As the World Burns
Development and progress in the known lands of Athas rely heavily on the presence of water and food. Most oases can support no more than a few hundred permanent residents, but in a handful of verdant areas or very large oases, bigger settlements can grow. Such is the case with the Seven Cities that still stand (the great city-states of Tyr, Balic, Draj, Gulg, Nibenay, Raam, and Urik), as well as others that have fallen into ruin. Reliable water supplies and wide tracts of arable land provide (or once provided) for a large population. Without water, life is a hardscrabble existence that requires moving from location to location in search of limited resources. Barbarity is all too common in the wastes; a stranger is likely to be an enemy willing to take what he or she needs at weapons edge.
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.
In the urban societies of Athas, knowledge – especially information about arcane magic – is tightly controlled. Those who rule know that truth and enlightenment make the governed less likely to accept the status quo. People who gain abilities that allow them to challenge or escape authority become threats to the stability of the system.
In most city states, the templars restrict reading and writing. Common citizens and slaves can be executed for being literate. Merchants can be educated enough to keep accounts, although most are fully literate and seldom face repercussions. Nobles, templars, and other servants of the sorcerer-kings are allowed the privilege of reading and writing without fear. Some nobles teach these skills to their most valuable retainers and slaves as well.
Outside the oppressive city-states, literacy is not constrained. Although few denizens of the wastes bother to learn to read and write, the ability is more common in the wilds than in urban areas. The skill becomes a problem only if one is caught and sold into slavery. Then, literacy is best kept secret.