Dragonmarks: The Fighter

It’s 2018, and what better way to start the new year than by continuing the series of articles I began in 2017? I’m currently running a 5E Eberron campaign, and that means I’m digging more deeply into 5E and how it works with Eberron. As a result, I’m going through each class and considering how it fits into the setting, along with the new options from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. So far I’ve looked at the Bard and the Barbarian, and in this article I want to think about the Fighter.

Let’s start with a basic point: just as most priests aren’t clerics, most soldiers aren’t fighters. Eberron is based on the idea that PC classes represent exceptional skill – that even at low levels, a player character is remarkable because of that. In the original 3.5 Campaign Setting, most soldiers were warriors – possessing proficiency with martial weapons and armor, but lacking the unique abilities of a fighter. 5E doesn’t have NPC classes as such; it’s up to the DM to decide what traits to apply to an NPC. The Fighting Style ability is a logical thing for any warrior that has a specialty; if a soldier is called an “archer,” it’s reasonable to give them the benefits of the Archery fighting style. I could also see adding a feat to represent further specialization. As noted in a previous article, many Aundairian soldiers might be Wand Adepts, while a Thrane archer might be a Sharpshooter and a Karrnathi knight could be a Heavy Armor Master.

So what are the unique aspects of the Fighter – the traits not possessed by the common warrior?

  • Second Wind. You can regain hit points in the middle of battle. Is this sheer physical toughness? Mental discipline that lets you ignore pain? Or something else?
  • Action Surge. You can take an extra action when you need it most. Is this due to remarkable reflexes? Combination moves tied to your particular style? A surge of morale?
  • Martial Archetype. Each archetype provides its own set of unique skills, each supporting a different story.
  • Feats and Ability Scores. A warrior might get a single feat to reflect specialization, but a fighter gets more Ability Score Improvements than any other class… which translates to more feats if you’re using them.

So: You’re a fighter, someone possessing exceptional martial skills. Where did you acquire these skills? What did you do with them before you became an adventurer? This is especially important in Eberron because as of 998 YK, the world is barely out of a bitter, all-consuming war. What was your role in the conflict? Consider the following questions.

  • Did you fight in the Last War? 
  • If so, in what capacity? Did you serve in the army of one of the Five Nations, and if so, which one? Were you a mercenary, and if so did you serve House Deneith directly or work with a smaller independent company?
  • If so, why are you no longer serving? If you take the Soldier or Noble background you may have left honorably and still have recognized rank; otherwise, you may have left dishonorably, whether this was justified or not. Perhaps you disobeyed orders to protect innocents – something that cost you your rank, but may have left you as a Folk Hero. Perhaps you discovered corruption in the ranks, and deserted in disgust… or perhaps you were framed by your corrupt commander, blamed for the crimes of others. Or perhaps you were a soldier of Cyre, and no longer have a nation to serve.
  • If you didn’t fight in the Last War, why didn’t you put your remarkable skills to good use? Perhaps you were fighting your own war on the mean streets of Sharn as an enforcer for a gang or as a member of the city watch. Maybe you ignored the war, pursuing opportunities as a settler in Q’barra or Stormreach. Or maybe your duty took you in a different direction, as you trained for a specific mission.

Essentially, if you’re a fighter you likely learned your skills by fighting. What was that conflict, and why have you left it behind for the life of an adventurer? Or are you somehow still pursuing that original path as an adventurer?

Now, let’s take a look at the different Martial Archetypes and different ways you could take them. If you’re starting at first level, of course, you won’t have a Martial Archetype right away. But if you know the archetype you want to take, you can still develop your backstory with that archetype in mind.

Champion

In many ways Champion is the simplest archetype: it simply makes you good at fighting. Combine Soldier and Champion and you might have been an elite warrior on the front lines of the Last War. Blend Criminal and Champion if you want to be a gang enforcer who’s looking to do more with your life.

Generally speaking, the Champion reflects martial skill. But consider a few alternatives.

  • Revenant Blade. If you’re playing a Valenar fighter, your abilities can reflect martial excellence… but they could also reflect the guidance of your patron ancestor. When you take your Second Wind it’s your ancestor giving you strength and encouragement. Your Action Surge is your ancestor guiding you in a perfect action. Your Improved Critical likewise reflects this guidance. This idea could apply to any archetype, and there’s no mechanical difference; it’s just up to you to describe these benefits as the voice of your Ancestor… and it’s up to the DM whether to do more with that, perhaps granting you visions that guide you on the path to adventure.
  • Warforged Champion. Your abilities could be the result of design as opposed to training. When you engage Second Wind, you are triggering swift healing enchantments. Action Surge is a form of overdrive, temporarily pushing beyond your limits. If you take the Heavy Armor Master feat, that could reflect your actually growing thicker armor plates. Again, mechanically there’s no difference here; it’s a matter of how you think about your abilities.

Battle Master

The flavor of Battle Master really depends on the maneuvers you choose. Combine the Noble or Soldier background with Commander’s Strike and Rally and you have a sound basis for serving as an officer in the Last War. On the other hand, you could blend Entertainer with Feinting Attack and Disarming Strike to reflect a career as an swashbuckling duelist, renowned for your showmanship in battle (a path that could also work for a College of Swords bard). Karrnathi soldiers might be known for Menacing Attack, while Aundairians might prefer lighter armor and Evasive Footwork. This is another easy path for a Valenar revenant, with your chosen maneuvers reflecting the specialties of your patron ancestor.

Eldritch Knight

Arcane magic forms the foundation of Aundair’s military strategy, and this is an easy path for the Knights Phantom of Aundair. But they weren’t the only Eldritch Knights in the war. In Karrnath, the knights of the Ebon Skull blended swordplay with necromantic magic. And House Cannith could easily have experimented with warforged designed to supplement martial skill with arcane power. I could also imagine a Greensinger champion who studies the arts of war in Thelanis. For me, a critical question with an Eldritch Knight is who teaches you. Do you suddenly learn the arts of magic spontaneously? Or do you have a mentor – whether an old soldier, a fey knight, or even an elderly artificer who helps your warforged Eldritch Knight unlock its arcane potential?

Arcane Archer

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything presents this as an Elvish tradition, and it certainly works as a Tairnadal technique. But there’s no reason this archetype has to be Elvish… or even arcane. Archery is a devotional practice of followers of the Silver Flame, and Thrane was renowned for its archers during the Last War. The Silver Bows could be an elite order of templars who infuse their weapons with the power of the Flame. If you take this route, Arcane Archer Lore should provide proficiency with the Religion skill and the Thaumaturgy cantrip. All other abilities remain the same; just bear in mind that the Archer of the Flame is charging their arrows with devotion instead of arcane power, and that their mystical bolts are wreathed in silver flame. If you take the Soldier background, you could be an active agent of the Church, with your Military Rank being recognized by any who follow the Flame.

The Nature/Druidcraft approach is well suited to warriors of the Eldeen Reaches. You could be a serious Warden of the Woods or a carefree Greensinger, blending primal magic and martial skill. It could even be a specialty of the elite hunters of House Tharashk, with the seeking arrow drawing on the power of the Mark of Finding.

What about Aundair? Personally, I prefer to keep “Arcane Archer” as a Thrane archetype, and to have Aundairians focus on the Eldritch Knight. We’ve called out Thrane as the preeminent archers in the Five Nations, and this supports that; meanwhile, I see Aundair as placing a greater emphasis on the use of wands and offensive cantrips than on archery, even arcane archery. But I could see a fighter/rogue tradition using the arcane version… perhaps developed by House Thuranni, perhaps by the Dark Lanterns or Royal Eyes.

Cavalier

The Cavalier is an easy path for the Valenar, who are known as the finest cavalry forces in Khorvaire. But there’s other cavaliers of note. Talenta halflings may not fit the typical image of the knight, but a bold warrior with a close bond with his clawfoot could definitely follow this path. Within the Five Nations I personally see the Karrns as having the strongest chivalric tradition, but I could see cavaliers tied to any of the Five Nations. Setting aside the cavalry aspect and focusing on the Cavalier’s talent for defending others, this is also a plausible path for a champion of House Deneith.

Samurai

There’s no culture in Eberron that is a simple match to feudal Japan. But here again the issue is to ignore the name and look at the mechanical elements that define the archetype: a talent for Persuasion and courtly manners; proficiency with Wisdom saving throws; and most notably, Fighting Spirit – a surge of temporary hit points accompanied by advantage on an attack role. Here’s a few ways I could interpret those abilities…

  • A Karrnathi chivalric order. The “fighting spirit” is a literal spirit conjured to guide and protect the knight.
  • The gift of an Archfey of Thelanis; the warrior who swears allegiance to the Prince of Swords can call on his favor on the battlefield or in the court.
  • As suggested above, a Tairnadal could call on their patron ancestor for guidance and strength.

Random Ideas

Setting aside specific archetypes, here’s a few ideas for fighters I might play…

  • The Fallen Paladin. Once I believed in the righteousness of the Sovereigns. Once I believed I had a calling. Then I discovered the web of lies surrounding the people I’d trusted and realized the terrible things I’d done in Dol Arrah’s name. The Sovereigns and I… we’re not on speaking terms any more.  Mechanically this character is a fighter, probably a Cavalier or warlord-style Battle Master. But in theory he began as a paladin, who lost his divine powers when he lost his faith. Now he’s just trying to find his way on the mean streets. He’s got a good heart; it’s just been shaken by failure and betrayal. Think Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly. Can he regain his faith in himself and humanity over the course of the campaign? If so, might return to a divine path? For a background, I’m probably do Criminal or Mercenary Veteran with the idea that he’s been doing grunt work in the underworld… but there’s many backgrounds that could work here.
  • The Survivor. You used to be the sheriff of a small town… a town that was wiped out by war criminals/Droaam raiders/brigands. You’re not going to rest until you’ve avenged your fallen family and friends… and you’re looking for a posse who will help you get the job done. This is a character with a very specific story to tell, and I’d want to run it past the DM before I dove into it. There’s a number of ways it could run. As written, you could be a “Soldier” (a recognized law enforcer) seeking vengeance against a specific villain, something that could potentially drive low-level adventures. On the other hand, the target could be something too powerful to easily face. You’re a Karrnathi Noble/Cavalier, whose family was scapegoated by Kaius and brought down in disgrace; now you’re determined to bring down Kaius himself. You’re a Cyran folk hero whose village was destroyed in the Mourning, and you’re going to find out who was responsible for that devastation. But at the end of the day… you’re a fighter with a mission.

That’s all I have time for now, but share your ideas and questions below! As always, thanks to my Patreon supporters, who make this blog possible.

Making Games In 2017

It can take a long time to make a game. I’ve released three new games this year, but I’ve been working on some of these for many years now. I want to take a quick look back over the things I’ve released in 2017 and plans for the year ahead.

Phoenix: Dawn Command

Dan Garrison and I have been working on P:DC for the last four years, and finally released it at the end of 2016. Phoenix is a card-based RPG that I think of as a blend of Gloom and Eberron – a traditional RPG, but one that uses cards instead of dice, encourages storytelling, and in which you ultimately want your character to die… because in Phoenix, death is what makes you stronger.

During 2017 I was tied up with my other games, and I didn’t have a lot of time to support Phoenix. But I still love the game, and I have a lot of plans for doing more with in in 2018. If you’d like to know more (or to get a copy of the game!) go to the website!

Illimat

In 2015, The Decemberists presented me with a mysterious board and a challenge. Could I make it into a game? Could that game feel as though it could be a hundred years old and simply forgotten? Illimat is the result of that challenge. It draws on the mechanics of classic card games, while the rotating illimat in the center of the board adds a dynamic twist. I’m thrilled with how it came out, and can’t wait to share it with more people in 2018. You can find out more about Illimat or acquire the game at the official website. You can also learn more about the game – including how I’d work it into Eberron – in this previous post.

Action Cats!

Action Cats began as a lark — something I designed to play with friends, with no real plans beyond that. But the more people we played it with, the more fun we had with it… and eventually we decided to share it with the rest of the world.

Action Cats is a simple game with a familiar format. The judge looks at a picture of a cat and gives the cat a name. Each of the other players combines two cards in their hands to create a story about the cat, and presents the story to the judge. Aside from the fact that it’s filled with cats, the primary thing that differentiates it from other games of this type is that it’s about storytelling. The cards from your hand form the foundation of a story. But it’s up to you to elaborate on that story, adding as much as you wish. Why are the stakes so high? Why is this cat wearing a hat? Only you know the answer. You can find out more about Action Cats or order the game at the official website!

Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Card Game

This isn’t a game for everyone. If you don’t know anything about Scott Pilgrim, the whole concept of the game – building a better life while fighting giant robots, ninjas, and awkward conversations – may not make any sense to you. If you ARE familiar with Scott Pilgrim but haven’t played many games before, you might find this has a bit of a learning curve. But if you ARE familiar with Scott Pilgrim and you’re comfortable with deckbuilders, then this is the game for you. I’m very happy with the way that this captures the flavor of the Scott Pilgrim universe. The goal of the game is to get your $#!7 together – to deal with your drama, sort out your relationships, finally get off of your parents’ house and get your band on the radio or finally get a job. You can do all of this through hard work… or through gratuitous and random videogame violence. Trying to get a new apartment? A good work ethic will let you buy one… but because of the double-sided cards, you can also flip the apartment over and beat up the Evil Landlord with a few fancy combo moves. It does a lot of interesting things and I’m happy with the flavor of it… but it’s not for everybody.

And What About Eberron? 

Thanks to the support of my awesome Patreon backers, I’ve been able to spend a little more time on this website. Over the course of the year I’ve posted articles on a host of topics, including…

I’ve also been part of the Manifest Zone podcast, and helped run a game for CCD20. What happens next? I wish I could tell you! I’ve always believed that Eberron will come to 5E, and I still believe that – but I don’t know exactly when that will happen. I’m running a 5E Eberron campaign of my own, which has got me working on all sorts of conversions and digging deeper into the setting. We’ll see if 2018 brings any news!

Dragonmarks: The Barbarian

The barbarian is a savage warrior from a primitive culture, who relies on pure rage or primal magic to overwhelm foes. Or so they are generally depicted. But as with all classes, you can use the mechanics of the barbarian to represent a wide variety of stories. In this post I’ll look at how the barbarian fits into Eberron, and present some alternate ideas for barbarian characters that could fit into any campaign.

ACTUAL BARBARIANS

Sometimes you just want to be an actual barbarian, and Eberron has a number of options that fill this need. Bear in mind that just as every priest isn’t a cleric, not ever warrior from a savage culture is a barbarian; classed barbarians would typically be elite warriors and champions.

  • Talenta Halflings. That’s right: our iconic barbarian is a halfling. This Dragonshard calls out the fact that “The Talenta druid believes that her ancestors are all around her, affecting every aspect of life“… which makes Xanathar’s Path of the Ancestral Guardian an easy option for a Talenta halfling. But I can also see a pint-sized Berserker, or a Totem Warrior with the totems renamed… the Eagle becomes the Glidewing, the Wolf becomes the Clawfoot, the Bear can be the Threehorn.
  • The Carrion Tribes. The people of the Demon Wastes are savage killers bound to fiendish Overlords. For a PC, the main question is why you broke with your tribe and left the Wastes. The simple answer is the Drizzt approach: you had a revelation that now sets you in opposition to your ancestors and their demonic patrons. Perhaps you were going to be sacrificed because you have the potential to shift the Prophecy in a way that harms the Lords of Dust – and now you seek to discover how to bring that destiny about. An interesting possibility here is that your “Rage” could actually be drawing on the power of your Overlord. You could be bound to Rak Tulkhesh, and that connection still gives you power in battle… even as you oppose his plans. If your rage has such a supernatural element, it makes a good justification for Xanathar’s Storm Herald path. Strangely, you could also justify the Zealot path with necrotic damage… with the argument that even though you are drawing on the POWER of an Overlord, you don’t revere them.
  • The Ghaash’kala. The orcs of the Demon Wastes use the power of the Silver Flame to fight the Lords of Dust and the Carrion Tribes. Traditionally this is a case where I’d say “You don’t have to take the barbarian class to be a barbarian”; when I played a Ghaash’kala half-orc, he was a straight-up paladin. The Ghaash’kala certainly have paladins and clerics, but Xanathar’s Zealot path for the barbarian is a way to combine these two things together.
  • The Eldeen Reaches. Barbarians are often presented as a primal path, which is entirely in keeping with the Druidic sects of the Eldeen Reaches. You could definitely find barbarian champions protecting the roving tribes of the Towering Woods. I’ll talk more about shifters in general below. The Totem path is an easy match for any of the Eldeen sects, but I could see Storm Herald or Berserker working just as well. And the Zealot path could actually be an interesting one for a warrior of the Children of Winter – not actually worshipping a god, but channeling the power of life itself in their pursuit of undead and others who violate the natural order.
  • The Shadow Marches. The Marches are split into the largely civilized clans and the more savage tribes, and you could definitely have a tribal warrior who follows a barbaric path. Berserker is an easy choice for the typical half-orc barbarian, but Totem is equally logical for someone who follows the ways of the Gatekeepers.

This is an easy few, but there are definitely other options. Xen’drik, Q’barra, Droaam, the tundras or deserts of Sarlona – there are lots of uncivilized regions a character could come from. With that said, a barbarian doesn’t have to BE a barbarian…

A RAGE BY ANY OTHER NAME

As with the bard, let’s take a moment to look at the concrete mechanical definition of a barbarian.

  • d12 hit die – the best hit points of any class.
  • Proficiency with martial weapons, shields, and light and medium armor… essentially everything except heavy armor.
  • A skill set that certainly skews towards nature (Nature, Survival, Animal Handling)… but that includes the more general Athletics, Intimidation and Perception.
  • A barbarian is a survivor – something reflected by Unarmored Defense, Danger Sense, and Feral Instinct.
  • A barbarian is fast – as reflected by Fast Movement and Feral Instinct.
  • A barbarian can choose to take advantage on their attack rolls, at the cost of providing advantage to enemies that attack them. This is called Reckless Attack – but there’s no reason it can’t be presented as a calculated martial technique.

And finally we have Rage – the heart of the barbarian. But what IS Rage? It’s a state the barbarian enters voluntarily and can end voluntarily as a bonus action. It is tied to combat, ending early if the user doesn’t make an attack or suffer an injury. It provides resistance to damage, advantage on strength checks and saves, and a bonus to damage with melee attacks. But does it have to be “Rage”? The character remains in full control of their actions and can end the state voluntarily; they aren’t somehow clouded by a fog of war. “Rage” is a state of heightened combat ability that can only be maintained for a short time; but if you change the name to Battle Trance or something similar, you can have a very different feel. Back in 3.5 we called out the idea that Dhakaani bugbears were trained as barbarians, but that “Dhakaani barbarians are not stereotypical savages; instead, the barbarian class represents a specialized form of combat training, with the Rage ability reflecting a consciously cultivated state of battle fury.” A similar approach is suggested for the Droranath dwarves of the Mror Holds: civilized warriors who cultivate battle-rage as a weapon. Both of these examples still present it as “fury” – but there’s no reason it has to involve anger. It’s a short period where you can do more damage in melee combat and resist physical injury, along with special abilities related to your path. Let’s look at a few more variations of the barbarian.

HACKING THE SHIFTER

At the moment there isn’t a strong conversion of the Shifter in 5E. But what defined the Shifter of 3.5? Well, depending on your subtype, you got a temporary boost to your abilities that could only be maintained for a short period of time, along with traits like fast movement and tough hide. If you’re willing to simply ignore defined race and class and to call your rage “shifting”, you can make characters that FEEL like shifter champions by combining different base races with the barbarian.

Beasthide Shifter: Combine half-orc and Bear Totem barbarian. You’re strong, durable, and when you shift you’re extremely resistant to damage.

Longstrider Shifter: Combine wood elf and Eagle Totem barbarian. You’re extremely fast, and when you shift you’re faster still. You can slip into the shadows of the forest with ease. And yes, there’s some elf traits that don’t make sense – but you can interpret elven trance as “light sleeper”, saying that the shifter does sleep but will always awaken should there be any threat.

Certainly, this isn’t a long-term solution to the lack of shifter statistics… but in the short term, it works surprisingly well. We used this approach in the first 5E Eberron campaign I played in, and over the course of seven levels of play it held up just fine.

THE REVENANT BLADE

The Tairnadal believe that their ancestors work through them. The Revenant Blade specializes in channeling the spirit of their patron ancestor. Set aside all the preconceptions of the barbarian and consider it as an elite Tairnadal soldier: lightly armored, blindingly fast and comfortable in the wilds (with a wood elf base and fast movement, a base speed of 45 and able to hide in natural environs). Their high hit points reflect exceptional skill as opposed to sheer physical durability. And their “rage” is about channeling the spirit of their ancestor and letting it guide them; let’s call it Revenant Trance. For such a warrior, their resistance to damage while “raging” doesn’t reflect physical durability, but rather a preternatural ability to avoid damage. The additional damage while raging reflects absolute precision. While Ancestral Guardian might seem like a logical path for such a barbarian, that path deals with spirits that manifest BEYOND the character. Personally I think the Berserker path is a good one, just with all the effects recolored. Frenzy reflects the amazing martial abilities of the guiding spirit, with the exhaustion that follows reflecting the difficulty of channeling the spirit; Mindless Rage – which simply protects from charm and fear – reflects the patron ancestor shielding the Revenant.

One could reasonably ask “If the damage bonus from rage is about precision rather than force, shouldn’t they be able to use it with a bow?” It’s a reasonable question. But the whole point of the ancestral guidance is that it only lets you do what the ANCESTOR excelled at. This idea is based on the premise that the ancestor in question was an exceptional melee combatant with a fighting style that placed offense ahead of their own safety (explaining the “Reckless Attack” ability). The character can USE a bow… but it’s not what their patron specialized in, and thus, they gain no special benefit when they use it during their Revenant Trance.

WARFORGED JUGGERNAUT

Barbarian can also be an interesting choice for a warforged… a skirmisher designed to hit fast and hard, who can temporarily go into an overdrive mode when things are at their worst. Given the concept of a warforged as an innately magical being, I can imagine the warforged physically transforming in “rage” mode – with the resistance to damage being reflected either by ablative plating generated on the spot or by a temporary hardening of all surfaces. Personally I lean towards the Berserker model for this style of warforged, but you could reflavor Totem to reflect design as opposed to spiritual interaction. Another interesting option is to take the warforged Zealot Barbarian as a warforged built to channel the power of the Silver Flame. As a side note, in the Shadows of Stormreach story I wrote for D&D Online, I envisioned the warforged Spike as a barbarian.

HAUNTED

I just made a barbarian for a charity livestream I’m on this weekend. Max is an orphaned urchin who grew up in a bad part of a big city. His father was a blacksmith, and Max believes that his father’s spirit is still with him, strengthening and advising him. To start off, this justifies a scrawny teenager with a Strength of 16; he doesn’t LOOK strong, but something gives him the strength to wield his giant maul. His Danger Sense reflects the guidance of the spirit… and his “Rage” is about letting the spirit take over and guide his actions. I went with Berserker as my path for the simplicity of it, and because I like leaving it as a mystery whether he actually IS haunted; perhaps he’s just crazy, or perhaps he’ll discover that the spirit he thinks is his father is something else. However, if I fully embraced this idea I could see running with Ancestral Guardian and having the spirits in question be the spirits of his immediate family; nothing says that Ancestral Guardian has to be an ancient tradition.

LYRANDAR LIGHTNING BLADE

The barbarian shuns heavy armor, and has excellent unarmored defense. Combine this with the speed and reflexes of the barbarian – Fast Movement, Danger Sense, Feral Instinct – and you can imagine a swashbuckler who relies on precision instead of force. In this case, Reckless Attack again becomes a conscious style that favors offense over defense as opposed to sheer wildness. I tie this to Lyrandar because it fits with the idea of the Storm Herald path… specifically the Sea path, which ties to lightning and water. In this case I envision a Lyrandar heir who enters a battle trance using the Mark of Storm. Given that the Storm Herald suggests an ongoing storm around them, you could see the physical damage resistance as being winds that deflect incoming blows. If I was going to CHANGE rules, I’d shift the Rage Damage bonus to be lightning damage and potentially switch the Strength-related bonuses to be Dexterity related – making this a path for a finesse-driven swashbuckler who might have no Strength to speak of – but that’s not an absolute requirement to make the idea work. Obviously this is awkward when, y’know, we don’t have rules for Dragonmarks – but the point of the Lyrandar Storm Sorcerer or Barbarian is that you can use the class abilities as a way to imply the presence of the Dragonmark even if you DON’T have rules for using it on its own. Alternately, you could drop the Dragonmark entirely, shift the Storm Herald focus to Fire, and imagine an Aundairian Flame Blade — a variation of the Knight Arcane focusing on martial prowess with a touch of fire. Unarmored Defense could be flavored as a form of Mage Armor instead of pure physical toughness, with the powers of the Storm Herald being ultimately arcane in nature.

BLADES OF FURY

Rather than being the product of a civilization, the abilities of the barbarian could stem from literal madness. Either the Cults of the Dragon Below or a deep faith in The Fury could lead to ecstatic battle-rage. Depending on which path you’re taking, things like Danger Sense and Feral Instinct could be flavored as being deeply attuned to primal instinct (through the Fury) or the same, but flavored in madness (“The little man on my shoulder told me to dodge, so I did.”). Berserker is an easy path for follow, but you could also reflavor Storm Herald’s Fire path to inflict psychic damage, suggesting a character in the midst of a psychic maelstrom.

I’m going to stop here, but please share your thoughts, questions and ideas about ways to use the barbarian! And as always: Nothing here is canon in any way, and thank you to my Patreon backers, who make this blog possible!

Q&A

There is a old RTS videogame set in Eberron. In that game the basic infantry units are Silver Flame dwarven berserkers that use their religious conviction as fury.

I almost mentioned these dwarves in the original post, but they’re so obscure I skipped them. But since you brought them up… The game in question is called Dragonshard. The dwarves are the Hammerfist Dwarves, a clan that lives in isolation in the Demon Wastes, fighting the Carrion Tribes and the Demons and sustained by the power of an Irian manifest zone. Where the Ghaash’kala guard the Labyrinth, the Hammerfist Dwarves are deep in the Wastes. Like the Ghost Guardians, they oppose the darkness – but they have little contact with the Ghaash’kala.

Now: in Dragonshard the dwarves are serving with the Order of the Flame – the “Good Guy” faction – but they are not followers of the Silver Flame. Instead, they follow a tradition that runs parallel to the Undying Court of the Aereni: They have Deathless. It’s established that what you need to create Deathless is a strong manifest zone to Irian and deep devotion of a group of people. They have both in the Demon Wastes, and this has let them create their own tiny Undying Court; this is reflected by the other Dwarven unit in the game, the Deathless Guardian.

So the Hammerfist Dwarves do call on their faith when they fight, and this is about as easy a justification for a Path of the Zealot barbarian that one could ask for. On the other hand, because they are all about revering their ancestors and drawing on their undying power, the Path of the Ancestral Guardian is equally logical for them.

Dragonmarks: The Bard

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything came out recently. I want to share my thoughts on how to incorporate its new options into Eberron and at the gaming table in general… but as I started working on this, I realized that instead of just talking about the new Xanathar’s subclasses, I want to take a broader look at the classes of Fifth Edition in general and how I’d use them. So without further ado… let’s talk about BARDS.

As presented in 5E, the bard is “an inspiring magician whose power echoes the song of creation.” The PHB entry describes the bard as “a master of song, speech, and all the magic they contain.” There’s many ways to develop the idea of the performer whose work inspires listeners…

  • House Phiarlan’s Five Demesnes are the most formal bardic order in Khorvaire, and fit the structure of colleges quite well. The Demesne of Memory teaches the techniques of the College of Lore. The Demesne of Song is tied to the College of Glamour. The Demesne of Motion can be tied to the College of Swords. And the Demesne of Shadow can be tied to the College of Whispers. Note that members of any race can study with Phiarlan – though they have to have exceptional talent to earn a place in one of the Demesnes.
  • The Dirge Singers of Dhakaan primarily fall under Lore, though battlefield bards might follow Valor. I could see a particular Kech that follows Whispers, but the Duur’kala are primarily leaders; those who whisper instead of sing would be a rare few.
  • The Greensinger druids blend fey bardic traditions with their druidic magic. Glamour is an easy choice for a Greensinger bard, but I could also see Swords as the teachings of Thelanian knights.
  • Tairnadal society revolves around the heroes of the past, and the bards who tell their tales play a vital role among the Valenar. Most take to the battlefield and follow the path of Valor or Swords, inspiring through deed as well as word. It’s possible that a Tairnadal bard bridges the gap between arcane and divine; the spells and Inspiration of a Valenar bard could involve directly channeling the favor or a patron ancestor. For a PC, a critical question is why such a bard would leave their warband… but perhaps the ancestors have laid a strange path before you.

All of these are examples of inspiring entertainers. But a bard doesn’t have to be a BARD. A class is a set of mechanics, allowing a character to do certain things. These mechanics are the bones, but I’ve always believed that the flavor that’s attached to them can and should be adjusted to fit the story of a particular character.

So let’s look at the bare bones of the bard. Mechanically, what defines a bard?

  • Proficiency with light armor, simple weapons, and a few others… the hand crossbow, rapier and longsword. More of a duelist or swashbuckler than a soldier.
  • Excellent skill selection, along with Jack of All Trades and Expertise. A bard can be good at ANYTHING; they don’t have to use their Expertise on skills related to performance.
  • “Bardic Inspiration” – The ability to enhance the rolls of others.
  • Spellcasting – Flexible arcane spellcasting with a focus on enchantment, divination and illusion… along with a touch of healing.

Generally, both inspiration and bardic magic are presented as performance. The PHB says that Bardic Inspiration inspires others “through stirring words or music.” But the critical effect is that the bard can use it on one creature within 60 feet that can hear the bard – and that the benefit must be used in the next ten minutes. As long as those conditions are met, does it matter if cosmetically this benefit involves a song or speech? Or could it be that the character just gives really good advice? Does the magic have to be a performance, or can it just represent training in a particular set of arcane skills? Consider a few different ways to present a bard.

THE SPY

Background: Charlatan

Skills: Deception (B), Insight, Investigation, Persuasion, Sleight of Hand (B)

Important Spells: Friends, Message, Charm Person, Disguise Self, Detect Thoughts

Rogues are often seen as the go-to path for spies, but in a world where arcane magic is a recognized tools, spells can be far more useful than a sneak attack. If you need your spy to stab someone in the back or to dodge a fireball you want a rogue – but if you’re looking for a charming envoy who can pluck secrets from someone’s thoughts and share that information with a whispered message, a bard may be what you’re looking for. This is an excellent path for a PC who’s trained with the Trust or the Royal Eyes of Aundair… and even in the Thorn of Breland novels, we have a Dark Lantern who makes good use of Disguise Self. In these cases, as a DM I might allow the player to exchange the three musical instrument proficiencies that come with being a bard for a single proficiency with Thieves’ Tools (or they could take the Criminal background instead of the Charlatan). On the other hand, a Phiarlan or Thuranni spy USES those performance abilities as part of a cover for their spying. Either the Criminal or Charlatan background has other useful features for a spy – the false identity of the charlatan is a well established cover, while criminal contacts can easily be shifted to reflect contacts with your agency.

For a spy, Bardic Inspiration can reflect secrets – something useful you’ve noticed about a target. The spy/bard provides the beneficiary with a useful piece of information, and within the next ten minutes the target can make use of that secret to gain an advantage. Personally, I wouldn’t specify the secret until it is used… and I’d have the person benefiting from it explain what it was and how it helped. In other words, the spy says “I’m using inspiration on Bob.” Three rounds later Bob is attacking a guard and wants to add the inspiration die to his attack roll. At that point he says “Keith told me about this guy! He’s got a war wound and can’t block properly with his left arm.” Again, not knowing WHAT you’ll use the inspiration for, I can’t define the secret right away – but we establish that I’ve told you SOMETHING useful.

Looking to Colleges, there’s a few options. The College of Lore is an easy choice; a spy can use more skills (say, Stealth, Perception, and a knowledge skill of some sort); Cutting Words reflects your own ability to benefit from the secrets you’ve observed; and the ability to choose a few spells from any class list definitely provides useful options. On the other hand, the College of Whispers is good for a spy with a touch of darker magic… and is something I could definitely use for a disturbing Trust agent or a Thuranni assassin.

THE WANDSLINGER

Background: Criminal

Skills: Acrobatics, Deception (B), Perception, Sleight of Hand, Stealth (B)

Important Spells: Friends, Charm Person, Disguise Self

The Wandslinger is a scoundrel – a gambler and duelist, a literally charming troublemaker. Were I making this character, I’d make them a human from Aundair and use the variant human rules to take the Magic Initiate feat, selecting a pair of offensive cantrips to use in battle… thus justifying the name, as I’d have a few fine wands as arcane foci. A high elf could also do this with their racial cantrip. But the basic point of the character is to be a scoundrel in a society where magic is on the table – someone who can get out of trouble with a smile and a cast of Friends… even if they’ve got an angry mob coming after them when the spell wears off. You could get some of the same mileage with an Arcane Trickster rogue, but you’d have to wait a few levels to get there… and the rogue is defined by that sneak attack. This Wandslinger is about charm and charisma, preferring to talk their way throw a situation and only drawing wands  and unleashing firebolts if there’s no other option. Any College could work, but I do like the flare of the College of Swords for this character. When they use Bardic Inspiration on others, it would be along the lines of general encouragement and charisma; the optimism and confidence of the Wandslinger is infectious, together you can find a way to beat the odds.

THE SUPERSTAR

Background: Entertainer

Skills: Acrobatics (B), Deception, Insight, Performance (B), Persuasion

Important Spells: Prestidigitation, Illusion, Enthrall

In Khorvaire, magic is a tool used for warfare, healing… and entertainment. Phiarlan and Thuranni are well known for weaving illusion into their performances, but you don’t have to be an elf to get in on this act. If you follow this path, you aren’t simply a wandering minstrel; you’re an entertainer who’s built up a reputation for your amazing performances. You may know Dancing Lights, Minor Illusion, Silent Image, Faerie Fire, and Prestidigitation – because you use these spells as part of your performances. You CAN use Faerie Fire to outline an enemy in battle – but you use it to light up yourself during a performance. You might use Disguise Self for quick changes during a show, or Charm Person to deal with troublesome fans. Acrobatics may reflects actual tumbling or a remarkable talent for dance. When it comes to College, you’re all about Xanathar’s College of Glamour. It’s not that you are calling on fey powers… it’s that you are literally that good.

With the Superstar, the question is going to be why are you an adventurer? You could make a decent living on stage, and likely you already have. Do you have a literal quest to pursue – a mystical instrument you’re trying to find, or a family mystery you’re trying to unravel? Is your adventuring career a publicity stunt? Have you tired of the spotlight and you’re trying to do something meaningful with your life? Whatever the answer, you should definitely establish your previous life, as people will definitely recognize you and want you to perform!

THE MEDDLING KID

Background: Urchin

Skills: Acrobatics, Deception, Perception, Sleight of Hand (B), Stealth (B)

Important Spells: Blade Ward, Heroism, Hideous Laughter, True Strike, Vicious Mockery

In the original proposal for Eberron I explored the idea of a class called “the Journeyman.” The idea for this was the character who has no place being an adventurer… who somehow survives dangerous situations through sheer luck. There’s many ways you could go with this. You could take the Guild Artisan background and be a chronicler for the Sharn Inquisitive who wants to report the stories of REAL adventurers. You could go with Folk Hero and be everybody’s favorite bartender who got swept along with the adventurers after your bar burnt down. Or you could go the route I’m suggesting here: A character who is mechanically a halfling bard (small, fearless and lucky), but who for flavor purposes I’m describing as a human child who just has more luck than anyone deserves. They grew up on the streets of Sharn and they know their way around a big city… but they’ve still got no business being an adventurer.

Like the Revenant Blade, this is a case where I’m bending things quite a bit. First of all, while this character’s spells can BE magical effects – which is to say, they won’t work in an antimagic zone, they can be counterspelled, etc – the idea is that the character doesn’t actually KNOW magic. Rather, they are just favored by the Prophecy or similarly touched by a benign force and things just go their way… and they can share this luck with others. When they use an effect like Bardic Inspiration, True Strike or Heroism, they aren’t consciously casting a spell; they’re literally just saying something like “You can do this, Jo! I believe in you!” and it works. When they use Vicious Mockery or Hideous Laughter, they are literally just viciously mocking the target… but that insult really stings! If I was playing this character, I wouldn’t even carry a weapon; I’d rely entirely on cantrips and magic in combat, unleashing stinging insults, being surprisingly charming, and helping my friends with my ridiculous luck.

Meddling Kid or Journeyman, this isn’t a sort of character that works in every campaign. You have to have a group of players willing to bend logic a little, to accept that idea that when Little Billy casts as spell, he isn’t actually casting a spell. You have to figure out why a party of adventurers would let this character tag along. For all these reasons this sort of character often works best in a one-shot. On the other hand, if you do run with this, you have the interesting opportunity for the character to literally grow as the campaign progresses… to start off being represented as a “halfling” bard and then to evolve into a human of another class, losing their crazy luck as they grow into their actual skills.

You get the idea. The mastermind whose “inspiration” is about executing an excellent plan. The Medani detective who uses a little magic to help in their investigations (and Khoravar bards get a lot of skills to work with!), whose inspiration comes from Sherlock-style deductions about an attack or target. The chronicler who adventures to report on the greatest stories in Khorvaire… and whose inspiration comes from things they’ve seen on their journeys or facts they’ve learned. “Trust me, if he tries to charm you, just start humming!”

I could go on, but hopefully this gets the point across while also suggesting ways to use the new colleges from Xanathar’s Guide. Stretch the idea of the class, and think about the story you want it to have.

What have you done with bards in your campaign? Share your thoughts and questions below!

How would you set up an all-bard one shot adventure in Eberron?

It’s easier to do than with most classes because the bard is an inherently flexible class. You can have five bards with different skills sets and specialties – a Swords bard focused on melee combat, a Lore bard who’s got Medicine and healing magic, a Glamour bard who specializes in enchantment and manipulation. Part of the question is how you justify the team, and whether they consider themselves to be “bards” – or if they are spies, meddling kids (Really Stranger Things), or what have you. If I was making a one shot, I’d make the characters an elite Phiarlan team trained in the different demesnes. That way you could combine their artistic talents with the actual mission. They’re performing at an Aundairian diplomatic reception, but the REAL job is to rob Queen Aurala!

Dragonmarks: Magewrights and Wand Adepts

One of the underlying principles of Eberron is that magic is a part of civilization. It’s not limited to a handful of mighty wizards in ivory towers; there’s an arcane locksmith down on Third Street, next door to the medium and the guy who makes everbright lanterns. With that said, this magic is widespread and useful, but not powerful. The streets may be lit with continual flame, but teleportation and resurrection are rare… and a wish is unheard of. It’s wide magic, not high magic.

The previous article looked at common magic items and magic item creation, and considered how to make that work in 5E D&D. But magic items are only part of the wide magic of Eberron. It also embraces the idea that spellcasting can be a job – not limited to full wizards or sorcerers, but also people who do nothing but make magic lanterns or speak to the dead. Now, you may look at this article and say “In 5E, anyone can get the Magic Initiate feat – doesn’t that mean magic is just scattered throughout the world without any of this?” It only means that if YOU decide it means that, because there are no rules about NPCs acquiring feats. A player character can be a Magic Initiate, but as a DM and world designer it’s up to you to decide how that’s reflected in the wider world. In Eberron, magic is a science. People don’t just wake up one day with a new feat and know how to cast light. These things take time and training – and that produces magewrights and wand adepts.

Magewrights

A wizard is extremely versatile. Your wizard can grab a spellbook, spend a few hours studying it, and cast a spell they’ve never seen before. That’s great, because wizards are exceptional people. But in Eberron, you can cast magic without having that degree of versatility. This is the magewright, someone who spends years learning how to perform the skills and spells associated with a particular trade. In 3.5 D&D this was an NPC class, but that’s not required in 5E; instead, you can simple state that an NPC magewright has the ability to cast the spells you want them to cast. Beyond this, we can also say that the spells the magewrights can perform are different from those used by PCs – typically, because they are more limited. For example, Prestidigitation allows the caster to heat, chill, clean, soil, and more. Mending allows the caster to mend anything. But you can say that a magewright chef knows a limited version of Prestidigitation that only affects food – and that a launderer knows Prestidigitation and Mending, but can only work with cloth. The fact that the player character can mend anything is again a sign of their versatility and exceptional talent.

My idea of a magewright is that they can cast one to three cantrips or spells. They don’t require spellbooks or memorization; they have perfected these spells over the course of years. However, their cantrips may be limited (as noted above) and their spells can only be cast as rituals. So the arcane locksmith can cast Arcane Lock all day, but it takes time. I’ll talk more about ways in which these rituals differ from PC spells further below, but first, let’s take a look at a few Magewrights you could find in the world…

  • Chef: Prestidigitation, only affecting food; perhaps a form of Gentle Repose for preserving meals, or Purify Food and Drink. Proficient with cook’s utensils.
  • Healer: Detect Poison & DiseaseLesser Restoration, Spare the Dying. Proficient with Medicine and herbalism kits.
  • Launderer: Prestidigitation and Mending, both only affecting cloth.
  • Lamplighter: Light, Continual Flame. Uses tinkers’ tools to construct lanterns.
  • Locksmith: Arcane Lock, Knock. Proficient with thieves’ tools and tinkers’ tools.
  • Medium: Speak with Dead. Perhaps a form of Minor Illusion that produces an image of a dead person as they were in life. Possibly proficient in Insight and Persuasion, if they help bereaved make sense of a loss… or Insight and Deception, if they use grief to take advantage of mourners.
  • Oracle: Augury, Divination. Proficient in Insight and Investigation. This is definitely a case where I would adjust the magewright versions of these spells. In the hands of a magewright, Augury – which should be the bread and butter of a common oracle – should be able to predict outcomes farther in the future, though still only with the binary answer of woe or weal. An oracle who can perform full Divination should be rarer (it is a fourth level spell) and the ritual could take longer than usual and be more expensive.

These are just a handful of ideas; there are many possibilities. A suspicious noble could have a food taster who knows Detect Poison and Purify Food and Drink. The city watch in a major city could have a verifier who can cast Detect Thoughts and Zone of Truth. There’s also a critical spell from Eberron that’s missing in 5E, and that’s Magecraft – a spell that provides a bonus to a skill check related to crafting. So you begin to get a sense of the possibilities. But also consider the limitations.

  • What does it cost? Eberron treats magic as a science and magewrights as part of the economy. The lesser restoration spell has no cost, which is fine, because it’s NOT a ritual and player characters can’t use it that often; the “cost” is that it uses a limited spell slot. But if you’re going to introduce it as a service that can be performed by a magewright, you either need to ADD a cost or come up with an explanation for why disease still exists in the world. While every spell has unique components, it’s always been the idea that Eberron dragonshards are the basic fuel of the magical economy, and that applies here. House Tharashk refines raw shards to produce residuum, glowing powder that serves as a fuel for most rituals – so a locksmith can use residuum instead of powdered gold dust when casting arcane lock. You can add whatever cost you want to set the price of a service. Does curing a disease cost ten gold pieces or a hundred? Even the launderer might have to sprinkle a copper’s worth of residuum over the cloth they wish to cleanse.
  • What does it look like? These are jobs people do. Mechanically they involve performing a ritual. But it’s up to you to add the color to that. An oracle can cast augury as a ritual. But what are they doing in that ritual? Are they reading cards? Palms? Auras? Are they studying star charts or patterns of the planes? A locksmith can cast arcane lock. Are they tracing elaborate patterns in the air with an iron wand? Just because these things are mechanically all “spells” doesn’t mean that the magewright just chews their lip and concentrates for a few minutes, regardless of what they are doing. Add flavor!
  • Who can do this? In Eberron in particular, it’s established that the Dragonmarked Houses dominate certain fields of magical industry. One possibility is that the Houses are where you go to learn the skills of the magewright – that most locksmiths are trained and licensed by House Kundarak. On the other hand, if you want to give the houses a tighter hold you can say that many magewright rituals are restricted to someone with a particular dragonmark… that only Kundarak dwarves can master the rituals of the arcane locksmith, that only Jorasco halflings can be magewright healers. The reason you don’t see a verifier at every watch station is because it requires the Mark of Detection. This is a way to truly emphasize the power and influence of a house; if you want a magic lock, Kundarak is your only option. Of course this is specifically about magewrights; your PC wizard can cast Arcane Lock, but do you really want to make a living doing it?

So that’s the idea of the magewright: that beyond magical items, there are people in the world who can perform magical services. It’s up to you how prevalent they are in your campaign. In a major city like Sharn, you’d see many magewrights performing all sorts of services. But in a small village, they probably do their laundry the old fashioned way. Their might be a single magewright in town; what service do they provide?

Divine Magewrights? 

Under 3.5, “magewright” was an NPC class that specifically dealt with arcane magic, counterbalanced against the adept NPC class which was a limited divine caster. Using the approach I suggest above, I don’t think it’s necessary to draw that line so sharply. Certainly any single individual is either practicing divine or arcane magic, but I think that you can use this same approach either way; you as DM simply need to be clear in your mind which is which. Specifically taking the Healer and the Oracle suggested above: either one of these could be presented as either arcane or divine. An arcane healer might be a Jorasco halfling who makes no prayers, but simply weaves rituals to cleanse the sick… while a divine healer might be a Silver Flame friar whose faith allows them to heal the sick. The oracle could be studying arcane patterns or asking the divine for guidance. Someone versed in Arcana or Religion should easily be able to tell which is which, but MECHANICALLY they are the same: an individual who can perform a few magical effects but who lacks the abilities or versatility of a spellcasting class.

Notably, Xanathar’s Guide to Everything adds a spell called Ceremony that allows a priest to imbue a religious ritual with divine power, adding a magical effect to a wedding or a coming of age ceremony. Following this magewright approach, you could easily have Ceremony, Thaumaturgy, and maybe Spare The Dying as a common set of spells known by a typical lead priest in a community – a halfway between an entirely mundane priest and a full spellcasting cleric.

Wand Adepts

When we initially developed Eberron wands were powerful and disposable magic items, and we made a conscious decision not to make them everyday tools; a fighter who wanted to kill someone across a room would still rely on a bow or a crossbow. We invented the eternal wand – a wand with only two charges, but that recharged over time and could be used with less restrictions. But even there, the cost of such a wand was too great to make it feasible as something every soldier would carry… and it still required some magical training.

However, I certainly like the IDEA of the Aundairian “musketeer” with a bandolier of wands. And with the various changes to magic over the last two editions – notably, the introduction of cantrips, the idea of wands as nonmagical arcane focus items, and the Magic Initiate feat – I think there’s a lot of room to introduce the casual wand.

A wand adept learns to perform a few offensive spells, but they require an arcane focus to channel those effects. A typical wand adept knows two offensive cantrips and a single first level spell they can perform once per long rest. But all of these require the arcane focus of a wand. So one wand adept might know acid splash, poison spray, and color spray; another might have ray of frost, fire bolt and burning hands. The critical point here is that the adept requires a wand to perform these spells, but the wand isn’t magical. It’s not a magic item worth hundreds of gold pieces; it’s an arcane focus costing ten galifars. While you COULD say that any wand will do, I would further say that adept wands are specialized by effect. Looking above, I might say that an adept uses the same wand for fire bolt and burning hands… but that ray of frost requires a different wand, one attuned to cold. So you can have the Aundairian duelist flinging fire from one wand and ice from the other, and if you disarm them of one wand they’re limited until they recover it.

The principle of this is drawn from the Magic Initiate feat; it’s simply adding an additional restriction that a player character isn’t bound by, because PCs are remarkable. It’s adding the idea that offensive magic is evolving… but that most of the time a wand is a focus, and that the fully magic wands are more significant and expensive.

Now with this said: the idea of a wand adept IS that learning to use a wand requires training and effort. This is common in a place like Aundair, which places a high value on magical talent. But just as a player character who wanted to use a wand like this would need to get the Magic Initiate feat (with the wand being there for color), the wand adept has invested resources learning to use the wand that could have been spent elsewhere. If I have an Aundairian soldier blasting her foes with wands, I might give the Karrnathi knight the benefit of Heavy Armor Master or make the expert Thrane archer a Sharpshooter. The skill isn’t in the wand, it’s in the person using it… and if I introduce wand adepts, I’d want to make clear that they could have invested that skill in other ways.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR PLAYER CHARACTERS? Well, if you have the ability to cast an offensive cantrip, congratulations! You’re a wand adept. You’re so talented that you can cast your spell even without a wand, but nothing’s stopping you from using the wand for flavor. If you’re not a spellcaster, that’s what the Magic Initiate feat is for. Essentially, with the integration of cantrips as a reliable form of magical weapon, it’s more plausible to have people using magical attacks instead of mundane weapons – but at this point in time, the amount of training required to use a wand has prevented wands from replacing mundane weapons. And in that small Brelish village nobody knows how to use a wand, and they’ll consider your wand-wielding duelist to be an Aundairian hipster. If you and your DM want to embrace the idea of the wand adept, I could see a variation of the Magic Initiate feat that requires the use of a wand… perhaps in exchange for a +1 bonus to attack rolls or spell DC with these cantrips as a balance for requiring the focus.

Like magewrights, you COULD push beyond the limitations of the Magic Initiate feat. For example, putting the two concepts together, you could have a staff adept who can cast fireball as a ritual, but requires both a specialized staff and burns dragonshards with every casting. This is a way to compromise with the question of “How could the Five Nations afford to deploy magic items on the field?” It could be that the mystical artillery relied on the skills of the artillerists as much as on the power of the item… that a siege staff is just a big piece of carved wood if you don’t have someone who can use it. This of course gets into the question of war magic, as a fireball isn’t actually that useful in a truly large-scale military engagement… but THAT is a topic for another article.

Let’s Talk About Wands

Wands themselves serve a different role in 5E. When we created Eberron in 3.5, we introduced the idea of eternal wands as an evolution of “wand science” – a wand that wasn’t entirely disposable, and that could be used by a wider range of people. In 5E, that’s standard for a wand; the average wand has 7 charges and regains 1d6+1 charges every day. In addition, many wands don’t require the user to be a spellcaster; anyone can use a wand of magic missiles. This ties also to the introduction of at-will offensive magic over the last two editions… allowing for a character who prefers to rely on cantrips instead of ranged weapons. This idea of wand adepts is about incorporating the evolution of these mechanics into the setting in a logical way. If this is how magic works, this is how we would see it in the world.

With that said, this can cause some confusion about what exactly a wand IS. As I see it, there are three types of wands in the world.

  • Unaligned Focus Item. As described on pages 151 and 203 of the PHB. This is a wand that is generally designed for channeling arcane energy, but not for any particular purpose; a wizard can use that one wand for all of their spells. This has a base cost of 10 GP… but I’ll talk more about this later.
  • Aligned Focus Item. This is what a wand adept uses. The idea is that the design or components of the wand predispose it to channeling a particular type of energy; a “fire wand” might be made from charred wood harvested from a Fernian manifest zone. The wand has no innate power, but it’s easier to channel a particular type of energy through it, and a wand adept needs that boost. So the wand doesn’t grant you the ability to cast Burning Hands; it’s simply that if you’re a wand adept who knows how to cast Burning Hands, you still need a fire-aligned wand to cast the spell. This still has a base cost of 10 GP.
  • Actual Magic Item. This is a Wand of Fireballs or Wand of Magic Missiles. The magic is IN THE WAND… in the case of a Wand of Magic Missiles, ANYONE can use it. Many wands require “Attunement by a spellcaster” and I would allow the talents of a wand adept to count for this purpose – so if you’re a wand adept, you can attune a Wand of Lightning Bolts, even if it’s not a spell you can cast alone. You are trained in the science of wandcraft, and the power is in the wand. In 5E, a Wand of Fireballs is rare. So they definitely EXIST, but they are expensive and NOT things you’d see a common soldier carrying; We’re talking thousands of galifars, as opposed to the 10 gp aligned wand. Someone pulling out a Wand of Fireballs is like someone producing a bazooka.

Now, there’s definitely room for middle ground here… and that’s the enhanced focus item. As it stands, a fire-aligned focus item is simply restrictive – saying that the wand adept MUST have a fire-aligned wand to cast fire spells. But you could also have fancy aligned wands that provide BENEFITS when you channel certain types of spells. For example, a darkwood wand studded with Mabar crystals that adds +1 DC to any necromancy spells you cast using the wand. That should cost more than 10 GP, but certainly less that 4,000 GP. A wand adept could use it as a focus for necromancy spells, but I’d generally allow a wizard to use it with ANY spells – it’s just that necromancy spells get a bonus.

Post your thoughts and questions below. In my next article I’ll be getting back to Xanathar’s Guide to Everything and how I’d incorporate it into my Eberron campaign. Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters, who make it possible for me to spend time on this site.As always, bear in mind that nothing I say on this site is canon; these are simply ideas that I’m exploring.

Dragonmarks: Common Magic, Part One

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything was released recently, and it includes a host of options for players and gamemasters. Over the next month I’ll explore how I’d incorporate some of these ideas and options into Eberron. Right now I want to tackle a subject that intersects only partially with XGtE: the question of how Eberron can coexist with the limited magic of default 5E D&D.

The first thing to bear in mind is that Eberron is not a high magic setting – it’s a wide magic setting. Eberron is built upon the premise that arcane magic behaves as a science and would thus become integrated into the world in a scientific manner. But one of the other basic principles of Eberron is that high-level characters are rare… and this ties to the magic that’s available. Here’s a few basic principles to consider.

  • In comparing Eberron to our world, we’ve always said that it’s closer to the late 19th century than to the present day. We have magical equivalents to the telegraph and the railroad and we’re just getting started with air travel. But we don’t have widespread equivalents to automobiles, telephones, or the like.
  • Wide magic generally includes effects that mimic spells of up to third level. Spell effects of up to fifth level – teleportation, raise dead, cloudkill – are known, but rare. Higher level effects are still “magical.”
  • Making a breakthrough in magic is exactly as difficult as making a breakthrough in science. Why hasn’t someone invented an airship anyone can fly? Because they haven’t figured out how to do it, just like WE haven’t figured out cold fusion or time travel.

Which brings us to two issues: magic items in the world and magic item creation. Under third and fourth edition, magic item creation and costs are very concrete and mechanical, and this lent itself to a vision of a world where you could go to a store and buy a +2 flametongue (and maybe ask the smith to customize the flames for you). Fifth edition initially didn’t have rules for creating magic items and ran with the idea that even a +1 weapon was a remarkable treasure. For some, this meant it was impossible to reconcile Eberron with the system. For me, it’s all about setting expectations: what is common magic? 

I mentioned earlier that “wide magic” involves spell effects between 0-3rd level. Just start at the bottom and look at what you can do with those effects. My favorite spell for this is prestidigitation. Using this cantrip, you can…

  • Light a mundane fire.
  • Instantly clean an object of limited size.
  • Instantly chill, warm, or flavor food.

If we accept that these are basic principles of magic – that we’ve figured out how to use magic to produce these effects using trivial (cantrip) amounts of magic – and you have the principles you need to create magical counterparts to the refrigerator (chill food), microwave (warm food), vacuum cleaner (clean room), lighter (firestarter) and washing machine (clean clothes). These things won’t look like our tools, and they won’t act like them. Instead of a vacuum cleaner, you might have a Sorcerer’s Apprentice broom that sweeps itself, of a fancier whisk broom that simply vaporizes dirt when you wave it over a floor. Such items won’t be cheap, but they also needn’t be ridiculously expensive; what you’re talking about is an object that only does a sliver of an effect of a cantrip.

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything presents a host of items with this level of power, which it calls common magic itemsClothes of Mending automatically mend themselves at the end of each day. The Ear Horn of Hearing negates the deafened condition while it’s in use. Some of these common items already exist in Eberron. The Instrument of Illusions is essentially the Thurimbar Rod, an illusion-based instrument developed in Zilargo; and the shapeshifting Cloak of Many Fashions is similar to Eberron’s shiftweave, if somewhat more versatile. As I mentioned in a previous article, something that’s often overlooked in Eberron is the idea of glamerweave – fabric infused with illusion. You could have a cloak with a lining of stars, or a blazer emblazoned with what appear to be actual flames.

The short form is that the common magic items of XGtE are a good model for things that could be common in Eberron – and something you can use as inspiration in creating other items or setting a scene. For me, the key is to look for principles demonstrated by a low level spell and consider how that could be harnessed as a tool. For example, the Sivis sending stone is based on the principle of the spell whispering wind, which delivers a short message to a specific distant location – more limited than sending, but lower level. When you do create a new item or effect, one thing to consider is that if it’s TOO useful, it might be something that’s only found as a dragonmark focus item, especially if the effect is clearly related to a dragonmark’s sphere. Whispering wind is a simple effect – but I still decided to limit it to Sivis, because from a story perspective it’s interesting to have the house have a near-monopoly on swift communication.

So common magic items could indeed be common. With that said, I think it’s reasonable for uncommon items to be uncommon — not something you see in every household, but things that CAN be manufactured and purchased. When you go to rare and legendary items, you can keep them rare and legendary. Perhaps they’re relics of fallen civilizations, or creations of advanced ones (such as the Chamber or the Lords of Dust). Perhaps they are one of a kind things created under special circumstances — during particular planar conjunctions, using unique Siberys shards, or even fashioned in other planes. Perhaps that Elven blade was forged by a member of the Undying Court and imbued with a fraction of her spirit. In short, there’s room for magic to be both commonplace and truly magical. That everburning torch is just a tool you can buy at any Cannith forgehold… but that Vorpal Sword is a legendary weapon spoken of in song and story. Meanwhile, magical weapons can have lesser magical effects – a self-sharpening sword, an axe that glows on command – things that are useful and magical, but don’t have to have the same impact as a bonus to attack and damage. I have many thoughts about wands, but I’ll delve into that in my next article.

In considering these things, XGtE also helps with its classification of magic items as major or minor in addition to the rarities. Minor uncommon items should be easier to acquire than major uncommon items. The short form is to think about what it means for a magic item to be something that can simply be purchased. If that thing is a reliable tool that exists in the world for anyone who has enough money to acquire it, how should it impact your story?

MAGIC ITEM CREATION

So we’ve established a general yardstick for what exists in the world. The next question is what can player characters create, and how can they create it? The first thing to point out here is that whatever system House Cannith uses to make wands isn’t going to be the same system a player character uses. While Eberron doesn’t have full-on manufacturing plants, the creation of magic items is an industry. Creation Forges are the most dramatic tools available to House Cannith, but they have a host of lesser ways to improve the process of production. They may literally have enchanted assembly lines — not automated, but still, facilities designed to efficiently produce a particular type of item and enhanced with various magical effects. They acquire rare components in mass quantities – which ties to another largely unrealized idea in Eberron, that dragonshards are a critical part of creating magic items and serve as the fuel of the magical economy. Cannith may have lesser focus items that channel the Mark of Making. And they certainly have secret techniques or patterns for making specific items as efficiently as possible (which is to say, schema).

Meanwhile, your wizard or artificer is literally a guy making a thing in a garage. Cannith can make a wand of fireballs faster and cheaper than you can. But the one you make is going to be entirely unique. And perhaps you can make something they’ve never figured out how to make – because you’re an innovator, not just working on the assembly line.

All of which is to say that this actually works well with the model of magic item creation presented in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything… making the creation of a magic item part of an adventure as opposed to simply a formula you fill out with gold and XP. You can’t replicate the process Cannith uses to make a wand of fireballs, because you don’t have their facilities, resources or specialized expertise. BUT, if you could get ahold of an elemental heart from Fernia, you could use that to create your wand! And what do you know, you’ve heard that you can acquire such a thing by hunting drakes in a Fernian manifest zone in the Blade Desert. If you can get that heart, a thousand GP worth of refined Eberron shards, and a good piece of darkwood you can carve into a wand – give it a few weeks and you can make it happen.

So I like the XGtE model; just bear in mind that what you are doing ISN’T the same thing House Cannith does when they are producing something. What you are creating will be unique – and again, for that reason and because PCs are remarkable, it may be that you can create something that Cannith cannot create.

In my next article I’ll write about magewrights and wand adepts. Until then, post your questions and thoughts below. Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters, who make these articles possible.

Illimat is in the Wild!

In 2015 Colin Meloy and Chris Funk presented me with a mysterious board with a small box in the center. Could you make this into a game? Something that feels like it could be a hundred years old and just forgotten — something you might find in the back of your grandfather’s attic? It was a crazy challenge, and the board sat in my basement for a few months while I thought about what sort of game it wanted to be. I playtested my first prototype with my father almost exactly two years ago today. And now that game is a reality. You can get Illimat at Illimat.com or at The Decemberists website, and you can check to see if it’s available at your FLGS; if you’re in the Pacific Northwest, I know it’s currently available at Mox Boarding House and Guardian Games. 

Illimat is built on the foundation of classic card games, such as Gin, Cassino, and Scopa. It’s about creating and collecting sets of cards, and if you’ve played any traditional card game you’ll pick up the basics quickly. But there’s a twist! The box is placed in the center of the board, and it sets the season for each of the four fields… and that in turn limits the actions you can take in a field. So you can do anything in summer, but you cannot harvest (collect) cards in Winter; you cannot stockpile (combine) cards in Spring; and you can’t sow (discard) in Autumn. When you play a face card you change the season to match that card, so when I harvest with the King of Summer, it becomes Summer in that field. This adds a dynamic element, as every turn of the Illimat changes what’s possible… and it’s extremely satisfying when you can block an opponent’s play by turning the Illimat to Winter. 

A second twist comes in the form of the Luminaries, Tarot-sized cards that are dealt into the corners of the board. When a field is cleared, the Luminary in that corner is revealed… and every Luminary has a unique ability that affects the rules of the game. Like the Illimat, this is a dynamic element that keeps each game fresh.

I’m proud of Illimat, and I hope you’ll check it out! A special thanks to all the Kickstarter backers who made it possible for us to create it. If you have any questions or comments, share them below.

The Luminaries are cards in Illimat that depict iconic characters and things — The Changeling, The Forest Queen, The River — and generally have the flavor of tarot cards. Are the tales of the Luminaries contained in the Decemberists’ songs? Or will they be? 

Yes. The Luminaries included in the core Illimat set represent characters and themes from the Decemberists album The Hazards of Love. The expansion includes Luminaries inspired by The Crane Wife.

If you were to bring Illimat into Eberron, as a game played like Conqueror or Three Dragon Ante, what would you alter? Would Luminaries be kept as they are as tales passed from Thelanis, or would you change them to signifiers like Galifar monarchs or legendary figures from the past?

For anyone who doesn’t understand the question, Eberron is a fantasy world I created for Dungeons & Dragons. 

Personally, I think it’s easy to ground the existing Luminaries in the setting. I’d establish the basic story of The Hazards of Love as a tale tied to Thelanis, and as such, something that could play into a campaign. The Forest Queen is an archfey who rules an endless taiga in Thelanis. She took The Changeling as a child, but The Maiden wandered through a manifest zone into Thelanis and she and the Changeling fell in love. The Forest Queen called on The Rake to deal with the Maiden, but with a little help from The River and the Rake’s murdered Children the Changeling manages to rescue the Maiden, and they all drown happily leaving only The Newborn behind.

Once I’ve established the tale in the campaign and people have played some Illimat, I’d introduce the Forest Queen as an archfey who could be a patron, enemy or both… and the Rake as a potential foe. Depending on the power level of the players and the role I want him to play, the Rake could be a powerful fey; a full archfey in his own right; or perhaps a human warlock/rogue who’s made bargains with a range of dark powers in order to satiate his desires. Given the whole idea of the powers of Thelanis as figures known from story, it would be a fun way to have players learn the story and then encounter these spirits in the world.

 Any more questions about Illimat? Ask below!

Dragonmarks: People of the Five Nations

It’s another busy week. I’m working on new material for Phoenix: Dawn Command and doing events for the launch of Illimat. Now I’m at PAX Unplugged doing Illimat demos – if you’re at PAXU, stop by the Twogether Studios booth (449)! But I have time for a quick question from Patreon

Could we get a quick rundown on what the humans of each of the Five Nations commonly look like, physically? Or are they a grab bag of all possible looks we have in reality?

The humans of the Five Nations are ethnically diverse. Humanity didn’t evolve on Khorvaire. It began on Sarlona, where environments range from desert to arctic tundra and everything in between. Humanity came to Khorvaire in multiple waves of explorers, settlers and refugees and the Five Nations were built from this stew. On the coasts of Khorvaire you can find communities that can trace their roots back to particular nations, such as the Khunan humans of Valenar. But few of the people of the Five Nations have any concept of their Sarlonan roots; over the course of generations they’ve blended and merged. So yes, they are a grab bag of all possible looks you can imagine. Rather than being judged by the color of your skin, you’ll be evaluated by your accent, attitude and fashion. Karrns are stoic and stolid, while Aundairians tend to be dramatic and expressive.

Consider this picture, which comes from the “Humans” entry in the original 3.5 Eberron Campaign Setting.

There’s five humans and five nations… but nothing in the entry indicates who these people are or where they’re from. From left to right, here’s where I’d place them.

  • Vyenne is a duelist from Aundair. Her ruffles and hairstyle reflect the latest trends in Fairhaven fashion; while her dress appears constricting, the fabric is surprisingly flexible. She doesn’t wear armor because it’s so plebian; she’ll conjure mage armor when trouble strikes. She uses a flail in a style known as chain dancing, a technique full of dramatic flourishes, trips and disarms; it’s perfect both for showing off and embarassing an opponent. She’s also a wand adept; the three short rods in her belt are arcane foci used for channeling her talents. Unlike her neighbor, who still insists on launching sticks at his enemies. Does he know it’s almost 1000 YK?
  • Castor is a retired templar from Thrane. Compared to Vyenne, his clothing is simple and practical. He’s comfortable in his breastplate and he carries his weapons as a matter of course. He’s not looking for a fight, but he knows that danger can come at any time and he’s always ready to defend the people of his community from unexpected threats. He’s reasonably friendly – he genuinely likes people – but he is always serious and watchful, with no time for frivolity and no need for luxury. When he spoke with Vyenne, he didn’t realize she was mocking him.
  • Meris is from Cyre. She’s the last survivor of a prominent wizard’s circle in Metrol, and while she’s lost her homeland and her friends, she still ahs her pride. If you look closely you’ll see that her fine clothing is a little worn; she’s done her best to keep it fresh with mending and prestidigitation, but there’s only so much magic can do. Her ornate staff is merely a fancy arcane focus, but it belonged to her mentor in the circle and it’s her most treasured possession.
  • Harkan is a mercenary from Karrnath. Like Vyenne, he balances his martial skills with a touch of magic; this is less common in Karrnath than it is in Aundair, but it’s catching on. Where Vyenne likes her wands and her elegant chain dancing, Harkan carries a staff and is quite straightforward about crushing you with his mace. He is almost always found in armor. He’s generally curt, direct, and he doesn’t like you.
  • Baris is an entertainer from Breland; he’s generally found playing at one of the taverns in Lower Dura. He’s not part of any of the gangs, but he’s got friends in the Boromar Clan, House Tarkanan and even Daask; as such, he’s sometimes called upon to act as a go-between or mediator. While he generally keeps his hands clean, he’s not above picking the pocket of foolish tourist who has a little too much to drink.

Reflecting a little on how their cultures have shaped them… Vyenne is very gifted and wants the world to know it. She uses magic in her everyday life and considers those who don’t to be backwards. Appearance and opinions matter to her. By contrast, Castor reflects the values of the Silver Flame. He’s got an ascetic streak, and has no interest in luxuries or fancy talk. He genuinely cares about others and is prepared to put his life on the line to protect the innocent should supernatural threats arise… and he is always prepared for a threat to arise, which means he rarely drinks or engages in frivolous activities. Meris was once a wealthy socialite but has lost almost everything; she knows her courtly graces and keeps up up her mask when among strangers, but sometimes she prefers the company of her ghosts and memories to the salons she used to love. Harkan is grim, direct and focused on his work. He’s reliable, deadly, and not a lot of fun. Finally, Baris is a liar and a thief… but he also prefers diplomacy to war. He’s willing to take a lot of risks to help his friends, and he has a lot of friends.

What historical equivalent should I look to for fashion in Eberron? I’ve heard everything from late medieval/early Renaissance to 1920s and would you to hear at least /your/ take.

It’s hard to map Eberron’s fashions to Earth’s history because it’s not Earth. It’s a world where glamorweave and shiftweave exist, where arcane focuses are common fashion accessories. In our history armor was rendered obsolete by the prevalence of the musket. In Eberron, armor is often worn either as a practical tool or as a fashion statement, and I think that armor is more comfortable and flexible than equivalents we know from our history. It’s hard to imagine a medieval knight comfortably wearing jousting armor to a tavern, but that’s a perfectly valid choice for a fighter… which leads me to think that the plate itself is simply better made than we know. Essentially, I feel that there is a concept of practical armor. Light armor in particular often won’t read as armor: you might be wearing a heavy leather trenchcoat with long gauntlets and high boots. It’s protective, but you don’t necessarily look like a soldier. Moving up from there armor will clearly be armor, but there will still be designs that are intended for everyday use or social occasions as opposed to being made strictly for the battlefield. Even looking to heavier armors, it’s worth noting whether your character is wearing the uniform of a soldier, or if you’re wearing more personal and social armor (like Harkan in the illustration above).

I think this concept generally extends. If people are wearing what we generally consider as “fantasy” clothing, keep in mind that it’s evolved beyond that of the middle ages, and may be more practical, better made, more colorful, and so on. Beyond this, it’s good to fully understand glamerweave. This is clothing with fabric imbued with illusion. The possibilities of this are nearly endless, and to my mind the +100 gp price tag is simply a general overview. At the low end (likely less than 100 gp) you could simply have colors or textures that cannot be found in nature. At the high end you can have truly fantastic designs: a cloak that has a rippling starfield for its lining, leather armor that appears to be made from dragonscales, a Lyrandar noble dressed in a shirt that has the pattern of a storm – an if it’s truly fancy, perhaps it shifts and grows more thunderous based on the wearer’s mood. Essentially, this is a world where illusion exists and is used as part of fashion – so use your imagination and think about what’s possible.

Beyond that, I’m not a fashion expert. I look to the illustrations in the books for inspiration, and I think of the general tone of the nation. In Aundair you have more glamorweave and shiftweave, along with a general love of complexity and ostentatious display. Thranes are more practical and austere, always ready for trouble (so more casual armor), with some ornate displays of faith. Karrns are likewise practical, martial, and dressed to deal with a harsher climate. The Brelish are in a more tropical climate and fall in the middle – not as in love with fashion as the Aundairians, but neither as spartan as the Thranes or Karrns. And in Cyre you had both more widespread wealth and a love of art and artistry… but now carrying the scars of loss.

What are YOUR thoughts on fashion in the Five Nations? Share your thoughts below!

Phoenix: Dhakaani Command

The Empire faces the greatest challenge in its history. Alien horrors have torn through the walls of reality and even the legions of Dhakaan can’t stop these terrors. Madness is sweeping over cities and your kin are being transformed into monsters. No mortal can face the Lords of Xoriat in battle. But you’re no longer mortal. You’ve fought your way back from Dolurrh to protect Dhakaan. You’re a Phoenix, and you have seven lives to save the world.  

In the past people have asked me how I’d adapt Phoenix: Dawn Command to the Eberron setting. The trick is that PDC is designed to tell a specific sort of story: a tale of champions who may have to lay down their lives to defend the world they care about. The default Eberron setting of 998 YK is intentionally open-ended… there’s a lot of problems brewing in the world, but you don’t have the sort of existential threat that drives the action of Phoenix. But there’s a period in Eberron’s history that fits the bill nicely, and it’s a period I’ve always wanted to explore in more depth: the conflict between the Empire of Dhakaan and the forces of Xoriat, the Realm of Madness.

So look back through the ages, to a time before humanity set foot on Khorvaire. It is a golden age. The elves have been driven back to their foul island. The aggressive lizardfolk and savage orcs are confined to the barren wilds, lands with no value to the Empire. It’s an age of order and reason… and perhaps this is what drew the many eyes of the Daelkyr. Now Xoriat is unleashing its power against Dhakaan. The war takes many forms, each one more terrible than anything that’s come before. Armies of aberrations surge through gates and manifest zones. Soldiers fall beneath the gaze of the eye tyrants. Flayers feast on the brains of living prisoners, and their bodies are used to create new monsters. Dhakaan has the finest armies in the known world, but many of these threats cannot be fought with steel or adamantine alone. What army can triumph when madness turns allies into enemies? Defeating the Daelkyr will require champions who can venture into the deepest darkness and wrest the secrets from this foe. You may not survive the battles that lie ahead, but it won’t be the first time you’ve died and it won’t be the last.

SEVEN LIVES TO SAVE THE EMPIRE

The principle of Phoenix is simple. You lived a normal life and you died. You could have been a hero in your first life — a deadly assassin from the Silent Knives, a dirge singer, a chainmaster — or you might have been a simple farmer or bootmaker. But regardless of your achievements in your first life, you possessed courage and strength of will… and these things didn’t go unnoticed or unrewarded. Your spirit was pulled from Dolurrh and into a demiplane of Irian known as the Crucible. There, you went through trials to prove your courage and to hone your skills. You overcame every challenge you faced, and now you have been reborn. You’re infused with the power of the Eternal Dawn. You’re not immune to the corruption of Xoriat, but you can resist it and take on enemies that no mortal could face. If you die, you’ll return to the Crucible once more, and if you can overcome the trials again you will return even stronger. But there’s a limit to the power you can contain. You have seven lives to save the Empire; after that, you can finally rest.

HEROES OF DHAKAAN

One of the nice things about Phoenix is that the powers of a Phoenix overshadow racial differences. So as a Phoenix, the differences between a goblin and a bugbear are largely cosmetic… though easily represented by traits. As a goblin you might take Small & Quick; as a bugbear you could take Too Big To Fail. So let’s consider a wing of Phoenixes you could find in Dhakaan…

  • Maul is a Bitter bugbear. He was raised to be the fist of Dhakaan, and dreamt of dying in battle. Instead, he was caught in an outbreak of madness and torn apart by his own family. He’s filled with fury and yearns to unleash it against the Daelkyr. His talon is his spiked chain, and he is Reckless, Too Big To Fail, Crude But Effective, and Vengeful. However, his Death Wish may get him into trouble…
  • Dirge is a Devoted hobgoblin. In her time in the Crucible she studied with one of the first dirge singers, and she will use the knowledge she’s gained to guide her allies and the Empire. She’s The Smartest Person In The Room, The Heart Of The Wing, Inspiring and Noble… and she’s Seen This Before.
  • Grim is a Durant hobgoblin. He’s a Seasoned Veteran whose Absolute Conviction will help him resist madness, and a skilled Commander and Paragon whose martial skills make him all but Untouchable in battle..
  • Shiv is a Shrouded goblin. She won’t speak about her past, and no one knows if she was one of the Khesh’dar in her first life. But she’s Small & Quick and remarkably Sneaky… and when it comes to uncovering secrets, her Supernatural Senses and Psychometry can help her make Brilliant Deductions
  • Worg is a Forceful goblin. He always wanted to be one of the Tarka’khesh, but he was killed as a child; in the Crucible he ran with actual wolves and learned the ways of the wild. He’s a Feral Hunter with Killer Instincts, and when he strikes he’s a Blur of Motion that’s Terrifying to his foes. 
  • The final member of the wing is Ash, an Elemental goblin. In life he was a sapper and siege engineer; as a Phoenix he is a Pyromancer with the power to unleash pure elemental force on his foes. More often than not, his Astonishing Luck and Extensive Training are the only things keeping him alive. But trust him: he’s got a Master Plan and he Makes It Look Easy

This small unit can go places no legion could reach and face enemies that would scatter armies. The fight against Xoriat will take them into Kyrzin’s liquid labyrinths and toe to toe with the colossus of Orlassk. If you’ve ever wanted to grab a beholder by the eyestalks and hurl it into an army of dolgrims, this may be the story for you.

HOW DOES THIS WORK?

This is a high-level idea for a Phoenix campaign. If you have the Phoenix: Dawn Command core set, you could choose to set your story in the last days of Dhakaan instead of Dalea. Many of the existing Challenges can be reflavored to fit the storyline; the Chant is a contagious madness created by the Daelkyr, the Fallen lesser spirits of Xoriat or opportunistic spirits from other planes. The core story remains intact: you are the champions of the Empire, seeking to defend its people against supernatural terrors. Because of the nature of Phoenix you don’t need special rules for different goblin subspecies; the characters described above are all made using the standard PDC creation tools.

What I love about this is that it’s an opportunity to delve into an interesting period in Eberron’s past and to be on the front lines of an epic struggle. It could be an interesting parallel to a modern D&D campaign that’s also dealing with the Daelkyr; perhaps the Phoenixes in the past will manage to stall a threat that will finally become active again in 998 YK. But it’s well-suited to the things Phoenix does best: high-stakes action, suspense and mystery.

As Eberron remains under lock and key I’m limited in what I could do to support this… but there’s a lot that could be done without treading on Eberron’s unique IP. I couldn’t specifically incorporate the Shaarat’khesh or the Duur’kala, but I could write up some ideas about an empire of goblin assassins and hobgoblin bards facing an invasion of horrors from beyond time and space. If you’d be interested in seeing a PDF of PHOENIX: GOBLIN WARS, let me know below!

Phoenix: Dawn Command is currently available at the Twogether Studios website. The core set is currently $59.95 with free shipping in the US; this gives you everything you need for a gamemaster and up to four players, including a seven-mission adventure path (not set in Dhakaan, but it could be adapted…). If you have questions or thoughts, post them below!

I have a somewhat opposite question, a thought experiment if you will. Is it possible to run a game of Phoenix with the D&D system? What would be the main challenges?

It’s not as simple as it seems. PDC is designed around the idea of heroic sacrifice; D&D is a game where death generally means failure. Here’s a few critical design differences.

  • The reason PDC uses cards instead of dice is because it provides a player with more narrative control. There’s rarely any wasted action. From round to round there’s a random aspect – what cards do you have in your hand – but you know what you have to work with BEFORE you take your action. Essentially, you already know your die rolls – it’s a matter of what you’ll do with them.
  • Beyond this, you have a pool of magical energy – Sparks – that you can use to push your results beyond what you’re currently capable of – essentially, adding them to your die roll. So you can buy success… but when you run out of Sparks, you die. Again, this means that results often are about player choice as opposed to a random roll.
  • In D&D, the success of an attack is determined by my attack and damage rolls as DM and your potential saving throw as a player. In Phoenix, it’s a question of whether you want to use your cards for defense or save them — potentially suffering damage you could avoid because you want to conserve your resources to do something awesome on your next action. Sometimes you may not have the cards you’d need to avoid an attack, in which case there’s no choice – but even there, you know that you can’t dodge your enemy, it’s not a random thing.
  • Tying all these points together: In D&D you may die because the monster rolled a critical hit or because you failed a saving throw – all random things. You’re at the mercy of the dice. In Phoenixes, most of the time a PC dies by choice – because they’re burning all their sparks to do something amazing, or because they’re throwing themselves in front of an ally, jumping on the grenade, holding the bridge against the balrog.
  • Tied to all that: because of sparks and because death isn’t the end, it’s possible for characters of different power levels to work together far more effectively than characters of different level in D&D. The more times you die, the more power you have… but the more wisely you have to use it, lest you run out of lives and die your final death. The low-level character can be more reckless. They can hold the bridge against the balrog – an act that doesn’t take raw power, but rather just the courage to smash the bridge while you’re standing on it. And because of Sparks they can perform acts that are beyond their normal capabilities… it’s just that they may kill themselves doing it. But if they’re on their early lives, that’s OK. Essentially, a 2nd level D&D character may not have anything useful to contribute in a party of 12th level characters, while a Rank One Phoenix can still do something just as impressive as a Rank Five Phoenix – they just can’t sustain that level of performance without dying.
  • Beyond that, you have a lot of other little differences. Since D&D is built around the idea of not dying you have lots of forms of healing that simply eliminate wounds. In Phoenix, the primary method of healing is the Devoted, who can take on the wounds of others… but that means SOMEONE is still wounded. The Devoted can heal themself by inflicting their wounds on enemies – but it’s a weightier thing than just slugging a potion of healing.

Basically, Phoenix isn’t just like D&D but you level up when you die. D&D is built around the d20, a random factor with a wide variance. It has a lot of uncertainty. PDC is built around emphasizing player choice. You have your resources in hand and you need to decide how to spend them. You don’t die because you made a bad roll; you die because the thing you’re trying to accomplish is so important that it’s worth it to die if that’s what it takes.

Dragonmarks: Locks and Wards

It’s a busy month. I’m working on a Phoenix article, and Illimat is being released next week! But in the meantime, I wanted to address a few more questions from my Patreon supporters.
I always tell my players that thieves’ tools in eberron look more like specialized artificer’s tools than lockpicks. What are some examples of locks of different qualities that might exist in a society where magic is a science & spells like knock exist to trivialize purely mechanical locks?
I’m going to start by addressing the general principle of locks in the setting, and then move on to specific examples of locks and tools. First of all: The existence of a tool — the knock spell — that can bypass any mundane lock doesn’t mean that people will suddenly give up on using mundane locks. There’s an increasing number of tools – both technological and mundane – that can unlock a lock on a car door, and failing that anyone can put a rock through a window; and yet we still lock our cars. We haven’t equipped every car with a new impregnable lock and we haven’t just given up on locks entirely. Instead, we accept that our lock isn’t perfect, but it will keep out any casual intruder — at least requiring some degree of effort or skill.
The same principle applies to Eberron. Go to a typical village and people will be using bars or mundane locks, because they don’t expect people to be running around with fancy knock spells, and if they do have them spells, well, there’s nothing you can do about it. My barn might get struck by lightning and burn down, but I can’t afford a lightning ward, so it goes.
But let’s assume that you’re serious about security. Your lock isn’t just a delaying tactic, it’s supposed to keep people out. Here’s some options.
  • Arcane Lock. The standard in security, available from any good Kundarak locksmith. This enhances the difficulty of forcing/picking a lock by mundane means. A knock spell suppresses an arcane lock, but if the arcane lock is combined with a mundane lock they’ll still have to bypass that, even if it’s at normal difficulty.
  • Multiple Mundane Locks. Each casting of a knock spell only opens one lock (according to the 5E SRD). Stick five locks on your door and you’ll at least make it costly for a caster.
  • Alarm. This doesn’t make a lock harder to open, but it warns you when it is opened. It’s not affected by knock. See notes below.
  • Glyph of Warding. Typically this is a one-shot spell, but Kundarak can certainly make reusable glyphs that recharge after a period of time. A GoW isn’t affected by Knock, so it’s your ultimate deterrent against the person who thinks their wand of knock is a key to all doors. Bear in mind that most people aren’t going to want to set off explosions in their homes, but a GoW can produce any spell effect of 3rd level or below. I’d make the price of a Kundarak recharging glyph vary based on the level of the associated effect, so more people would have a 1st level GoW than a 3rd. Any sort of targeted offensive spell is an option for an aggressive lock, but here’s a few other ideas…
    • Guilt Trap. Charm Person/Suggestion variant that makes the victim feel shame for their actions and causes them to dissuade other would-be thieves, or even to try to defend the house from them if necessary.
    • Unwelcome Mat. A simple Command effect that targets anyone that can hear it, ordering them to leave!
    • Sleeper. A Sleep spell, which would generally be combined with an Alarm to summon guards. Web or Hold Person are other options.
    • Guardians. While Conjure Animals is an option, Spirit Guardians are cleaner and harder to deal with – an excellent option to make life difficult if there are additional locks that need to be bypassed.
The magical options — alarm, GoW and arcane lock — all have a wide range of options for how they can be disarmed. A password is the simplest option, allowing anyone who knows the password to use the door. But they can also be keyed to virtually any sort of biometrics — to individuals, to particular races, to possessing a particular object. Kundarak certainly produces combination arcane/mundane locks where the trigger that deactivates the arcane lock simultaneously unlocks the mundane lock, so you can have a place where even these fancy locks can be opened with just a word or a touch of a hand, instead of requiring an additional key… though if the magic is deactivated by knock, this combo lock would be stuck in the locked position.
So looking back to the original question: what do locks look like?
  • Simple, mundane locks or bars. Common in any place that simply isn’t that concerned about serious security.
  • Multiple mundane locks or bars. We’re concerned about security, but not enough to pay for magic.
  • A simple combination arcane/mundane lock. We’ve got money and we take things seriously. The arcane lock could be keyed to a phrase or a keycharm.
  • Lockless doors sealed purely by arcane locks. Opened when someone who meets the right conditions (could be biometric, could be carrying a key charm) touches the door. Looks cool, but a knock spell will get you right inside… though the door could also have an alarm triggered if anyone opens the door without properly unlocking it.
  • A serious door could be more formal. Take a Kundarak Manticore lock. There’s a Manticore bust by the door. You need to place your hand on the bust and speak the keyword; it check both biometrics (say, Kundarak dwarf) and the phrase. If you fail to meet either condition it triggers the glyph of warding. Meanwhile, the door has four mundane locks and an arcane lock. Take that, knock spell. If I was having a rogue disarm it, I’d give them a chance at a high DC to disarm the entire system at once — or they could work on each system and lock separately, but it would take a lot of time and the risk of the alarm or glyph reactivating if they take too long.
The manticore is simply one example of a fancier system. A magic mouth could demand the password. An emplaced illusion could appear, threatening intruders with consequences. But critically, you’re looking at combinations of GoW, arcane lock, alarm, and mundane locks.
In a large city, you’re also going to have an option of a Kundarak alarm system. When the alarm on the door is triggered, you’re alerted but it also triggers an alert at a Kundarak enclave, who will dispatch a Deneith squad to respond to the intrusion.
Now given all this: I hold to the 3.5 approach under which a trained rogue has the ability to attempt to bypass magical wards and locks. Given that, I agree with the secondary aspect of the original post. In the Thorn of Breland books, Thorn’s lockpicking tools include lengths of mithral wire, vials of Mabar-infused water, divinatory powders, and other tools that are specifically tied to detecting and disarming mystical systems as well as tools for picking a mundane lock.

My players are on track to break into a lesser Kundarak vault in Korranberg, Sharn. Aside from your standard locks and wards and the Silver Guard, what are some quick hits of other challenges they could conceivably face? 
Well, as noted above there’s going to be various arcane systems that can be easily bypassed if they have the right things — passwords, keycharms, someone who meets the biometric restrictions (“Kundarak dwarf”, probably). There will certainly be alarm spells, and likely a nonlethal glyph of warding (Say, a 9d8 sleep spell tied to an alarm). What else?
  • An iron defender is a nice guardian who doesn’t require food or regular care, who will react aggressively if anyone enters without someone it recognizes.
  • Alternatively, you can have a living creature on guard; Kundarak likes their manticores.
  • Consider an illusion that conceals a critical part of the chamber… or the simpler, mundane secret door. Another option would be a particular object or safety deposit box tied to another glyph of warding effect; the staff know you never touch this thing.
  • When an inner alarm is triggered, it restores and reactivates the arcane lock on the outer door – potentially trapping troublemakers in the vault, if they’ve expended their resources.
  • Following principles of prestidigitation and arcane mark, I think it would be relatively simple for Cannith and Kundarak to come up with something similar to a paint bomb — something that would mystically mark people with an indelible marker. Can they find some way to dispel the marker before they’re caught? This presents a different challenge depending if the marker is visible to everyone and everyone knows the significant (you’re running around covered in purple) or if it’s invisible except to Kundarak trackers.

That’s all I’ve got for now, but hopefully it gives you some ideas. Post your own thoughts below!