Dragonmarks: Exotic Races in Eberron

The original Eberron Campaign Setting promises “If it exists in D&D, then it has a place in Eberron.” Over the years, one of the most common questions I’ve heard is “How do I use (insert unusual race) in Eberron?” How would people react to an Illumian in Sharn? Where would you put a Goliath? Recently I’ve been talking with Ruty Rutenberg of Eberron livestream Maze Arcana about tieflings and aasimars; over in Facebook’s Eberron Enthusiast group, someone was asking about playing an imp. In the weeks ahead I may look more closely at specific races and how I’d use them. But let’s start with a general discussion about introducing new races to the setting.

As a general rule, I prefer to avoid adding too many new races to the common tapestry of the world. In my mind, the streets of Fairhaven don’t look like a Mos Eisley cantina. I prefer to focus on fewer races but to make sure each one has a strong place. Warforged are defined by their role in the Last War and the chaos caused by their emancipation. Shifters are haunted by the Lycanthropic Purge and tensions with the Silver Flame. When we made dragonborn a common race in Fourth Edition, we did so by co-opting the existing story of lizardfolk in Q’barra, explaining that most humans couldn’t tell the difference between them. For the Eladrin we introduced the concept of the Feyspires, explaining that while the Eladrin were an ancient race they had always remained hidden in the shadows – until the current disaster that brought the Feyspires into the light. In this way, each race had a place in the world deep enough to generate story, without radically rewriting the setting. So that’s a starting point. If a new race exists as a true race – with a significant population and established culture – I want to think about how it fits in and the impact it should’ve had on history.

With that said, part of point of “If it exists in D&D, then it has a place in Eberron” is that there is plenty of room for unique entities. As a member of an unusual race, you could be…

  • A strange effect of the Mourning. You were once human, but you were caught in the Mourning and it transformed you.
  • A unique creation of Mordain the Fleshweaver, or one of the Daelkyr. Perhaps you escaped your creator, or perhaps you were released as part of an experiment.
  • A mutation caused due to your being conceived and born in a manifest zone/during a coterminous phase; your inhuman nature is a reflection of the influence of one or more of the planes. You could be unique, or this could be a mutation known to occur in this place at coterminous phases – so you could potentially encounter others of your kind.
  • A member of a hidden community. Your people could have a secret city in Xen’drik never seen by human eyes. You might come from a demiplane in Khyber that only touches on Eberron in a few places. You could even come from another plane, like the Eladrin; the Kenku could easily be from Lamannia or Thelanis, depending how you want to depict them. Or you could be hidden among a better known race, just as the dragonborn of Q’barra are confused with lizardfolk.
  • You might not be a member of a new race at all. If the player is primarily interested in the MECHANICS of the race as opposed to the story behind it, you have the power as DM to simply reskin that race as something else. In a 4E Eberron campaign, I played a character who was mechanically a Deva avenger with shaman subclass. However, my STORY was that I was a human peasant from Cyre who had become a host for the vengeful spirits of thousands of Cyrans who died in the Mourning. The Deva race is about having “memories of a thousand lives”; in my case, those were thousands of lives of the ghosts haunting me. The Shaman subclass gave me the ability to summon a spirit – one of my haunting spirits temporarily manifesting through me. The idea wasn’t that I was a trained warrior, but rather that the ghosts infused me with the powers of an avenger. The point being that I had all the abilities of a Deva, but we didn’t actually add a new race into the setting; we said that I was a human modified by magic.

All of this comes to the most critical question: WHY does the player want to be a member of this race? Roleplaying is collaborative storytelling, and as DM you are working with the player to create a story you’ll both enjoy. Rather than you deciding unilaterally how a race fits into the world, the critical first step is to identify the story the player is trying to create. Is the player only interested in the mechanics of the race, in which case reskinning is an option? Are they tied to the exact appearance of the race, or could you reimagine it to better fit the setting? Is it important to them to be part of a community of their own kind, or are they OK with the concept of being the only member of this species that exists in the world? Are there other elements that define the character they want to play?

For example, looking to the question “How would people feel about a tiefling in Sharn?” In my opinion, the people of Sharn would have very little reaction to a tiefling. Devils play a minor role in the world, so common folk would be more likely to consider the tiefling to be a shaved minotaur than touched by infernal power… and in Sharn in particular, the locals are used to seeing gargoyles, harpies, goblins, warforged, and even medusas. The guy with red skin and horns is exotic, sure, but I’m not going to get a mob together. But if the player specified that she wanted to be persecuted and feared – that the whole concept was that her infernal blood was a curse that made life difficulty for her – then I’d find a way to make it work. My first question would be if she was set on the general devil-horns appearance of the Tiefling, or if we might reskin it to have more of a rakshasa flavor, given that rakshasa are the most common fiends of Eberron; if so, it would be easy to play up the idea of stories of these rakshasa halfbreeds and persecution by the Church of the Silver Flame. If the devil-appearance was important, then I could easily run with it and say that people in this campaign are familiar with devils… because it’s an easy change for me to make to give the player the story she’s looking for, and I’m comfortable doing it. With that said, tieflings DO have a few defined roles in the setting, and I’ll talk about them in more detail in a future post… but you get the idea.

With that said, it’s also OK to conclude that a particular concept just doesn’t work in a campaign. Given that it’s collaborative storytelling, it’s OK for you to conclude that YOU aren’t happy with the direction the story would have to go… in which case hopefully you and the player can work together to come up with something that works for both of you. As I mentioned above, I was recently in a discussion with a DM putting together a shades-of-grey campaign set at Rekkenmark Academy, and one of the players wanted to be an imp dedicated to Dol Arrah. Through discussion, the idea was worked out that the character could be an imp-like entity tied to the Three Faces of War (since the player really wanted the ABILITIES of the imp, which were more in line with the Mockery than Dol Arrah) conjured to serve as a sort of spiritual mascot for the mortal characters. But ultimately, the player was deeply attached to the character being a pure embodiment of LAW and GOOD, and that character just didn’t belong in the noir environment the DM was creating with this Rekkenmark story; even if the DM allowed the player to use the character, the player wouldn’t get the EXPERIENCE they wanted… so ultimately, better to come up with an idea better suited to the campaign.

All of which is to say: you CAN find a place for any concept in Eberron, but that doesn’t always mean you should. Make sure that you understand the experience the player is looking for, and that the interpretation you’re using will actually provide that experience.

SUBRACES IN 5E

One point that’s come up in the comments discussion is how to incorporate the subraces of Fifth Edition into Eberron. Are Tairnadal High Elves or Wood Elves?

In my opinion, most subraces in 5E are designed for character optimization as opposed to story impact. If you’re going to play a wizard, you want to be a High Elf; if you’re going to be a ranger, play a Wood Elf. The system isn’t tied to any setting and there’s no built in reason that you HAVE to make Wood Elves and High Elves culturally distinct… so in my campaign, my answer is that all the common Elves of Eberron – Tairnadal, Aereni, Phiarlan, Thuranni – can be either Wood Elves or High Elves, as the player chooses. Essentially, subrace is a reflection of individual aptitude and specialization. WITHIN EBERRON, no one will ever use the terms “high elf” or “wood elf”; it’s simply a question of whether your Tairnadal elf is more attuned to arcane magic or to the wilds.

I’d take the same approach to most of the common subraces in the 5E handbook. A Mror Dwarf can be Hill or Mountain; a Talenta halfling can be Lightfoot or Stout. The only place where I’d separate subrace is where the subrace has a unique story, place in the world, or abilities that should have a notable cultural impact. So Wood/High Elves are simply personal aptitudes within the general “elf” race… while Drow and Eladrin are unique races/cultures with their own societies and stories. Mror dwarves can be Hill or Mountain, but Duergar are something else entirely.

As always, this is a personal choice. But to me it’s a case of most subraces serving the purpose of class specialization – and there being no compelling reason to force a player who wants to be a Valenar wizard (and there are many mighty wizards in Tairnadal legend) to be a wood elf when they’d rather have the mechanical benefits of the high elf.

In future posts I’ll talk about ways I might work particular unusual races into the setting. What races would you like to see me discuss? What unusual races have you used in your campaign?

Dragonmarks: The Evolving Artificer

The latest Unearthed Arcana presents a new version of the Artificer for 5E D&D.  Right from the start, there’s a few things to note.

  • This is a work in progress. They say at the outset that it’s a rough concept that hasn’t been refined or fully tested. They’re presenting it because they want feedback, not because they think it’s perfect.
  • This isn’t designed for Eberron. The word “Eberron” never comes up in the article or introduction. The existence of an artificer class is obviously useful for Eberron, but this isn’t specifically designed with Eberron in mind; it’s an artificer that could exist in any setting, and that thus works with the general “magic items are rare” assumption of 5E D&D.
  • I haven’t tried it out. I’m juggling a lot of projects right now, and I haven’t had a chance to review the class in depth.

Having said all of that, I’m not going to go into a detailed analysis of mechanics and balance. They aren’t claiming that it’s balanced; that’s the point of pushing it out into the world. What I’m concerned with is how it fits into Eberron and how it lines up with the original Eberron artificer.

THE GOOD

This is a big step forward from the last version of the artificer we saw in Unearthed Arcana, where it was a wizard subclass. We have a d8 hit die, light and medium armor proficiency, and proficiency with thieves tools… all things missing from the wizard and more in line with the original artificer. Just having it as a standalone class is important, because it allows for subclasses, unique spells, and similar features. I like the Tool Specialist and Magic Item Analysis features. So I like the foundation.

Wondrous Invention and Superior Attunement seem like a reasonable step at blending one of the core concepts of the artificer — being able to create magic items — with the low-magic foundation of 5E. You can’t make ANY item as a 3.5 Artificer could… but it still provides the artificer with the ability to say “Good thing I made these goggles of night!” I haven’t had time to review the item lists and really think about the impact on character balance, but it seems like a good start.

THE BAD

In Eberron, the artificer is presented as a magical engineer — someone who approaches magic in the same way a technician approaches technology. The artificer’s spells are all infusions, and all reflect the artificer’s ability to temporarily cobble together short-term magic items. This is most strongly represented by the infusions Armor Augmentation, Weapon Augmentation and Spell-Storing Item. The Augmentations allow the artificer to temporarily infuse weapon or armor with an enchantment — making your hammer Undead Bane when the vampire shows up, or adding some fire resistance to your armor when things get hot. Spell-Storing Item is the cornerstone of the artificer for me: it allows you to attempt to create a one-shot wand of almost any low-level spell, but with a chance of catastrophic failure. To me, this ties to the concept of the artificer as a magical hacker. The artificer doesn’t know the rituals and formulas a wizard uses to reliable create a fireball over and over. But she understands the principles of generating magical fire, and if you give her a moment she can put something together; just hope it doesn’t blow up in her face.

The critical point is that this emphasizes the idea of the artificer as someone who works with magic; again, spell-storing item is essentially about creating one-shot wands. One of the protagonists in my Dreaming Dark novels, Lei d’Cannith, is an artificer and I frequently represent her as weaving tapestries of magic to create her tools. She also makes regular use of spell-storing item and the augmentation spells.

By contrast, the foundation of the UA artificer is about magic… but the specialties are not. The alchemist specialty seems like it could be fun at low levels, and I love it as a way to represent a Zil alchemist. We’ve always said that the Zil were the masters of alchemy and that they manufacture alchemical weapons, and I love the concept of the gnome alchemist darting around and blowing things up. But that’s an alchemist, not an artificer. The focus here seems to be as much on science (chemistry) as on magic. Yes, the inexhaustible alchemist’s satchel is clearly magical, but the general effect is that the character is running around throwing flasks of acid and fire; it is more mundane than using spell-storing item to create a one-shot wand of fireball.

So: I like the alchemist, but it doesn’t feel like a classic artificer to me. On the other hand, for Eberron specifically, I have bigger issues with the gunsmith. Because the gunsmith is presented as USING A GUN: an alchemical device that explicitly fires lead bullets. I’ve never liked firearms in Eberron because I’ve always emphasized that people in Eberron solve their problems with magic instead of technology: make a wand of magic missiles or enchant a crossbow, don’t invent gunpowder. Next we have the obvious question: If this is a technological device, why is the artificer the only one who can use it? How is it that the Thunder Cannon becomes inert the moment the artificer hands it to a friend? If that’s the intent – that it is magical, and that’s why the artificer is the only one who can use it – then in my opinion, don’t make it a gun. Make it a literal boomstick, a staff that functions as a gun in the hands of the artificer, but which is clearly a magical tool. Or make it about elemental binding – it’s a rod with a fire elemental bound into it. In Eberron, I posited the existed of siege staffs instead of gunpowder artillery – essentially, magical staffs the size of tree trunks, enchanted for maximum range and area of effect. They serve the same FUNCTION as cannons, but they are tied to the existing wand/staff “technology” of the world, as opposed to introducing an entirely different paradigm.

Essentially, in Eberron the artificer is a magical engineer who manipulates magic as if it’s technology. Both of the UA specialties bring in a degree of mundane science – gunpowder or chemistry – that push them away from the vision of the artificer as the person who understands the principles of MAGIC. It becomes a blending of magic and ACTUAL technology, which is something I generally sought to avoid in Eberron. Warforged aren’t steam-powered; they are golems, operating on entirely magical principles.

WITH ALL THAT SAID: I still think that this is a very good start, and I can see that both these specialties work for the idea of the artificer-as-technological-tinker, which might be exactly what you want in most settings. And I think that in Eberron, many problems could be solved by adding additional infusions to the artificer spell and a specialty path that is specifically tied to Eberron. Spell-Storing Item was an infusion, not a class feature; it’s something that could easily be added to the artificer spell list in an Eberron sourcebook.

So overall, I’m happy with the article. It creates a general-purpose artificer that I can see fitting into a range of settings, and it’s a big step forward from the last version. It creates a foundation that could be adapted to Eberron. I think I’d have fun with an alchemist, at least at low levels. And as for the gunsmith, in MY campaign I’d shift the Thunder Cannon to be an entirely magical tool, but that doesn’t invalidate the concept… and I know there are many people who DO like gunpowder in their chocolate, who I’m sure will love it as is.

Update

On consideration, most of my issues are cosmetic. If you shift the appearance of the Gunsmith and Alchemist to a more magical interpretation, I’m happy to give them a try. Rather than having the Alchemist hurl flasks of oil, his “Alchemist’s satchel” could be a bandolier of components that he uses to assemble one-use charms and wands. The effects he can produce are identical, it’s just a different tone. Likewise, if the Thunder Cannon is a mystical tool – perhaps a weird variant of wand and staff that’s the size and weight of a log – I’m happy with the “Wandsmith.”

There’s still things I’d change. I’m not thrilled about every artificer having a construct companion, and I’m REALLY not thrilled about that companion being a Large creature; I might have a construct owl, but I don’t want to be followed around by something the size of a horse. I like the idea that the Mechanical Servant could be a path feature or swapped out for another Wondrous invention. I’d add a few new infusions for Eberron. But I’m certainly interested in playing around with it.

What are your thoughts on the latest UA Artificer?

Thelanis in Play: Curses

Last week I wrote about Thelanis and the Fey. This week I’m posting a few shorter pieces about how to use Thelanis in an Eberron campaign. Today’s topic: Curses!

Curses often figure prominently in Faerie stories. The search for a cure may be a driving force in a campaign, or the curse could simply be a burden a character has to bear, something that marks them as an extraordinary individual. Consider a few ways that a curse can work into a story.

  • Ancestral Guilt. A character could be born cursed due to the fault of an ancestor. In Sleeping Beauty the princess is cursed because her parents insult a faerie patron. In the Ulster Cycle Macha curses all the men of Ulster for the actions of their king.
  • Personal Backstory. A curse could be something a character has earned through their own misdeeds, while still being something that is part of a backstory as opposed to happening in play. Your rogue stole from the Tomb of the Forgotten King and the curse has haunted you ever since.
  • A Fey WrongedOne aspect of faerie stories is that power isn’t always consistent. A nymph might have the standard statistics provided by the Monster Manual – being a relatively minor spirit, not an archfey – and still have the power to curse someone who scorns her love. This is especially true if adventurers travel into Thelanis itself. The plane itself is a magical place, and the people who break its rules can suffer consequences.
  • The Price. A curse that afflicts a player character could be the consequence of a negotiated bargain: the character willingly accepts a curse in exchange for a service or goods. This could be part of a backstory – the price of a warlock’s Fey Pact – or it could be part of a campaign, where an archfey offers her assistance provided someone will give up their fame, their heart or their voice. More often than not, fey are more interested in intangible things than in material goods, and it’s part of the unnatural logic of Thelanis that the nymph can offer you something in exchange for your ability to love.

Choosing to have a player character cursed from the start of the game may seem like a strange decision, but it’s something that can give an adventurer immediate purpose: What do you need to do to lift this curse of poverty? The best curses don’t affect combat or prevent the character from being an effective adventurer; instead, they shape story, which is what Thelanis is about. Beyond this, a GM might choose to provide a corresponding benefit to a character who willingly takes on a curse. Perhaps the Forgotten King has cursed you with poverty… but you still have the mysterious key you took from his tomb, and some day you may find the door that it opens. Or perhaps your line has ties to two fey sisters; one has always favored you, while the other cursed you out of jealousy. You have to bear the curse, but your patron may come to you in your darkest times to offer advice or assistance.

The spell Bestow Curse gives examples of curses with concrete effects, and you can certainly have a wronged fey lay such a curse on an enemy. However, those curses are severe mechanical penalties and not something you’d casually take as a ongoing handicap. As I said above, the best fey curses don’t prevent a character from being effective at what they do: instead, they shape story. They are extremely meaningful to the individual, but not crippling. Consider the following…

  • Upcoming Doom. The character will sicken and die when they reach a certain age. Three generations of their ancestors have fallen prey to the curse, and they only have one year to find the answer.
  • Infamy. No one remembers any heroic deeds the character accomplishes. They will be held responsible for all of their misdeeds, but anything good they do will be attributed to someone else (quite possibly other members of the adventuring party).
  • Poverty. All gold, platinum, or gems the character touches disappears within one hour, transported away to fill the coffers of the wronged fey.
  • Loneliness. The character will never find love. The more they love someone, the less the target of their affection will feel for them.
  • Suspicion. A more severe take on Infamy, the character will by default be blamed when things go wrong. People can’t explain it – that character just seems like the kind of person who would be up to something.
  • Cloud of Misfortune. The character themselves doesn’t suffer, but bad things happen to the people they care about. This is primarily aimed at NPCs. If they start to frequent a tavern, it will burn down. Their horse breaks its leg. Their family farm suffers a bad harvest. They should always feel concerned about getting too attached to anyone… because what will happen if they do?

Looking to Infamy or Poverty, as described other PCs can mitigate the effects; the cursed character can’t touch gold, so someone else has to handle all transactions. It’s not the end of the world, as long as the other players aren’t jerks about it. But if the cursed character is a rogue who longs for personal wealth, it’s a curse to them. Likewise, shifted fame or lost love is only an issue if love and fame are things the character wants. They won’t stop you from saving a village from marauders; you’ll just have to heave a sigh when the grateful villagers heap their gratitude on everyone but you.

In any case, the usual purpose of having a curse is to drive the story in a direction: How can the curse be broken? Is it about righting a wrong committed by an ancestor? Earning the gratitude of the fey you angered? Simply finding a holy person whose power is great enough to override the will of the Fey? Or if it’s the price of your warlock pact, can you find a patron willing to grant you power on better terms?

As with many of the previous topics, the primary purpose of curses is to enhance a story. Yes, you defeated that evil dryad… but now you have to deal with her dying curse. Not all players will enjoy such things, but with the right group a curse can be a great way to explore how characters deal with adversity.

Share your thoughts, questions, and ideas below. And check out the previous posts on artifacts and manifest zones!

Thelanis in Play: Manifest Zones

Last week I wrote about Thelanis and the Fey. This week I’m posting a few shorter pieces about how to use Thelanis in an Eberron campaign. Today’s topic: Manifest zones!

Manifest zones are places where the walls between worlds are thin, where the influence of a plane can be felt on Eberron. A manifest zone could extend for miles, encompassing an entire forest or city… or it could be as small as a single well or a stone arch in the midst of a grove.

Every manifest zone influences its environs in a manner connected to its plane. However, two manifest zones tied to the same plane can have wildly different effects. By and large, Thelanian manifest zones tend to impart a sense of otherworldliness to their environs. Plants might be unnaturally healthy, colors especially vivid. This could be idyllic; hostile creatures might avoid the tranquil grove and its always-pure fountain. But it could just as easily be unnaturally menacing. You’re safe in Taiden Wood as long as you stay on the path… but those who venture off the path are rarely seen again.

Overall, Thelanian zones tend to fall into one of three categories.

Gateways. There are many tales of heroes or adventurers who accidentally find themselves in the Faerie Court, certainly more so than any other plane. This is due to the fact that many Thelanian zones serve as portals between the worlds. These are rarely constantly active. Instead, they are triggered under certain circumstances: a particular confluence of moons; a hunter pursuing a particular beast; someone newly in love, or someone whose heart has just been broken. Needless to say, these circumstances can be whatever you want them to be… as long as this justifies the fact that people aren’t using the portal every day. For purposes of an adventure, this is an easy way to take players to Thelanis. It can happen accidentally; they happen to hit the right circumstances to activate the gate and are suddenly in Thelanis. It may take a while for them to realize this, if the local environs are similar on both sides. More important, the gate may not work both ways – so one of the biggest challenges may be finding a way back! Alternately, the adventurers might know about the gateway and have to figure out how to activate it – whether to escape an unbeatable foe, to find someone who has been lost in Thelanis, or to reach an artifact or ally in the Faerie Court.

Beachheads. Sometimes a manifest zone actually brings a piece of Thelanis directly into the material plane. This is the case with the Feyspires introduced in the fourth edition of D&D (and featured in The Fading Dream), and is the general concept of the Twilight Demesne in the Eldeen Reaches. Like the gateways, these are typically temporary. Coterminous periods, phases of the moon, or special circumstances might trigger a beachhead. It could be that the locals know about it and that the arrival of the beachhead is a celebrated and anticipated event… whether by the community as a whole or by a small sect, such as a group of Greensingers who celebrate with the Fey on nights when three moons are full. Or the beachhead may be a cause of alarm – such as Taer Syraen in Karrnath, where the local warlord is concerned that the Feyspire is an invading force. The Feyspires are full cities, but a beachhead could be anything. Perhaps an archfey’s tomb appears once each century, providing a rare chance to delve into this dungeon. Or a monster appears and haunts the region for one night a month; will you track it down before it disappears again?

Influence. The most common manifest zones simply bring some of the flavor of Thelanis to the region without offering a direct connection. As described above, this influence could be seen in the environment. You can’t actually go to Thelanis, but you might find a dryad in the woods, or a talking wolf that embodies your fears. Such influence can also be intangible. Perhaps if you make a promise in the grove it must be kept, or if you bury your sword and the hair of a murderer by the blood-red tree it will become a bane blade for purposes of taking vengeance.

The critical point is that Thelanis is the place where the world works like a faerie story – and that the manifest zone can bring a touch of that into the real world. You can have magic that doesn’t strictly follow the rules, like the unbreakable vow… or simply something unexpected, like the dryads in the trees.

Putting all of this together, here’s a few ideas for Thelanian manifest zones.

  • Taiden Woods. People have always shunned this dark forest. In the past a few local lords have sought to cut it down, but none have succeeded. Some say the trees won’t burn, and that they bleed when cut. All that is none for certain is that there is a path that runs through it, and those who stay on the path are safe… but those who leave it are often never seen again. Walking the Taiden path you may hear lovely voices calling to you, or beautiful music. But if you value your life and those you love, never leave the path. Taiden Wood shows the influence of Thelanis, but the last few sentences suggest the idea of a gateway. It doesn’t always happen, but if you hear the music and follow it you will find yourself in Thelanis – and this is why many of those who leave the path truly never return. Beyond this, the wood is home to a few dryads that don’t like people, some enhanced predators, and a few other lesser fey. 
  • The Tomb of the Forgotten King. In the Mror Holds, the old miners tell a story of the Tomb of the Forgotten King. It varies from telling to telling, but core details remain the same. It cannot be found by those who seek it out; instead, it is found when a traveler seeks shelter in a cave and discovers deeper passages. Following these tunnels, they find themselves in a ancient tomb. Jewels are embedded in the walls. Coins are heaped on tables, spilling onto the floor. In some versions of the story, there are guardians patrolling the tomb, spirits of stone and metal. In others there are deadly traps. But one detail remains the same throughout all the tales: treasures taken from the tomb always bring misfortune, curses that linger until the thief finds the tomb again and returns what they have stolen… or until the robber dies. In one story the explorer finds the casket of the king himself, and from it takes the Final Blade, whose wounds cannot be healed. He uses it to settle a feud with a rival clan… only to die when he stumbles and cuts his own wrist with the blade. His daughter returned the blade to the tomb, and it has never been seen again. Here we have a beachhead – a piece of Thelanis that comes and goes. It’s also a dwarven tale, so the fey in this tomb will be spirits of stone and steel. Adventurers could stumble upon this by accident, only to have a dwarven PC recognize it from the tales. Will they seek out the Final Blade? 
  • The Grove of Promises. There is a fountain in a nearby forest. No one knows who built it, but its water is clear and pure and it has never run dry. Local stories say that if you make a promise to someone and then share a drink from the fountain that you must keep your word – that if you are false, you will sicken and die. The people of the town perform marriages in the Grove. Young lovers sneak away to pledge their hearts. There are even merchants who like to seal their deals in the Grove. The people of the town never break a promise sworn in the Grove… will you? This is an example of influence. Breaking a vow made on the fountain will afflict the liar with a disease; it can be survived, but it won’t be pleasant. It’s possible that there is actually a fey tied to the fountain who judges such things and can make the punishment more or less severe; and during a coterminous phase, that fey might even be able to manifest and leave the fountain. 

Post your thoughts or questions below!

Thelanis in Play: Artifacts

Last week I wrote about the Faerie Court of Thelanis and the fey. While it’s interesting in principle, that Q&A doesn’t get into the practical applications of how to directly incorporate either fey or Thelanis into a typical Eberron campaign. It’s a big topic, so rather than piling it all into one big post I’m going to split it up into a number of small posts spread throughout the week. Over the next few days I’m going to explore the impact of artifacts, fey patrons, curses, manifest zones, and a final round up of questions. Let’s start with the first approach: Artifacts

Eberron is a world where magic is treated as a science, where there is a certain degree of gritty realism laid over the fantasy. It often breaks the mold of classic fantasy. So how does this mesh with Thelanis, a plane that essentially embodies the faerie tale? To begin with, understand that Thelanis is its own world. In his essay about fairy stories, J.R.R. Tolkien notes that if fey creatures “really exist independently of our tales about them, then this also is certainly true: elves are not primarily concerned with us, nor we with them. Our fates are sundered, and our paths seldom meet. Even upon the borders of Faërie we encounter them only at some chance crossing of the ways.” Unlike the quori, the inhabitants of Thelanis as a whole have no interest in Eberron. Individual fey may have a story that drives them to interact with mortals, or seek amusement abroad. But by and large interactions are incidental. And yet, this lack of a single massive driving plot actually allows Thelanis to touch a wide array of stories, precisely because its inhabitants aren’t as united as the quori.

To start with, let’s consider a way that Thelanis can influence a story without the appearance of a single fey creature: artifacts. Khorvaire is a place of industrialized magic, a place where things make sense. Thelanis is a realm of storybook magic, and it often defies logic. Things from this world – from the greatest treasures to seemingly trivial things – can have remarkable qualities. The catch is that these things often come with twists… frequently things that don’t quite follow the rules people are used to dealing with when it comes to magic items. Consider the following…

  • The Mithral Falcon. This statue has no obvious powers other than its exceptional beauty… but it can amplify greed and desire, causing powerful people to shed blood to obtain it. The player characters may not want the Falcon, but it could be a  catalyst for mayhem around them as rival ganglords fight over the Falcon in the streets of Sharn. Or perhaps an Aurum concordian will hire the PCs to “acquire” the Falcon from a rival.
  • Tascara’s Eye. If you activate the power of this crystal orb, it will show you glimpses of the past, present, or future.  Most of the time the Eye shows things you want to know – warnings about threats, answers to mysteries that have been troubling you. But there is no way to control it what is shown, and sometimes it shows you things you didn’t want to know… or visions that if misinterpreted could lead you to disaster. Will you use its power and take that risk, or leave it alone?
  • Stone of Rebirth. After slaying a long-time foe, the PCs are surprised when she returns unharmed. This is because she possesses the Stone of Rebirth, an artifact that works much like a lich’s phylactery. Once someone has formed a bond to the stone, nothing can prevent them from being resurrected by it after death. The heroes must learn of the stone, figure out where it is being kept and how to sever the villain’s bond. But then what do they do with it? Does one of them want to use it? If so, will they discover that there is a price that must be paid for this eternal life? Perhaps the stone kills someone close to the bearer as a price for rebirth, or perhaps each new life comes with a curse. If they don’t want to use the stone themselves, how will they deal with the many powerful people in the world who covet it?
  • The Final Blade. The wounds inflicted by this weapon cannot be healed by any method. Those that are killed by it cannot be resurrected; it may even be that it can permanently kill immortals. But every time it takes a life, this sword strikes a blow against its wielder… and this wound can never be healed. Who will wield the Final Blade?
  • The Keepsake. This locket provides +1 bonus to AC and Saving Throws. It contains the images of two Eladrin, lovers from an ancient story. Each time the bearer levels up, the power of the amulet increases… but the bearer changes slightly. A skill proficiency shifts. A background benefit changes. Hair color shifts. The character remembers something that’s not their memory… but it’s a memory that can lead the party to adventure and treasure. With each advance, the character changes further. They are gaining power and information that leads to a grand adventure, but they are becoming one of the characters in the ancient story. Will they accept this fate? If not, it it possible to undo the changes that have already occurred? And what will it take to remove the amulet?

The general concept of Thelanian artifacts is that they come with a price… or that they draw characters into their story. The Mithral Falcon creates a story of betrayal and greed.The Keepsake literally draws its wearer into the story. Tascara’s Eye gives information… and in so doing, shapes the path the PCs will take. Once they know their employer is betraying them, can they continue working for him?

Thelanian artifacts can be acquired by dealing with the Fey, but they can also be found in hoards, collections, or the hands of powerful people. Perhaps the Daughters of Sora Kell give Tascara’s Eye to the leader of the Daask cell in Sharn… but was Sora Teraza intending for it to fall into the PC’s hands from the very beginning?

Next up: Manifest Zones!

Dragonmarks: Thelanis and the Fey

It’s been a busy few months for me, between IllimatPhoenix, and other projects I can’t discuss at the moment. There’s still no news about Eberron development for 5E, and that limits what I can do here. However, in 2017 I will be launching a Patreon to support more extensive gaming-related content on the site. For now, here’s the long-promised Q&A about the Fey of Eberron. 

What if every story you were told as a child is true? The Sleeping Princess, the Maze of Thorns, the lurkers who wait in the shadows to steal sleeping children. What if all of these things are real, poised just beyond the curtain of the material plane?

This is the case in the Eberron Campaign Setting. The material plane is a blending of substance and ideals. The outer planes are purified ideas, realms that embody particular concepts. Shavarath is the eternal battleground; this conflict began at the dawn of time, and it will continue until the end of creation. Shavarath embodies war. Dolurrh is a place of death. Kythri is chaos and change, while Daanvi is order and stability. Fernia is fire and Risia is ice. But what exactly is Thelanis? Lamannia is the plane of Nature… But Thelanis is home to dryads and similar spirits. What does this mean?

Personally, I focus on Lamannia as a place of primal nature: iconic entities and elemental forms. While the Greensingers would take issue with this, in my opinion the Fey of Thelanis aren’t part of nature… not even the dryad. The Fey are the magic we wish was in the world. The dryad is the spirit we want the tree to have, when we see a slender willow and think of it as a beautiful woman. But there’s nothing natural about a tree having a spirit that resembles a human woman; it’s something magical, a story we want to believe. For me, this is what Thelanis is. The realm of stories. The realm of the magic we want in the world. The Fey reflect hopes, fears, secrets and desires both conscious and unconscious.

But if Thelanis is the realm of stories, how is it different from Dal Quor, the region of dreams? Stories are concrete. They may evolve over time, but a story can hold its general shape for centuries. Stories can hold lessons and morals that ring true across cultures and generations. By contrast, dreams are intensely temporary and personal. Dreams aren’t passed down; they are created anew every night. The quori (the primary spirits of Dal Quor) don’t embody specific dreams; rather, they embody the emotions and forces that shape our dreams, and they themselves have the power to manipulate the content of dreams. By contrast, the immortal Fey are the subjects of stories. This raises the chicken-and-egg question: A powerful Fey resembles the subject of a well-known story. Does the story exist because the Fey exists and has passed her story into the collective unconscious of Eberron? Or has the Fey herself been shaped and ultimately created because of a story mortals began telling on her own? Can a Fey actively change her own story… or could mortals actively change her by purposefully changing the way a particular story is told? There’s no clear answer to this question, and it’s not easily proven either way. You can be certain that it is a subject of debate in the ivory towers of Eberron itself, and in my Eberron novels (notably The Fading Dream) you can see some of the inhabitants of Eberron and Thelanis wrestling with this issue. And looking back to Dal Quor, the Feyspire of Shae Doresh was essentially the bridge between Thelanis and Dal Quor, and may have been a physical reflection of that tie between stories and dreams.

The Geography of Thelanis

It’s easy to think of the planes as being essentially alien worlds. The Feyspires are like cities, so you must be able to walk from city to city, right? This is a dangerous mistake. Thelanis isn’t a planet; it’s a plane. It is potentially infinite in size… and at the same time, it doesn’t follow the physical laws of our reality. The Woodsman lives in a forest beneath the Deepwood Moon, and there is no end to that forest; it is a closed pocket of space, and if you start walking west you’ll eventually find yourself back where you began. If you’re trying to reach the Silver Tree or the domain of the Queen of Dusk, you can’t just get on a horse and ride there; you have to find a path. Inhabitants of Thelanis have gates they can open or slip through, but as a mortal you generally have to follow a story – taking actions that either complete the story of the realm you’re in, or that draw you to a different place.

What does this mean for DMs and players? Thelanis isn’t a mundane world. Every piece of it exists in isolation and is tied around one or more stories. It’s essentially made for adventure. When players go there, it’s up to you to decide what the local story is, and what they need to do to move through it. The realm of the Prince of Frost is forever shrouded in ice and night, while the Queen of Sand lives in a desert where the sun never sets. While each realm has a core story, bear in mind that it’s not the ONLY story that can play out there. In my novel The Gates of Night, the heroes need to deal with the Woodsman to leave the Deepwood Moon; but while in the realm they also have to deal with trouble at the Inn of the Crooked Tree and with the questioning serpent. Essentially, each realm has a ruling entity whose story defines and shapes the region – but many other beings inhabit each region, bringing their own stories with them. Which brings us to the next point…

The Fey

So who are the Fey? What do they want?

First of all, I draw a sharp distinction between “fey creatures” – which I define as “mortal creatures from Thelanis” – and capital-F Fey, by which I mean immortal spirits of Thelanis. Depending on edition, gnomes, elves, and eladrin all have the fey subtype. You can find both gnomes and eladrin in Thelanis, and they make up the bulk of the population of the Feyspires. These mortal creatures aren’t substantially different from their cousins on Eberron; they are the courtiers and serfs of Thelanis. An eladrin knight serving in the feyspire of Shaelas Tiraleth isn’t THAT different from a paladin of the Undying Court; both are proud and long-lived warriors who fight on behalf of immortal rulers. That knight is one of dozens of knights, and he isn’t personally embodying some ancient story. His attitudes are shaped by growing up in Thelanis, and his customs will feel strange to people of Khorvaire, but not THAT strange. And he can grow old, have children, sicken, and eventually die.

Next we have the lesser true fey: immortal spirits, but with relatively limited power and dominion. Dryads, sprites, and similar creatures fall into this category. Such creatures are essentially immortal. They cannot die by natural means, and their numbers always remain static; when one of them dies a new one will eventually manifest to take its place. Most of these beings have a fundamentally different relationship with time than the mortals of Eberron; they escape immortal ennui by living purely in the moment, giving almost no thought to past or future. A sprite could be thousands of years old, but she might not be able to recall something that happened a week ago, because time has essentially just passed through her. The sprite is almost like a flower; it’s a part of the color of Thelanis, but it cannot learn or change; it simply IS. If they harm you, it’s generally with a sort of innocent, childlike malice; poke the rose and the thorn will prick you. By tomorrow they won’t even remember it.

So you can think of these least immortals as “background fey” – they essentially exist as set dressing for stories, and they don’t hold on to many personal details (or feel any loss at this). However, it’s possible that one of these chorus members can get promoted to have a story of their own. In The Gates of Night we encounter two dryads who DO have stories and strong individual identities: Lady Darkheart and the Crooked Tree. As they become part of a story they develop more individual identity and can have goals and desires. But even here, their personalities are only as deep as their story requires. They may be defined by an event that happened centuries ago, and still hold to that tragic romance or bitter vendetta as if there was nothing else in the world. They don’t change in the way mortals do; they can’t simply forgive a slight, unless that in itself fits the shape of their story.

But when I talk about “The Fey”, I’m usually talking about the people at the top of the food chain: what mechanically would be called Archfey. Humanoid Archfey are often (though not always) known as Ghaele Eladrin, but it’s important not to confuse them with the lesser mortal eladrin. In Shaelas Tiraleth you have hundreds of mortal eladrin, but only one Ghaele: the Lady of the Silver Tree. She is the immortal heart of the Feyspire; it is her story. Ghaele are technically immortal, but their stories can evolve and change. Thus the Lady of the Silver Tree has a father, and some day she could die and be replaced by a prince; but that transition would represent the story that defines Shaelas Tiraleth fundamentally changing.

Dragon magazine ran a series called The Court of Stars that profiled Archfey, and I wrote a piece on the Prince of Frost for issue 374 (that’s him on the cover). Here’s a note from that article: “The great powers of the Feywild dance through time unburdened by its chains, leaving their marks in stories and histories. Little can be known for certain about the archfey. Some accounts say that the Maiden of the Moon was once an eladrin who rose to power through passion for the hunt. Others claim that she is a dream of the moon. Perhaps neither tale is the truth. Maybe both are. So it is with the Prince of Frost. It is foolish to seek fact in the Feywild, but one can find stories.” According to his story, the Prince of Frost was originally the Sun Prince and betrothed to one of the three Daughters of Delight. When his lover forsook him for a noble mortal warrior, his heart grew cold… and when she and her lover cast their spirits forward in time to escape him, his heart became ice. Now he waits for his love to be reborn so he can possess her; but in the meantime he takes pleasure in tormenting mortal heroes in memory of the one who stole his beloved.

The Prince of Frost is a perfectly suitable Fey to appear in Thelanis. He has long-term goals – find his beloved when she is reborn, torment mortal heroes – and he will recruit mortal agents (Greensingers, Fey Pact warlocks) to help achieve these goals. The issue is that he is defined by his story. He can’t suddenly meet a new love and drop the whole vengeance thing, or suddenly be convinced to take an interest in the war between Droaam and Breland. He is ancient and powerful, but in some ways he is simpler than most mortal villains; he is, in essence, a storybook villain. He can be subtle and clever in pursuing his goals, but at the same time, he’s going to KEEP PURSUING THOSE GOALS FOREVER until the story somehow finally comes to an end. Like the dryad, he doesn’t really learn or evolve… unless his defining story itself somehow evolves.

The next critical thing about immortal Fey is that they are bound by rules and storybook logic; this is a thing that can limit them despite their power. Most are bound to keep their promises. The Court of Stars article calls out that a player can gain concrete, mechanical benefits if they learn the true name of the Prince (and can say it); if they learn the song Lady Sharaea composed for her beloved; or if they possess the amulet the Prince of Frost gave to Sharaea. So a mortal gnome can give her word and break it a minute later; but a Ghaele is defined by her words, and can be tricked into making a promise that saves a mortal.

All of which brings us back to the question: what do they want? The answer is different for each Archfey. Most of them are simply living out their story and want whatever suits that story. The Prince of Frost wants to torment selfless heroes while searching for his beloved. The Lady of the Silver Tree wants nothing more than the care for her tree. They may be defined by feuds with other Archfey or mortals; essentially, come up with a story and it will tell you what they want.

Another question that sometimes comes up is whose stories do the Fey represent? The answer? Everyone. In The Gates of Night, the drow Xu’sasar encounters the ghost scorpion in Thelanis – an important piece of the stories of her people, but one with no meaning to the other travelers. Likewise, she interprets the entire experience of Thelanis in a different way than the others. The fey we are FAMILIAR with reflect human stories; that doesn’t mean there aren’t OTHER fey in Thelanis who are based around Goblin stories, or a dryad-equivalent based on how a Goblin sees a tree. With that said, some fey concepts are relatively universal; everyone has to deal with Winter sometime. In that case, what you might have is a single spirit that’s perceived in a different form by different beings; so a human sees a Ghaele of Winter as an elf-like human, while a goblin might see a bugbear with ice-crusted fur. The Ghaele might interact with human and goblin in a different way, instinctively adopting the customs they expect from their tales. If you’re familiar with Gaiman’s Sandman comics, it’s the same way beings of different races and cultures all see Dream through their own lens. So as humans, we tend to see the human face of Thelanis… but there are many others.

Now, let me address a few specific questions submitted by you all.

Do the fey courts ever have any interest in the goings on outside their realm, in Eberron proper?

As a general rule, the inhabitants of the outer planes think about Eberron as much or possibly less than the people of Eberron think about the outer planes. They know it exists, and there are some scholars who study it, and a rare few go there, but the vast majority barely ever think about it. With that said, the primary effect of manifest zones to Thelanis is to allow travel between the two realms. In an area with a manifest zone, you could easily have more casual contact between the realms for better or for worse. These are the villages where you could have changelings swapped for human children, or where a villager might leave a gift in exchange for a fey boon. And these are also the places where you could have stories of sinister lurkers who cause mayhem in the dark of the moon, or where the Wild Hunt passes through the woods when the planes are coterminous.

With the Archfey, it depends entirely on their stories. The Prince of Frost has a story that gives him a concrete, specific reasons to meddle in Eberron: he’s watching for his beloved’s return, and in the meantime taking vengeance on mortal heroes. In The Dreaming Dark series, there’s an Archfey plot playing out in the background of the main story. So if you want an Archfey to have an interest in Eberron, come up with a story that explains it.

I’d love you to tell us more about the mischievous personality of the Fey.

I think this mainly applies to the “background Fey” – the immortals who serve as the set dressing of Thelanis. The playful sprite, the raucous satyr, the shy dryad. To me, the key point here is that these Fey live entirely in the moment. There is no tomorrow, there is no past. There is no fear of consequence, only the pure experience of love, joy, or rage. When a dryad curses a traveler who steals fruit from her tree, it’s because in that moment this is the worst thing that could ever happen and he deserves it. While the dancing satyr has no concerns about anything other than the party we are having RIGHT NOW. So if a fey is mischievous – and not all are – it’s very much a childlike thing, pure mischief with little consequence or deep intent.

I don’t think “mischievous” is a word that applies to most Archfey, unless you’re creating an Archfey whose story is all about spreading mischief (The Prince of Misrule!). There’s nothing mischievous at all about the Prince of Frost or the Lady of the Silver Tree; they are deadly serious.

How would you use the Greensingers in a campaign? What are they trying to accomplish, and who are they in conflict with?

The Greensingers are the least monolithic or predictable of the Druid sects. Unlike the other sects, they have no leaders or fixed communities. They are tied together by common experiences, by magical traditions, and by a shared love of fey things. But as noted in the Player’s Guide to Eberron, “The lords of Thelanis draw courtiers and entertainers from Eberron, and many Greensingers spend time in the halls of the Faerie Court before returning to Eberron to act as ambassadors, servants, and spies for the fey lords.” The critical point here is that Greensingers work for different Archfey – and that’s what will tell you what they are trying to accomplish. A Greensinger working for the Prince of Frost will watch for his lost love and attempt to lure noble heroes into his traps, and as such could be a villain in a campaign. A Greensinger working for the Lady of the Silver Tree could simply be trying to help protect Shaelas Tiraleth, and serve as an ambassador in the wider world and a guide who could take the adventurers to the tree. So when you’re dealing with a Greensinger all you know is that they have a tie to the Fey; until you learn more about WHICH Fey, you won’t know what they are trying to accomplish. Some Greensingers aren’t tied to specific Fey, but simply seek to live their life in the fey manner – living in the moment while drifting through time.

What is the kind of task an Archfey could ask of players that they can’t do by themselves nor order to Greensingers?

First of all, most Archfey are exceptionally powerful within their own realms. Like the Undying Court, this is a territorial thing. Some can’t ever leave their realms; others put themselves at risk or lose power if they did. So first of all, an Archfey may turn to an adventurer, warlock, or Greensinger to accomplish any task that has to be done in Eberron, because the Archfey quite likely can’t actually go to Eberron to do it. Beyond that, it’s all about the story. Again, the Prince of Winter seeks his reborn beloved and seeks to torment selfless heroes. He’s always looking for information. He might want a player emissary to recover his lost locket, to kidnap someone he thinks might be his beloved, or to engage in a feud against a particular hero. As for “Why pick a player character instead of a Greensinger,” it’s entirely up to you if a particular Archfey has any Greensinger agents.

Beyond this, an easy way to tie an Archfey to a group of adventurers is if you have a Greensinger druid or Fey Pact Warlock as one of the player characters. In which case, you want to define the story of the Archfey patron, which will in turn tell you what they want and ask of their mortal agents. But again, despite their great power, most Archfey are tied to their realms and need mortal help to act in the wider world.

If I want to do a short adventure in Thelanis, like recover an object there, what would make it unique, very different from a normal adventure in savage lands?

The simplest answer I can give is “Read The Gates of Night” which includes what amounts to a short adventure in Thelanis. Bear in mind the following things:

  • It’s a world that doesn’t have to obey any of our physical laws. You can have a forest that never ends, a bottomless well, a land where the Sun never rises.
  • It should feel like a fairy tale. Things don’t have to make sense if they fit the story. Why is the serpent just waiting at the river when the players arrive? Why is it willing to help them cross the river if they each answer a question? Because that’s how the story goes.

I’ll touch on this more in a future post.

How do the fey view the gods? Are there some that claim to be Dol Arrah or the Mockery, or do they claim to be the archetypes that the gods represent in myth?

More the latter. The Fey don’t claim to be things; they are things. So the Prince of Frost doesn’t acknowledge the existence or sovereignty of Arawai or the Devourer; in his story, HE is the Prince of Frost, and that is all the reality he cares about. Those Archfey that pay more attention to cosmology (like Thelania in Gates of Night) would likely acknowledge Sovereigns as powerful spirits, but assert that they are gods of Eberron and have no dominion over Thelanis. With that said, you could have SOME fey who acknowledge one of the main faiths if it fits their story. Surely somewhere there is a forest in Thelanis with an old holy man in the woods; the question is whether he’s devoted to the Sovereigns – which would be perfectly valid – or to some vague, archetypal faith that only really exists in his story.

How do the fey interact with historical stories? For example, Lhazaar has been historically portrayed as an explorer, but modern scholarship is tilting towards a less generous portrayal of her. Does that have an impact on any of the archfey? Likewise, do the Valenar and the Keepers of the Past have a special relationship to Thelanis because of the stories they preserve?

The stories that define the Archfey aren’t history. They are archetype and fable, or more on the nose, faerie tales. There might be a story of a mythical pirate queen that inspired Lhazaar, and that’s the story that would be reflected on the seas of Thelanis. But unless Lhazaar’s actions have somehow fundamentally changed the way people view that fictional character, it wouldn’t impact the Fey. Likewise for the Tairnadal. Their heroes are REAL PEOPLE, and the whole point of what they are doing is that it preserves the spirits of those mortal heroes.

To drill down on this… the stories that are reflected in Thelanis aren’t stories that anyone can concretely track to one origin. It’s not that Stephen d’King wrote a story about a pirate queen and suddenly she was in Thelanis. It’s that the story of the Pirate Queen is a classic tale known across Sarlona and especially beloved in Rhiavhaar… but no one knows exactly where it began. Azhaan’s Voyage is the earliest written version but far more people know Azhaara the Queen. As I said – no one knows if the story inspired the fey or the fey inspired the story.

With that said, I could see an interesting story based around the idea that the Tairnadal ancestors are so old that they’ve created a subset of fictional tall tales, and these have in turn taken form in a realm in Thelanis. But the point is that these stories aren’t actually things the heroes really did; they’re just stories that have somehow creeped into popular consciousness, and no one knows exactly when people started telling the story that Vadallia’s eye was a tear that fell from an angel’s eye. Far from liking this, I think the Keepers of the Past would HATE it; the point would be that these Thelanian fey are sort of like parasites latching onto the story and in the process changing it. The Keepers could be worried that if nothing was done, the story might eventually be twisted to a point where it no longer supports the actual ancestor. But how can they stop it?

Since Thelanis is the realm of stories… When mortals narrate or create passionate, intense or otherwise special stories artistically or with their lives, can they unconsciously give birth to lands or beings in Thelanis? e.g. Is there a ‘Mournland’-related land in Thelanis or a new Archfey?

This is an echo of the preceding question. Thelanis is The Faerie Court; when I say that it’s the realm of stories, I’m specifically talking about faerie stories. First of all, if you read The Fading Dream what you’ll see is that there is an Archfey who HAS incorporated the Mourning into her personal story – but she’s done it in a way that fits the logic and form of faerie tales. The development of a new Archfey is certainly possible, but it’s the sort of thing that would generally take generations as a story becomes part of the culture – and even there the critical question is whether the story would create the Archfey, or if the birth of an Archfey would inspire and define a new story.

What do the Ashbound think of fey? Are they natural, like magical beasts, or arcane?

I don’t think Ashbound are innately opposed to mortal fey creatures like elves or gnomes. Powerful Fey often employ arcane magic, which would draw the ire of Ashbound. You could decide that Ashbound are inherently opposed to dryads and other immortal Fey that impose on our world, if you like the story; I don’t think we’ve called it out in canon.

How did the Mourning impact things? How does the Mournland interact with feyspire(s) within? 

Both of these questions are integral to the plot of The Fading Dream (the third book of the Thorn of Breland series), so if you want to know my thoughts on this, read The Fading Dream!

Are there still werewolves?  if werewolves comes form Thelanis, does it means there are moons there? How much? Could fey become lycanthropes?

Werewolves don’t come from Thelanis. Werewolves are found in Lamannia, but they aren’t natives of that plane: The 3.5 ECS says “Lycanthropes… are common in Lamannia, since many fled to this plane during the crusade that nearly exterminated them from Khorvaire.” As for whether Thelanis has moons, that varies by realm. In The Gates of Night, the moons are a way to determine which realm the protagonists are in. But the point is that those moons may not actually exist in any meaningful way. They might be made of cheese, or might just be a pool of light in the sky. The moon is there because the story calls for it to be there, not because of gravity or science. Given that, it’s POSSIBLE that a moon would affect a lycanthrope normally… or it could be that it has no impact at all, because it’s not real in the same way as the moons of Eberron. As for whether Fey can become lycanthropes, that depends on the mechanics of the system/edition you’re using. Personally, I’d tend to say that immortal fey can’t become lycanthropes by the traditional method, but their personal stories could involve something that resembles lycanthropy if it fits the story.

What manner of fey are Sora Kell and her daughters? It always seemed to me that Sora Kell, at least, must be immortal. 

The Daughters of Sora Kell are an interesting case. Just as rakshasa are native outsiders – immortal spirits native to Eberron itself – the Daughters are essentially native fey. If you check out this Dragonshard it calls out the fact that the Daughters are the subjects of many stories, but the point is that those stories actually happened. When Beren shares a story about Sora Maenya in The Queen of Stone, he’s talking about something that personally happened to him. Whereas many (though not all) of the stories of the Archfey are mythological, metaphorical, or happened in Thelanis. This also means that the Daughters aren’t trapped by their stories the way the Archfey are. You can think of the Archfey a little like the hosts in Westworld; they are very clever and powerful, but they aren’t really in control of their own actions. Sora Katra doesn’t have quite so many strings holding her back, and she’s more invested in modern and mundane affairs.

Beyond that, Sora Kell is a night hag, which have been called out from the start as being native outsiders of Eberron; they served as ambassadors and mediators during the Age of Demons. So Sora Kell is immortal (and mechanically, her Daughters are half-fiends), but she’s a spirit of Eberron as opposed to being an outsider.

Setting the Daughters aside, different editions of the rules have bounced hags back and forth between being fey and just monstrous humanoids, so it’s up to you how to handle other hags. But the Daughters are definitely Eberron natives.

How is it that each of them is a different variety of hag?

Because they have different fathers, of course. No one knows for certain, but at least one tale claims that Maenya’s father was a giant; Katra was sired by a demon; and Teraza emerged from the womb of her own accord after Sora Kell had spent a long time exploring Dal Quor.

It seems that in at least two points you contradict canon Eberron (3.5). First, Thelanis is essentially described as a plane of forests; second, in faith of Eberron is told that greensingers nave a strong organization and a kind of secret plan for melding Thelanis and Eberron. Just asking if you changed your mind (in the first case) or why you disagree (on the second).

I used to put a disclaimer at the start of each of these posts that said “Things I write here may contradict canon.” Everything you read on this site is my version of Eberron, and may not match canon sources – especially because canon sources themselves often contradict themselves. Case in point: *I* wrote the Greensinger entry in the Player’s Guide to Eberron, which predates Faiths of Eberron. Meanwhile, Faiths of Eberron is one of the few Eberron books (including Forge of War, Magic of Eberron, and The Explorer’s Handbook) that I had no involvement in. So if I disagree with it, it would be because someone else took it in a different direction than I originally intended. However, I just glanced over Faiths of Eberron and I don’t particularly agree with your interpretation that they have “a strong order.” Throughout the entry it calls out their fierce individualism and states straight out “The sect is generally reclusive, with no formal organization.” It posits that what unites them is a shared belief that the planes are part of nature and should be made manifest in it, and that they will occasionally work together to help open planar connections. But they aren’t a concrete organization with a concrete goal; they are a very chaotic organization with an extremely loosely defined goal. Meanwhile, they are often more driven by the personal bonds they have made with Archfey and other planar entities.

As for the second point, it’s true: the 3.5 ECS says “Thelanis is a realm of rugged natural beauty—primarily lush forests and crystal-clear waters.” My point is that these places exist and may form the majority of the environmental types in Thelanis… but not all of them. This is what happens when you have a single paragraph to describe an entire layer of reality, and in The Gates of Night the first vision we have of Thelanis is a rocky moor, not a lush forest. It’s not that I changed my mind, as much as there is more to the plane than the 3.5 description could encompass.

Thelanis is the place where we see the magic that we want to be in the world… but isn’t Eberron highly magic? Magic is everywhere there, do they need Thelanis?

There’s magic, and there’s magic. First off, Thelanis is eternal. It existed long before humanity ever mastered arcane or divine magic. But beyond that, Tolkien hits a critical point in his essay On Fairy Stories: “Faerie itself may perhaps most nearly be translated by Magic—but it is magic of a peculiar mood and power, at the furthest pole from the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific, magician.” The arcane magic that is the cornerstone of Khorvaire is the very definition of the “scientific magician” – while the magic of Thelanis remains mysterious and wild. If you read The Gates of Night or The Fading Dream, you can see people from Eberron bumping into the wild fey magic, and how it differs from the world that they know.

Thelanis is the plane of fairies. But Thelanis is the plane of stories. A lot of stories don’t speak of fairies, but for same of gods. Why don’t we have Auron and the shadow battling in Thelanis? Why don’t we have some great Hero of the last war?

I touch on this in previous answers, but it’s because Thelanis isn’t simply the plane of Faerie or the plane of Stories… it’s the plane of FAERIE STORIES. As noted in Tolkein’s essays, a faerie story doesn’t even have to involve actual faeries; it’s about its tone and style. The stories that define Thelanis aren’t based on concrete events. They aren’t chronicles of history, or stories created by a single mortal mind. They are about archetypes and about wonder. As I said above, you could have a realm in Thelanis inspired by the Tairnadal ancestors, but if you did it WOULDN’T actually depict them accurately or re-enact their actual deeds; it would be about the faerie stories inspired by the truth, the things people want them to have done… even if those deeds are wildly impossible.

Humans see the Prince of Frost as an elfy creature. Bugbears as a bugbear. What about a recenti created warforged, that don’t know and story nor understands love?

It’s a good question. To be clear, my concept is that most Archfey have a default form. It’s not that everyone sees them differently; any human/elf/etc will see the Prince of Frost as “Elfy”, and if the two of us drew a picture of him it would look the same. Because elves fit in our cultural view. A bugbear raised among goblinoids generally isn’t thinking of things in terms of humans or elves, and thus he puts a goblinoid spin on it – but all goblinoids would likely see the same shape. So taking your warforged, as long as the warforged spent its life among humans and elves – which most have – it is logical for it to perceive the default “elfy” shape. If you took a warforged that had never seen humans, then you would say “How would it personify winter?” Perhaps it would be a frost-covered warforged. Perhaps a warforged made out of ice. It’s really up to you.

Tied to this: In The Gates of Night, the warforged Pierce sees Thelania in the same form as the others. But the feast she serves appears to be everyone’s favorite meal. For Pierce, who has no experience with food, this manifests as a flavorless paste.

Add your questions and thoughts about the Fey below!

Kickstarters to Check Out!

Crowdfunding is a great thing. I wouldn’t have been able to create Illimat or Phoenix: Dawn Command without Kickstarter. I’ve backed exactly one hundred projects on Kickstarter, and I wanted to share a few with you. Most of these are in their final 24 hours, so if they sound interesting, act fast!

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ABANDON PLANET

A new tabletop game from Donald Eskridge, creator of The Resistance and Avalon. While I don’t think it’s directly connected with The Resistance, the story makes sense to me: the dystopian future has gotten even worse, and now you need to get off planet before meteors destroy it all in a fiery death ball. Players need to form (and break) alliances to get their shoddy ships off the ground. Among other things, Abandon Planet includes 16 awesome plastic rockets. As I’m writing this it only has nineteen hours left, so if it looks interesting, check it out fast!

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TALES FROM THE LOOP

While I haven’t actually played this game, or any of the games the engine is based on (Mutant: Year Zero or Coriolis), I love the art, I’m generally a fan of the concept (kids deal with strange things in the eighties!) and I’m willing to take a chance on anything that Matt Forbeck is involved with. So count me in for Tales From The Loop. This one has EVEN LESS TIME left than Abandon Planet does, so if you like surreal Eighties adventures – or Matt Forbeck – check it out now!

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HARLEM UNBOUND

I’ll let this Gumshoe/Call of Cthulhu sourcebook speak for itself: This sourcebook flips the standard Lovecraftian view of minorities on its head, putting them in the role of heroes who must struggle against cosmic horrors while also fighting for a chance at equality… The heart of the Renaissance was a revolution aimed at changing the world through art, ideas, and the written word. It was a uniquely powerful movement against the unjust status quo, a time in history that still inspires today. The history, people and stories in this book shine the spotlight on the people of Harlem, their successes and their struggles. There’s 28 days left in this campaign, so you’ve got a little time to check it out… but check it out!

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LENORE: A DEBUT ALBUM

Switching from games to music, Lenore is a Portland-based folk band getting ready to launch their first album. I can’t tell you much that you can’t hear better with your own ears; if you got to the project page you can stream two tracks from the album and see what you think! I recommend taking a few minutes to watch the video, which is a touching retelling of the origins of the band (and features awesome cellist Jessie Dettwiler!). There’s ten days left in the campaign, but they’ve still working towards their funding goal, so if you back them spread the word!

Thanks for reading! I’ll be back tomorrow with a new Eberron Q&A.

 

The Luminaries

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For the last year I’ve been developing a card game called Illimat with the band The Decemberists. As I write this, there’s less than twelve hours left in the Kickstarter for Illimat… but I still want to take a moment to write about one of my favorite elements of the game.

One of the design goals with Illimat was to create a card game that felt like it could have been around a hundred years ago and simply been forgotten… or that it might be a classic card game from another world, a game that the characters of The Hazards of Love might play. As one of my favorite books is the Codex Seraphinianus, I loved the idea of creating a deck of cards that felt familiar and yet fantastic… and fortunately for me, Carson Ellis has always wanted to make a deck of cards as well. We started with a base deck of five suits – the four familiar seasons, and a fifth suit of Stars that is added in when you play with four players. These are the primary tools of play. But we also came up with a second set of cards… the major arcana of our fictional deck, and its strongest connection to The Decemberists. We called these Luminaries. Within the context of the game, Luminaries are dealt face-down in each corner of the board. Each Luminary has a special ability that comes into effect when the card is revealed. Some of these are simple: while The Maiden is on the board, Winter has no effect. Others are more complicated; The Changeling allows you to exchange a card from your hand for a card in The Changeling’s field, which opens up a host of possibilities.

The interaction between the Luminaries helps to make each session of Illimat unique. But my favorite thing is how Carson Ellis has blended the artistic goal – creating a set of iconic, tarot-like images – with the mechanical effects of the cards. We don’t write the rules for the Luminary on the card, but once you know what they do, the image serves to remind you. For example…

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The Changeling is inspired by the character of William from Hazards of Love. Stolen by the Forest Queen as a child, he takes the form of a faun by day while reverting to human form at night. The Changeling card presents this basic concept in an interesting and iconic way, but it also shows the exchange of cards, which is what The Changeling does in the game itself; one card is changed into another.

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In The Hazards of Love, William must find a way to cross the deadly river. In Illimat, the field that contains The River is filled with six cards, making it more difficult to clear than other fields. This is reflected by the six cards floating in the River. At the same time, the image of the cards in the reveal feels iconic to me, not unlike the classic Five of Cups – the cards being swept away. The card also has a secondary effect. Normally the player who harvests the most Winter cards LOSES 2 points; but if they have The River, it freezes over and they can cross… so instead they GAIN two points.

Developing the Luminaries was a threefold process of coming up with a set of core concepts that felt strong and iconic while still feeling grounded in The Hazards of Love; coming up with game effects that were interesting but felt like they reflected the concept; and then developing art that combined both the effect and the concept. I’m happy with their mechanical element – but I’m especially thrilled with how Carson brought them to life.

You can read Carson’s thoughts on developing Illimat here, and if you read the before 8 PM Pacific Time on October 3rd you can back Illimat here!

Any questions?

The Story of ILLIMAT

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Two days ago, I launched the Kickstarter for a game I’m making with The Decemberists: ILLIMAT. It’s a card game for 2-4 players, and you can play it in 15 minutes or an hour. I could describe it in more detail, but you can go to the page and see it right now or if you’d like to see it played, you can watch this gameplay video from One Shot Game Night… or this detailed overview of the game from GeekDad

But what IS Illimat? Where did it come from? And what, exactly, do The Decemberists have to do with it?

In 2009, The Decemberists were preparing to release the album The Hazards of Love. As Colin Meloy says, they “were doing what most bands do in preparation for such an event: trying out new hairstyles, inviting people to be in their band, and participating in photoshoots.” They had an idea for a shoot in which they’d pretend to be a secret society that met in strange places to play a mysterious board game. Artist Carson Ellis and photographer Autumn DeWilde made an inscrutable two-part board. The shoot happened, the board was tucked away somewhere, and that was that. But over the course of the next six years, the Decemberists began playing more and more games while on the road. At some point someone said “Remember that mysterious board? Could we make that into an actual game?”

I got to know guitarist Chris Funk through Gloom, and he came to me with the idea of making this game. He and Colin Meloy dropped by my house and presented me with the following enigmatic artifact.

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They also had a few specific requests. They want a game that…

  • … Felt like it could be an old game, something that might have been played a hundred years ago and just forgotten.
  • … Didn’t actually depict the events of Hazards of Love, but somehow felt like a game that would be played in the world of HoL. 
  • … Tying to the secret society vibe, something that felt mysterious and even “humorously obtuse” – while still being easy to learn and play.

The board sat in my basement for a few months while I pondered this challenge. From a design perspective, there’s a bunch of basic challenges. The board is divided into four quadrants. Does each player use a different quadrant? Does each quadrant had a different effect? What’s the relevance of the numbers and symbols in the corners? Most of all: What about that second box that sits in the center? Why do you put a box in the middle of the board – and what can you do with it?

One of the first things that struck me was that we wanted to make the box in the center the actual box for the game. The board was beautiful but also somewhat unwieldy – over time we came up with the idea of putting the design onto a cloth board that could fold up and fit into the central box. I’m very happy with the end result of this: the final game is very compact and transportable, but keeps the basic beauty of the design.

Next, I started thinking about making something that felt as though it could have been “played a hundred years ago and then forgotten.” I picked up my 1875 copy of Hoyle and started looking at games I’d heard of but never played, like Whist and Bazique. I was intrigued by the core mechanic used in Cassino and Scopa, and started experimenting with that. I decided to have each of the four quadrants of the board hold a different set of cards, but not to limit access to those fields to a specific player. This led to the next big jump: The idea that the box in the center would determine the rules that applied to each field… and that when the box turned, the rules would change.

Meanwhile, we wanted something that wasn’t about Hazards of Love, but felt like it could be played in that world. I wanted to make what essentially felt like a Tarot deck from another world. We set the suits of the cars to the seasons – Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter – and created a set of eight Luminaries – the Major Arcana of this deck – inspired by the iconic elements of Hazards of Love. Thus we have The Forest Queen, The Changeling and The River. The central box – which had been named “the Illimat” in the original photoshoot – would set the season, and the season would restrict the actions. Anything is possible in Summer, but you can’t stockpile in Spring, sow in Autumn, or harvest in Winter.

There’s many more details I’d like to delve into, especially the design of the Luminaries themselves, and I’ll get to those in future posts. But that’s how the story begins… and here’s the current image of the game as we envision it, in contrast to that original board in the picture above.

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Check out the Kickstarter if you have a moment! We’re off to a great start, but the journey is just beginning. If you have any questions, post them below!

Eberron Flashback: Aberrant Dragonmarks

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There’s lots of great things afoot. I’m keen to delve deeper into the setting of Phoenix and to explore the topics sitting on the burner for Eberron. However, at the moment I am under the gun as I prepare to launch the Kickstarter campaign for my new game illimatcoming to Kickstarter this Tuesday, October 4th! and I don’t have any time to write. So instead, I’m resurrecting an old topic from 2012: Aberrant Dragonmarks.

Dragonmarks are mystical symbols that provide mystical power to the people that bear them. “True” dragonmarks are bound to bloodlines, and over time the dragonmarked houses have turn their mystical powers to industrial purpose and carved out economic empires. Such dragonmarks are reliable and useful, and largely have postive, constructive effects. But there’s another sort of dragonmark: twisted marks that are unpredictable in every way, and which grant powers that frighten and hurt others. Where the pure dragonmarks let their bearers heal and create, those who bear aberrant dragonmarks may produce fire, spread plagues, control minds, or worse. While aberrant dragonmarks often result when people of diferent dragonmarks bloodlines have children, they can manifest on anyone. There are many prejudices and superstitions tied to aberrant dragonmarks, adn centuries ago there was a massive purge – the “War of the Mark” – that virtually wiped out the aberrant population. For a time, aberrant dragonmarks were just legend. Now they are beginning to return.

While their powers are dangerous, on the surface aberrant dragonmarks don’t seem that bad. So you can cast burning hands once per day. So can a sorcerer, and he’s not being hunted by a mob. The main point is that aberrant dragonmarks are defined by story as well as rules. The concept of the aberrant dragonmark is that it is dangerous and often unpleasant for its bearer, and that even if they can control it now, they likely couldn’t when it first manifested. As an adventurer, the power provided by an aberrant dragonmark may seem to be a blessing; but per story, at some point in your life it has surely been a curse. As you develop an aberrant character, think about that concept. How did it first manifest? Who was hurt by it? How does it feel – are you comfortable with your mark, or does it burn against your skin? Many marks are accompanied by physical or mental disfigurement… is yours? If you want your character to develop an aberrant dragonmark over the course of play, you may want to place it in the hands of your DM and have it manifest at an inconvenient time, to advance the story and explore the burden. Or as a DM, with your players’ permission you could give one or more of them aberrant dragonmarks they can’t control – so don’t require them to pay the cost of the feat, but it’s up to you exactly when and how the power manifests.

With all that in mind, let’s look back at some of the questions people have had about aberrant dragonmarks.

I was always perplexed about the detail of the War of the Mark. First, there is an apparent lack of public opposition to the persecution of aberrants. Hundreds or even thousands of them must have been killed across the continent for no other reason than manifesting the wrong version of the dragonmarks. Of course, the Houses’ propaganda painted them as evil, but there is just that much propaganda can do. Most of those people had families and friends who knew otherwise. I doubt that aberrants have any bigger tendency to become criminals due to destructive powers of their marks than, say, sorcerers, who learn how to cast burning hands and magic missiles.

If you have a moment, there’s someone I’d like you to meet.

She grew up in village in Daskara, not far from the modern city of Sigilstar. She loved the country and taking care of the livestock. When she was 13, her family fell ill with a disease no one had ever seen before. They died, and the plague spread to the rest of the village and their stock. Only two things were unaffected: the rats and the girl. When everyone was dead, she fled to the town of Sarus. You’ve never heard of Sarus, because it doesn’t exist anymore. It was burnt by those who sought to keep the plague from spreading. The rats kept the girl alive, and were the only thing that kept her close to sane. In time she learned to control her power. Even so, she couldn’t bear the burden of the deaths on her conscience. She declared that the girl had died with her family. She was someone new, someone without a name. She was the Lady of the Plague.

Before I continue, have you read any of the following?

  • The RPGA adventure The Delirium Stone, in which players actually experience a flashback to the War of the Mark.
  • The Children of Khyber Dragonshard article.
  • The novels The Son of Khyber or The City of Towers, in which we interact with modern aberrants and get to see some of them. They’re not all bad people. But many of them are strange or disturbing. Little “Junior Lady Of The Plague” Zae who only talks to rats. Brom with his troll’s arm. Crippled Filleon with his deadly touch.

Here’s a quote from the Dragonshard article, describing what it’s like to have a powerful aberrant mark:

You can feel your power festering within you. It’s different for every child of Khyber. One feels a chill no warmth can push away, while another complains of fire burning beneath his skin. An heir with the power of confusion feels the force of madness in his mind, trying to claw its way out and feast on the thoughts of others. Your mark may bring you pain. It may whisper to you as you try to sleep. But it is a part of you.

You say “Why would an aberrant be any more likely to be a criminal than a sorcerer?” The answer is that a sorcerer chooses his path. Sorcery may be a natural talent as opposed to wizardry, but the sorcerer applies himself to its study and chooses the path he wants to follow. The aberrant doesn’t. His power chooses him, and often in a very unpleasant way. If the aberrant has burning hands, odds are good it manifested for the first time when he was angry at someone. Was that in a lover’s quarrel? When he was arguing with a parent? A friend? What death is on his conscience? And whenever he gets angry, can he hold the flames in? Likewise, for a sorcerer the power isn’t a burden; it’s a tool he learns to use. For an aberrant it’s something he must master and control, lest it drive him mad or harm those around him.

Powerful aberrant marks are dangerous to the bearer. They often cause disfigurements or madness. Yes, with training these dangers can be controlled or limited, and that’s something Tarkanan was trying to do. But to your question of “Why didn’t people care? Why did people believe the propaganda?”… look at the Salem witch trials and imagine that these things were unquestionably real. That someone has a livid red mark on their skin and that they burned their mother to death – and that you’ve HEARD the stories about how these people are touched by Khyber, how they are all monsters. Are you going to say “Oh, he didn’t mean it, he just needs to learn to control it. So he killed my wife – mistakes happen.” Or are you going to sending a messenger out to find the nearest Deneith extermination squad? And again, in terms of just how dangerous these marks could be, I’ll note that Halas Tarkanan destroyed a city when he unleashed his mark – and that the curse of the Lady of the Plague still lingers over a thousand years after. Far from trying to STOP the Dragonmarked from persecuting the aberrants, most local authorities were glad they were there.

The aberrant marks seen today – the “least” aberrant marks, if you will – don’t carry the same restrictions or power. You can have an aberrant mark without being a madman or a cripple. And you’re not going to use that mark to destroy a city. But the stories haven’t been forgotten, and the houses simply keep them alive. And now the more powerful marks are starting to return… so what happens next?

So you are basically saying that abberant dragonmarks do tend to make people outcasts and criminals…

Aberrant dragonmarks certainly make people outcasts. They don’t necessarily make them criminals; being outcasts may, however. The point is that there’s a significant difference between having an aberrant mark that produces burning hands and being a sorcerer who can do it. For the aberrant, it begins as a dangerous burden. Some are driven mad. Some inadvertently take actions that lead to their deaths (unleashing burning hands in a public place and getting lynched as a result). Those that survive learn to control their powers – but it’s not an easy or comfortable thing.

But the logical conclusion would be that the society had been trying to deal with this threat long before War of the Mark. If I knew a kid who caused a whole village to die from disease and another kid who torched his mom in anger and they both had those scary red marks on their skin, I would probably vote for a kill-on-sight policy for anyone with a similar mark. I would have had a lynching mob go after such people. And if it were too dangerous, I would call on my liegelord to send a squad of archers and shoot the baddie from a safe distance.

Society would only have to deal with this threat “long before the War of the Mark” if aberrant marks existed in significant numbers long before the War of the Mark… and they didn’t. Mixed marks appeared in small numbers when houses mingled; this is how the houses discovered these existed and how “the threat” became known. At the time the houses set their policy, it was largely the way we have incest laws: mingling the blood of two houses has unsavory results, don’t do it. Then the marks began spreading – yet not tied to lineage or any predictable pattern. The first of these were the equivalent of least marks. Stories begin to spread… but bear in mind that there were no airships, lightning rails, or speaking stones at this time, so word certainly didn’t spread as fast as it once did. A boy burned his mother, and he had a mark like those of the Twelve, but traced in blood. More powerful marks begin to appear, but still nothing on the level of Tarkanan or the Lady of the Plague. People say it’s Khyber stirring in the depths. There are more stories of marks driving their bearers mad, and the deaths that have resulted are sensationalized. Ghallanda spreads the word through the inns. Orien passes it along the trade roads, and Lyranar the seas. Phiarlan sings songs of the unsavory aberrants… and it’s now that the Lady of the Plague appears, and her tale is one that terrifies the public. Families that have been hiding their aberrant kid begin to question their actions. And the marks keep appearing in greater numbers, and becoming increasingly dangerous. Now Deneith-backed squads show up promising to protect people from these unclean children of Khyber – and now is the time that people start calling on them for help, or organizing lynch mobs of their own. But…

… remember that aberrant dragonmarks aren’t predictable. They can appear on anyone at any time. It’s not just “a kid” who has the mark. It could be a soldier. A Duke. A powerful priest. Anyone could get an aberrant mark, and as society turned on the aberrants in fear, those who developed aberrant marks knew exactly what fate awaited them. The boy who burned a parent wouldn’t turn himself in; he would run. The duke would try to conceal his mark, fortify his stronghold and hide from the world. This degree of versatility meant that aberrant forces could have unexpected skills and resources. And then you have Halas Tarkanan. He was a Karrnathi officer before he developed his mark, a brilliant soldier who learned the arts of war at Rekkenmark and the ways of House Deneith from his mother. His forces weren’t solely aberrants; many of his unmarked soldiers stood by him, and he won others to his cause… as well as taking in goblins and other oppressed forces.

My point is – there wouldn’t be enough aberrants hiding out there to form a force capable to wage a regular war under Tarkanan. That would require a sudden surge of aberrant powers similar to what is happening in the world in present-day, which is quite possible actually.

First off, the current surge is far less than what was seen in the century leading up to the War of the Mark. It appears to be starting again, and a DM can take it that way. But at the moment, there’s neither the number or power level seen in the past. In canon sources (remember, novels aren’t canon), no one has been described as possessing an aberrant mark matching the power of Halas Tarkanan or his lieutenants… and it was the power of these marks that kept the aberrant forces alive.

Beyond this, bear in mind that they never fought a “regular war.” You never had formations of aberrant soldiers facing off against dragonmarked house armies. While Halas did his best to provide basic training, the majority of the aberrants were noncombatants, though with their marks they could put up a defense when cornered and forced to fight. Somewhat to my surprise, the best analogy I can think of is Battlestar Galactica. Think of the aberrants as fleets of largely civilian vessels, huddling around an individual like Tarkanan or the Dreambreaker – their battlestar, whose power was singlehandedly great enough to disperse conventional forces. You then have a small group of trained soldiers and people with lesser/greater marks – the vipers of the Battlestar analogy, able to carry out their commander’s will. But they were still always on the run, relying on the raw power of their commanders (and Tarkanan’s tactical genius) just to survive, always searching for some lasting sanctuary. They were occasionally able to gather small elite units for their own commando strikes, but they never faced the houses with proper armies. And in the end, despite Tarkanan’s best efforts, they were herded to Shaarat and forced to make a final stand. And again, you can see a little of what that’s like in the RPGA adventure The Delirium Stone.

Is this what’s happening today? Aberrant marks are manifesting in ever-greater numbers, but are they going to reach the same level of power as Tarkanan possessed? And if so, is this a natural cycle? Part of the Prophecy? Or is it being actively manipulated by the Lords of Dust or some other force? That’s up to you…

I’d like to revisit one point…

If I knew a kid who caused a whole village to die from disease and another kid who torched his mom in anger and they both had those scary red marks on their skin, I would probably vote for a kill-on-sight policy for anyone with a similar mark.

Bear in mind that nothing about aberrant marks is predictable. The red and black marks that we’ve shown are the most common sort of aberrant mark, but aberrant marks can take a vast array of forms. The lines of a burning hands mark might be formed from livid scar tissue. An aberrant mark that grants charm person could actually be a shining array of glowing white lines that’s almost hypnotic to look at… while another charm person mark is red and black. Aberrant marks are, well, aberrant. So this helped slow things down. Sure, the kid with the scary scar mark burned his mom, but our daughter’s mark is beautiful. And she’s not hurting anyone, is she? Really?

Ultimately people would decide that yes, the charmer was hurting people – that mind controllers are scary. But again, this combination of diversity and limited long-distance communication added to the amount of time it took for public opinion to form.

In conclusion…

Aberrant marks originally existed in small numbers and low power. In the century leading up to the War of the Mark, they rapidly increased in number and power. There was excellent reason for people to fear the marks. If Tarkanan had been born earlier and been a diplomat instead of a soldier, he might have convinced people that the aberrants weren’t at fault – that if they were taught to control their marks, they could peacefully coexist (though some were, of course, mad or sociopathic). But most of the media of the time was in the hands of the houses, and when the fear was spreading there was no spokesperson for the aberrants. The “war” began as a simple witchhunt and purge. Tarkanan organized survivors into small guerrilla forces with enough firepower to defend themselves as they fled. Ultimately they were caught and erradicated.

In the centuries that followed, aberrant marks appeared in small numbers and only at the lowest level of power. But the stories remained and grew with each telling. People don’t run in terror from aberrants, because it’s been over a thousand years since the Lady of the Plague laid her curse on Shaarat. But they still know the stories, and aberrants are still shunned and treated with suspicion. And now the numbers of marks are growing again, and their power with them. But this is new and unusual. House Tarkanan has noticed it, and it is acting to gather the aberrants. But society as a whole hasn’t yet noticed exactly what’s going on. aberrants are an old bogeyman; even the houses are only just now looking at House Tarkanan and trying to figure out what’s happening.

Moving to more general discussion about the marks…

“Aberrant” seems like it’s shifted in meaning since the setting was originally published, and it was always kind of broad to begin with.

It’s something that was never developed as far as I wanted. I actually had a full system for aberrant marks developed for the Sharn: City of Towers sourcebook, but it ended up being cut for space. It is the case that a number of the SLAs in the original 3.5 sourcebook do NOT, in my mind, qualify for my vision of aberrant marks. I don’t see feather fall or detect secret doors as aberrant marks. To me, a core difference between aberrant and normal dragonmarks is that aberrant marks channel destructive or aggressive forces, while true marks are constructive. With that said, we’ve seen that true marks can be used in aggressive ways – from Lyrandar slamming you with a gust of wind to the Orien assassin teleporting behind you and killing you. But note that when aberrant marks were expanded in Dragonmarked the lists didn’t include superior flight or expanded detection capabilities.

What I’m wondering is if there’s some kind of substantive difference between Aberrant Marks and Mixed Marks. For example, would mixed marks tend to appear more as a mixture of the true marks? And would such a mark exhibit powers that call to mind the two true marks involved? Or is it more like the mixture of the marks corrupts their fundamental nature and creates some bizarre, unrelated effect?

The original idea is definitely the latter. Aberrant marks are entirely unpredictable. If you knew that Orien + Lyrandar = feather fall, then it’s not an aberrant mark anymore; it’s “the Mark of PassageStorms.” The idea of the mixed mark was simply that it was and is the only reliable way to produce an aberrant mark – but that there’s no telling what that mark will be. Likewise, this is part of the 3.5 aberrant mark system in Dragonmarked. You can have charm person as your least power and poison as your lesser power. You might have an aberrant individual who develops powers along a specific theme – all fire, all fear – but unlike the true marks this isn’t a given.

Now again, this is how it’s been presented. If you want to do things differently – and for that matter, play up existing elements like the feather fall aberrant mark – go for it!