Athas is a vast and dangerous world, ripe with adventure. But adventure doesn’t merely come from slaying monsters and raiding ruins. Some Athasian adventurers find excitement in entrepreneurship and capitalism. And the easiest way to follow such pursuits is through the mercantile trade of Athas.
This guide explains how a Dune Trader campaign works in Athas, providing further resources for adventures set in the Fifth Edition Dark Sun setting.
The Merchant Dynasties
Merchants are the masters of commerce in the Tablelands. Successful merchants become incredibly wealthy, a fact that Templars and nobles envy. They are granted long-term licenses to reside and do business within city walls, but merchants are not citizens. Their work dictates that they maintain contact with a wide variety of societies; this is just one reason that sorcerer-kings do not trust them. Regardless, they are one of the few classes that the bureaucracy is careful not to harass.
The major merchant houses of Athas hold much of the balance of power, much to the dismay of the sorcerer-kings. These houses are the life-blood of Athas, giving the cities, its people, and even the sorcerer-kings the resources they need to make life under the dark sun possible.
Most trading houses are owned by a single family which maintains a headquarters in its favorite city. From there, the family patriarch (or matriarch) directs operations of the entire merchant house. Only agents of the house are permitted entry.
Merchants houses are owned in common by all direct descendants of the founder. Control is passed to any family of an existing patriarch or matriarch’s choosing.
Like many in Athas, merchants are technically not permitted to read or write, but they are allowed to keep accounts. Of course, the line is often blurred.
Most major merchant houses maintain large trading emporiums in five to ten different cities. Here, all manner of goods are stored. The majority of emporiums are run by trusted senior agents of their parent merchant houses, if not by a member of the owning family itself.
In addition to the city-based emporiums, large merchants houses maintain trading posts in the wilderness areas and wastelands of Athas. Usually, these are built wherever there is something to trade or someone to trade with. By necessity, the managers of these houses are tough and self-reliant men and women.
As such, these agents are also expendable. These posts are easy marks for raiding tribes and hungry monsters.
Every merchant house relies upon its caravans to move goods from one city to another and to supply its trading posts. Some are small and swift, relying on speed kanks to carry them and their cargo. Others consist of a single, huge, slow-moving wagon with armored flanks, usually drawn by gargantuan mekillots.
Most caravans take passengers, but the only cargo they carry is that of their house. Trade is too competitive to transfer the goods of another house.
Usually a former mercenary or soldier, caravan leaders are the shrewdest mercantile agents of all. From the time the caravan leaves one city’s gate until it enters another’s, the captain’s word is law, and to disobey his or her command is to risk banishment or death.
In most houses, there are four general categories of employees: family members, senior agents, agents, and hirelings.
Family members are the owners of the company. They work from the headquarters and oversee the administrative operations of the house. Often, they are sent to manage emporiums in distant cities.
Senior agents are trusted employees of the house and have the authority to conclude fairly large deals in the house’s name. Senior agents hold their positions for life and can even pass their station to their heirs.
Regular agents, like senior agents, are usually life-long employees. However, they are a little more expendable than senior agents. They have limited authority to make deals.
Hirelings are contractors, hired for a specific service. Typically, their relationships are short term. Naturally, competent hirelings will find more work in the future.
The Merchants’ Code
All mercantile houses follow a strict code of behavior, known as the Merchants’ Code. Anyone wishing to join a merchant house must accept all aspects of this code and abide by them or face immediate expulsion. The code varies from house to house, but in most cases, it conforms to the following principles.
- Recognize that by joining a merchant house, an agent forsakes citizenship in any city or membership in any tribe.
- An oath of allegiance to the merchant house.
- A promise to perform in the best interests of the merchant house in return for a salary.
- A promise to deal honestly with stronger, friend, and foe alike.
- A promise not to flaunt any wealth gained through employment with the house.
- A promise to uphold the laws of the city in which the agent is stationed, and to do nothing to bring down the wrath of the sorcerer-king or his agents upon the house.
- A promise to cooperate with other merchants to make life very expensive for any person who unjustly imprisons, blackmails, or otherwise harasses any merchant.
Many elven tribes enrich their lives as nomads by becoming merchants. In this instance, the tribe itself services as the headquarters, with the chief acting as a patriarch.
Elven tribes rarely have the resources to maintain bartering emporiums in cities like the major houses. Instead, they rent rundown buildings or erect semi-permanent stalls on the outskirts of the trading quarters. These elven markets tend to be somewhat disreputable. It’s here that banned goods, like spell components, can be found.
Elsewhere, elven tribes deal and bargain as they travel. Their caravans are notoriously light and fast. Many elves travel by foot, carrying their belongings in sacks slung over their shoulders. Cargo is transported on kanks, the only beasts capable of keeping pace with an elf if he or she breaks into a full run.
Major Trading Houses of Athas
The leading trade houses of each of the Tyr region’s cities are detailed in this section.
Base of Operations: Gulg
Matriarch: Andiama Inika (LN female human noble)
Considered small by some, Inika sees the benefit in remaining small and efficient. They deal in small, valuable cargoes, such as kola nuts, exotic feathers, spices, and gemstones. In some cases, such as kola nuts, pepper, and saffron, Inika controls the market, manipulating prices at will.
Typically, Inaka caravans are small and fast, rarely incorporating mekillot-drawn wagons. Inika maintains very few permanent installations, preferring to temporarily rent or lease space in villages, forts, or cities. They do not require a large standing force.
Inika stays out of trouble. They are very cautious about obeying the laws of other cities, maintaining goodwill with the sorcerer-kings. When they do feel the pressure from the sorcerer-kings, such as increased duties or harassment from templars, Inika quietly withdraws from cities rather than create conflict.
When dealing with the other houses and the sorcerer-kings, Inika prefers the nonconfrontational approach. They rarely employ large numbers of mercenaries, preferring the services of small elite groups of raiders to harry their enemies or agents to gather information. Even during times of rivalry, Inika remains cordial. They even have a good relationship with the oba, sorcerer-queen of Gulg.
Recommended NPCs: Guard, veteran, scout, spy (Monsters Manual); archer, martial arts adept (Volo’s Guide to Monsters).
Assess the Situation. As long as this creature isn’t surprised, it has a +2 bonus to initiative checks.
Duck and Cover (1/Day). When this creature is targeted by a ranged attack, it can use its reaction to move up to half its movement speed or drop prone in its space.
Quick Escape (1/Day). On the first round of combat, as long as this creature is not surprised, it can use its bonus action to take the Dash or Hide actions.
Base of Operations: Raam
Patriarch: Truvo M’ke (N male human noble)
The mysterious M’ke operates in the anarchic city of Raam. Other trading houses have urged the house to work with the rebels to overthrow Raam’s Great Vizier, but so far nothing has come of this. Their reputation suffers because of this.
M’ke’s greatest assets are its hidden wealth. Fat caches of goods are rumored scattered throughout the Tyr region, a hedge against future reverses.
Unfortunately, the issues in Raam drain the majority of M’ke’s operational capital. Diverting funds towards defending their headquarters and warehouses in Raam, M’ke cannot maintain as many caravan and outposts as they once had.
Another of M’ke’s strengths is its ability to barter. They are also masters of diplomacy and intrigue. They employ high numbers of rogues and psions, although, the mortality rate is somewhat high among M’ke’s employees. But they do pay well.
During gentler times, M’ke’s trade practices are flexible and unpredictable, varying with each situation. Powerful rivals gain the respect of the M’ke, whereas weak houses are looked down on. With lesser competitors, M’ke can be downright vicious. House M’ke treats sorcerer kings with great respect, even going so far as to maintain strict neutrality while the rest of Raam’s populace calls for the Great Vizier’s overthrow.
Recommended NPCs: Bandit, bandit captain, scout, spy. (Monsters Manual); master thief (Volo’s Guide to Monsters).
Innate Spellcasting (Psionics) (1/Day). This creature can innately cast the sanctuary spell (spell save DC 13), requiring no components. Its spellcasting ability is Wisdom.
Negotiator. This creature has advantage on Charisma (Persuasion) checks made to barter.
Sneak Attack (1/Turn). This creature deals an extra 3 (1d6) damage when it hits a target with a weapon attack and has advantage on the attack roll, or when the target is within 5 feet of an ally of the creature that isn’t incapacitated and the creature doesn’t have disadvantage on the attack roll. If this creature already has this feature, the features do not stack; instead it uses whichever of the two deals the most damage.
Base of Operations: Nibenay
Patriarch: Giovvo Shom (LN male human noble)
Shom is an old and corrupt house from Nibenay. They embrace the decadent culture of their home city-state. While wealthy, much of Shom’s assets lack liquidity. Everything is tied up in massive mansions and extravagant art treasures.
Their chief exports are obsidian, rice, water, and wood from the Crescent Forest. Over the years, many of their important trade routes have withered, pushing them out of spice and gold trades to the south. Once roving far and wide across the Tyr region, Shom has only 20 caravans. More than any house, Shom depends on agents and hirelings for its survival as the Shome family lives in opulence allowing its operations to atrophy from neglect.
Arrogant and wealthy, Shom generally does not acknowledge that any other merchant houses even exist. And their attitude towards the sorcerer-kings is only marginally better. Thus, Shom is not a popular house among their peers. They are an active target of raids, especially by the militaristic House Stel. Naturally, this causes further decay of Shom’s assets as they require more and more help to protect the few assets they continue to cling onto.
Recommended NPCs: guard, noble, priest, thri-kreen, thug, veteran (Monsters Manual).
Drunk Luck (1/Day). Immediately before this creature makes an ability check, an attack roll, or saving throw with disadvantage, it can use its bonus action to cancel the disadvantage for that roll.
Intense Paranoia. This creature has advantage on Wisdom (Insight) checks.
Overpaid (1/Day). If this creature is targeted by a spell or effect that would cause it to be frightened as the result of a failed saving throw, it can use its reaction to make its saving throw with advantage.
Base of Operations: Urik
Patriarch: Hargan Stel III (LN male human champion)
By far the most aggressive of the mercantile houses, Stel embodies the militaristic culture of its home, Urik. Stel specializes in the spoils of war: slaves, stolen cargo, weapons, and on occasion, ransomed hostages (despite that this goes against the Merchants’ Code).
Stel’s major caravan routes are from Urik to Raam and Draj. They also jealousy guard the only major routes from Makla to Ogo. House Stel organizes by military lines, with the patriarch Hargan acting as its “general.” Moreso than any other house, Stel’s caravans are slow and heavy and heavily guarded. Stel’s outposts, trade villages, and even the house headquarters in Urik are built like fortresses.
Employment opportunities with Stel exist for those with military or combat skills. They also accept mages with offensive spells, fire clerics, and warriors of all sorts. And there is always a need for more guards, mercenaries, and spies. They are quick to promote agents that prove themselves.
Stel’s hostile nature has earned itself more than a few enemies among their merchants. House Tsalaxa has long held animosity towards Stel. Wavir remains neutral with Stel, the two powerful house realizing the danger they pose each other. When dealing with elven houses and small traders, Stel is downright murderous.
Interestingly, Stel maintains good relations with the sorcerer-kings, particularly those of Urik, Raam, and Draj.
Recommended NPCs: guard, knight, thug, veteran (Monsters Manual); archer, champion (Volo’s Guide to Monsters).
Martial Advantage (1/Turn). This creature can deal an extra 7 (2d6) damage to another creature it hits with a weapon attack if the target is within 5 feet of an ally of this creature that isn’t incapacitated.
Riposte (1/Day). As a reaction when an attacker misses this creature with a weapon attack, it can make a melee weapon attack against the attacker. If it hits, it deals an extra 1d8 damage.
Second Wind (1/Day). As a bonus action, this creature can regain 1d10 + 5 hit points.
Base of Operations: Draj
Patriarch: Y’dris Tsalaxa (NE male human noble)
Tsalaxa leads all other houses in espionage and intrigue in order to secure its valuable trading contracts. They are ruthless and feared for their methods.
Staged in Draj, Tsalaxa dominates the hemp and grain markets. This allows them riskier ventures such as artwork, ornate weapons, and slaves. They also dabble in contraband.
Tsalaxa maintains outposts in all the major cities of the Tyr region and administers several villages along its major trade routes. Like the elves, their caravans are small and swift with few wagons. Their outposts and fortresses, while simple in design, are deceptively well-defended thanks to enchantments, snipers, and other dangers.
Tsalaxa is always on the lookout for caravan guards and individuals with skills as spies or assassins. Unfortunately, once the house’s secrets are learned, it’s difficult to leave the house; without finding oneself face down in the sand along the trade route, that is. Because of their unethical conduct, Tsalaxa cares little about whom they hire–defilers, assassins, raiding tribes, gith, anakore–it’s all the same to them.
The attitude of Tsalaxa is a simple one: the fit survive, the rest die. The house specializes in undercutting rivals on prices in order to push competition out of the market. Then, once eliminated, the customer is at their mercy. They maintain cordial relationships with the sorcerer-kings, knowing that their good-will is necessary for continued success. Most houses are seen as obstacles to Tsalaxa’s total domination of the Tyr region. They eliminate smaller foes quick and out in the open, and rely on stealthier subterfuge against bigger competitors.
Recommended NPCs: assassin, bandit captain, bandit, berserker, thug, tribal warrior. (Monsters Manual); master thief (Volo’s Guide to Monsters).
Coup de Grace (1/Day). When this creature reduces another creature to 0 hit points with a melee weapon attack, this creature can use its bonus action to make a single melee weapon attack against the other creature. If this creature’s attack hits, the other creature must succeed on a DC 13 Constitution saving throw or it dies immediately.
Master of Tactics (1/Day). When an ally of this creature targets another creature with an attack roll, this creature can use its reaction to grant advantage to its ally’s attack roll. The target of the attack must be within 30 feet of this creature and must be able to see or hear this creature.
Ruthless (1/Turn). If this creature has advantage on its attack roll, it deals an extra 7 (3d6) damage on a hit. The creature cannot benefit from Sneak Attack and Ruthless on the same attack.
Base of Operations: Tyr
Patriarch: Thaxos Vordon (LE male human noble)
Once the most feared and respected of the great houses, Vordan has become something of a laughingstock. Vordon played a big hand in helping the sorcerer-king Kalak build his ziggurat in Tyr which nearly bankrupted the city. Fortunately, Kalak is now gone, and Vordon is poised to return to its prominence once more.
Naturally, Vordon specializes in the iron trade, Tyr’s greatest asset. Since Kalak’s downfall, Vordon has used its regain resources to quietly build its secret army. Hiding away mercenaries and soldiers in dummy houses and fortresses through the region, Thaxos is waiting for the right time to strike. Vordon hopes to overthrow Tithian of Tyr and the other Templars so he can achieve his destiny–that of king.
Recommended NPCs: gladiator, guard, knight, spy, veteran (Monsters Manual); archer (Volo’s Guide to Monsters).
Iron Defiance (1/Day). When this creature has half its hit points or less and is targeted by a spell or effect that requires it to make a Wisdom saving throw, it can use its reaction to make the saving throw with advantage.
Iron Phalanx. This creature has advantage on attack rolls and Dexterity saving throws while standing within 5 feet of a Vordon ally wielding a shield.
Iron Will (1/Day). This creature can use its bonus action to end one effect on itself causing it to be charmed or frightened.
Base of Operations: Balic
Patriarch: Tabaros Wavir (NG male human noble)
Under the leadership of Tabaros, House Wavir has risen far above its humble beginnings to become one of the most powerful and influential merchant houses in the Tyr region. They control vast trade routes, dominating shipment and sale of grain, ceramics, and precious metals.
Some consider their business practices ruthless, but they always follow the Merchant’s Code. The newer house understands that only good luck and vigilant business practices have brought it this far.
Many of Wavir’s practices are seen as repugnant by their fellow houses. They allow villagers in dire straights to buy supplies and food on credit with the promises of future concessions or in exchange for lodging or professional assistance. The house abhors slavery. Some of Wavir’s enemies even believe that Wavir fosters and supports slave revolts, a contravention of the Merchant’s Code.
A mighty house, Wavir runs 40 to 50 caravans at any given time. They maintain holdings in every major city of the Tyr region, as well as outposts and villages along its routes. The house offers generous incentives to persuade agents and freelance adventurers to join the household.
The house maintains good relations with sorcerer-kings. And their reputation for swift and overwhelming response to treachery or attack keeps most others friendly toward Wavir, at least on the surface. House Tsalaxa is Wavir’s greatest enemy. The two have met in open battle on several occasions.
Recommended NPCs: gladiator, guard, mage, priest, scout, spy, veteran (Monsters Manual).
Insightful. This creature has advantage on all contests that require it to make Wisdom (Insight) checks.
Mage Slayer (1/Day). When another creature within 5 feet of this creature casts a spell, this creature can use its reaction to make a melee weapon attack against that creature.
Unwavering Loyalty (1/Day). This creature can use its bonus action to take the Help action.
Minor Trading Houses of Athas
While the dynamic merchant houses of the city-states dominate trade across Athas, the world is also home to a multitude of smaller trading houses. These tiny, often one-caravan operations continually totter between solvency and bankruptcy.
Any character-owned trading company begins its life as one of these small houses. Not only do these houses have to deal with the large houses, but they face aggression from other small companies.
Listed below are some of the other small houses that the characters are likely to encounter.
Based in the village of Walis, Ardian wields influence well out of proportion to its size. This is thanks to its grip on teh vital gold traffic coming from Walis.
The Dedys Consortium
An alliance of three small houses (Terg, Voyan, and Shakktur) operates out of the city-state of Traj. They survive because of their cunning nature, and the generous assistance it receives from Tsalaxa’s (many) enemies, particularly Wavir of Balic.
Operating out of the slave village of Salt View, Fyra is made up exclusively of escaped slaves and criminals. The house is run democratically, with a leader chosen once every two years. Unfortunately, this leads to constant power struggles within the small house. Unsurprisingly, Fyra specializes in the salt trade.
Ianto was close to becoming a major house before Tyr’s economic crisis. Now, they are climbing back up from their losses and reclaiming their share of the iron trade.
Somehow Klethira continues to operate out of Urik, despite its bad relations with the Urikian powerhouse, Stel. The imploding house has been considering relocating to Raam or Balic.
Somewhat something of an extended nomad tribe, Lamnos is best known for not being known. The house keeps its patriarch, Airos, hidden as he travels from caravan to caravan. Only members of the Lamnos family know his exact location. Even identifying the caravans is difficult as the house has no symbol, as it operates under a wide variety of banners, sometimes even those of major dynastic houses.
The Renythi League
This coalition of a dozen houses ranging form moderate-sized to single-caravan operations are lumped together in a loose alliance. Spread throughout the region, the league has come to gain a fair amount of influence, especially with the decline of Shom and Vordon. However, its chaotic structure obstructs it from gaining more power.
So far gone that it no longer maintains a headquarters in a major city, House Sysra is confined to a single tiny outpost deep in the wilderness of the Great Aluvial Sand Wastes. It is supported only by a handful of pack animals and a few loyal retainers.
Elven Merchant Houses
The elven merchants of Athas live a precious existence. They must evade the sorcerer-kings’ templars while simultaneously foiling the schemes of established merchant houses and competing elven tribes. Nearly all elven tribes are nomadic, moving from city to city, setting up ragtag elven markets on the edge of town.
Elven merchants fall into three broad categories. First, there are purely merchant elves, whose primary source of income is trade. Next, there are the groups that engage in raiding, herding, hunting or trade as it pleases. Finally, the third group specializes in intrigue, espionage, and (supposedly) murder for hire.
Chieftess: Jentil Steeljaw (NG female elf psion)
Clearwater traders are known for their skill at bargaining and appraisal; dealing with them takes every ounce of business savvy and guile possible. Like many elven traders, Clearwater elves are chaotic and independent, yet loyal to each other.
The Clearwater elves are comparatively trustworthy–for Athasian elves, that is. Although from time to time they’ve been known to sell shoddy merchandise or pass off magic items whose abilities vanish overnight, they generally reserve such conduct for those whom they feel deserve it–arrogant nobles, overly rich merchants, slavers, Templars, and other despicable types. They trade in ordinary items with rates that compare quite favorably to those of the human merchant houses. And they sell a wide variety of contraband. However, they are reluctant to sell black market items to those they don’t trust.
Recommended NPCs: bandit captain, bandit, druid, scout, spy (Monsters Manual); master thief (Volo’s Guide to Monsters).
Innate Spellcasting (1/Day). This creature can cast detect magic, requiring no components. Its innate spellcasting ability is Wisdom.
Negotiator. This creature has advantage on Charisma (Persuasion) checks made to barter.
Vengeful Strike (1/Day). When an ally within 30 feet of this creature is hit by an attack, this creature can use its reaction to move up to half its movement speed and make a single attack against the attacker. This creature must be able to see or hear its ally.
Chief: Targaz (NG elf tribal warrior)
Few things in the desert are more terrifying than a Swiftwing raid. Swiftwings are fast, cunning, and deadly. when not raiding or fighting other tribes, they find time to trade. They are a great source of forbidden goods such as books, spell components, writing supplies, magic items, and so on.
The Swiftwing tribe is led by a chief and council of advisors known as the “Learned Ones.” These individuals are all elves of great skill and accomplishment.
Swiftings have a poor grasp of the “trade for profit” concept, although they are improving. Regardless, potential customers can expect the Swiftwing to be hard bargainers despite their lack of expertise.
Recommended NPCs: berserker, druid, scout, tribal warrior (Monsters Manual).
Aggressive (1/Day). As a bonus action, this creature can move up to its speed toward a hostile creature that it can see.
Brave. This creature has advantage on saving throws against becoming frightened.
Stubborn (1/Day). When this creature fails a Wisdom saving throw, as a reaction, it can reroll its save. It must keep the new roll.
Chief: Darzus (CN male elf master thief)
The average Athasian knows very little of the mysterious elven tribe known as The Shadows. What is known of this group is that they are a vast, secretive tribe of elves, specializing in many covert and illegal activities including espionage, assassination, theft, extortion, etc. However, they are still very interested in trade. The Shadows are expert smugglers and traders of illegal objects and substances.
The Shadows appear, sometimes unexpectedly, to offer their services to anyone who can afford them. A vast and unthinkably old organization, the Shadows have survived this long by keeping their secrets safe from outsiders.
Recommended NPCs: assassin, bandit, bandit captain, scout, spy (Monsters Manual); master thief (Volo’s Guide to Monsters).
Poison Capsule (1/Day). As a reaction, when this creature is targeted by telepathy or other means that would read its thoughts, it can break open a poison capsule it keeps hidden in its mouth (DC 16 Intelligence (Investigation) check to discover its existence). Immediately, this creature’s Intelligence score becomes 1. It can’t cast spells, activate magic items, understand language, or communicate in any intelligible way. The creature can, however, identify its friends, follow them, and even protect them. This effect can be ended by a greater restoration, heal, or wish spell.
Smoke Bomb (1/Day). As a bonus action, this creature can throw a smoke bomb at a point it can see within 20 feet of it, creating a 20-foot radius sphere of smoke. The sphere spreads around corners and its area is heavil obscured. It lasts until the end of this creature’s next turn or until a wind of moderate or greater speed (at least 10 miles per hour) disperses it.
Spiritual Ward. If this creature dies, it is immune to speak with dead and other spells or magical effects that would allow the living to communicate with it.
Other Nonhuman Traders
Given the vital nature of trade to Athasians, virtually every race engages in mercantile activities.
Although objectionable to most other humanoids, these evil desert-dwellers enjoy trading in the most distasteful items. However, their lawful nature ensures that are reasonably honest in all dealings.
Dwarves, by nature, are industrious, skilled, and materialistic. Thus, they are natural merchants. Dwarves specialize in the trade of handicrafts, weapons, and armor. However, they hate bargaining. They never let an item go for less than they feel it is worth.
Giants do not enjoy trade but engage in it when necessary. Their limited intelligence makes them easy to cheat. They deal in livestock, foodstuffs, and even crude handicrafts. Seeing little value in human-style money, giants prefer barter.
Like many of the deep-desert elves, Gith prefer to make their living by raiding. While dangerous trade partners, they sometimes offer items of great value for bargain prices. Of course, the majority of their stock are the spoils of raids.
Half-giants deal in anything. As some are quite bright, even the most experienced trader may find that they drive a hard bargain. However, the half-giant’s variable alignment means that caution should be exercised.
Savage Athasian halflings are a great danger to travelers and adventurers. Outsiders can trade with halflings, however, particularly the halflings of such villages as Ogo, who are used to bartering with the merchants of Urik and Makla.
Surprisingly, the mantis warriors function quite efficiently as merchants. They carry their warrior ethic over into trade. For them, each trade is seen as a contest between hunter (buyer) and hunted (seller). A deal is considered done with both sides’ pride are satisfied.
Next: Starting a Trade House