the owner, who can dispose of it as desired.
Each slave is afforded a place according to his or her talents. Most are farmers, laborers, or servants. Those with fighting skills end up as soldiers or gladiators. (The best soldier slaves are trained as such from birth.) A few slaves have talents that earn them spots as artists or entertainers in a household. Skilled slaves can enjoy comfortable lives, but they are always at risk of falling out of favor. Few slaves earn lasting freedom.
City dwellers who aren’t templars, nobles, affiliated merchants, or slaves are citizens. Independent merchants and artisans make up the bulk of this class.
Mercenaries, minstrels, monks, priests, masters of the psionic arts, and adventurers or others who wield extraordinary powers make up the rest. These people are free, but only until a capricious templar or noble judges them guilty of a crime. When that happens, a free citizen becomes a slave. However, this fate usually befalls only the powerless citizens. Those who can defend themselves are rarely harassed by templars, who do not wish to risk losing several soldiers just to acquire one slave.
In the unforgiving desert, villages exist only in locales that have valuable resources, important trade crossroads, or defensible positions. A mining settlement, a raiding tribe’s base, and a merchant trading post all are considered villages. Independent villages, especially those built by escaped slaves or members of a particular race, are chaotic, colorful places. They have strong or charismatic leaders and allow practices that are frowned upon in city-states (such as the use of primal magic). Of course, given the dangers of the wilderness, any village can disappear or become abandoned overnight.
Some villages are client settlements maintained by city-states, merchant houses, or nobles to provide resources such as minerals or food. Client villages vary in the level of governance (and thereby the oppression and corruption) imposed by the founders. These places are more orderly than independent villages; each has a capable governor, a standing fighting force, and spellcasters or psions who act as guards.
Any people who live a mobile existence can be considered nomads. They survive by moving to wherever the resources are. Some nomadic tribes or bands are racially diverse, and others are racially homogenous. A few tribes enjoy the sponsorship of (and provide services to) a patron, such as a city-state, but most survive independently by herding, hunting, or raiding. A single tribe might resort to all these methods.
Survival on the move isn’t easy. Some tribes, especially those made up of raiders, aren’t shy about taking what they need from established locals and strangers. Slave tribes raid outlying city-state holdings and caravans in a guerrilla war against their former oppressors, and bandits prey on whomever they perceive to be weak. Most other tribes—those that consist of herders, hunters, merchants, or scavengers—are more likely to trade than to steal. Like independent villages, nomadic tribes usually have strong leaders who boast military or magical skill. Unless tradition forbids the use of magic, most nomads tolerate it, along with other practices that would get one killed within the borders of a city-state, such as defying authority.
Outcast by choice or by decree, a hermit lives alone in the wastes. Such a person usually settles in one place and survives on what the land offers. His or her residence is hidden, as is any source of water.
Some hermits avoid contact with passing travelers, but others welcome visitors who seem harmless or potentially helpful. Many hermits have forgotten the social graces and come off as endearingly strange, but some are deranged or downright treacherous. A few have real insight or power, and among these are the hermits who have useful secrets to share—if offered sufficient compensation.