You call her the Twister of Roots, for you cannot see the beauty in her works. Open your mind and your body to the Bloody Cornucopia. Let her plant her seeds in your thoughts and your fertile flesh and show you wonders you cannot imagine.
Avassh is the terraformer of the daelkyr. Poisonous blooms unfold at its touch, and fungus spreads in its wake. Dhaakani accounts of the wars against the daelkyr speak of blighted fields where rotting crops rise up to consume the farmers, and jungles where the screaming trees drink goblin blood through barbed roots. The Dhakaani on the western frontier had to burn their dead to ensure that the corpses didn’t rise again, overflowing with fungal blooms. Those Dhakaani facing Avassh were ordered to be extraordinarily vigilant. Terrifying as Dyrrn’s mind flayers may be, when an illithid is slain the threat is over. Avassh’s minions often scatter spores when they are destroyed; unless preventative measures are taken, a single shambling mound could give birth to a new legion. The Gatekeeper druids helped the Dhakaani to contain Avassh’s influence, but there weren’t enough druids to protect the vast empire; in many regions, fields and forests had to be razed to utterly expunge this alien threat.
Today Avassh is bound in Khyber, and mercifully, its influence is severely restricted. Avassh is most active in the Towering Woods of the Eldeen Reaches; the Wardens of the Wood watch for its general influence, while the Children of Winter contain its threats in the Gloaming. However, it’s quite possible it has a foothold in some of the other vast untamed jungles of Khorvaire—or that adventurers could discover an alien oasis beneath the surface. Beyond this, there are seeds that were scattered across Khorvaire thousands of years ago still waiting for the right moment (or cult rituals) to bear deadly fruit. Some sages believe that the Barrens of western Khorvaire—the area now known as Droaam—was brutally defoliated to counter the influence of Avassh, and if so there may be many forgotten seeds there waiting to be recovered and cultivated.
THE TWISTER OF ROOTS
Avassh doesn’t embody mortal fears of nature; rather, it transforms nature to create alien terrors. This transformation appears to be the primary motivation of the daelkyr. Many of Avassh’s creations are deadly threats. Blights will kill creatures of flesh and corrupt natural vegetation. The compelling scent of Avassh’s blooms may be poisonous, or could carry a more insidious threat—psychic spores that take root as powerful psychoses. But some of the things that Avassh has created, while certainly unnatural, are actually quite useful. Brightwort is a faintly luminescent plant that is immensely useful in the creation of potions of healing or vitality. Most casual botanists assume that brightwort is connected to Irian—like Araam’s Crown, another potent medicinal herb. But unlike Araam’s Crown, brightwort doesn’t grow in Irian manifest zones, and there’s nothing natural about the way this herb promotes flesh to knit and blood to clot. Avassh’s creations will be unlike anything that exists in OUR world, but it’s possible these alien resources can be harnessed to serve the greater good. Avassh doesn’t care if its plants help you are harm you. Avassh is reshaping the world in its image, and whether or not you thrive in this new environment is incidental.
Brightwort is a fairly minor and benevolent example of Avassh’s work. Other creations of the Twister of Roots range from dangerous to bizarre. The classic mandrake—a plant with a human-shaped root that screams when it’s dug up—could definitely be in Avassh’s garden. Carnivorous plants, flowers that smell like your most painful memories, angry trees with razor leaves—these are just a few of Avassh’s creations. Consider these possibilities…
Mourning Roses. These flowers cry in the darkness, a haunting sob designed to lure people. The thorns on its vines are charged with a powerful venom; those who search for the source of the cries will usually fall prey to the poison, and their corpses will fertilize the roses. The plant only cries when it is in bloom, and it is actually a psychic effect rather that actual sound; the voice feels familiar, even though it’s impossible to identify.
Bone Orchards. Bone orchards sprout from humanoid bones. They appear to be dead trees, with closely interlaced, leafless boughs. However, their bark has the texture of bone. The trees feed on the last vestiges of spirit that linger in the bones that spawned them. A bone tree counts as the source corpse for purposes of speak with dead, and even without the spell, the whispers of the dead can often be heard in a bone orchard. These are typically found on ancient Dhakaani battlefields or mass graves, but new orchards can be found in areas with active Avassh cults or places close to the daelkyr’s prison.
Tree of Knowledge. Each of these trees is unique—deciduous in appearance, but often strange in color and texture. A tree of knowledge might appear to be made of glass, or it could bleed if its bark is cut. As its name suggests, the fruit of a tree of knowledge imparts information, something the person who consumes the fruit knows to be absolutely true. Each tree holds a particular piece of knowledge, and it’s possible that this information could be entirely useful; a tree of knowledge could grant understanding of the Goblin language, or proficiency with woodcarver’s tools. But a tree could also grant absolute understanding of secrets mortals weren’t meant to know—secrets that might drive someone to start a cult devoted to the Twister of Roots, for example. This is often how Avassh cults spread, and NPCs may be powerless to resist such infection. However, if a player character encounters such fruit, they should be granted a Wisdom save to resist its effects (which are to be charmed by other Avassh cultists), and be able to repeat the saving throw if they are harmed by Avassh cultists and after each long rest.
These are just a few examples. The Twister of Roots also creates many plant monsters, described in the Forces section below.
THE BLOODY CORNUCOPIA
While Avassh creates new foms of plantlife, it also explores the line between animal and vegetable, often creating strange hybrids of the two. This can be reflected by its symbionts (see the Gifts section below), but it often involves an actual transformation rather than the use of a temporary symbiont. Most cultists welcome such transformations, seeing it as ascension to a higher state. Here’s a few examples of cult transformations.
Wooden Soldiers. While the cultist appears normal, beneath the skin their muscles become flexible roots and their organs transform into wood. These wooden soldiers use the statistics of warforged. They don’t have the ability to attach armor, but they gain the +1 AC bonus of Integrated Protection while wearing armor and when they are wearing no armor they have an AC of 13 + their Dex Modifier. They are considered to be both plants and aberrations.
Rootbound. The cultists become bound to a wooden object—typically a living tree, but there are cases where cultists have been bound to the wooden structure of a building. These cultists cannot venture more than a few miles from the object they are bound to. They use the statistics of dryads, but are considered to be plants and aberrations rather than fey, and speak both the languages they knew in their prior life and Deep Speech. Rootbound dryads can’t cast druidcraft or shillelagh, but they know the primal savagery and acid splash cantrips (spitting the acids from their mouths). The rootbound’s “Fey Charm” can target one humanoid and up to three plants or aberrations at a time; it doesn’t affect beasts.
Dolgaunts. While Avassh has servitors with the abilities of dolgaunts, they are quite different from those created by Dyrrn the Corruptor. Avassh’s dolgaunts begin with a seed being implanted in the spine of a cultist. The seed grows and spreads roots throughout the cultist’s body; two of these pierce the skin, becoming the long tentacles of the dolgaunt. The cultist’s eyes turn into dead wood, and are eventually pushed out of their sockets by roots. By this point, the original cultist is dead and what’s left is a dolgaunt servant of Avassh. These dolgaunts are both plant and aberration.
Myconids. There have been a few cases of cults that have voluntarily infected themselves with a consuming fungus and become myconids. These cults are often peaceful, interested only in their own fungal communion; however, they may decide to aggressively share this bliss with others. Avassh myconids are discussed further under Forces.
THE FORCES OF AVASSH
Avassh’s cults typically begin with a seed. Sometimes this is a relic of the Dhakaani conflict that suddenly sprouts—perhaps watered by a particular emotion or simply by contact with humanoids. In other cases a cultist might be compelled to perform rituals that create the seed without truly knowing what they are doing. The form of the cult depends on what seed they have sprouted. Cults that know Avassh as the Bloody Cornucopia are similar to Dyrrn’s Transcendent Flesh cults, yearning for an unnatural transformation. Cults that know Avassh as the Twister of Roots may cultivate deadly gardens. It could be that this is all that they do—that they cultivate a garden of mourning roses but have no sinister plans—or it could be that they are tending a blood mother (see below), caring for it until it can unleash a blight.
Transformed cultists have been described above, but here are other creations of the Twister of Roots. These forces could be found working with cults, or could be encountered on their own in regions influenced by Avassh.
Blights. Blights are a bioweapon originally unleashed against Dhakaan. Blights kill humanoids and transform the vegetation of their region, spreading poisonous brambles, slimy vines, and other disturbing vegetation. The Dhakaani called the trees that spawn blights khaar’niianu, “blood mothers.” The sphere of influence of a blood mother is based on its size and age. Most ancient blood mothers were destroyed by the Dhakaani. Occasionally a new tree sprouts—a relic of the Dhakaani conflict that never germinated, or the result of cult rituals—but such young trees have a limited range. A new blood mother might destroy Sharn, but a single young tree couldn’t engulf Breland.
Gas Spores and Dolgaunts. Avassh created the first gas spores. Some scholars believe that this is a key to understanding the relationship between daelkyr—that the gas spores are in some way a reflection of the relationship between Avassh and Belashyrra—but there is a continuing debate as to whether this reflects cooperation or if it is a form of mockery or humor. This is also reflected by Avassh’s dolgaunts; as described earlier, they resemble dolgaunts but are actually a fusion of plant and animal; they are considered to be both plants and aberrations.
Myconids. The only known account of a civilization of myconids comes from Boroman ir’Dayne, who describes a subterranean expedition that discovered an ancient Dhakaani vault inhabited by these creatures. Boroman describes the creatures existing in a state of “ecstatic union” and says that they were awaiting the coming of “The Harvester”, who had sown them long ago and would one day harvest them to serve a greater purpose. Boroman theorized that these myconids (a term coined by ir’Dayne and not used by the creatures themselves) were the remnants of a Dhakaani kech that had been targeted by Avassh—possible centuries after the downfall of the empire on the surface. While this is the only account of a myconid civilization, myconids can be encountered in Avassh’s cults—as described above—and as unique creatures spawned by the Mourning or created by Mordain.
Shambling Mounds. The shambling mounds of Avassh form around the bones of dead sentient creatures. Most are just rough shapes, but occasionally a shambler more closely recognizes its original form; there’s at least one case of an Avassh cult leader being restored as a shambling mound and retaining his memories of his mortal life. As with treants and other creatures, these are Avassh’s shambling mounds; shamblers can also be created by primal forces, and such shambling mounds aren’t associated with bones.
Shriekers. Little is known about shriekers. Most sages believe that they are nonsentient fungi that only react to the presence of light and motion. However, Boroman ir’Dayne reports hearing a “haunting choir of shriekers” that seemed to be singing to one another across great distances, though he was unable to make any sense of the song or induce individual shriekers to replicate it or to communicate in any way. There have also been a few examples of “shrieking cults”—a seeming variation of Kyrzin’s gibbering cults—who use the bodies of their dead to fertilize shriekers and claim to be able to hear the voices of their loved ones in the shrieks. It’s possible that Avassh is linked to shriekers, and can speak through any shrieker—if it ever has any reason to speak to adventurers. If this is true, Boroman’s mysterious choir could be the equivalent of Avassh humming to itself…
Treants. During the Xoriat incursion, Dhakaani fortress in what is now Aundair were assaulted by living siege engines they called the Gaa’avassh, the “Children of Avassh.” Since then, these creatures have been encountered in the depths of the Gloaming and the swamps other jungles and forests touched by Avassh. Most gaa’avassh have the broad appearance of classic treants blended with willow trees; however, their bark has a slick texture, they have nothing resembling a human face or head, and the dangling “willow branches” are actually a mass of prehensile tendrils. Mechanically, they grapple any smaller creature they strike with their Slam attack (DC 18 to escape); they can grapple up to six creatures at a time. The only language they all know is Deep Speech; ancient gaa’avash will know Goblin, and may have learned other languages from the creatures around them. The consider animals of all types to be an infestation, and see no difference between humans and squirrels. They are reclusive creatures that largely dwell in the deepest woods. While this describes the traits of the common gaa’avassh, there are certainly more exotic examples. One Dhakaani account speaks of a massive gaa’avassh that also served as the blood mother of a blight infestation, and there is an old Aundairian folk tale that seems to describe a gaa’avassh that falls in love with a parasitical dryad.
Assassin vines, violet fungus, and similar creatures can all be attributed to Avassh, and cults of the Twister of Roots may cultivate such creatures and even have the ability to control them psychically. it’s possible that there are other plants with similar statistics that have other origins, but any dangerous and unnatural plant could be the work of Avassh.
THE GIFTS OF AVASSH
The most common gifts of Avassh are potions—elixirs brewed using the alien properties of Avassh’s creations. Typically cult herbalists are driven by unnatural intuition and don’t really understand the alchemy they are working. While Avassh’s potions are potent, they may well have side effects ranging from minor hallucinations while the potion is in effect (you hear strange music whenever you come close to a living plant) to actual physical transformations. These effects could be very minor on a single dose—so an adventurer can use the potion of giant strength they obtained from a cultist and only have green skin for a few hours—but repeated doses of the same potion will come with more serious side effects, which explains why adventurers won’t want to embrace an Avassh cult as a friendly pharmacy.
Symbionts of Avassh are made of wood or other vegetable matter. As discussed in Exploring Eberron, any existing magic item could be flavored as an Avassh symbiont. A symbiont cloak of protection might be made of interlocked leaves; it feeds off the blood of its host, which can be seen in the veins of the leaves. Avassh cultists may use hungry weapons made of wood and studded with thorns, or a tongueworm that’s a thorn-tipped vine. Nonsymbiont tools of Avassh could include enchanted prosthetics, or a dagger of venom made of an Avassh variant of livewood. If you are using Magic of Eberron, Avassh could definitely be a source of plant grafts.
Avassh cultists aren’t all destructive; some wish to pursue their own vegetative communion or evolution and have no interest in letting you in on the action. On the other hand, a character could be a former cultist who’s broken free from Avassh’s influence but retained the powers they gained in the process. Consider the following ideas…
With your DM’s permission, you could play a wooden soldier of Avassh using the statistics of a warforged. You can’t attach armor, but you can wear it normally and gain the +1 bonus of Integrated Protection when you do. To you enjoy your wooden condition, or are you searching for a way to return to your original form?
As an alchemist artificer, you could be drawing your magic from the strange herbs of Avassh. Are you a cultist who cultivates your own sacred garden, or are you a scholar who recovered plants grown by an Avassh cult and seeing what you can do with them?
As a diviner, you could draw your talent for divination from an elixir made from a tree of knowledge. Do you have ongoing access to the tree, or are you worried what will happen when you run out?
With your DM’s permission, you could play a Circle of the Moon druid who wildshapes into plant forms instead of animal forms. You gained your gifts through communion with Avassh; do you still believe that the Bloody Cornucopia is benevolent, or do you now oppose the Cults of the Twister of Roots?
Avassh isn’t hard to work into a story. If adventurers wander into a deep, untamed region—the Towering Woods, the King’s Forest—they could discover that Avassh has influence in the area. Alternately, they could have to deal with a cult or a war-seed that has sprouted in a town or city and needs to be dealt with. Here’s a few other ideas.
The adventurers find an ancient Dhakaani ruin that was destroyed long ago in conflict with Avassh. It could be occupied solely by aggressive plants, or it could have myconids or wooden soldiers based on the original inhabitants. One canon example of this is in Five Nations—Yarkuun Draal, a Dhakaani fortress in Breland. Five Nations says that the ruin is held by “the daelkyr Bhodex’av’gr” but I would personally say that Bhodex’av’gr isn’t a daelkyr, but rather an ancient, evolved cultist of Avassh—a powerful lieutenant who may not be a daelkyr, but is something very powerful and inhuman.
The adventurers find the ruins of a cult stronghold wiped out sometime during the golden age of Galifar. Texts in the ruin speak of the gifts of the Garden of Knowledge, and the adventurers find that at least one tree of knowledge remains intact. Will anyone taste its fruit?
After clashing with wooden soldiers, a PC artificer notices a disturbing similarity between the root-like musculature of the fallen soldiers and the body of a warforged. Is House Cannith drawing on Avassh’s power to create the warforged, and if so, do they know it? Could the warforged be controlled by Avassh?
Adventurers stumble upon evidence that proves that Oalian, the Great Druid of the Eldeen Reaches, is a creation of Avassh. Can they determine whether Oalian is a plant—a long, long-term mole waiting to enact an ancient scheme—or if the Great Druid is truly as noble as it seems?
What would you use as a stat block for Avassh?
I don’t have the time to develop a full stat block for her. However, you can cobble something serviceable by combining Zuggtmoy’s block from Out of the Abyss with Dyrrn from Eberron Rising From The Last War. Start with Zuggtmoy’s base block, and make the following changes:
Avassh should be a medium aberration as opposed to a large fiend.
Add the Alien Mind and Teleport traits from Dyrrn.
That will WORK. It’s not ideal; personally, I’d be inclined to give Avassh more transformation or summoning powers. Zuggtmoy is heavily infested in the fungal/spore theme, which is fine; the mind control abilities aren’t INappropriate for a daelkyr. But I’d like to see Avassh invest more strongly in the idea of CHANGING or CREATING things.
That’s all I have time for now, but I’m including a table of trinkets tied to Avassh as a bonus for the inner Circle on my Patreon! Thanks to my Patreon supporters for choosing this topic and for making these articles possible. Feel free to discuss the topic in the comments, but I am dealing with major deadlines at the moment and most likely won’t have time to address complex questions.
She had the body of a great black cat, with the neck and head of a beautiful elf-maiden – though if that head was on a humanoid body, she’d have to be nine feet tall to match the scale. Her skin was flawless cream, her eyes glittering gold. Her long hair was midnight black, dropping down and mingling with the vast raven’s wings folded on her back. The black of her fur and hair was striped with bands of brilliant orange, and these seemed to glow in the dim light; when she shifted these stripes rippled like flames.
“Why are you doing this?” Daine said. “If you know so much about our destinies, why the riddles? Why not just tell us what you know?”
The sphinx smiled. “What answer do you wish to hear, Daine with no family name? That I am bound by divine and arcane laws, and have told you all that I can? That I have told you what you need to know to fulfill your purpose in this world? Or that I have my own plans, and I am shaping your destiny as much as any of the others who watch?”
“Which is true?”
“Which will you believe?”
City of Towers
Sphinxes are enigmatic and inscrutable. For all their cryptic insights and challenges, in some ways the greatest riddle of the sphinx is the sphinx itself. Where do they come from? What is the source of their knowledge, and most of all, what is their motivation? In most tales a sphinx is found guarding some arcane site or artifact, only sharing its treasure or its knowledge to those who can pass its test. Why does it do this?
No sphinx will answer these questions. No power on Eberron can read the mind of a sphinx, and divinations shatter against their inscrutable nature. And so the sages of Eberron are left to ponder the riddle, studying the clues that are available. The first and most popular theory about sphinxes was presented by the loremaster Dorius Alyre ir’Korran. In his Codex of All Mysteries, ir’Korran asserted that sphinxes are living embodiments of the Draconic Prophecy. Their oracular abilities are tied to the fact that they are manifestations of the Prophecy and innately know the paths of the future. They are bound to their duties and found in portentous locations because they are literally instruments of destiny, positioned to guide and challenge the people who will in turn shape history. They slip through time and space because they exist beyond it. Ir’Korran suggested that although they appear to be individuals, sphinxes are in fact all part of a greater entity, fingers on a hand too vast for mortals to see.
For centuries most scholars have supported ir’Korran’s theory. Magister Mara ir’Lain observed that sphinxes often appear to be guarding tombs, temples, or treasures, but there are no reliable accounts of a sphinx being assigned such a task. An androsphinx that identified itself as Silverstorm challenged Harryn Stormblade in the ancient Dhakaani citadel below Cazhaak Draal, but the only Dhakaani account that mentions sphinxes is the story of Jhazaal Dhakaan outwitting a sphinx to obtain its secret knowledge. Ir’Lain believed that this supported the Codex: that as Silverstorm wasn’t posted by the Dhakaani, its stewardship of Cazhaak Draal must be tied to the Prophecy.
However, over the centuries, scholars have learned more about sphinxes. In his paper “The Sphinx in the Library”, Professor Cord Ennis of Morgrave University made the following observations (summarized for the terrestrial reader; Ennis doesn’t mention the Monster Manual):
Sphinxes are powerful and varied spellcasters. The androsphinx in the Monster Manual is a divine spellcaster, using Wisdom to cast cleric spells. the gynosphinx is an arcane spellcaster, using Intelligence to cast wizard spells. While it’s possible that this is tied to the species of sphinx, it’s equally plausible that these are learned skills—that an androsphinx could master arcane magic, or a gynosphinx could channel magic through faith.
While they often appear to be bound to some sort of duty, sphinxes seem to have personalities and even a desire to learn. The most well-documented sphinx of the modern age, Flamewind, resides at Morgrave University and often spends her time reading; she has been known to attend parties and theatrical events.
Sphinxes are monstrosities, not celestials, fiends, or fey. This suggests that they are creatures of flesh and blood, rather than immortal incarnations.
Ennis challenges the Codex on multiple points. If sphinxes are extensions of the Prophecy, are they monstrosities rather than some form of celestial or fiend? Why do we see what appear to be both wizards and clerics among them, rather than a single path reflecting the channeled power of the Prophecy? Why did Flamewind attend the premiere of Five Lives, and even shed a tear in the final act? There are certainly reports of Flamewind assuming the role of the imperious oracle—as she did when first encountered, and as in the account quoted at the start of the article—and yet, she also seems to be capable of more casual interactions.
Cord Ennis believed this proved that sphinxes could have a more mundane origin: that they are mortal creatures, that they can study and learn, that they have more personality than the typical celestial. But as critics were quick to point out, no one has ever discovered any evidence of a civilization of sphinxes. There’s only a single account (discovered in Cul’sir ruins) of multiple sphinxes being encountered at the same time. All of this supports the Codex. There’s no signs of a sphinx civilization because sphinxes are tools of the Prophecy.
A team of researchers in the Arcane Congress presented a new theory, seeking to bridge the two: that sphinxes are creatures of Thelanis. The premise is that sphinxes aren’t instruments of destiny, but rather that they exist to drive the plot. Thelanis is the plane of stories, and its archfey often seem to enjoy seeing echoes of their stories in the world. Under this theory, the reason sphinxes show up at such dramatic times and locations is because the story needs themto—that they are some form of servants to the archfey, helping to guide the world in ways that echo the story of their masters. This ties to the fact that Thelanian creatures often show more personality and quixotic behavior than many other creatures, and that lesser fey aren’t immortal. While a compelling theory, opponents countered with the point that sphinxes don’t share the typical traits of Thelanian entities—which is to say, they are monstrosities rather than fey.
Most recently, Cord Ennis returned with a refinement of his thesis. Ennis suggests that sphinxes are mortal, civilized creatures, but that the reason there’s no evidence of any sphinx civilization is because they aren’t from this time. There are a number of accounts in which people facing sphinxes in their lairs are shifted through time—the apocryphal tale that Breggor Firstking was a beggar who was given a chance to relive his life and used his knowledge to become a king, or the story of the man who sleeps in a sphinx’s lair without permission and awakes a hundred years later. According to Ennis’s theory, the idea that sphinxes can move through time helps to explain both their seemingly oracular abilities and their interest in seeming cryptic actions; that their enigmatic behavior shapes future events in ways we don’t see, but they do. The lack of any signs of sphinx civilization is because it doesn’t exist in the scope of history as we know it. And further, the fact that sphinxes only manipulate time in their lairs suggests the use of some form of eldritch machine as opposed to the innate powers one would expect in a living manifestation of the Prophecy—that they accomplish time travel using a tool, rather than personal power alone. Ennis asserted that this could explain Flamewind’s observed behavior—at times the cryptic oracle, and at other times almost more of a curious tourist.
While intriguing, Ennis admitted that there was one piece of the puzzle that still escaped him. When do these time-traveling sphinxes come from? His first thought was the distant future—that they could even be some sort of mystically evolved descendants of the modern races. Yet if that were the case, is there no risk of their meddling changing their own future? Given this, he ultimately favors the idea that the sphinxes are from the very distant past—that they could potentially be the citizens of the FIRST civilization of Eberron, a society that predates the Age of Demons and whose existence was wiped from history by the dominion of the overlords. With this as a foundation, Ennis suggests that the actions of the sphinxes might not be the absolute demands of destiny one would expect from embodiments of the Prophecy, but rather a grand game. As their time is long past, the sphinxes don’t actually care what about the ultimate outcome; whether the overlords rise again or the daelkyr are unleashed doesn’t actually hurt them. Ennis further suggests that this could reflect the different techniques seen among sphinxes. The “divine” sphinxes—those wielding clerical abilities—could see their actions as being a divine mission, potentially even one mandated by the Progenitors (because what other gods were there at the dawn of time?) while the “arcane” sphinxes could be the scientists of their time. Thus, Flamewind could be in Sharn because she knows it is a nexus of elements she wants to deal with—events or people she wants to observe or influence—but that between those key events she is simply enjoying studying this time and place, so alien to her native time.
While these are all intriguing possibilities, as long as sphinxes remain inscrutable they will remain a mystery. Servants of the Prophecy? Agents of the archfey? Travelers from the dawn of time? All three are possible, and the only way to learn the truth is through adventure. Within their lairs, sphinxes have the ability to manipulate time and travel the planes.
Why Does This Matter?
The mystery of the sphinx is an important part of the creature, and something I want to maintain rather than simply providing an absolute answer. Are sphinxes time travelers? Agents of Prophecy? Shapers of story? All three are possible—but each has a different impact on both the role a sphinx may play in a campaign and on the mechanics of the sphinxes themselves. Most critically, the rules of the sphinx’s lair action state that the sphinx can shift itself and others to “another plane of existence.” It doesn’t specify which plane of existence or that the sphinx has multiple options. This answer—along with the circumstances under which the sphinx would USE its lair actions—likely depends on its origins. Because again, always remember that just because a sphinx CAN do something doesn’t mean it WILL. A Prophecy sphinx my have the POWER to shift people through time, but it may never use it if it isn’t required. So, let’s briefly consider the theories presented above and the ways these would impact a story.
Time Travelers. One of the core elements of sphinxes as time travelers is the idea that they are a mortal civilization. They are advanced beyond any civilization that exists today, but they are individuals using magical tools to accomplish these things—they are arcane scientists and divine spellcasters, capable of observing the tapestry of time and playing a great game they are playing with it. If this is the case, Flamewind in Sharn may indeed have very specific events she wants to observe and people she wishes to drive down specific paths, but at the end of the day she is a mortal wizard. She may play the role of being enigmatic and all-knowing, but there’s a touch of the Wizard of Oz; she DOES have knowledge of the future and of the potential destiny of the characters, but she’s not in fact infallible, she is playing her own game, and she also enjoys being a little bit of a tourist between those critical events. Should you follow this path, there’s a few points I’d consider.
The spellcasting abilities of a sphinx reflect whether they are a divine or arcane spellcaster—essentially, a wizard or a cleric. Under this approach, gynosphinxes and androsphinxes are simply male and female sphinxes, and it should be possible to encounter an androsphinx wizard or a gynosphinx priestess. A key question is what divine power sphinxes serve; personally, I like the idea that they might have a different sort of relationship with the Progenitors than people of the present day.
In shifting themselves or others to another plane, I would specifically use XORIAT. We’ve established that Xoriat is the key to time travel, and I’d assert that the time travel techniques being used by the sphinxes are based in this. The sphinxes aren’t creatures OF Xoriat and have no love for the daelkyr; they are scientists who are USING Xoriat. But they can also toss you into it for kicks.
The lair abilities of a sphinx are tied to a form of eldritch machine. Most likely this is specifically linked to the sphinx and cannot be used or even understood by any other creature… But it’s POSSIBLE that someone who’s figured out the mystery of the sphinx and has access to their lair could find a way to hack their time machine. A second specific question is where Flamewind has her lair. If the lair is a machine, it’s not likely to be something she could build in Morgrave University. In the novel City of Towers, this is why she deals with the protagonists in the abandoned temple in Malleon’s Gate; she hangs out at Morgrave, but her LAIR is in Malleon’s.
The final point is that time-traveling sphinxes are manipulating events, but they don’t have the same sort of agenda as heralds of Prophecy or Archfey emissaries. They aren’t invested in the outcome in the same way as, say, the Lords of Dust or the Chamber. Ultimately, this isn’t their time and the outcome won’t actually AFFECT them; it’s more intriguing than vital. However, divine sphinxes are more likely to be driven by a divine mission, while arcane sphinxes are more likely to be scientists and researchers.
Agents of the Archfey. If Sphinxes are tied to Thelanis, they are a form of fey; it’s up to the DM to decide whether to add the fey subtype or simply to say that you don’t HAVE to be fey to be from Thelanis. Sphinxes would effectively be Greater Fey—not truly immortal, but with a loose relationship to time and reality. A few thoughts about Thelanian sphinxes…
The plane they can travel to is Thelanis. Their ability to manipulate time is something that they don’t use with great precision and essentially only use when it serves the story; they aren’t truly time travelers, but they can throw Rip Van Winkle ahead a century when it fits the story.
A sphinx will be tied to a specific archfey, and its goals and the role it plays—guarding a location, posing a riddle—are tied to the story of that archfey. A Thelanian sphinx will be bound by fey logic: if it eats anyone who fails to answer its riddle, that’s not a CHOICE, it’s what it HAS TO DO. It MUST follow its role in the story.
While they draw on wizard or cleric spell lists, sphinxes aren’t actually clerics or wizards; their spellcasting reflects innate fey powers rather than arcane science.
Incarnations of Prophecy. If they are incarnations of the Prophecy, sphinxes stand sideways to the conflicts of the Lords of Dust and the Chamber. They don’t seek to manipulate the Prophecy: they ARE the Prophecy. While they may not be celestials or fiends, neither are they mortal creatures: they appear when and where they are needed, and likely disappear back into the Prophecy once their purpose has been fulfilled. If you want to explain the curious behavior of Flamewind, one possibility is to say that while a Prophetic sphinx has a limited existence, during the time it does exist it is a conscious entity; that Flamewind has spent eons as a disembodied thread of the Prophecy and is enjoying this incarnate period while she waits for the purpose that has caused her to be made manifest comes to a point. Key points about Prophetic sphinxes…
A Prophetic sphinx has no tied to any specific plane; as such, the planes it can access are likely tied to its specific Prophetic role.
This likewise ties to its ability to time travel. Essentially, a Prophetic sphinx has no free will. It exists for an absolute purpose. It CAN manipulate time or transport people to the planes, but it won’t and can’t use this power unless it is necessary for the purpose it’s manifested to fulfill. If adventurers must travel to Shavarath, it will transport them to Shavarath. If they must go forward ten years, it will take them forward ten years. But it can’t just decide that it would be INTERESTING to take them forward ten years to see what happens, as a time-traveling sphinx might.
The spellcasting abilities of a Prophetic sphinx are an innate part of its purpose and not skills it has learned.
The sphinx only exists to fulfill a purpose, guiding or guarding a particular node of the Prophecy. It is quite possible that part of its purpose is to prevent the Lords of Dust, Dragons, or other forces from interfering with that Prophetic lynchpin. But it has no wider goals, and it will discorporate once its purpose is fulfilled.
Essentially, time traveling sphinxes are the most free-spirited and are essentially playing a game with their riddles and challenges, while Prophetic sphinxes are the least free-willed and most bound to an absolute agenda, with Thelanian sphinxes falling in between.
Don’t Time Travelers Break The Game?
The fifth edition sphinx has the ability to travel in time, and to take others with it. From a purely abstract perspective, this throws all sorts of wrenches into a campaign. If adventurers fight a sphinx, why doesn’t it just go back in time and kill their grandparents? If the daelkyr rise, why don’t the adventurers get a sphinx to take them back in time and undo everything?
First of all, that last point is an excellent argument for having that power: it IS an ultimate escape hatch. It means that you CAN put failure on the table. You CAN have have Rak Tulkhesh break its chains and drown the Five Nations in blood, and the only hope is for the adventurers to fight their way to Sharn and convince Flamewind to give them a second chance. From a narrative perspective, that option is a great thing to have. The trick is that it shouldn’t be something that trivializes every defeat… “Oh, Flamewind, I lost at cards last night. Can we redo that?” Which brings up a number of points: when they can travel in time, and when they will travel in time.
First of all: time travel is a LAIR ACTION for a sphinx. You may not meet a sphinx in its lair… and a particularly sphinx might not even HAVE a lair. In Sharn, Flamewind definitely can’t call Morgrave University “her lair.” Presumably, her lair was in the Xen’drik ruins where she was first found. I’ve suggested that she might have built a NEW lair in some abandoned part of Sharn, but it’s equally plausible to say that she just doesn’t have a lair in Sharn; if she wants to help you time travel, you’ll all have to make a trip to Xen’drik (and hope nothing else has taken over her lair!). So keep in mind that when you meet a sphinx guarding a tomb, there’s no rule saying that the tomb is actually its LAIR.
Second: Even if a sphinx COULD solve all your problems with time travel, why would it? The Thelanian sphinx is there to nudge the story in a particular direction, not to completely rewrite it; as said earlier, it’s likely doesn’t have full free access to time travel, and can only actually use the power when it fits the narrative (IE: it can toss Rip Van Winkle forward a hundred years, but it can’t take you back in time to murder King Jarot). The Prophecy sphinx is even more limited, bound by unbreakable bonds of fate to only do the things it’s supposed to do, and taking you back in time isn’t an option. The wild card is the time traveling sphinx, but here’s the catch: it doesn’t care about your problems. From the perspective of the time traveler, it sees the full scope of history, filled with uncountable deaths and tragedies. From your perspective, the release of Rak Tulkhesh is a horrible tragedy that could be stopped and hundreds of thousands of people could be saved. From the time traveler’s perspective, the rise of Rak Tulkhesh and those tragic deaths are just one page in the book of all history, one filled with countless tragedies and countless deaths; what the time traveler knows is that HISTORY GOES ON, and that in three thousand years these events will only be a memory. The time traveler’s job isn’t to defeat Bel Shalor for Tira Miron; it’s to challenge Tira Miron to realize that she has the power to do it herself. Or they might even just be here to watch! The release of Rak Tulkhesh in 998 YK is a fascinating moment in history and they’re just here to watch it unfold.
The short answer I’d give is that when dealing with a time traveling sphinx, decide EXACTLY WHY IT’S HERE. If it’s a divine sphinx it may have what it believes to be a divine mission. If it’s an arcane sphinx, it may be a tourist here to observe history or it might be playing a game, seeing if it can engineer a very specific outcome. Whatever the goal, nothing else matters to it. Everyone around it is simultaneously already dead and haven’t yet been born. You may want it to solve your problems, but your problems are no more important to it than the problems of every single other tragic person in history, and if it’s not helping them it won’t help you. It’s not here to beat Rak Tulkhesh for you—it’s here to give you the clue or the challenge, and then see if you do succeed… or take notes on exactly how things play out when you fail and then go home to the dawn of time, where that failure is just an entertaining anecdote.
Of course, there’s a third even zanier option to consider, following the model of The Magicians: How do you know that sphinxes HAVEN’T been resetting the timeline? Is it in fact possible that Flamewind is in Sharn to engineer a very specific outcome—and if it somehow fails, she will take the entire city back in time and replay the entire scenario until you dummies get it right? It could be that the adventurers somehow realize that Flamewind has prevented Rak Tulkhesh from being released thirty times already—but again, she can’t solve the problem, she can only pull everyone back a year and hope that this time you’ll figure it out. Or, on a smaller scale, you could have a Groundhog Adventure where each day ends with a second Mourning and the adventurers starting over again… Once again, Flamewind is reseting Sharn each time they fail, but she can’t actually solve the problem for them, because it’s their history. But again, it’s easy enough to say that this is the single reason she’s in Sharn… and once you to get it right, she’ll return to her own time for good.
Essentially, yes, unlimited time travel would cause all sorts of problems. So limit it. Limit what they can do (no lair, no travel; no violating the laws of the Prophecy; etc) and limit what they are willing to do. Your horrific apocalypse is just one page in a very big history book, and for the time tourist it’s a cool event to observe happen, not something they need to fix.
Looking the time travelers from the past, How do they handle and reconcile the fall of their civilization? They can go back to their home at the dawn of time, but eventually that time runs out on their civilization?
Certainly. It’s something we see in various versions of Atlantis. Imagine that they know that their civilization will end in one year. The overlords are going to rise and that is absolutely, 100% inevitable: Krypton WILL explode. They don’t have the resources to project their entire civilization beyond the Age of Demons; they can only support, say, one hundred time travelers. And it may even be that they can only support them for a certain amount of time, that they will eventually be pulled back to the doomed dawn. So those one hundred time travelers are essentially stretching that final year out for as long as possible by dwelling in other times — seeing as much as they can of a future their people will never know, cataloguing the wonders of eternity and doing what they can to be a part of legend—to create stories that WILL be remembered—before they are gone.
On the other hand, if you want a more activist story, consider this: what if the reason the sphinxes are tweaking history and shaping stories is because they are creating a point in the distant future that they CAN move their civilization to? Essentially, it’s an even longer game than the Lords of Dust. Each shift—each hero tested—is shifting the number of a combination lock. At some point they will create the future they are looking for, five thousand years from now, when Sphinx Atlantis can leap forward in time and be saved. So they could, essentially, be from both the past AND the future.
But What About Zenobaal?
Dragons of Eberron presents the idea of Zenobaal, a rogue dragon who refers to itself as “The Prophecy Incarnate”. One aspect of Zenobaal is that he has an alliance with a gynosphinx named Maris-Kossja, and that they have a brood of half-dragon gynosphinx offspring. How does that fit with this idea?
There’s a few factors: first and foremost, this article is based on the fifth edition interpretation of sphinxes, which positions them as being more rare and unique — as opposed to the default 3.5 approach, by which sphinxes are just part of the world. This article notably doesn’t address hieracosphinxes, for example. The second point is that I didn’t create Maris-Kossja or Zenobaal, and this article is based on how *I* use sphinxes — which is more reflected by Flamewind. With that said, I have no issues with Zenobaal, and I think it can work in this interpretation. The simplest approach is to use the time travel idea, because under that concept sphinxes ARE mortal and could have offspring; Maris-Kossja has come from the past or future, is fascinated with Zenobaal, and has chosen to produce offspring with him… creating that rare time when you could encounter multiple sphinxes. That’s pretty straightforward. The more exotic option is to go with the Prophetic Sphinx and say that this is evidence of Zenobaal’s deep ties to the Prophecy. Zenobaal is so bound to the Prophecy that it has literally manifested a mate for him—and that his half-dragon offspring are flesh-and-blood manifestations of the Prophecy.
In general, however, this article is based on the 5E interpretation of sphinxes and will not necessarily apply to all 3.5 uses of sphinxes. You’ll have to decide how to address other contradictions. If you go with time travel sphinxes, and interesting option is to say that criosphinxes and hieracosphinxes are MODERN sphinxes — that they are either the primitive ancestors of or devolved descendants of the time traveling sphinxes.
A warning: I am working on multiple deadlines at this point in time, and will not be answering as many questions on this topic as I often do. Feel free to post questions and thoughts below and to comment on other peoples’ questions; just keep in mind that I may not have time to answer them.
Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters, who chose this topic and the next one in the queue: Avassh, the Twister of Roots!
The airship is an iconic element of Eberron. I’ve recently wrapped up a series on Arcane Industry and I’ve discussed Flight in Eberron in a previous article, but I’ve received a lot of questions about airships that aren’t covered in current material and I want to share my thoughts on them. A few disclaimers: this is not a deep mechanical breakdown of all aspects of airships and airship travel, and notably doesn’t delve into airship combat in any way. Likewise, this is quite different that what’s suggested in the 3.5 Explorer’s Handbook, which I didn’t work on. This how I use airships in MY campaign; it’s up to you to decide if you want to use this approach in yours.
First and foremost, it’s important to understand that airships are a recent development. Lyrandar’s first airships went into service in 990 YK, just eight years before the default starting date. All of this ties to the idea that the science of air travel is very recent and that there’s a lot of room for improvement. From a narrative perspective, we don’t WANT airships to be perfect. We want it to be easy for airships to crash, because adventurers having to escape from crashing airships is an excellent drama. We want them to have limited range so that there are still places you can’t get to easily—that you can’t just fly your airship to Ashtakala. We want them to be largely limited to House Lyrandar because that gives Lyrandar power and adds another source of dramatic tension. So always keep in mind that airships aren’t perfect and that this is intentional. This is the DAWN of air travel; again, Eberron is closer overall to mid-nineteenth century Earth than to twentieth century Earth.
An airship is made using a soarwood hull. Soarwood is effectively weightless, though it’s not lighter than air. So a piece of soarwood will naturally float in the air, but it won’t rise. The crucial point here is that the soarwood hull is weightless… But an airship is more than its hull. Cargo, crew, and the elemental engine all do have weight, and these are sufficient to pull an airship to the ground. It is the elemental engine that provides lift and keeps an airship in the air; if the ring is shut down, an airship will crash.
So what IS the elemental engine? The heart of it is the elemental core, an engraved sphere of brass and mithral with a khyber dragonshard at the center. A raw elemental is bound to this dragonshard—”raw” in the sense of “general elemental, not an anthropomorphic entity like an efreeti or azer. The elemental is absolutely anchored to the core and can’t be easily released; what the engine does is to pull it out from the core, stretching it out across the ship’s systems and the ring. This doesn’t release the elemental; it’s still anchored to the khyber shard, and if the engine is fully shut down, the elemental snaps back into the core.
The elemental engine provides both lift and motive power. As long as the engine is active, an airship can hover or move forward. But there’s a lot more going on with an airship than just the ring. Here’s a few of the secondary systems that are vital to airship operations.
Elemental Veins. The elemental engine uses engraved strips of metal to channel the power of the elemental through the vessel and out to the ring. You can think of these as the veins of the ship, channeling power through its body. In addition to directly connecting the core to the elemental ring, these channel the secondary enchantments of the focusing nodes and the wind wards. There is a great deal of redundancy to the patterns of the veins, so severing a single line will have minimal impact on the ship; it could cause a particular section to lose heat or create a gap in the wards, but it would taken massive damage to cause the ring to break down. The metals used in the veins vary based on the type of elemental involved.
Focusing Nodes. These are metal polyhedrons, typically 8 inches in diameter, engraved with engraved with sigils and inlaid with Eberron dragonshards. They’re superficially similar to the conductor stones used in the lightning rail and serve a similar role; they are placed at critical vein junctures and help to draw out and stabilize the power of the core. Focusing nodes also maintain an enchantment that maintains a consistent temperature within the vessel, even at high altitudes that would typically be bitterly cold. As with the veins, the loss of a single node generally isn’t disastrous, but the crew needs to monitor and maintain them.
Wind Wards. An airship is an open-deck vessel that moves swiftly through the upper atmosphere. What keeps people from being blown off the deck? How can people breathe at high altitudes? How does an airship handle turbulence? The wind wards are the answer to these questions. An airship is enveloped in a ward that shunts both wind and small objects (such as birds) around the vessel, as well as maintaining air pressure within the wards. The wind wards are also play a role in maneuvering the ship; the ring provides forward thrust, but the envelope of winds helps the vessel turn. While the wards are controlled by the Wheel of Wind and Water, they draw power from the focusing nodes and have their own system of “ward wings” that must be maintained and adjusted by the crew. In the current design, the wind wards suffice only to ensure the safe operations of the vessel and don’t provide any special protection in combat; projectiles can penetrate the wards. However, it’s possible that a future design could strengthen the wind wards to serve as a form of defensive shield.
The Wheel of Wind and Water. This is the dragonmark focus item that controls the ship. It has two purposes: it allows the captain to interface with the elemental, helping to calm it and to direct speed and thrust; and it also allows the captain to maintain the wind wards, and use them to direct fine maneuvering.
THIS IS NOT INTENDED TO BE A COMPLETE LIST OF SYSTEMS. Airships are complicated, and a DM can certainly add greater complexity to fit the needs of the system. But this provides a general overview of major systems and things that can go wrong.
The classic airship uses a fire elemental in its ring… so why is the Mark of STORM useful for controlling it? What is it that gives Lyrandar the monopoly on air travel?
The Mark of Storms gives its bearer a general affinity for elemental forces that is enhanced by the wheel of wind and water. However, that’s a secondary aspect. It’s the wind wards that are specifically tied to the Mark of Storm, and every airship relies on these WIND wards, regardless of the form of elemental that provides thrust. As noted above, the wards both protect the ship and its crew and play an important role in maneuvering. An airship without the wind wards would have to operate at lower altitudes and slower speeds, and couldn’t maneuver as effectively as a Lyrandar vessel. The wheel of wind and water serves both purposes: controlling the elemental and drawing on the pilot’s mark to maintain the wind wards.
While a wheel of wind and water typically LOOKS like a classic ship’s wheel, the pilot doesn’t actually steer by turning it; instead, the pilot enters into a trancelike state where they commune with the elemental and wards. It’s not that they issue specific orders to the elemental, it’s that they experience the ship as an extension of their body.
So what happens when a ship loses its Lyrandar pilots? Most people simply can’t interface with a wheel of wind and water, but player characters aren’t most people. Someone with a strong personality and understanding of arcane science could essentially try to hack the system, using their sheer force of will to direct the elemental. Personally, I’d allow a player character who’s proficient with Arcana to bond to the wheel; while it doesn’t follow the normal rules of attunement, this connection does require the pilot to devote one of their attunement slots throughout the process. An unmarked pilot must make make regular control checks; this is performed when they first bond to the wheel, whenever they make a significant change to speed or course, and every hour they remain connected. A control check is a Charisma check with a base difficulty of 12, though the DM can adjust this based on current conditions (it’s more difficult to maintain control in a storm, for example); they could also choose to increase the difficulty each hour, if the goal is to model an emergency situation that can’t be sustained indefinitely. Every time the pilot fails a check, both the pilot and the elemental suffer a level of exhaustion (the effects of elemental exhaustion are described below). An unmarked pilot can’t maintain the wind wards; this forces the vessel to operate at lower altitudes, typically cuts its maximum speed in half, and makes storms and other weather effects considerably more dangerous. A pilot can choose to use Intimidation when making a control check—forcing their will upon the elemental—but if the check fails, the elemental suffers two levels of exhaustion.
A pilot with the Mark of Storm has a far easier time controlling an airship; all of the systems are designed to interface with the marked heir. They only need to make a control check once every four hours. Complex maneuvers or adverse conditions could require a Charisma (Air Vehicles) check, but failure doesn’t impose exhaustion on the pilot, though depending on the conditions calling for the check it could impose elemental exhaustion.
ELEMENTAL EXHAUSTION AND ONGOING COSTS
Elementals bound to airships aren’t entirely aware of their condition. While technically sentient — possessing Intelligence and even language— “raw” elementals are extremely alien beings that don’t perceive reality or the passage of time in the same ways that creatures of the material plane do. More than anything, a raw elemental wants to express its nature. A fire elemental wants to BURN. When an airship is operating at peak efficiency, that’s what the elemental experiences; the fire elemental in the ring doesn’t even realize it IS bound, it just knows that it’s BURNING. The challenge to the pilot is essentially to keep the elemental calm. The more excited it gets, the more energy flows into the systems… and while this might seem like a good thing, it actually runs a risk of overloading the focusing nodes and burning out the elemental engine—initially causing the loss of secondary systems, and eventually causing the elemental ring to collapse and the ship to crash.
The brings us to the ongoing costs of maintaining an airship. Eberron: Rising From The Last War notes that “many powerful tools—such as the lightning rail and elemental airships—require an ongoing expenditure of Eberron dragonshards to maintain their enchantments.” The key phrase there is to maintain their enchantments. Dragonshards don’t function as FUEL for an airship; again, the motive power is provided by the elemental, and that movement doesn’t directly require any expenditure of dragonshards. However, dragonshards must be expended to maintain the elemental engine—both periodic infusions of residuum to the main engine node and replacing focusing nodes that burn out (new shards can be implanted in a burnt-out node, so it’s not that the entire node is disposable). So dragonshards aren’t analagous to gasoline in a car; instead, it’s about adding oil to keep the engine running and replacing fuel. But, the more restless an elemental becomes, the more of a strain it places on these systems. This is measured by the concept of Elemental Exhaustion. With no levels of exhaustion, the ship runs at peak capacity. At six levels of exhaustion, the elemental must be confined to the core, which means the elemental engine (and ring) has to be shut down. The levels in between don’t have the standard effects of exhaustion, but they require an increasing expenditure of residuum to maintain the engine and focusing nodes will burn out; at high levels of exhaustion, it’s likely that sections of the ship will be without heat and it might become impossible to maintain the wind wards. This is a simple system, and if I was planning to make extensive use of it I’d add more concrete details to the consequences of each level—but this is the basic idea.
This brings up two important questions I’ve been asked, Can airships hover?andWhy are docking towers so important? Yes, airships can hover. The elemental doesn’t particularly care if it’s moving or standing still as long as it’s generating the ring. Which means hovering places the same strains on the elemental engine as moving—and that a hovering airship is still going to generate elemental exhaustion and consume shards. The most important function of a docking tower is to calm the elemental. Every eight hours spent at a docking tower removes a level of elemental exhaustion, and it’s also possible for an airship to hover indefinitely while connected to a docking tower.
This in turn explains the current limitations of air travel: It’s dangerous to go too far from a docking tower… And currently there AREN’T THAT MANY DOCKING TOWERS; they’re primarily in the big cities. This isn’t something that I particularly want to put strict ranges on, because it’s not entirely reliable (a skilled pilot can keep the ship in the air for a longer period of time) and because it might well vary based on the design of the ship itself; certain ships may be designed to endure longer journeys and higher rates of exhaustion, while a small “commuter” ship might fail with just two levels of exhaustion. Ultimately, the point is that this is a tool that allows the DM to place limits on what a vessel can do. If a group of adventurers hijack an airship and want to fly to Ashtakala the DM can say “This ship won’t make it that far“—perhaps adding “… But that bigger ship over there could!” Though as a second note, I’d think that just being in the Demon Wastes might be something that upsets the elemental and significantly raises the difficulty of control checks. This is something the pilot would definitely notice—the elemental doesn’t want to be here.
The standard Lyrandar airship designs are the work of collaboration between Zilargo and the Twelve, specifically House Lyrandar and House Cannith. Zil shipwrights create the hulls (using soarwood from Aerenal) and Zil binders produce the elemental cores, while Cannith artisans install the elemental engine and the veins. It was Cannith and Lyrandar working together who produced the first working wind wards, it is this that currently provides Lyrandar with dominance over the industry. Cannith doesn’t know the secrets of Zil binding, because they aren’t actually involved in the development of the elemental core; and meanwhile, the Zil don’t have the expertise to create the elemental engine or to produce wind wards.
With that said, these airships have been operating for less than a decade and the science is still evolving. Lyrandar and Cannith are continuing to evolve their design, improving speed, maneuverability, and range; they’ve certainly been experimenting on aerial warships as well. On the other side of things, the Arcane Congress and the Zil themselves are exploring other approaches to air travel, building on the principles of the skystaff (broom of flying) or carpetof flying. Currently these are largely limited to small, low-altitude vehicles—like the skystaff—but the work is ongoing. As a DM, if you WANT to introduce an airship that breaks some of the rules described here—notably, an airship that doesn’t require a Lyrandar pilot or that has an indefinite range—go ahead! The main things to think about are HOW it manages to be more efficient than the Lyrnadar vessels and where it came from. Is it a single prototype that can’t be efficiently reproduced? Or are there more of them? In general, House Lyrandar doesn’t care about one-offs; the fact that one group of adventures has a superior airship doesn’t threaten their business. On the other hand, if the adventurers or their patron actually seek to create a fleet of airships that will challenge Lyrandar’s economic monopoly they could have to deal with saboteurs or other troubles. But again, a single group of adventurers with their own unique airship isn’t a problem for Lyrandar.
What do the of crew an airship do to assist their respective pilot? More specifically, what are the most interesting things you have the crews do in your games?
In my opinion, an airship is just as complicated to run as a sailing vessel. You have to make adjustments to maintain the wind wards. You have to monitor the focusing nodes and adjust less crystals that maintain the ring. The engineer monitors the elemental engine, which includes adding residuum but also just performing minor rituals that keep the systems running. In my games I largely have the crew stay out to the way and do their jobs, because they’re too busy to chat with adventurers. I’ve run a one-shot set on an airship a number of times over the past year, and the main NPC the adventurers encounter is the steward, because it’s his job to deal with them. When there’s a dramatic combat scene, I may call out a number of NPC crew members in the scene who are doing their jobs and note that if these innocents die bad things could happen; if a fireball takes out the guy maintaining the local wind wards, things could get very unstable!
How volatile is an elemental core?
In my opinion, the elemental core itself is quite stable. The elemental CAN’T easily be removed from the core; it’s stretched out of it, but if the engine breaks down, it snaps back into the core; when not engaged, it lies in a dormant state. So more often than not, an elemental core can actually be recovered from a crashed airship. On the other hand, there can be effects that target the core itself. In one adventure I ran, when an airship passed through an airborne Lamannian manifest zone it broke the containment and caused the elemental to burst free (noted as a risk of zones with the Elemental Power trait in Exploring Eberron). In my novella Principles of Fire, terrorists specifically break the containment of one of an airship’s elemental cores (it was a double-ringed ship and the other survived the crash). So GENERALLY the cores are stable, but nothing’s stopping a DM from creating a specific threat that can break one.
What’s the difference between different kinds of elemental rings? Why do some ships have more than one?
In my opinion, different types of elementals should provide different benefits and drawbacks. I don’t have time right now to get into a full breakdown of different airship designs and the specific effects of rings, but my most basic thought is that fire is faster (more FORCE) and air is more maneuverable. Multiple rings can be added for speed, but what we’ve suggested in the past is that they are used by especially large ships—that essentially, one ring is devoted to LIFT and the other to THRUST.
Is there anything you do use from the airship section in Explorer’s Handbook?
I think most of the material in Explorer’s Handbook can overlap with the ideas I present here. The maps are good, the basic concept of the “arcane matrix” is similar to what I do with the elemental veins, and all the rules about shiphandling, manueverability, and such are things I don’t address here that work fine. I use life rings and like the sidebar on “How To Survive A Crashing Airship.” We mainly differ in the idea of elemental consciousness, the process of controlling the elemental, and the ongoing costs of maintaining an airship—along with the idea of the wind wards.
Soarwood isn’t lighter than air? What about the soarwood skiffs from Five Nations?
This is a reference to the following quote…
Karrnathi soldiers stormed the city of Shadukar in 959 YK. The city’s defenders were not expecting a Karrn attack from Cyre, especially one accomplished using soarwood skiffs that could glide across the Brey River.
Five Nations, Page 149
These soarwood skiffs weren’t FLYING vehicles; they were simply so exceptionally light and buoyant that they allowed the invading force to glide across the surface of the river, both more quickly and quietly than traditional boats. But Karrnath does not have a fleet of flying skiffs.
How does this work with the Wind Whisperers, who have stolen airships? If they don’t have docking towers, how can they maintain them?
The Wind Whisperers are a force in the Lhazaar Principalities that include half-elves with the Mark of Shadows. I think they have managed to create a single functional equivalent of a docking tower in their home harbor. But beyond that, I’d assert that they’ve found a way to calm elementals that is different from what the house uses; the most logical answer is that they have a few allies from Lorghalen that worked with them on this. As someone noted on Discord, “one gnome with a flute vs precision Cannith engineering.”
Can a pilot develop a bond or connection with the elemental of their ship?
I think they can, yes. The piloting process I’ve described is essentially a trance where they do connect to the elemental. It’s a little like working with any kind of mount; you can ride a horse without feeling any empathy for it, but you’ll have a better experience if you’re able to establish a connection. I think the best pilots are those who do feel a tie to their elemental companion. Note that this would not satisfy the Power of Purity — as noted in the next question — who would point out that the elemental is still BOUND and has no choice; the fact that the pilot may empathize the elemental with it doesn’t mean they are treating it as an euqal.
What are the moral issues with binding elementals into Khyber dragonshards? How sentient are they?
(Reposted from a previous Dragonmark) There’s no easy answers in Eberron. The elemental binders of Zilargo claim that bound elementals are perfectly content; that elementals don’t experience the passage of time the way humans do. All they wish is to express their elemental nature, and that’s what they do through the binding. The Zil argue that elementals don’t even understand that they ARE bound, and that binding elementals is in fact MORE humane than using beasts of burden. An elemental doesn’t feel hunger, exhaustion, or pain; all a fire elemental wants to do is BURN, and it’s just as content to do that in a ring of fire as it is in Fernia.
On the other hand, an Ashbound druid will tell you that this is a fundamental disruption of the natural order. And any random person might say “When a bound elemental is released, it usually goes on a rampage. That means it was unhappy, right?”
Maybe… or maybe not. In my opinion, the “raw” elementals — the “fire elemental” as opposed to the more anthropomorphic salamander, efreeti, or azer — are extremely alien. They don’t experience existence in the same way as creatures of the material plane. They are immortals who exist almost entirely in the moment, making no plans for the future or worrying about the past. My views are pretty close to the description from the 5E Monster Manual: “A wild spirit of elemental force has no desire except to course through the element of its native plane… these elemental spirits have no society or culture, and little sense of being.”
When the fire elemental is released, it usually WILL go on a rampage. Because what it wants more than anything is to burn and to be surrounded by fire… so it will attempt to CREATE as much fire as possible. If it burns your house down, there’s no malice involved; it literally doesn’t understand the concept of a house, or for that matter the concept of YOU. In my short story “Principles of Fire” one of the characters interrogates a bound air elemental; he advises a colleague that the elemental doesn’t really understand its surroundings, and sees humans as, essentially, blobs of water.
So: there’s no absolute answer. Some people are certain that the elementals are entirely happy, and others are certain that it’s a barbaric and inhumane practice. What I can say is that MOST of the people in the Five Nations don’t think about it at all; to them, it’s no different from yoking an ox or using a bonfire to cook dinner. If you want to create a story based on a radical group that has proof that bound elementals are suffering, create that story. But the default is that there are extreme views on both sides, but that the majority of people just ride the airship without giving a thought to whether the ring has been unjustly imprisoned.
Follow-Up: A question was posed about how this relates to the Power of Purity, a group of Zil binders that seek to understand elementals and to work more closely with them. This still works with what I’ve described here. Elementals ARE sentient. It is possible to communicate with them. They simply are sentient in a very alien way. They have language, but that doesn’t mean they think like we do. In my vision, “raw” elementals generally don’t speak with one another; the elemental languages represent the ability to interface with the elemental and to draw its attention in a way that usually doesn’t happen. An airship pilot needs to interface with and guide an elemental, and a Purity binder does this as well. Most binders DISMISS the need to understand the elemental consciousness; Purity binders feel that truly understanding elementals is the secret to vastly better results. And if you want someone to suddenly reveal that elementals are being tortured and to upset the industry, the Power of Purity would be a good place to start.
That’s all for now! Thanks again to my Patreon supporters for making articles like this possible!
Previous articles have discussed the basic principles of Arcane Science, delved into Arcane History and the evolution of the Arcane Arts, and discussed Wizard Circles. But we’re still building a picture of how magic is integrated into everyday life. What is a magewright, and how does someone become one? How widespread are factories in the Five Nations, and what are they like?
The first thing to understand is that Khorvaire is actively and rapidly evolving. My original draft of the setting imagined a world that was more industrial—a world where wands and rods had largely replaced bows, where there were analogues to cars and radio. In developing the setting we made an intentional choice to pull back from that, to ensure that at the end of the day it still felt like D&D. But that world is out there, and it’s not that far away. This is one of the main reasons we’ve never advanced the timeline. In the last century we’ve seen the development of warforged and blast disks, and the rise of the common wandslinger. Lyrandar launched its first airship eight years ago, and within eight years we have docking towers in most major cities. We’ve shown some examples of airship innovation, with double-ring vessels. But again, these are innovations we’ve seen in just eight years. What will we have in another ten years? Flying fortresses? Will we triple the speed of airships, or create skycoaches that don’t rely on manifest zones? Galifar may have been a peaceful, golden age; but stability and stagnation went hand in hand. The Last War forced the nations (and the Houses supplying them) to innovate, to use every resource, to develop new tools and techniques.
Now the war is over, that spirit is part of civilian life. The world is changing. It’s intentional that people in Khorvaire ride horses, that more soldiers use crossbows than do wands. There ARE factories in Breland, but there’s still a place in the world for the independent blacksmith working at their forge. Today Breland is ruled by a king; but who knows what tomorrow will bring. The Arcane Revolution is happening NOW, and it’s up to decide how that manifests in your campaign. So there are arcane factories, but they are still new and expanding. There are still artisans who don’t use magecraft or other cantrips in their work, especially in small communities. But factories are spreading and new magewrights are being trained every day. The world is changing.
As always, the ideas I present in this article are what I do at my table and in my Eberron. This is not canon and may contradict canon material. Where there are contradictions, it’s up to you to decide which path to follow or how best to integrate these ideas.
THE WIDER WORLD
In considering the development and impact of arcane industry, it’s important to understand that the maps we have of Khorvaire are very high level. In my opinion, they don’t show all the rivers or roads and they only call out the most important or especially interesting settlements. There are hundreds of villages in Breland; Sharn alone is surrounded by a dozen smaller communities which, among other things, produce food and other staples the City of Towers relies on. This absence isn’t an accident. While it may SEEM like a map of Breland should include every community in Breland, the practical fact is that dropping another 400 towns and villages onto the map won’t actually make it better; it would bury the existing locations in a wave of noise. Those locations that are called out are the places where things are most likely to HAPPEN. There’s always an adventure in Sharn—whereas in the Sharn-adjacent hamlet of Dane’s Rest, the most exciting thing to happen in the last century was that time Lyndimae’s sow gave birth to an aberrant-marked piglet (something those fancy Morgrave scholars still say is impossible, but they weren’t there when it burnt down the sty, now, were they?).
So where the existing maps of the Five Nations give the impression of a handful of cities spread across a largely empty landscape, I see the nations as more active and vibrant, with steady traffic on rivers, roads, and rails. There are definitely vast stretches of undeveloped land—regions such as the King’s Forest or the Dragonwood—but where you have a major city like Sharn, Wroat, Flamekeep, or Fairhaven, there’s an active community around it. Even a town like Ardev has some smaller outlying hamlets and thorps. One reason this is important is because it’s these communities that actually produce a lot of the raw materials industry relies on. The cities are where you have house enclaves, universities, and nobles hosting galas—but it’s the villages where you have the fields, quarries, and mines. If you look back to my Q’barra campaign, that was set in a small mining town that wasn’t in any canon material—because they aren’t mining dragonshards in Newthrone! So the main point is that there is more out there—there are fishing villages along the shore of Redcliff Bay and miners living in the foothills of the Blackcaps. If you need one, just call it out and add it to the map—as I’ve done with my current Threshold campaign. Threshold is a mining town that has been largely irrelevant for most of its existence and has now become important with the rise of Droaam; and so, I’ve added it to my map and my story.
So there’s a reason we don’t try to show every village. However, I do have an issue with the limited scope of the lightning rail as depicted on the current maps. While it’s easy to imagine that the rail system suffered a certain amount of damage during the war, the lightning rail has been operating for nearly two centuries; while it may have taken a century to really take root, I see it as being more widespread than is currently shown and a backbone of freight transportation. I’ll note that in my first draft of the adventure Shadows From The Last War the adventurers take the lightning rail from Sharn to Rukhaan Draal—and part of the plot rested on the idea that while Orien doesn’t currently operate other rails in Darguun, the network of conductor stones is still there and independent Orien heirs are running smaller coaches on them. Likewise, in Threshold I’ve established that the lightning rail runs through Ardev and out to Threshold… and Orien is actively negotiating to extend it into Droaam.
Part of the idea of the upcoming Frontiers of Eberron: Threshold book is to look at a smaller region in more detail. But the key point here is to understand that the economy of Khorvaire is more robust than what we’ve called out; that there is an industrial infrastructure that’s deeper than the handful of cities we’ve highlighted on the map. The focus of the existing material is always on adventure, not on establishing a clear model of the industrial economy. But the economy is supposed to be there underneath it.
LIMITATIONS AND INNOVATIONS
With that in mind, the next step is to understand the limitations of magic and a few of the key innovations that are driving the current arcane revolution. As the previous articles have established, arcane magic behaves in a scientific manner and it’s more complicated than it appears to be. It’s simplified in play because this is a game, and we don’t WANT it do be complicated for players to use. But player characters are remarkable. The fact that an artificer can potentially create ANY magic item they feel like is an expression of their remarkable talent, and also reflects unorthodox techniques; they’re the genius creating a prototype in their garage, but those same techniques don’t work on an industrial scale. Let’s quickly review some of the historic limitations on arcane magic.
Dragonmark Only. Long ago there were many effects that could only be produced by dragonmarked individuals and then, only a few times per day.
Exotic Components. Components are a limiting factor in both spellcasting and magic item creation, from the need to carry balls of sulphur and guano to cast fireball to the need to have the poison glands of a wyvern to create a dagger of venom. Looking to the latter example, a need for such exotic components made it unfeasible to produce such items on a large scale.
Narrow Skills. Arcane workers specialize in particular materials (cloth, wood, metal, paper) and specific schools of magic (Illusion, evocation). Except for player characters, the person who makes a hat of disguise can’t also create a wand of magic missiles, just as a gunsmith can’t assemble a television; the two items require a completely different subset of Arcana specializations.
Meanwhile, here’s a host of developments which (over a significant period of time) helped to usher in the modern age.
Spellcasting Focuses and V/S Components. The ability to use a wand to focus your fireball instead of having to carry a supply of guano-balls was a key development for the widespread wandslinger, and streamlined spellcasting overall. Likewise, verbal and somatic components are a tool that have evolved over time and allowed a more efficient use of arcane energy.
The Twelve and Dragonmark Focus Items. The Twelve created a forum in which the Dragonmarked Houses could combine their talents and create tools and techniques no single house could create alone. This accelerated the development of dragonmark focus items, which amplify the powers of a mark and can be used repeatedly. A Sivis heir being able to cast whispering wind (a 3.5 spell) once per day is a novelty; the development of the speaking stone is what transformed the communications industry. However, the cost of creating focus items was an early limitation, something that would be offset by…
Eberron Dragonshards. The most common form of dragonshard, Eberron dragonshards were found to be a universal source of arcane power—allowing early artificers to bypass the traditional limitations of rare components. However, even after this discovery was made, Eberron dragonshards weren’t available in significant quantities. When the young House Tharashk realized it could use its mark for prospecting as well as bounty hunting, Eberron dragonshards became available in significant quantities.
Access to larger quantities of Eberron dragonshards was a general boon to the development of magic items. But the match that lit the fuse of the arcane revolution was the development in the mid-ninth century of the techniques for refining Eberron dragonshards into residuum, a powdered form of the shards that concentrates their power, dramatically increasing the amount of energy people could work with. You know how there’s a base cost to creating a magic item? A significant portion of that is residuum, which can be acquired from House Tharashk—and this takes the place of the exotic components (Manticore spines! Irian crystals! Dragon’s blood!) that had been required in the past. Most magic items still do require some exotic components—you can’t make an airship without soarwood—but refined dragonshards provided a universal base material and general source of fuel that dramatically increased the ability to produce magic items and dragonmark focus items on a larger scale. Which in turn led to the following developments…
Agriculture. The widespread implementation of storm spires in agricultural regions allows House Lyrandar to ensure optimal weather, minimizing drought and other disasters. Cannith’s improved manufacturing allows the development and distribution of efficient tools, and they’re developing irrigation systems tied to the principles of create water. Combined with Vadalis’s enhanced livestock this created a surge in agricultural productivity in the late ninth century, contributing to the expansion of major cities and an increase in the industrial workforce.
Communication. While the first speaking stones were developed at the end of the eighth century, it was only with the discovery of residuum that they could be deployed on a wide scale. Improved communication helps facilitate collaboration in both research and business. The Arcane Congress developed sending stones in the early days of the Last War and continues to improve the tools of arcane communication. In turn, Tasker’s Dream—a think tank in House Sivis—is working to improve Sivis capabilities and services.
Manufacturing. House Cannith’s arcane forges (described in more detail below) allow more widespread production of mundane goods and tools. Combined with the development of the guild trade schools, this helped spread the used of both efficient techniques and tools that allow even independent artisans to produce goods more efficiently than in the past. These techniques include the magecraft cantrip, which allows arcane artisans work more efficiently than those using purely mundane techniques.
Transportation. As noted above, there are more roads and rivers in Khorvaire than we see on our maps. The elemental galleons of House Lyrandar are important for sea travel, but elemental-bound barges play an important role in river transport—and the development of residuum and improved binding techniques accelerated the production of these vessels. Likewise, it was the development of residuum that allowed the lightning rail to spread. According to canon, by 869 YK there were rail lines connecting the Five Nations all the way out to the Ironroot Mountains and the Talenta Plains, and the scope of the rail network continued to expand over the decades leading to the Last War. All of this aided in the transportation of both food and raw materials, further driving all other levels of the economy.
So the century leading up to the war saw an increase in the available labor force, while the development of cantrips and ritual magic—disseminated through guild trade schools—enable the rise of the modern magewright. Increasingly efficient techniques for finding and refining Eberron dragonshards made it possible to produce magical items and effects in larger quantities. Most professional magewrights rely on residuum to perform their rituals; it’s not just that people didn’t have the training, it’s that in the past it wouldn’t have been possible to sustain the modern magewright economy.
The Last War diverted much of the labor force, but it also created a burning need that didn’t exist under the unity of Galifar—both to supply the armies of each nation and for constant innovation, each nation eager to find some sort of edge. A century of war strained both resources and infrastructure, which is one reason that the dragonshard deposits of Q’barra and Xen’drik are of such great interest to House Tharashk. Now, in the wake of the war, the systems that evolved to feed that appetite are being turned to civilian needs—both repairing the damage that was done and finding ways to improve everyday life.
INDUSTRY IN THE WORLD
So we have a general sense of the forces that are driving the arcane revolution, but how does it actually manifest in the world? When you’re looking for general touchstones, what we’ve said is that Eberron has more in common with Earth in the nineteenth century than the twentieth or beyond. We are starting to see factories, but for the most part these are the sort of factories you’d see during the American Civil War, not modern automation. We have the point-to-point communication of the speaking stone—which fills much the same role as the telegraph—but in canon, we don’t yet have a wide-broadcast analogue to the radio. In general, magic is being used to produce better tools and techniques for artisans and farmers, but with a few notable exceptions work is still done by individuals. A typical smith may have trained at a Cannith trade school and may pay for the license that lets them display the Cannith seal; but such licensed independents still make up a significant part of the labor force. The greater industrial forces of the dragonmarked houses—Vadalis battery farms, Cannith’s creation forges—are expanding, and it’s easy to see have these could soon transform the economy in the days ahead. But again, that’s the point; the world is changing.
Having said that, the broadly-nineteenth-century model is just that—a general yardstick. Part of the point of Eberron is that it uses different tools than our world, and that means there are things that can be done in Eberron that are impossible even in the present day. While it’s not yet an economically viable service, House Orien can teleport you from Sharn to Korth in the blink of an eye. House Phiarlan may not have access to modern special effects, but they can do things with illusion we can only dream of. Prestidigitation can heat or chill food in seconds. This is especially true when we get into eldritch machines. Lyrandar’s storm spires can control the weather, and Cannith creation forges can create life. So the Five Nations don’t have analogues to television or cars, they don’t have the internet, and airships aren’t as advanced or widespread as our airplanes. But aside from the fact that arcane science advances with every day, always keep in mind the ways in which it does differ from our technology.
Let’s look at a few specific manifestations of arcane industry…
House Vadalis and those independents licensed by the Handler’s Guild cover a range of businesses: animal husbandry, teamster services, veterinary medicine. These are generally specialized, generational fields. Redleaf Harriers breeds hounds, raptors, and other hunting beasts, while the Willowhaven Ranch outside Varna is the largest dairy farm in the Five Nations. As with any dragonmarked house, most of the largest and well-supported businesses are run by house heirs, but the Handler’s Guild also licenses countless independent ranchers and breeders. The black hippogriff seal ensures that the people in charge have Vadalis training and that beasts are cared for and raised according to house standards. So there are a few massive ranches like Willowhaven, but there are countless small farms as well.
When most people hear “Vadalis,” they think of magebreeding. This is a term that has many meanings. Let’s start with the earliest description.
The widespread use of magic on Eberron has led to the development of magical enhancements to animal breeding, particularly within House Vadalis. Some experiments in that direction have created new creatures that are actually magical beasts, with unusual intelligence and supernatural or spell-like abilities. In general, however, the aim of these breeding programs is simply to create better animals—ones that are more suited for use in the work of daily life. These magically enhanced animals are called magebred.
Eberron Campaign Setting, page 295
Today, House Vadalis identifies three distinct forms of magebreeding.
Incremental magebreeding is similar to breeders in our world trying to produce a new breed of dog. The result is a slight variation in the standard beast well suited toward a particular role: a hen that lays larger eggs, a tiger that’s easier to train, a hound that thrives in colder climates or has a remarkable sense of smell. One concrete example of this is the riding tribex. For thousands of years, the plains tribex has been bred as a beast of burden and source of food. The riding tribex is smaller and faster—sturdier than a horse and capable of enduring long, sustained trips.
Enhanced magebreeding seeks to strengthen a creature, imbuing it with minor supernatural qualities. The Magebred Animal template in the 3.5 Eberron Campaign Setting suggests the following changes:
One of Strength, Dexterity, or Constitution is increased by 4; the other two ability scores are increased by 2.
Armor Class is increased by 2, reflecting increased overall durability.
Magebred animals are easier to train, can learn more tricks or maneuvers than purely mundane creatures, and the DC of Animal Handling checks involving the beast is reduced by 2.
The creature gains either a +10 bonus to one of its movement speeds, an additional +2 bonus to armor class, or a bonus to tracking checks.
These creatures are still considered beasts; in 3.5 D&D terms, they were limited to an Intelligence of 2. A few critical points about this template. It’s intended to reflect BREEDS of magebred animals. So Redleaf hounds all have +4 Dexterity and a bonus to tracking; it’s not as though two pups in the same litter each get to choose whether the +4 goes to Strength or Dexterity, or whether they get the boost to movement or tracking. House Vadalis created the first Redleaf hounds through active enhanced magebreeding; but ever since then, Redleaf Harriers has bred that enhanced line, while the house magebreeders have moved on to other things.
The second point is that this is a simple template that is intended to give a broad example of what can be done. The template only suggests a possible bonus to movement, armor class, or tracking checks. But I could see any of the following as being the sort of features that enhanced magebreeding could produce:
Increased fertility; increased laying for egg-laying creatures, along with potentially unusual egg characteristics.
Animals used to provide meat or dairy could be magebred to enhance these aspects, whether that’s simply increasing the quantity or adding an unusual quality (flavor, color). This is how you get the cow that produces chocolate milk.
Heightened senses; a magebred falcon might have a bonus to Perception instead of Survival.
Specific resistances: creating a creature that doesn’t just have thick fur, but that is actually resistant to cold damage.
Unnatural appearance. A horse with metallic, silvery fur; a hound with glowing eyes; cats that always have identical markings.
The key points here are that the general goal of enhanced magebreeding is to produce new breeds with hereditary traits and generally requires generations to produce results. They don’t take a horse and GIVE it metallic fur; they easily COULD with cosmetic transmutation, but it wouldn’t last. Instead they work to instill a trait over multiple generations, that will thereafter be passed down to offspring. Typically enhanced breeds are only available to house arms in the Handler’s Guild, and enhanced beasts are sterilized before they are sold to others. Stories say that there are all sorts of safeguards to deal with poachers—that enhanced animals will die if they aren’t feed special Vadalis supplements, that they will frenzy and turn on rustlers, that Vadalis has death squads that sneak around the world hunting for unauthorized breeders—but these are probably just rumors. Probably.
Innovative magebreeding involves the creation of either an entirely new species or imbuing an existing creature with dramatic supernatural characteristics. Popular legend holds that the house’s first act of innovative magebreeding was the production of the hippogriff; skeptics claim that Vadalis simply discovered the first hippogriff after it emerged from a manifest zone tied to Kythri. A more recent and dramatic example is the tressym, first produced just twenty-four years ago. The house is always working on innovative projects, but actual successes are far and few between; innovative creations are often sterile, stillborn, or mentally unstable. Many innovative creatures are monstrosities as opposed to beasts.
While it’s more colorful and exciting than, say, dairy farming, magebreeding is a tiny fraction of the work of House Vadalis. Ranches and kennels tied to the Handler’s Guild may perform iterative magebreeding, but enhanced and innovative magebreeding is performed almost entirely within house enclaves or in conjunction with the Twelve. The tressym was produced through collaboration with House Medani, and there are stories of Vadalis working with House Jorasco on ghastly experiments involving troll’s blood and medusa’s eyes.
So what does a magebreeding facility actually look like? What is the daily work that goes on within? The following tools are used in magebreeding.
Manifest Zones. Zones tied to Kythri and Lamannia are both highly prized by House Vadalis, though any zone can have value; a Risian manifest zone could be crucial when trying to breed a creature resistant to cold. Sometimes this is about creating a facility in a manifest zone, but often it involves using secondary materials, such as foodstuffs grown in the relevant manifest zones or harnesses formed from planar materials.
Focus Items and Eldritch Machines. Vadalis magebreeders use focus items that help them both to maintain control of beasts through the process of magebreeding, compel necessary behaviors, shape instincts, and monitor the state of their charges. Eldritch machines can serve more dramatic purposes; one that comes to mind is the spire of growth, a monolith that accelerates the aging of any beasts within its radius; these help with generational breeding, though these spires are expensive to create and dangerous to maintain (supposedly they don’t affect humanoids…). In general, eldritch machines that produce truly dramatic effects are likely to be either unique or experimental, and may become unstable or require a steady supply of dragonshards.
Rare Components. As noted before, Vadalis has been experimenting with troll’s blood. Innovative and enhanced magebreeding often uses transmutation techniques to imbue a creature with the qualities of another creature; this can require organs, blood, or other elements of the creature with the desired trait. Likewise, planar resources can be important in magebreeding.
Transmutation Magic. Magebreeding can involve a wide array of transmutation rituals, most of which have little practical application to adventuring: rituals to enhance fertility, highly specific polymorph effects, rituals that simply increase a beast’s chances of surviving the transfusions and other operations it’s going through. A side effect of this is that there is a corps of specialists within Vadalis who excel at cosmetic transmutation (as described in Exploring Eberron). This is rarely a service they perform for humanoids, but there is at least one Vadalis transmuter who runs a business altering the new pets of rich clients to match the appearance of a deceased pet. As a general rule, polymorph alone doesn’t allow successful breeding; polymorphed creatures are functionally sterile while under the effects of the spell, so while you can turn a cat into a dog for an hour, if it mates with another dog in that time it won’t end up producing either puppies or kittens. This is certainly something Vadalis has and continued to experiment with, but lasting change isn’t as simple as a single 4th level spell.
So the point is that magebreeding facilities often look like farms or vertinary hospitals, with special chambers for performing rituals or imbuing planar energies. But magebreeding is invariably a long-term process, involving both breeding and the careful study of multiple generations. Vadalis is always searching for ways to produce swifter and more dramatic results… And these efforts often end in disaster, or at least adventure!
What about plants? One question that’s frequently come up is whether House Vadalis also magebreeds plants. On consideration, my answer is that they do not. Their expertise is limited to fauna, not flora. We have specifically called out Riedran work magebreeding plants (such as dreamlily and the pommow). We’ve talked about the fact that soarwood is a vital limited resource, suggesting that Vadalis can’t replicate it. I also see magical manipulation of plantlife as something that may end up being a strength of the Eldeen Reaches. So there are lots of interesting possibilities for magebred plants, but it’s not a field monopolized by a dragonmarked house;this is an area of the economy that hasn’t currently been locked down, leaving opportunities for independent forces to fill that gap.
A magewright is someone who uses cantrips and arcane rituals to perform their job. It’s a generic term, like technician. “Magewright” isn’t a job; the job is lamplighter or locksmith or truthteller. A typical blacksmith is a magewright, using magecraft and mending to enhance their work; but if you ask their occupation, they’ll say “blacksmith.” The point is that in the modern age, arcane cantrips and rituals are becoming standard tools of industry. If you go to a small village, you may find a smith who doesn’t know how to cast mending; but they’ll have a hard time competing with the Cannith-trained smiths who can mend a broken object in seconds.
As has been discussed in earlier articles and Exploring Eberron, most magewrights are highly specialized and use cantrips or spells that are more limited than the spells used by player characters—though sometimes limitations are balanced by specific advantages. A magewright launderer may use a form of prestidigitation that can only clean or dry, and that only affects fabric or leather—but it may affect a larger area than the standard cantrip. As noted in Rising From The Last War, most magewrights can only cast leveled spells as rituals (even spells that normally don’t have the ritual tag); these often rituals take longer than usual; and they require an additional material cost of 20 gp x the spell’s level, typically refined Eberron dragonshards. Magewrights can produce their effects over and over, but there is a cost in time and gold. Likewise, Magewrights are often proficient with very narrow slices of Arcana. For a player character, Arcana represents broad knowledge; a magewright might be an expert with Arcana but ONLY regarding illusion effects, because that’s all that they mastered in their studies.
Like the wandslinger, the number of magewrights in the world has increased exponentially over the course of the last century. This is due both to the development of improved training techniques and to the need for more services. Magewrights also highlight a crucial difference between the arcane economy and our technological economy. Arcane magic can produce remarkable effects, but it often requires a living creature to guide it. At the moment, laundry is typically done by a magewright who casts their specialized prestidigitation, not by use of a machine anyone can use. Some of the most important tools are dragonmark focus items that can only be operated by someone who possesses a specific dragonmark. Magic items exist, and as noted below exist in ever-increasing numbers—but at the moment there is a vital human (well, living) component to the economy.
Most magewrights are trained by one of the guilds tied to the dragonmarked houses. These trade schools pass along specific techniques tied to the houses, and ultimately provide the student with the opportunity to work within the guild or to license an independent business. The Arcane Congress has its own training programs, and other nations are working on their own programs, but these are typically limited to a few specific fields that until recently were critical to the war effort; again, you don’t go to “magewright school”, you train to be a tinker or a lamplighter. Aside from having the greatest expertise and deep pockets, the trade schools of the guild have the public trust; everyone KNOWS that if you want to be the best smith you can be, you should get Cannith training, not study with some Morgrave outreach program. With that said, not all Magewrights learn from schools. Especially in smaller communities, a magewright may learn their trade through a local apprenticeship. It’s also possible that a magewright could stumble onto their own unique techniques (for example, an Aundairian shoemaker who learns fey techniques for mending shoes).
House Cannith dominates industrial manufacturing, but isn’t particularly involved in the harvesting or development of raw materials. Likewise, House Cannith is known for two things: the development and maintenance of durable tools and weapons and the creation of magic items (common and otherwise). A key example of this is clothing. Cannith produces and sells looms and weaver’s tools, and it creates enchanted clothing—but it largely performs the latter function by purchasing clothing from weavers and then adding the enchantments. In the case of some of the new factories, Cannith is employing weavers to produce those clothes onsite—but it doesn’t dominate the production of clothing or the fashion industry in the same way that it dominates the creation of swords or constructs. Many expert artisans in all fields still receive Cannith magewright training, but Cannith on the whole is focused on function; fashion is another cottage industry, where independent forces like Clebdecher, Davandi, and a host of Aundairians can shine.
This ties to the general point that a great deal of modern manufacturing is still the province of individuals or small businesses. The local blacksmith may be Cannith-trained, but you still go and deal with the local blacksmith.
With that said, that is changing. Eldritch machines like creation forges and the legendary genesis forge are amazing arcane factories that allow heirs to channel the forces of conjuration and transmutation and reshape matter through magic alone. However, most Cannith factories aren’t that advanced. They employ assembly lines, with workers having focused tasks that contribute to a greater whole. They use arcane principles—using forms of prestidigitation and mending to polish and shape elements, for example—but they are still more akin to nineteenth century factories than those of the modern day. The simple fact of the matter is that I’m not an expert on manufacturing techniques, and I can’t give you a precise breakdown of what goes on in a Cannith arms factory. But I can say that if that factory is producing swords, every sword in a particular model is nearly identical in quality and appearance—and that it’s produced by an assembly line as opposed to the work of a single smith. It is also the case that a Cannith workshop is generally tightly focused and uses tools that effectively provide advantage to the production of a specific type of thing. That Cannith arms factory is able to churn out swords and halberds, but they can’t suddenly turn around and start producing wagons tomorrow; they’re metalworks, and while they might be able to shift to producing maces by changing out molds, they can’t suddenly start producing leather armor.
Cannith is also the source of the bulk of the magic items that are found in the present day. As a general rule, even common items aren’t yet MASS produced, though Cannith is working on it. Let’s consider a cloak of many fashions. First they need the base, physical cloak, which has to be produced to certain specifications (a particular material, specific total mass; given the esoteric nature of arcane magic, it’s even possible that it has to be a specific color). Assembly line workers can perform preparatory work—imbuing the material with residuum and a certain elixir; attaching a brooch, itself specially prepared—but ultimately it is a specialized magewright who performs a lengthy ritual that draws on arcane forces and binds them to the cloth. The Cannith facility is designed to help this process; the chamber that magewright works in is engraved with arcane patterns that allow them to channel the energies involved in illusion-into-cloth rituals more efficiently. This ties to the basic difference between Cannith artisans and player characters creating magic items. Cannith facilities are geared to create specific items and they can do so quicker and more cheaply than an artificer. But that workshop is entirely geared toward binding illusion into clothes—producing a specific version of cloak of many fashions, perhaps a form of cloaks of elvenkind, maybe a specific type of glamoured armor. They can’t just decide to produce a wand of magic missiles tomorrow; their speed and efficiency is tied to following a clearly established pattern.
Cannith dominates manufacturing and sets the standards of the industry, but that doesn’t mean all goods are manufactured by Cannith. We’ve always called out that Breland has the greatest industrial capacity of the Five Nations, while through the Arcane Congress Aundair has the most sophisticated facilities for producing magic items. The Cogs of Sharn are an important center for metalworking. Cannith facilities are simply better, because dragonmark focus items are cheaper and more effective than other tools and because Cannith artisans have Artisan’s Intuition; but Brelish facilities are still effective and capable of producing mundane equipment on par with Cannith’s basic goods.
What About Automation?
Even before House Cannith created the fully sentient warforged, it developed the semi-sentient warforged titans. Homunculi have been around for quite some time, and I’ll talk about both homunculi and familiars in more detail in a future IFAQ. The principles of arcane automation are clearly on the table, and already one of the primary concerns meatbags—I mean, people—have raised about the warforged is that these tireless constructs might steal the jobs of honest folk. As it stands, the general concept is that the science just isn’t there yet. There may certainly be prototype factories where animated metal limbs perform the work that once required human hands, or where docents perform the work of enchantment. But again, this ties to the point that the world is changing. Currently, the magewright is a crucial living component of modern manufacturing; but perhaps the next decade will bring dramatic change.
WHY DOES THIS MATTER?
This is always the key question with this type of article. Ultimately, why does any of this matter? How does any of this actually affect your adventure or your adventurer? Here’s a few things to consider.
Independent artisans are still common. Most are trained or licensed by the dragonmarked houses, and people value a house license because it promises a standardized level of quality. If you have the Guild Artisan background, odds are good you’re tied to one of the house guilds… But if you’re proficient with Smith’s Tools, you could have been a soldier trained to maintain equipment in the Last War, you could have worked in the Cogs, or you could simply have learned the trade from the village smith.
Manifest zones are often an important aspect of industry. It’s Syrania that makes the City of Towers possible. As a DM developing an interesting industrial site, consider if there’s a manifest zone that could be relevant—and if so, what unforeseen consequences it could have. Sharn has its radiant idols. If Cannith has built a massive forgehold in a Fernian manifest zone to take advantage of its Fires of Industry trait, they might run into problems when an exiled dao decides to lay claim to the facility…
Consider the practical applications of cantrips. Within seconds, a magewright can heat, chill, clean, flavor, or mend. That’s a tool; prestidigitation lets you heat and flavor food, but unless you’re proficient with cook’s utensils there’s no assurance you’ll do it well.
Factories exist, and employ assembly lines and specialized facilities, but are not as advanced—or automated—as what we’re used to.
On the other hand, eldritch machines can produce effects that are beyond what we can do today. However, these often either require a dragonmarked heir (as with the storm spire or creation forge) or are either unique or prototype facilities that could easily have unexpected problems.
Tied to this, arcane science is constantly advancing. Both the houses and independent forces are trying to push the envelope. Risky experiments can have unsafe consequences or require questionable actions—whether that’s about Vadalis kidnapping trolls to harvest their blood, or Cannith making a new generation of warforged that channel the essence of fiends from Shavarath.
As we start moving into the late Victorian period the first department stores begin showing up and textiles are by and large one of the most industrious industries… The smaller tailors will buy the newest patterns from France or Italy, then you’d go in and be fitted and pick out your fabrics. In larger department stores it is much the same, but instead of a dress made in your hometown it is shipped in from a more manufacture savvy city or country. I’m assuming that one could say that Cannith acts as these large department stores, and these dresses (still made to order and fit) are then brought in so that Cannith artificers can enchant them. Or would it be more of a service that Cannith does, that one can order a gown in a fine silk, and the tailor can have it sent off to Cannith to have a glamour put upon it?
There’s a few factors here. The first is that so far in canon I don’t believe we’ve discussed the existence of a classic department store in the model of Selfridge’s or Le Bon Marche. I believe that there’s a lot of room for just such a business to exist in Fairhaven or Sharn, but the point is that it doesn’t exist yet. MY inclination would be to highlight this as a key development of the world moving forward from the war—to tell a Selfridge-like story of the entrepreneur who’s trying to introduce the department store to the Five Nations. The question then comes as to whether that store would be Cannith, or whether it would be an independent—who could, therefore, be an Aurum member. Essentially, Cannith specializes in MAKING things; we’ve never said they specialize in SELLING them, and that could be a crucial distinction here.
This ties to the key question of where the dragonmarked monopolies lie. What businesses do you want to be utterly dominated by the houses, and where are the opportunities for independents and the Aurum to get a foothold? Just as I suggest above that Vadalis isn’t involved in magebreeding plants, I’m inclined to say that Cannith is focused on function over fashion. I DO think it’s reasonable to say that they enchant bolts of fabric with relevant enchantments (self-cleaning, simple glamerweave effects) and then sell them to tailors. But I don’t think that most dressmakers are Cannith. In Sharn: City of Towers, the two most celebrated tailors are Hellien Clamas Clebdecher and Thurik Davandi—both independent gnomes. In Threshold, the Cannith heir runs the smithy while Littlehand Haberdashers is independent. Personally, I like having those spaces in the world that fall in the cracks between houses. I think it IS reasonable to say that Cannith produces bolts of cloth—that tailors buy their materials from Cannith—but I’m OK with the idea that fashion is outside of Cannith, and that the department store could be a new development.
But also tied to that, in general I tend to think that fine glamerweave is often custom work. I think it’s reasonable to say that there are basic glamerweave effects that can be bound to bolts of cloth and that are seen in bulk—field of stars, flowing water, embers—but I tend to think that more dramatic glamerweave effects are usually custom work. So it could be that a tailor would make a dress and then you’d take it to a glamerweave artisan, but I don’t think that artisan would necessarily be Cannith.
Would it be House Cannith that has magewright plumbers?
Yes and no. Rather than “plumber,” I’d call this magewright trade custodian. Prestidigitation to clean; a form of mending that can be used to repair damaged masonry and wood; and potentially a speciality spell like create or destroy water, floating disk, or even some form of generating fire to dispose of refuse. Custodians could serve as plumbers in cities that have plumbing, but would also deal with general maintenance of infrastructure, remove refuse and graffiti, and so on. Again, I could definitely see that the Cannith Tinker’s Guild would TRAIN custodians, but I’m not sure that it would actually broker their services; I think custodians would probably work directly for the civic authority. However, the Tinker’s Guild might license itinerant custodians who travel between smaller villages.
What’s the role of the city of Making, which now resides on the Glass Plateau, in this? Were there any particular innovations or was it “just” a major industrial center? Was it the original home of one or more Cannith families?
The city of Making is a source of contradictory canon. In some places it’s described as “the birthplace of House Cannith.” Yet Rising From The Last War and earlier canon sources clearly establish Eston as the seat of House Cannith and the focus of its greatest works. Likewise, Rising says “A secret Cannith facility is supposed to hide in the city’s subterranean depths“—which implies that the city overall isn’t dominated by Cannith.
My answer lies in the final question—Was it the original home of one or more Cannith families?As this article notes, Cannith was formed from multiple families. The Vown family—which we’ve called out as one of the more powerful families today—was definitely associated with Eston. I’d say that the region around making was associated with both the Harn and Juran families (though the Jurans were always travelers and didn’t settle in one city). While Eston became the seat of the united house, Making remained a center of GENERAL industry within Cyre, both Cannith and other cottage industries. To tie it to the preceding questions, I’d take it a step further and say that Making might have been the center for Cannith’s textile production—so yes, Cannith had facilities in Making, but they largely produced bolts of cloth and other basic goods, whereas in Eston they have the clockwork menagerie and three creation forges. This ties to the statement that Cannith had a SECRET facility beneath Making; the point is that they had factories and facilities on the surface but that they were all devoted to peaceful production, while if there was some sort of weapons research going on in Making, it was in this hidden outpost.
As with all of these articles, there’s many more aspects of this I’d like to cover. Future IFAQs may deal with questions about the lightning rail, airships, and familiars. As always, thanks to by Patreon supporters, who chose this topic and who make these articles possible!
Recently my Patreon supporters posed a number of questions about Q’barra, and I wanted to share the answers where everyone could see them! These get fairly deep into the weeds of Q’barra lore, so here’s a few quick explanations for terms you might not know.
Masvirik is the fiendish overlord bound in Q’barra, more commonly known as “The Cold Sun.” The Poison Dusk are the servants of Masvirik, a blend of corrupted lizardfolk, kobolds, and dragonborn.
The Masvirik’uala are an alliance of lizardfolk sworn to protect the region from the Poison Dusk and Masvirik. To ensure that they never forgot their mission, the couatl bound the lizardfolk to a shared dream that would forever remind them of their purpose. This is discussed in more detail in this article.
The Trothlorsvek is the dragonborn culture in Q’barra, and are also discussed in the previously linked article. Their ancestors came to Q’barra with Rhashaak, the last dragon sent to protect the region from Masvirik.
Dusk shards are eberron dragonshards infused with fiendish power.
Before I dive into the questions, I wanted to call out that there’s just 24 hours left for people who want to submit an entry to play in my next Threshold session; you can find more information here.
Previously you made an off hand comparison that “Masvirik is to the lizardfolk as Katashka is to humans” – what did you mean by that?
Some servants of the Poison Dusk are undead and some aren’t, but those that are undead aren’t like Mabaran undead. Masvirik’s champions channel the overlord’s power, which can cause mutation. After death, that aspect of Masvirik can continue to animate the body, creating a form of undead. Keep in mind that when I say “aspect of Masvirik” that doesn’t mean he himself is consciously driving all these beings; like most overlords, Masvirik is essentially dreaming. Possession starts as just a general drive to serve the Poison Dusk. Physical mutation generally occurs as the spirit grows stronger and begins to edge out the mortal spirit; ultimately this can kill the vessel, leaving an undead being entirely driven by the evil within it.
What role do the Blackscale Lizardfolk play in Q’barra?
It wasn’t clearly defined in the 3.5 ECS. The approach of 4E was to say that Masvirik’s servants are vessels for its power and that this physically transforms them — and that the colonists mistakenly assumed these were distinct species, whereas in fact they are corrupted. So the classic “Poison Dusk lizardfolk” weren’t pygmy lizardfolk, but rather corrupted kobolds—with Dungeon 185 noting that the kobolds of the region are the most vulnerable to the influence of the Cold Sun, thus driving that idea that most of the time, people encountering “The Poison Dusk” encounter these small scales. It goes on to note that with Masvirik’s dusk shard champions “Many are physically transformed so that they possess serpentine or draconic traits and specifically resemble a black dragon” — so Blackscale lizardfolk aren’t a SPECIES, but rather corrupted champions of Masvirik. As such, they largely aren’t encountered outside of the Poison Dusk and don’t play a distinct role in Q’barra separate from the Poison Dusk.
The ECS states that the Cold Sun are primarily found in the “north and east”. Would you then say that the Dragonborn/Trothlorsvek are actually the primary scales in Hope/New Galifar? Or is that outdated canon?
It’s outdated canon. With that said, I wouldn’t say that there ARE “primary scales” in Hope and New Galifar. The Masvirik’uala form the bulk of the population, but what Dungeon 185 notes is that “the lizardfolk proved willing to cede certain regions to the outsiders”. They don’t have a concept of owning land and they essentially moved out of the regions the colonists moved into; they largely avoid contact with the settlers when possible. I think they can still be found in Hope and New Galifar, but again, they essentially move to stay out of the way of the colonists, so you don’t FEEL their presence strongly. By contrast, the Trothlorsvek are few in number and their cities are largely in the unclaimed region, but they are more open to interacting with the settlers when they do meet; High Elder Bhisma has forged an alliance with Newthrone and forbid clans from attacking human cities, and it was likely Bhisma who participated in the Thronehold discussions. But the Dragonborn have their ancient duties to attend to and aren’t TRYING to integrate with the settlers, which again is why the settlers know so little about them.
Is the shared dreamscape of the Masvirik’uala in Dal Quor, like the Uul Dhakaan, or is it separate from the plane?
Logically, it makes more sense for it to be isolated from the plane. It was created by the couatl, who have no personal connection to Dal Quor or reason to have influence over it. Furthermore, if it’s in Dal Quor it’s easier for it to be manipulated or corrupted by outside forces, so it’s SAFER for it to be isolated. So my inclination would be to say that the lizardfolk dream is IN THE SILVER FLAME. The main thing is that this would mean that the Masvirik’uala should be IMMUNE TO THE DREAM SPELL, because like kalashtar they don’t dream in Dal Quor. On the other hand, if you want adventurers to be able to explore it or want it to be corrupted by the Quori you could place it in Dal Quor… But again, it seems illogical to me that the couatl would have the ability to permanently transform Dal Quor. Yes, on the one hand the Couatl host had more raw power than Jhazaal Dhakaan, and she created the Uul Dhakaan… but on the other hand, as a mortal, Jhazaal had a tie to Dal Quor and a deep understanding of stories, while as native celestials the couatl have no connection to Dal Quor.
Would you say that the Draconic Eidolon has existed undisturbed since the rise of draconic power toward the end of the Age of Demons? Would it have weathered the Turning of Ages, undisturbed? I assume the Draconic Eidolon might have been attacked in the past by quori, but remained impenetrable?
I’d be inclined to say that it’s more recent than the Age of Demons. It’s supposed to be an arcane artifact—something the dragons CREATED—and to me, it’s an example of the fact that even at their more advanced level of magic, dragons are capable of innovation and evolution. With that said, one possibility would be to say that it was created by Ourelonastrix and that it holds the spirits of the dragons who inspired the myths of the Sovereigns; in that case, yes, it would be that old.
What kind of magic do the lizardfolk use? Dragons of Eberron mentions that Vvaraak taught many other groups of druids, including that ” lizardfolk boast Gatekeepers in Q’barra and Xen’drik” while Rising from the Last War says that lizardfolk culture “blends druidic traditions with the beliefs of the Silver Flame”
The general principle is that where there’s contradictions, the latest source takes precedence—notably, the intentional change of the Blood of Vol over the editions when compared to the ECS. Rising intentionally contradicts prior canon on a number of points. So I would use Rising’s statement here: the Lizardfolk have a tradition that blends primal magic and the power of the Silver Flame. I see no reason that Vvaraak would have had anything to do with it, and beyond that, the Masivirik’uuala AREN’T GOOD AT LEARNING NEW THINGS. The whole reason their culture has remained as stable as it has for tens of thousands of years is that they rely on the dream for their traditions. If Vvaraak taught them something entirely new, it would be forgotten in a few generations because it’s not embedded in the dream. So I’d ignore Dragons of Eberron on this point — though it could be advanced as a crackpot theory by a Morgrave scholar.
As noted, they wield a blend of divine and primal power… so, for example, an Ancients paladin or a Nature cleric are both solid choices for the lizardfolk, though rangers and druids are also options. They do not have a Keeper or Voice of the Flame; the shared dream of the Masvirik’uala serves the role of a Voice of the Flame for them.
Do the Shulassakar play any role in the region? The dragonshard on them says “The shulassakar devote their energy to guarding Krezent and other couatl ruins scattered across Eberron.”
No, the Shulassakar don’t play a major role in the region. The lizardfolk predate the Shulassakar and the lizardfolk dream is essentially a self-sustaining system; they don’t NEED shulassakar assistance (just as there’s no significant shulassakar presence among the Ghaash’kala). The Shulassakar guard Krezent because there’s no one else to do it. I expect that there may be some Shulassakar OBSERVERS in Q’barra, but they aren’t integrated into the Masvirik’uala.
When did Rhashaak arrive? How has he survived? Was he the first draconic guardian of Haka’torvhak?
This is a question that simply isn’t going to have a logical answer, which is why my general principle is NOT to try to pin down every scrap of history in these vast stretches. Per 5E dragonborn lifespan is equivalent to humans. Barring a supernatural force like the Uul Dhakaan or lizardfolk dreams, it’s hard to envision a dragonborn civilization enduring for *75,000* years with no significant change — and still being around to have an empire that clashed with the Dhakaani. One way to explain it would be to suggest that they have gone through multiple rises and falls, being nearly decimated by the Poison Dusk only to eventually rebuild, in which case past civilizations could be entirely different. A simpler alternative would be that Rhashaak was the LAST guardian, not the first; that with all previous guardians, Argonnessen eradicated them AND their dragonborn retinue when they became corrupted. With Rhashaak, they realized that while he was corrupted, he was both contained and containing Masvirik—that rather than replacing the cork in the bottle over and over, they could just LEAVE it. So in that case, Masvirik could have been put in place in the Age of Monsters, allowing his dragonborn to establish an empire around the same time as Dhakaan.
For story purposes, whether Rhashaak’s reign lasted one thousand years or three thousand years is largely irrelevant; it lasted for a long time, a long time ago. However, if you want to nail it down, there’s two possibilities. Either it’s artistic license — even the dragonborn likely don’t have perfect records, and who else would even know? The lizardfolk don’t record history in that way—or Rhashaak was ALWAYS SUSTAINED BY THE POWER OF HAKATORVHAK—that part of BEING the guardian of Haka’torvhak was spiritually bonding with the city, and it was always just a question of how long he could sustain it without being corrupted.
What’s the big difference between a dusk shard and a khyber shard with a demon in it? Is it just that dusk shards, being based in Eberron shards, were a more convenient storytelling mechanism for Q’barra?
The short form is that there weren’t enough Khyber shards IN Q’barra, so Eberron shards were used instead, which is why THEY DON’T WORK AS WELL. In general principle, think of a dusk shard as a sponge used to soak up Masvirik’s malefic power; it’s better than leaving the mess on the floor, but you’re going to get wet if you touch it.
That’s all for now! Thanks again to my Patreon supporters for making these articles possible.
In 2009 I traveled around the world, going from place to place and running an Eberron session for everyone I stayed with. One of the things I loved about that was getting meet and play with a vast range of different people. Thanks to the pandemic, travel isn’t in the cards for the forseeable future. So at the end of last year I started working on something else: an online campaign for my Patreon supporters. This is an ongoing campaign that is based in the town of Threshold and that uses a roster of ten established player characters… but each session, da different set of players will play those characters. In between sessions, all of my patrons will have a chance to shape the town and the story through polls and other activities—so even people who don’t have a chance to play will be a part of the campaign.
In the winter of 2020 I worked with my patrons to build our roster of characters. I’ve set up a campaign site where patrons can review the characters and the ongoing progress of the campaign, as well as adding session logs and other notes. In January I ran the first session of Threshold, and patrons have access to the video of that session. Now I’m getting ready for the second session, and I’m doing the casting call. If you might like to play in that session, read on!
My original idea was that I would randomly select the players for each session from my pool of patrons. However, Patreon has strict rules that prevent any such randomized benefits. However, they do allow contests. So first I polled supporters to choose the time for the session—I’ll be running each session at a different time, to ensure that all patrons have an opportunity to participate, regardless of their time zone. This next session is going to be at 10 AM – 2 PM Pacific Time, February 21st. Today I opened up the contest. As I said, Threshold uses a roster of ten player characters:
Bel, the Smith (Beasthide shifter, Beast barbarian, folk hero)
Briar, the Greensinger (Changeling, Dreams druid, entertainer)
Deven, the Tailor (Goblin, Mastermind rogue, spy)
Ja’taarka, the Good Boy (Worg, Gloom Stalker ranger, soldier)
Rolan Harn, the Marshal (Deneith human, Battle Master fighter, soldier)
Sora, the Stonespeaker (Sivis gnome, Scribe wizard, sage)
Tari, the Flame (Kalashtar, Divine Soul sorcerer, urchin)
Three-Widow Jane, the Wandslinger (Khoravar, Genie warlock, criminal)
Ink, the Scholar (Ruinbound dwarf, Alchemist artificer, sage)
Vael, the Mystery (Valenar elf, Glory paladin, folk hero)
For this session, the challenge is to choose a character you want to play and to describe their connection to another character. If I chose your answer, that becomes part of the developing canon. So last session we established that the scholar Ink had gone on a disastrous date with Three-Widow Jane, that Rolan had danced with Sora at a grand ball in Sharn, and that one of Deven’s teenage daughters is a student at Ink’s schoolhouse. So regardless of what happens in the actual adventure, the characters and the story will continue to evolve.
Now, I’ve used that challenge for these first two sessions because it’s a good way to build a strong foundation for these shared characters. But I will use different challenges in the future. Perhaps one session I’ll have people draw a sketch of the character they want to play, or to present me with an Eberron-themed limerick. I want to make sure that everyone has a chance to play, regardless of their time zone or talents. With only five players each session, that may take a while… but even those who don’t play still get to help shape the story. And again, the video and audio of the session are shared with patrons, so everyone gets to follow along with the story.
If this sounds interesting to you, go to my Patreon and support at the Threshold level; the most recent Threshold post includes the specific details of the challenge and the link to the campaign website, where you can learn more about the established characters. The current challenge runs until noon on Wednesday the 17th, and I’ll be running the session on the 21st. I’m going to run at least one session a month; if there’s sufficient interest and support, I might be able to accelerate that.
While the campaign is only just beginning, I’ve really enjoyed the process of creating the town and the adventurers. As is suggested by the image at the top, this is a campaign that blends fantasy with elements of the Western genre, something I’ve previously explored in Q’barra. Threshold is set on the opposite side Khorvaire, on the border between Breland and the rising nation of Droaam. It’s a town where a worg can duel an agent of a dragonmarked house, where the ever-expanding lightning rail brings prosperity and unexpected dangers. Beyond the campaign, I’m currently developing this sub-setting in a sourcebook for the DM’s Guild, Frontiers of Eberron: Threshold; so this is a chance to get a sneak peek at what lies ahead!
Thanks for reading, and I hope to see you in Threshold!
Why has the Light of Siberys not been regularly staging strafing runs against the Demon Wastes? In the 3.5 Explorer’s Handbook, Ashtakala is still a viable, functioning headquarters for the Lords of Dust. It retains an array of magical facilities, some of which are very powerful. Does the Light of Siberys have nothing to gain from a targeting blasting of Ashtakala, if only to eliminate it as a resource? Or is Ashtakala actually supposed to be a genuinely blasted ruin, where the Lords of Dust meet in the… dust?
There’s a number of interesting points here. I will note that I created Ashtakala and wrote its description in the original Eberron Campaign Setting, but I was not involved in any way with the Explorer’s Handbook. My own idea of Ashtakala has evolved over the years and what I’m going to present here is how I use it today.
First of all, let’s revisit what I wrote about Ashtakala in the original Eberron Campaign Setting.
Ashtakala (Metropolis, Special): The one city of any real significance in the Demon Wastes is Ashtakala, the last citadel of the Lords of Dust. Surrounded by a permanent storm of sand and volcanic glass and shielded from all forms of divinatory magic, Ashtakala rarely reveals itself to human eyes. Explorers who manage to penetrate the eternal storm find a bizarre yet beautiful metropolis, a citadel built from basalt and brass. Compared to the shattered ruins spread throughout the rest of the Wastes, Ashtakala seems impossibly alive, filled with thousands of demons and other fiends.
While Ashtakala appears as it did a million years or more ago, it is a city of ghosts and shadows—all an illusion. In addition to the illusory inhabitants and the spirits of ancient things that still wander the decaying streets masked by powerful illusions of the city’s zenith, a handful of zakyas and rakshasas and a host of minor fiends serve the great Lords of Dust who congregate here. The Lords of Dust occasionally meet in this shadow of their ancient city, and rakshasas return to Ashtakala to scheme and to study in the vaults and libraries, reading scrolls and tomes that will crumble to dust if ever removed from the city. The power that preserves the image of Ashtakala transforms anyone who enters the city; visitors find their clothing and equipment altered to match the archaic fashions of the city, as if by a disguise self spell. The city of fiends is a dangerous place for mortals to visit—only the luckiest of intruders caught by the rakshasa lords get to die quickly.
So: Ashtakala is the last surviving city of the Lords of Dust. It has endured for a hundred thousand years. It’s immune to divination and is surrounded by a deadly storm. The entire region around it is an unnatural wasteland that has never been tamed. While Ashtakala was supposedly ruined long ago, its magic is so powerful that it creates an alternate reality within its storm—it still appears to be at its zenith, and people who enter its influence are themselves altered to fit this haunted narrative. Also, an important point: it’s used as a meeting place by all of the Lords of Dust, implying that it’s not tied to any single overlord. We know that Hektula, the Speaker of Sul Khatesh, maintains the library of Ashtakala. But Ashtakala isn’t the heart of Sul Khatesh; It’s is a neutral ground where all the Lords of Dust can find sanctuary. We also know that while Ashtakala has stood for a hundred thousand years, it has never expanded. It is immortal but largely unchanging, like the fiends themselves.
We also know that the dragons have no obvious presence in the Demon Wastes. The defenses of the Demon Wastes—both the Ghaash’kala and the Labyrinth itself—are tied to the Silver Flame; you don’t have dragonborn or dragon guardians, as we see in Q’barra. In my Eberron, this is no accident: the dragons shun the Demon Wastes because they have no choice. I say that the Light of Siberys DID attack the Demon Wastes tens of thousands of years ago. They did lay waste to it, and destroyed a humanoid civilization that predates the Carrion Tribes (who arrived in the Wastes less than two thousand years ago). And this attack was a disaster. Aside from the many fiends, many powerful magical defenses were unleashed against the attackers. Ashtakala was the worst of all. Just as it shields the city from divination magic, the storm surrounding Ashtakala repelled magical and elemental attacks… and as dragons drew close to it, their souls were ripped from their bodies and they turned on their allies. When they were wounded, dust spilled out instead of blood. The attacking force was almost entirely wiped out—and the dust-stuffed dragons claimed by Ashtakala proved to be an ongoing threat and asset to the Lords of Dust for thousands of years. And while humanoids were wiped out, the fiends that were slain simply reformed. The dragons have shunned the region ever since; while they know Ashtakala is an asset for the Lords of Dust, they don’t have the power to destroy it, and while it is a useful sanctuary for the Lords of Dust it’s been there for a hundred thousand years—it’s not like it poses a dire, imminent threat to the safety of Argonnessen.
But how is this possible? How could a fortress of raskhasa be strong enough to resist the power that leveled Xen’drik? Consider again what we know of Ashtakala. It is surrounded by a corrupted region the size of a nation. The corruption cannot be undone, and the region is filled with free-roaming fiends. It alters reality within its confines. And while it has endured for a hundred thousand years, it remains fundamentally unchanged—maintaining the shadow of its glory, but never expanding.
Corrupting a region the size of a nation? Surrounded by free-roaming fiends? Possessed of such mystical power that it can resist the might even of Argonnessen? That sounds a lot like what Bel Shalor did to Thrane when it was partially released. And therein lies the answer. Ashtakala isn’t just a city: Ashtakala is an overlord. It is an immortal embodiment of eternal evil, something that irrevocably corrupts the region around it and that is attended by a host of lesser fiends. While it is trapped in place by the wards of the Labyrinth and by the power of the Silver Flame, of all the overlords Ashtakala alone was never fully bound. The crucial concept to understand is that Ashtakala was always a city. All fiends embody malevolent ideas; Ashtakala is the Dark Citadel, the fortress of ultimate evil. It can’t move and it doesn’t have an anthropomorphic form; it is a DEMON CITY. But like any overlord, it’s immortal and it alters reality within its sphere of influence. Ashtakala is the source of the never-ending storm. It’s the power of the city itself that transforms those who enter it. The host of illusory fiends are the servants of the city. And Ashtakala is the source of the unnatural corruption of the region, the blight that cannot be lifted—for that blighted landscape is a part of its defining concept as the citadel of evil.
So what does this mean? First, Ashtakala was never constructed. It is literally the CONCEPT of a city given form. And not just a city, a city of fiends. The currency of Ashtakala is souls, for the city can rip the souls from mortals and forge them into coinage (and potentially other things). This is the concept of the Drain Works described in Explorer’s Handbook, but that’s a case of the parasite rakshasa making use of the capabilities of Ashtakala rather than the city doing it itself. Ashtakala can just rip the soul out of a dragon in an instant; the Drain Works is a slower process rakshasa can use on creatures the city considers to be insignificant. Because this is an important point. Overlords don’t think the way mortals do. They are vast, alien, and unique. Ashtakala allows the Lords of Dust to dwell within it, but it doesn’t cater to their whims or help them with their schemes. I’ve mentioned before that the weakness of the overlords is that they didn’t work together, and that is the case here. Ashtakala doesn’t CARE about the fact that the other overlords are imprisoned. It doesn’t care about the needs of the Lords of Dust. Ashtakala simply IS. It expresses itself by creating and maintaining the Demon Wastes. It is doing the thing that gives its existence meaning. This is the point of the “illusory servitors”—they are literally extensions of the city, serving no purpose other than to maintain it. They’re much like the subjects of Daanvi or the conscripts of Shavarath; they have no lasting identity, no purpose beyond playing out the story of Ashtakala. They can’t be recruited to serve the schemes of Rak Tulkhesh or Sul Khatesh because they literally don’t exist independently of Ashtakala. Beyond that comes the larger point that Ashtakala doesn’t recognize lesser humanoids as a threat. It fought dragons, titans, and celestials, and if any such creatures approach it Ashtakala will strike them with its full force. But humans? Orcs? Elves? Ashtakala doesn’t register them as having any significance. So a DRAGON that approaches the city will have its soul ripped out and replaced with dust. But a HUMAN that manages to make it through the storm will in fact be cloaked in illusion so they DO fit in the city… because the city literally can’t conceive of them as a threat. The fiends that dwell within Ashtakala may capture them, torture them, or take them to the Drain Works—but the city doesn’t care about them.
A secondary aspect of this is that like all overlords, Ashtakala is immortal. If it was somehow burnt to the ground, it would return within days. This is what is meant by the city being an “illusion”. While you are within it, it is real. But if you steal an ancient tome from the Library of Ashtakala and it will crumble to dust when you leave the city… And it will be BACK in the library the next day. The exceptions to this are things that are brought INTO the city (or things forged from outside materials, like stolen souls). So if Hektula steals a tome from Arcanix and brings it to Ashtakala, THAT book can be stolen from the city or destroyed permanently. But the most ancient scrolls dating back to the Age of Demons aren’t truly REAL; they are memories in the mind of the Demon City.
All of this means that Ashtakala is a perfect haven for the Lords of Dust. It’s shielded from hostile magic and their greatest enemies cannot even approach it. They don’t need to maintain it—no one repairs the masonry, or fixes the sewers, or touches up the paint—because the entire city is a concept, and it maintains itself. It provides them with invaluable resources, such as the Library and the Drain Works. But again, part of the point is that while it appears to be a thriving metropolis filled with tens of thousands of fiends, less than a thousands of those are truly independent and REAL; the vast majority are just ideas in the mind of the Demon City.
With that said, there’s a few points to clarify based on questions in the comments. When I say that the denizens of Ashtakala aren’t “truly independent and real” what I mean is this: They can’t LEAVE Ashtakala, and they have no desires beyond playing out their role in the story. But they exist within the city… and that means that they can hurt you. Beyond that, the point that Ashtakala itself doesn’t target mortals means that it won’t rip their souls out the instant they enter the city. But that doesn’t mean it welcomes them or protects them. Ashtakala is an incarnate nightmare. Imagine the most horrifying hell-city you can; that’s what it is. The music of Ashtakala is the screams of tortured mortals kept in hideous painful stasis. There are furnaces filled with bones—not because Ashtakala NEEDS to burn people to keep the fires going, but because that’s what its story is about. The 4E ECG notes that mortals who remain within Ashtakala will be slowly transformed into fiends themselves. It is surely one of the most dangerous locations in Eberron—but it won’t instantly smite you with the force that can lay a titan low. It literally doesn’t NOTICE mortals—but its servants and denizens definitely will. As the ECS said: The city of fiends is a dangerous place for mortals to visit—only the luckiest of intruders caught by the rakshasa lords get to die quickly.
Why Does This Matter?
Fine: Ashtakala is an overlord. Dragons can’t come near it without being corrupted. What does this mean for you and your campaign?
The mind of an overlord doesn’t work like that of a human. Ashtakala isn’t working WITH the Lords of Dust; it simply allows them to dwell within it, because that suits its nature as the Citadel of Evil. But by default, it doesn’t have goals beyond the Demon Wastes. It is expressing its nature by creating and maintaining the Demon Wastes, and by destroying any dragons or similar threats that come too close. But it doesn’t actually PARTICIPATE in the schemes of the Lords of Dust or help them in their schemes to free other overlords.
This ties to the idea that Ashtakala will destroy and consume any dragon that comes close, but that it doesn’t recognize lesser humanoids—orcs, humans, etc—as threats. This is why a human can enter the city and simply have its appearance altered. Ashtakala essentially doesn’t even NOTICE a human, and the altering of their appearance is a background effect. This in turn means that if the Chamber has any interests tied to Ashtakala—if they want to spy on the plans of the Lords of Dust, or to steal information from the Library of Ashtakala—they need to work with capable humanoid agents, which is to say, player characters.
One interesting plot point would be to introduce warlocks or active fiends who DO represent the interests of Ashtakala—to say that after a hundred thousand years of largely ignoring the world, Ashtakala now has its own desires. What would these be? How would these agents interact with the fiends serving other overlords?
There was another mortal civilization in the Demon Wastes before the Carrion Tribes, which was destroyed when the dragons attacked. Adventurers exploring the Demon Wastes could find relics of this previously unknown civilization. This could also be used to explain the origin of some other species you want to add to the setting.
Ashtakala is a city that corrupts the land around it—a region as large as a nation, making it into a warped wasteland. Sound familiar? It could be that the Mourning is the result of a similar demon city being released into Cyre. If so, has it taken the place of an existing city like Metrol? Or is it still waiting to be found?
Ashtakala can rips souls from mortals and forge them into solid form. Among other things, this effect prevents resurrection, much like a Keeper’s Fang—and one possibility is that the Keeper’s Fang weapons are in fact tied to ASHTAKALA. Regardless, one point is that adventurers might acquire magic items of artifacts forged from the souls of ancient dragons, giants, or couatl. Could the item be somehow destroyed, and if so could the fallen champion be resurrected? Alternately, what could a modern artificer do with a handful of coins forged from dragon-soul?
One explanation for the dragon attacks on Aerenal is that they are “practicing fighting something with the power of an overlord.” It could be that these centuries of intermittent war have all been preparation for a NEW assault on Ashtakala. How could this involve the player characters? Might the Chamber ask powerful characters to help with the assault, perhaps sabotaging Ashtakala from within during the attack? Or might the players learn about the planned attack and realize that it will inflict devastating collateral damage on Aundair and the Eldeen Reaches?
Explorer’s Handbook includes the Dust Works, a facility that allows fiends to suck out a creature’s soul and replace it with dust. As I suggest above, my thought is that this is something Ashtakala can do on its own, and the Dust Works is simply a way the Lords of Dust have found to harness this power for their own purposes. A dust-stuffed dragon working with the Lords of Dust could be an interesting alternative to a rogue dragon. And if the adventurers have an ally within the dragons of the Chamber, a tragic twist would be for that dragon to be captured by the Lords of Dust and taken to Ashtakala, returning as a dust-stuffed villain.
Thats all for now! Thanks to my Patreon supporters for making these articles possible.
One of the core concepts of Eberron is that player characters are remarkable. The original Eberron Campaign Setting emphasized that most NPCs used NPC classes—warrior, magewright, adept—rather than player classes such as fighter or wizard. In 5E we’ve emphasized that spells of up to 3rd level are common in the Five Nations, but those of 4th or 5th level are remarkable and higher level effects are legendary.
This often leads to the mistaken assumption that Eberron is a “low-level setting”—that there are no real challenges for characters of 10th level and above. That was never the intent. The people of the Five Nations are typically low level magewrights and commoners. City guards in Sharn are low level warriors. But when we designed the setting, we didn’t expect your high level characters to be fighting city guards in Sharn! A comparison here would be The Hobbit. When Smaug comes to Laketown, the Master of Laketown isn’t a mighty champion who can fight him. All the soldiers of Laketown are helpless against the dragon. Their only chance lies with a hero who can beat the odds and do the impossible. And in Eberron, that’s you. The Lord Mayor of Sharn isn’t SUPPOSED to be able to beat you in a fight; he’s the Master of Laketown, and his power isn’t ABOUT being good at fighting. If you’re a high-level character, maybe you can defeat all the guards in Daggerwatch Garrison. But you’re not supposed to be fighting the guards, you’re supposed to be the one who DEFENDS the city when the Tarrasque shows up and no one else can stop it.
So first, people often judge Eberron based on the fact that its cities aren’t full of high level NPCs. A second reason it’s often cast as a “low-level setting” is that in Eberron, gods don’t walk the world. Which is true… but Eberron has Overlords, the archfiends who dominated the world at the dawn of time. In their original presentation in the 3.5 rules, Overlords have divine rank; they aren’t gods, but they have the same POWER as gods in other settings. As defined in Rising From The Last War, the avatar of a partially released Overlord might have a CR of 28 (with the side bonus of being immortal, which means that unless you do it properly defeating them will only incapacitate them for about a day). A fully unbound Overlord can reshape reality over the space of an entire nation; one plausible theory for the cause of the Mourning is that it’s the side effect of an Overlord’s release, and that the Mourning is just an aura that surrounds them… that if they decide to start moving, they would leave a trail of utter devastation.
So Eberron has EVIL entities that have the power of the gods of other settings… But should the Overlords be released, there’s no GOOD forces of equal power that can face them. One might ask why, given this, the people of Eberron BELIEVE in gods. The point is that the people of Eberron don’t expect the Sovereigns or the Silver Flame to manifest in the world; they expect them to guide and empower the mortals who face them. The Sovereigns defeated the Overlords in the dawn of time and then ascended to maintain reality. The Silver Flame is the prison that binds the Overlords. These are vital tasks worthy of respect and worship. And again, should an Overlord be released, people don’t expect DOL ARRAH to appear to fight it; they expect a mortal champion to face it, guided and empowered by Sovereigns and Flame, which is exactly what Tira Miron did when she battled Bel Shalor. Which brings us back to the fact that there are MALEVOLENT forces with godlike power… and if they rise, it’s up to YOU to be the Tira Miron of this age.
This ties to an important point I’ve called out before: Eberron is always one bad day away from an apocalypse. There are dozens of overlords straining against their bonds. There are thousands of lesser fiends in the world; most are trapped in places like the Demon Wastes, but those allied with the Lords of Dust could be walking the streets of Sharn right now, waiting for the moment to strike. The daelkyr and their minions crawl beneath our feet, while the quori study our dreams. Perhaps tomorrow there will be a new wave of lycanthropy. Perhaps the Lord of Blades will lead a force of restored warforged colossi against Korth. Perhaps the ancient vampires of the Qabalrin will arise from their forgotten tombs. These things don’t happen every day, which is why the civilization of the Five Nations still exists. But they could happen any day, and that’s why the world needs heroes. Most of the time, Laketown is perfectly stable and safe… but when the dragon shows up, the common people need a champion. As a player character you are supposed to be remarkable, because there ARE powerful malevolent forces and you may be the only ones who can deal with them.
Mighty and Malevolent
To start with, I want to do a quick round-up of some of the high-level forces that can be found in Eberron.
This is a big one. There was a time when Eberron was entirely dominated by fiends. The Overlords were bound along with their most powerful followers. But some of their lesser minions escaped the Flame (thing of tiny fish slipping through a net) and others have managed to escape as bonds have weakened. The common point we’ve raised is that most fiends have no interest in ruling over mortals. They are immortal beings of transcendent power and ruling mortals is basically babysitting deeply annoying children… And also risks starting a fight with the neighbors (Argonnessen). So they don’t try to RULE humanity. But they are out there. They can appear at any time that it actually serves the goals of the Lords of Dust. And they can appear at other times—perhaps summoned by a foolish wizard, or just a random fiend following their own agenda.
While we’ve always said that rakshasa are the most numerous native fiends, ANY fiend—devil, demon, otherwise—could be spawned by Khyber. The difference between a native demon and native devil is largely the point that they are embodiments of malevolent concepts—that demons reflect chaotic ideas while devils are more orderly. Any fiend tied to Rak Tulkhesh will be an embodiment of WAR and bloodshed; any fiend tied to Sul Khatesh will embody secrets and the malevolent power of magic. These native fiends don’t have the same vast hierarchy as the immortals of the planes, because they are the Lords of Dust; their kingdoms FELL a hundred thousand years ago, and they are the handful who escaped its destruction; they want to restore the Age of Demons so they can go BACK to the way reality is supposed to be. But you can still play out immortal vendettas between servants of different Overlords. But again, the main point is that native fiends largely embody the idea of pure evil, usually seen through the lens of one of the Overlords.
Now, fiends can be a powerful force, but you might say “I can’t just have a Nalfeshnee randomly walking around Sharn.” And that makes sense; we don’t SEE fiends often in the world. But never forget that the rules are a foundation for us to build on. Consider a few ways you could use fiends.
Possession. There are more fiends around us than we know, because they are possessing mortal hosts. On the simple level, this might just be an explanation for someone acting in an evil manner. Moving on, you could say that a victim of possession has some of the powers of the possessing spirit (such as its innate spellcasting). Moving even further, you could say that SOME possessing fiends can actually fully transform a host when they choose too. So you don’t see a nalfeshnee in the world, but when you attack the corrupt judge he can BECOME a full nalfeshnee… until you kill him, at which point his body reverts to the battered form of the dead mortal. This is especially strong if allies of the adventurers can be involuntarily possessed, meaning adventurers need to try to find a way to exorcise them, not simply kill them.
Disguised Immortals. We assert that there are disguised dragons and rakshasa around, using ancient magic to hide from mortal eyes. This same principle can be added to any fiend. Again, the rules are a foundation: but nothing is STOPPING you from saying that this particular erinyes can assume a perfect mortal disguise. One example of a way to do this without completely just saying “all fiends are shapeshifters!” is to introduce the idea of amulets created through blood sacrifice that let the fiend assume the form of the mortal sacrificed. That erinyes can’t just assume the form of ANY mortal; they can assume form of one particular mortal, and only while they wear the amulet… abut it also shields them from most divinations, showing them to be that mortal.
Artificial Fiends. Perhaps House Vadalis and Jorasco, working together, create a horrific monster with the power of a goristro—a beast they can’t control that breaks free and starts a terrible rampage. Perhaps Cannith creates a steel marilith. These could be vessels for actual fiends, driven by an immortal consciousness—or they could be entirely artificial creatures that have the STATISTICS of fiends but don’t have their minds or motivations.
Native fiends are the pure embodiment of evil and of mortal fears. They are most common in the Demon Wastes and similar places. But they are in the world. The more powerful adventurers become, the more chance they have of drawing the attention of these beings or over stumbling into their plans. So, there’s a host of potentially powerful beings for you to deal with.
Existing aberrations have their own roles in the world. A cult devoted to Belashyrra could be led by a beholder, while aberrations scheme in the depths of the Thunder Sea. But the general concept of aberrations is that they are things that should not be. And aberrations can appear anywhere. Yes, the daelkyr have armies of existing aberrations. But they can also CREATE aberrations, as can Mordain the Fleshweaver… and others might be created spontaneously by the energies of Xoriat. Do you want to have an Aboleth in the sewers of Fairhaven, but you can’t think of an explanation? It could have been created by the daelkyr Kyrzin, fused from the ooze of the sewers and given foul life. The main thing is that if I did this, I’d describe it in a different way from a standard aboleth, describing it as being translucent and formed from the same mucous that surrounds it, just fused into a solid form. Likewise, the slaadi may be natives of Kythri, but there’s nothing stopping Dyrrn the Corruptor from creating a creature with the same STAT BLOCK as a red slaad that simply doesn’t look anything like a red slaad and pursues the daelkyr’s agenda. Again, stat blocks are a foundation. There’s no reason a creature with the stat block of a red slaad has to be red or a slaad! It could be a slimy green humanoid covered with tiny tentacles, that infects its victims by embedding one of those tentacles within them. This has the added bonus of confounding players who have memorized the Monster Manual and are baffled by this “Green Corruptor” — even though YOU know you just converted a red slaad.
This same principle holds true for creatures that AREN’T aberrations. You could have a daelkyr create a creature that has the same basic stats as a goristro and change its type from “fiend” to “aberration.” Nothing’s stopping the daelkyr from creating ANYTHING. Dyrrn could create aberrant unicorns… I’d just change their appearance to fit the daelkyr aesthetic (it’s not a horn projecting out, it’s that their spine extends out through their brain…).
There’s any number of high-CR undead creatures that can pose challenges to high level adventurers. At a quick glance there’s vampires, mummy lords, liches, dracoliches, demi-liches, death knights; I discuss how such things might appear in Eberron in this article. Such forces COULD be tied to the Lady Illmarrow and the Order of the Emerald Claw, but they can just as easily be entirely unique. An ancient Qabalrin vampire may have come to Sharn and started creating a network of vampire minions (and for a high level games, those “minions” could be CR 13+ vampires, with the Qabalrin elder being something far more powerful I’d create for the campaign). A death knight could have been formed by its own tragic backstory. A dracolich bound to Katashka could be expanding its reach. One of the advantages of undead is that common people can become undead. So the adventurers could have spent their low levels fighting a group of criminals, and then in their teens discover that the guildmaster they thought they’d killed has returned as a vampire, and both she and her minions are now far more powerful than they were in life.
The common people aren’t that tough. But first of all, that leaves room for UNCOMMON people — people like the player characters. The Lord of Blades. Mordain the Fleshweaver. They were low level characters once—and like the player characters, they have potential beyond that of the common folk. We say that there’s not a lot of powerful BENEVOLENT NPCs, because that’s your job as PCs. But there can easily be NPCs with however much power the story requires; the point is simply to emphasize that they ARE remarkable. If you want Merrix d’Cannith to have the abilities of a 20th level artificer in your story, give him the abilities of a 20th level artificer. But make sure to call out how astonishing that is. And if it were me I’d add details that really make that point. Maybe he’s actually transforming himself into a construct (in the style of the old renegade mastermaker). Maybe he’s embedded an ancient docent into his forehead. He can BE ridiculously powerful, it’s just good to call out that this isn’t typical—that he’s just as remarkable as you are.
But even if you aren’t dealing with individual characters that have the abilities of player characters, you can also deal with “common people”—magewrights, adepts—who able to CREATE things that can pose a threat to high level PCs. Because NPCs don’t use the same rules as PCs, they may be using rituals that require multiple casters, that take years to complete, etc—but that still lets them do things no wizard can do. Artificers can create constructs with tremendous power: just look at the warforged titans and colossi! As I’ve suggested above, maybe Vadalis could create living weapons with the power of fiends… only to find that they can’t actually CONTROL them. It may be that mortals created the Mourning! You could say that an artificer has created a suit of armor that gives its wearer great power, as long as there’s a good reason adventurers won’t take it when the villain is defeated (because it taps into your spine and kills the wearer within three days).
When you’re searching for high level threats, a simple option is to leave the world behind and to travel to the planes. Exploring Eberron provides details about the thirteen planes, and all of them have options for high level play. Engage in dangerous wagers with an efreeti in Fernia. Fight alongside the Legion of Freedom in Shavarath. Try to free your city after it’s been claimed by Mabar, before it can be fully consumed by the Endless Night. Go to Daanvi to try to break someone out of the Inescapable Prison, or try to learn the location of Illmarrow’s phylactery by reading Minara’s diary in the Library of Dolurrh. Overall the denizens of the planes have little interest in Eberron, but YOU might have something to accomplish in the realms beyond.
And So On…
This is just a starting point. I haven’t discussed the dragons, the Dreaming Dark, the Heirs of Dhakaan, or artifacts —all of which could drive higher level adventures and serve as dangerous foes. The critical point is that just because the majority of the population are low level doesn’t mean that Eberron lacks high level threats; it means that the people need YOU to face these, because the city guard CAN’T solve the problem on their own. I want to reiterate that the rules are a foundation and that you can change them to fit your story; just because a fiend doesn’t have disguise self doesn’t prevent you from GIVING it disguise self, and nothing stops you from using the statistics of a marilith but making it an aberration.
With Great Power…
One point that’s been raised is the idea that as characters grow in power they may outgrow the things that make the setting unique. Once they’re fighting fiends and liches, once they can do things that are beyond everyday magic, doesn’t that just make it like any other setting? Once they’re fighting Overlords, how is it not just about fighting gods? Maybe your characters began as plucky orphans in Callestan dealing with Daask and the Boromar Clan and you don’t WANT to clash with dragon and vampires. There’s a few ways to deal with this.
Never Grow Up
If you want a campaign where the city guard is ALWAYS a threat, don’t advance your characters to higher levels. Decide what the maximum level for the campaign will be and use milestone advancement. It’s good to allow characters to advance in SOME way so there’s a sense of progression and so players don’t get bored, but there’s lots of ways to handle that. If you want to boost them mechanically, grant characters feats instead of class levels. This gives them new options and capabilities but doesn’t improve their hit points or give them access to spells beyond the reach of everyday magic. Instead of rare magic items, let them earn favors from powerful people; when you ARE arrested by the city guard, that favor the Captain owes you might be more useful than a +1 sword! Give characters new territory, new titles, and new responsibility — all of these can add to the sense of story progression even if you never (or only rarely) gain a level. As I mentioned in the previous article, I was in a campaign where the adventurers were professional ratcatchers. We started at 3rd level and stayed 3rd level the entire campaign. We made connections and we earned improvements for our business (Sewer maps! A superior toxin kit!) but we never gained levels; we were never going to go from being ratslayers to being dragonslayers, and we knew it.
Level Up The Opposition
So you want to level up, you want to keep fighting the Boromar Clan, and you don’t want them to become irrelevant because of your newly magnified power. No worries: have them evolve with you. This doesn’t have to mean that Boromar standard enforcers are all 7th level rogues. But first of all, Boromar might have a team of exceptional enforcers—their OWN party of adventurers, if you will (they might even hire them from the Deathsgate Adventurer’s Guild!). Or perhaps they have a transformative event that creates worthy high-level foes. They become lycanthropes. Saiden becomes a vampire and transforms his lieutenants. They make a bargain with an Overlord and are possessed by fiends. So they continue to be a threat, but they are a very DIFFERENT threat; as you have become more powerful, THEY have become more powerful, in a way that feels natural within the story. Meanwhile, all of you are more powerful that the common folk around you. You are exceptional, but your enemies are exceptional as well.
My common approach is to change the focus of a campaign as the adventurers both gain power but also gain recognition and connections across the world. In the last article I wrote about a campaign in which a PC wanted to overthrow Kaius, take over Karrnath, and then have to defeat Lady Illmarrow. Here’s the “Series Overview” I put together for that.
Prologue (1-4). Adventurers are on an airship to Stormreach. They have to foil a skyjacking, but despite their success the ship passes through a manifest zone into Lamannia and crashes. The adventurers must work together both to help the other survivors and find a way to escape Lamannia. This brings the characters together, as only that have the skills required to succeed.
Adventurers (5-10). Having made it to Stormreach, each character has a few hooks to explore – but they need allies and they don’t know anyone except the other players. Some of these challenges are local intrigues (drawing them into the schemes of the Storm Lords and the Kraken), others are action (one character wants to find the crown of the last emperor of Dhakaan). Along the way they become powerful both in skills and in connections. The key piece is that the Karrn PC needs to win the loyalty of the Blades of Karrn, who will serve as their core force in their campaign against Kaius.
Rebels (11-15). We shift to Karrnath. To achieve the characters goal not just of killing Kaius but of claiming the crown, the action must shift to a much higher level. It doesn’t MATTER that the adventurers could easily kill dozens of Karrnathi soldiers, because that won’t win them the loyalty of the common people. They need to negotiate with warlords, inspire commoners, use the allies they made in Stormreach, make dangerous bargains with Dragonmarked houses and accept unwise help from Lady Illmarrow. They need to identify and eliminate Kaius’ hidden weapons. When they fight they aren’t fighting common soldiers, they are fighting Kaius’ CHAMPIONS—bone knights, Rekkenmark paragons, strange things created during the Last War. They will finally face Kaius, but that will be the end of a long road of diplomacy and investigation.
Rulers (16-20). Somehow Kaius was preventing Illmarrow from exerting control over the Karrnathi undead. with his downfall Illmarrow turns Karrnath’s legions of undead against the living. She cares nothing for who rules Karrnath; she just wants massive casualties to fuel her rituals. Karrnathi undead might not be a threat to the high-level PCs, but they can’t personally destroy tens of thousands of them; they don’t have TIME, and the death count grows with every hour. They need to direct the forces they’ve amassed and allies they’ve made as effectively as possible to slow down the undead apocalypse while they find the real answer. They need to face Illmarrow’s champions at the sites that are crucial to her ritual—and these champions are mummy lords, death knights, and liches. They must find Illmarrow’s phylactery—which is so well hidden even she doesn’t know where it is—and destroy it. They must face HER and defeat her. But it could be that even in defeat her ritual works, and they must finally go to Dolurrh itself to either destroy Illmarrow for once and for all… or perhaps to find a way to guide her own to a positive path as the new Queen of the Dead. And even after all that, they must restore order to Karrnath—dealing with the aftermath of the undead attack and dealing with the very real that that one or more of the Five Nations will take advantage of Karrnath’s weakness, especially if the players haven’t won the support of the other Wynarn monarchs before killing their kinsman.
That’s was a very long example. But the point is that the players started by doing traditional adventures, dealing with local gangs and intrigues. As they reached a degree of power that made those local thugs irrelevant they shifted both to leading groups of weaker characters and to fighting champions of equal power. And in the end they were dealing with threats that could destroy nations and bargaining with extraplanar forces. It was the same basic idea with my Q’barra campaigns. In the beginning the characters were fighting bandits and exploring tombs. By they end they would be clashing with the half-fiend dragon Rhashaak and ultimately the Overlord Masvirik, and their actions would determine the fate of the Cold Sun Federation and New Galifar. It’s not simply that the characters gained greater POWER—it’s that they also gained greater responsibility, directing allies and making decisions that could affect thousands of people instead of just fighting a tougher monster.
Again, you don’t have to advance to this epic scale! You COULD spend the whole campaign in Sharn, with the Boromar clan becoming infested by demons. You could never go beyond 3rd level. But you could also choose to entwine your characters WITH the fate of Khorvaire—to have them broker a lasting peace or ignite the next war, to have them solve the mystery of the Mourning or perhaps make it worse.
This is a huge topic that I COULD write about for days, and I’m going to rein it in here. I will be posting a final follow-up with a few specific high level adventure ideas next week on Patreon (for Inner Circle and Threshold) patrons, along with establishing the time for the next Threshold adventure! Thanks to my Patrons for making these articles possible!
This month, my Patreon patrons asked for guidance on running high-level adventures in Eberron. In my next article, I’ll discuss plot hooks and villains you might use for such adventures. But first, I want to build a foundation with this article. Because there’s two primary challenges to building high level adventures in Eberron. The first is the concept that there aren’t a lot of high level NPCs in Eberron cities—how do you challenge player characters when they’re more powerful than the rest of the world? The second is that the best way to set up high level adventures is to plan ahead—to think about where your campaign will go at the higher levels before the adventurers get there.
PLAYER CHARACTERS ARE REMARKABLE
From the beginning, a central idea of Eberron was that player characters are remarkable. They’re the heroes of the movie, the protagonists of the novel… and especially in pulp adventures, such heroes are larger than life. Even at low levels, player characters are more capable than most people in the world. Just consider the Five Nations: we say that magic of 3rd level is part of everyday life, magic of 4-5th level is rare and remarkable, and magic of 6th level or above is legendary. So what does that mean for the 11th level wizard, who can cast 6th level spells? If adventurers are so much more powerful than the people around them, what can challenge them?
A common problem is the idea that if the player characters are the most powerful people in the room, what keeps them under control? This is reflected in many MMORPGs, where city guards are extremely powerful because it’s the only way to limit antisocial behavior; players have to believe that if I break the rules, my character will die. This idea is that a player may say if my PC is more powerful than the king, why aren’t I the king? If my wizard is higher level than the archmage of Arcanix, why don’t I take their place?
The all-powerful guards are necessary if players just want to be murder hoboes or knights of the Dinner Table — if they view the campaign as nothing more than an opportunity to kill anything that can give them XP and loot. And if those are your players, the rest of this article may not help you. But the fact is that D&D is a roleplaying game, not a wargame. When we play an RPG, we are creating a story. We’re making our own movie. And how do we want that movie to end? With that in mind, consider James Bond, Indiana Jones, and Aragorn from Lord of the Rings. All three of these would be the player characters in their respective stories. All three are badasses who can beat the odds and defeat legions of lesser foes. And yet they don’t rule their worlds. Looking at them one by one…
James Bond is the best spy in MI6. But no Bond movie ends with him murdering the Queen and declaring himself King of England. In D&D terms, Bond is probably higher level than M. But he doesn’t want to be M. He’s a field agent, not an administrator. And critically, he’s driven by duty and his love of his country. He doesn’t WANT power or wealth; he is the hero of the story, and he wants to do his job and help his people. When he wins a victory, the next step isn’t TAKE OVER THE WORLD, it’s to wait for the next threat that only he can deal with.
Indiana Jones is an adventurer who can overcome impossible odds. But he’s also a college professor… and at the end of the adventure, the government is going to take the Ark of the Covenant away and give it to the “Top Men in the Field.” Watching the movie, we all KNOW these “Top Men” are idiots and that Indy is far more capable than them. But he gives them the Ark and goes back to his college. Because again, he’s loyal to his country and he likes his job; he’d rather BE an adventuring professor than running some government think-tank. Adventurers are typically adventurers because they’d rather be adventurers than to have desk jobs, regardless of how much power or prestige comes from those positions.
In Lord of the Rings, Legolas, Gimli, and Aragorn are the classic model of player characters—ridiculously powerful compared to the people around them. While the Rohirrim—veteran soldiers!—are dying in droves at Helm’s Deep, Gimli and Legolas are doing cool stunts and comparing the dozens of foes they’ve dispatched. But at the end of the battle, they don’t kill Theoden and take over the keep themselves; instead, they head off to the next adventure, seeking a challenge that only they can face. But wait! Aragorn DOES become king at the end! Quite true, but the key there is at the end… and more critically, that kingship was always a part of his story. He was always Isildur’s heir, the Last of the Dunedain, bearer of the Sword that was Broken. If Aragorn was a player character, he and the DM would have established this idea during session zero. It’s an evolving part of his story comes to a satisfying conclusion at the end of the story; he didn’t just seize a crown on a whim because he happened to be the most powerful character in the room at the time
My point is that if players care about the story, it doesn’t matter if the player characters are the most powerful people in the room or the kingdom. Perhaps they COULD slaughter the entire garrison of city guards… but why would they want to? The fact that there’s no one in the city that can challenge them isn’t an issue if their enemies aren’t the common people of the city. On the contrary, ideally the fact that the player characters are so much more powerful than the common people becomes almost a burden, because it means the common people need their protection—that with great power comes great responsibility. What we said when we were writing the original ECS was that if the Tarrasque attacks Sharn, it’s up to the player characters to do something about it, because no one else can. There’s no Elminster or Gandalf waiting in the wings. Jaela Daran would if she could, but she’ll lose her power when she leaves Flamekeep. The Great Druid is a tree. Mordain the Fleshweaver, Lady Illmarrow, the Lords of Dust… they might have the power, but they aren’t going to use it to help; more likely than not, it was one of them that brought the Tarrasque to Sharn. So your characters are the more powerful than anyone in Sharn? Then you’re the only people who can save it.
There’s two places where this doesn’t work. The first is if your players don’t want to be heroes. Perhaps they want to be true villains, or perhaps they just want to be sociopathic murder hobos. We’re the most powerful people in Sharn, who can stop us? It’s a simple fact that Eberron wasn’t designed to tell this story. Eberron was designed with the idea that adventurers would be the greatest heroes of the age, that if the Tarrasque attacks Sharn, only the PCs can stop it—not if the PCs attack Sharn, who will stop them?
There’s two answers to this. The first is that while Khorvaire doesn’t have many powerful HEROES, it has no shortage of powerful villains. Just because you decide to be a jerk doesn’t mean that the Dreaming Dark or Lady Illmarrow will be your buddies. Your villainous plans likely clash with their villainous plans. So you’re still going to have to deal with the bad guys. Second, the reason Eberron doesn’t have powerful NPC heroes is because we expect you to be those heroes. If you choose to be villains, the forces that oppose you will be the heroes of the age—the characters you COULD have been, but chose not to. The next Tira Miron, a new Harryn Stormblade, a Thorn of Breland. It will be up to the DM to create those heroes, because again, by default we want you to BE those heroes. But if you decide to be the greatest villains of the era — or just the bloodthirstiest murder hobos —the DM can fill that void with new champions.
The second place where power can be an issue is when you just don’t WANT your characters to be the most powerful people in the setting, good or evil. Perhaps you’re playing a campaign where your characters are ratcatchers in Sharn, and it makes no SENSE that you’d ever be able to fight the Tarrasque or battle Lady Illmarrow. The answer there is simple enough: don’t become that powerful. Yes, characters of 10th level and above are remarkable in Khorvaire; if that doesn’t make sense with your story, keep the characters below 10th level! Use milestone advancement instead of experience points. Focus on abstract rewards rather than the typical loot: the treasures you gain are social standing, business opportunities, and hey, the friends you make along the way. I was a player in just such a ratcatchers campaign, and we started at 3rd level and ended the campaign at 3rd level, because mechanical advancement wasn’t what the campaign was about. The rules are tools, and it’s always up to us to decide which to use and how to use them. if you don’t want to tell a story about the most powerful characters in Sharn, they never have to become the most powerful characters in Sharn.
Earlier I said that ideally part of what keeps powerful characters in check is that they like the story and want to be a part of it. James Bond doesn’t shoot the Queen because that’s not part of the story any of us want to see. What this means is that you need to have a story that the players want to be a part of, and their characters need to have clear roles in that story. So, let’s talk about that.
SCRIPTING THE SHOW: CAMPAIGN DESIGN
So you’re sitting down to run a new campaign for your friends. You could just dive into it blindly. They meet in a tavern, they learn about a ruin, they get some treasure, and you’ll figure out what happens next week when next week rolls around. And when you get to the higher levels, perhaps you realize that you’re running out of things that could randomly stumble across the adventurers’ path. If that’s you, no worries—I will have some suggestions for you in the next article. But it’s not how I approach a campaign. For me, developing a new campaign is very much like developing a TV show. Let me walk you through my steps.
The Writers’ Room: Session Zero
As the DM, I’m creating the bulk of the story, but it’s not MY story. My favorite thing about RPGs is collaboration—working with the players to create a story that we’ll all love. So using the TV analogy, the first thing I have to do is to pitch the idea to the players. I may want to run an espionage campaign. But if none of the players want to play an espionage campaign, that’s where you end up with James Bond shooting the Queen—because the player isn’t interested in this story and doesn’t care about how it ends. So the first thing I’m going to do is to find a group of players who want to play an espionage campaign. I’m going to get buy-in on other aspects of it. Would you rather be working for Breland or Aundair? I want this to be a high-stakes campaign where player characters can die… are you all OK with that? Your characters need to blend in, so I’m not going to allow exotics like tieflings, minotaurs, aarakocra—are you all ok with that?
This is basically the role of the group patrons presented in Rising From The Last War and Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. A group patron essentially establishes the genre of the story—establishing from the start that we’re all spies or we’re all working for Sora Kell. Once I have player buy-in on the basic story, I’ll generally get the players to talk through character ideas. In addition to ensuring that there’s a balanced party and that character ideas fit the story, this is also an opportunity to see if the players have interesting ideas that I can use. These could be fairly simple—things like the secrets in Eberron Confidential, which give a unique hook but don’t drive the entire story. On the other hand, sometimes a player will have a BIG idea. I ran a campaign in which a player said I want to be a paladin of the Blood of Vol. My idea is that my parents were Seekers who were condemned by Kaius and killed, and i was raised and trained by Lady Illmarrow. My goal is to overthrow Kaius III. However, if and when I succeed, I’ll realize that I’ve been deceived for my entire life: that Lady Illmarrow was deceiving me. Then I’ll have to try to reform the Order of the Emerald Claw and defeat Lady Illmarrow, while also having to deal with the chaos I’ve caused in Karrnath by killing Kaius.
Now: that’s a very deep story. Given a backstory like that, one option as DM is to say That’s really not going to fit with the campaign I have planned. We aren’t going to be going anywhere near Karrnath. Is there something else you’d enjoy? Another option is to explore middle ground. This adventure isn’t going to Karrnath, but what if you were a Glory paladin, your parents were revolutionaries who were killed, and you were raised by the Swords of Liberty and are determined to bring down King Boranel? The player gets a similar idea—I’m being duped into killing a king, which will cause chaos I need to fix—but it works with the story I have in mind. Another possibility is to say That’s outside the scope of this campaign, but I’m fine with the idea that you were trained by Illmarrow and that you are trying to recruit allies who could help you overthrow Kaius—that’s just something that you’d presumably do after this campaign is done. With all of these, the point is that I want the player to be excited about the character and their story. I want to know that james Bond won’t kill the Queen not because she’s too powerful and he couldn’t, but because he actually WANTS to protect the Queen.
So: the first step is the pitch. The second step is to see what kind of characters players are interested in. And from there, I’ll start to develop my show.
The Story of the Series
In session zero I established the genre of our story. I may have set out a group patron. I likely told the players WHERE the story was taking place—Callestan in Sharn, Hope in Q’barra, Threshold. I may have set out an overall story in the pitch: You’re spies working for the King’s Citadel, you’re exorcists of the Silver Flame, you’re professional adventurers with the Clifftop Adventurer’s Guild. But they don’t know what troubles lie ahead, what mysteries they’ll have to unravel, what enemy they’ll ultimately face. So I’m going to start by sketching that out. How and where is this story going to begin… and in my mind, how’s it going to end?
A critical point here is that I expect that my plan won’t entirely survive contact with the enemy. I’m not going to try to force the campaign to follow an absolute path, because it’s a collaborative story; it could be the choices of the players will carry us in a completely unforeseen direction. I was in a campaign where we were fighting the Emerald Claw and we all got killed by vampires, and the players (myself included) lobbied the DM to have us all come back as vampires forced to serve the Emerald Claw, trying to find some way to escape this curse. That sort of creative freedom is one of the things that makes RPGs great. But even if I know it may not last, I’m still going to have a general idea of where the campaign is headed and with this in mind I’m going to pick an endgame villain. I’ll talk about this more below, but the point is that I’m going to pick a powerful villain who is driving the ultimate story—someone who can pose a threat to high level characters, and someone who they may not even KNOW about until they’ve come a long way. The players may initially think that they’re fighting the Aurum, but once they finally defeat the Aurum mastermind they’ll discover that he was just a pawn of Sul Khatesh… and I know that the final endgame will be defeating the unleashed Sul Khatesh and restoring her binding.
The Story of the Season
Once I’ve come up with the overall story—The adventurers are going to start as adventurers in Sharn but will stumble into a mystery that will ultimately lead them to saving Aundair from Sul Khatesh—I am going to break it down into seasons. This means coming up with clear milestones where the players feel a real sense of accomplishment and learn something significant that will drive the next season. So looking to the plot I’ve described, the players may not even hear the name Sul Khatesh in the first season. They’ll be dealing with mysteries in Sharn, clashing with the Boromar clan and a powerful Aurum Concordian. But there’s a recurring villain or NPC who’s a warlock of the Court of Shadows, and it’s going to be in the SECOND season that we realize that he’s been manipulating the Concordian or providing them with secrets or magic items on behalf of Sul Khatesh.
To begin with, I’m only going to focus on the first season; I’ll have general ideas for what will happen next (it’s in season two that they discover who the warlock works for) but I’m going to start by developing that first season. What’s the primary action: Solving mysteries? Defending a small town? Recovering relics from the Mournland? Who’s the first major villain the adventurers will have to deal with? What’s the first clear, concrete milestone where they’ll feel like they really accomplished something and made a lasting change? How will this set things up for the second season?
One aspect of this stage is to estimate how MANY seasons there may be. Do I think this campaign could go on for years, or do I only expect it to last for ten sessions? If it’s a limited run, I may not need that endgame villain; the big bad of the season may be sufficient.
The Story of the Episode
Each adventure is like an episode of a show. Some are going to advance the story, moving us toward the milestone that defines the season. Others may be “Monster of the Week” stories that are just fun and don’t advance the story, and that’s OK; sometimes you just need a chance to beat up a bandit and take their pie. I’m not going to try to plan every adventure in a season right away, in part because the actions and decisions of the players are likely to change the path. But I’ll usually come up with basic ideas for the first three adventures, figuring out out how these will introducing critical elements of the overall story and the season. Who are the key NPCs I want to appear? Will the adventurers obtain an item that’s going to become important later?
For example, two years ago I was running a short campaign (only planning one season). The setting was Callestan in Sharn, with a Gangs of New York vibe. The adventurers were going to have to deal with the conflict between Daask and the Boromar Clan, but the big bad would turn out to be the Order of the Emerald Claw. In the first session, one of the characters—a courier—was hired to deliver a package to a tavern. The package contained a timelocked bag of holding filled with skeletons, and the adventurers had to deal with them. The second adventure involved a zombie outbreak in a dreamlily den. The third adventure involved a device being triggered on a planar faultline, dropping a section of the district into Mabar. The key point is that as of the end of that third adventure the PCs still hadn’t heard the name “The Order of the Emerald Claw.” They knew that SOMEONE was using Callestan as a proving ground for necromantic weapons, but they’d been busy putting out the fires and dealing with tensions among the gangs. They were getting clues and they were making friends, but they hadn’t yet identified the necromancer who was the big bad of the season.
Another example is my novel Dreaming Dark novel series. From the beginning I knew that the endgame villain was the Dreaming Dark; heck, it’s the title of the series. But in the first novel, City of Towers, the adventurers never fight an agent of the Dreaming Dark or hear its name. Instead they deal with a Cult of the Dragon Below. But certain things happen that they’ll later find were caused by the Dreaming Dark, and they get help from a kalashtar NPC who becomes very important in the second book. So, the Dreaming Dark is the endgame villain, but the big bad of the first season is a Cult of the Dragon Below.
For a final example, consider the campaign I’m currently running for my Patreon supporters; Patrons can watch the first session here. First I pitched the idea of running this fantasy western on the edge of Droaam. Then we built out the characters. Now the first season has begun. With minor spoilers, in this first session I’ve introduced a threat that could play a greater role in the future—the fiend-touched minotaurs of Turakbar’s Fist—and the adventurers have made a bargain with an enigmatic supernatural entity. Right now the players don’t KNOW the full importance of either of those things. It could be that one of those is tied to the Big Bad of the season. It could be that one of them is tied to the endgame villain. Or either or both could be more incidental. It’s only over time that they’ll learn what’s important and what’s incidental, as the story continues to unfold.
Something we called out in the original Eberron Campaign Setting is that good campaigns often have recurring characters, both villains and allies. Player characters grow more powerful over time; nothing stops VILLAINS from becoming more powerful as well. Magneto won’t suddenly become irrelevant when the X-Men gain a level; instead, he’ll find an even greater source of power HE can use, becoming an even greater threat that only they can face. Lady Illmarrow, the Lord of Blades, Mordain the Fleshweaver… the statistics given for them are a starting point, but if you’re using them in a major role and the adventurers grow in power, have the enemy improve as well! While this is something you can do with the major villains, you can also build a great villain from humble beginnings. The original ECS included three sets of statistics for Halas Martain, who was essentially Belloq from Raiders of the Lost Ark—a rival adventurer who might try to steal the achievements of the PCs. We included three sets of statistics so he could continue to grow just as they did. We originally planned to do the same thing for the Lord of Blades—three sets of statistics, so that he could grow in power over the course of a campaign—but this ended up being cut. Recurring villains and allies are a great way to build investment in a story. Players may not care about a random bandit, but when they realize that bandit is working for #$%# Halas Martain—who spoiled their previous adventure, and who they thought was dead—then there’s investment.
One problem with this is that D&D is a system where casual death is often assumed… Where player characters often just kill their enemies. When Halas Martain tries to steal the Orb of Dol Azur from you, what, you’re going to take him prisoner and keep him with you for days while you find an appropriate authority? Who does that? but there’s lots of ways to deal with this. Don’t have your villains fight to the death. Perhaps Halas jumps off a bridge in Sharn when he only has 1 hit point left; and you know he’s got a feather token. Perhaps he vanishes. Did he blink? Turn invisible and run away? Who knows, but he’s clearly gone. Or perhaps he definitely died. So what? This is a world with raise dead. Maybe he was restored by the Queen of the Dead in Dolurrh and charged with a mission! Maybe this ISN’T Halas Martain at all — it’s a changeling who’s adopted the identity to mess with you. Consider comic books; there’s always a way to bring back Doctor Doom if you want to.
Big Bads, Endgame Villains, and Incidental Opponents
Eberron has a LOT of villains. Just between the different daelkyr and overlords there’s a host of awful fates awaiting the world. Add in the Dreaming Dark, the Aurum, the Cults of the Dragon Below, the Dragonmarked Houses, the Heirs of Dhakaan—there’s no shortage of possible enemies, and one might think that there’s no possible way Khorvaire could survive with such forces arrayed against it.
The key for me is that I’m never going to use all of those villains in a single campaign. The Rak Tulkhesh exists, sure; but it’s entirely possible that the threads of the Prophecy won’t align in a way that could release him for another thousand years, and that Tulkhesh and his cults just aren’t a factor in my campaign. Perhaps the Dreaming Dark is busy in Sarlona and just doesn’t have time to meddle with Khorvaire right now. It’s OK to leave some of the toys on the shelf. When I start a campaign, I’m going to start by picking an endgame villain—someone with the power to challenge even the most powerful characters, someone whose ambitions will create a compelling story. With that in mind, then I’ll pick a big bad for the first season. Perhaps the two will be related; if my endgame villain is Lady Illmarrow, I might choose Demise (an Emerald Claw necromancer) as my first big bad; she’s powerful, but she’s someone the adventurers CAN clash with at, say, 6th level. On the other hand, I might pick someone who has no connections to the endgame villain. Perhaps the big bad of the first season is going to be Daask; it’s simply that while we are fighting Daask we’ll stumble onto a few plans and agents of the Emerald Claw, things that won’t make sense until we get to season two… just like the Dreaming Dark in City of Towers.
Once I’ve got my endgame opponent and my big bad(s), I can decide if I want to use any of the others as incidental opponents. It may be that the Dreaming Dark won’t have any major role in the campaign, but that means I could use a Thoughtstealer as a monster of the week and not worry about how it connects to anything.
We designed our villains with these roles in mind. The Lords of Dust, the Dreaming Dark, and the Daelkyr are all good potential endgame villains. The Aurum, the Emerald Claw, and the Cults of the Dragon Below are all designed to be possible opponents for low level characters. Villains like the Lord of Blades and Lady Illmarrow falling in the middle, as powerful foes who aren’t entirely beyond reach but who could grow more powerful over the course of a campaign. I talk more about different villains and the way they can shape a campaign in this article (which predates Rising, so it might be outdated!).
So that’s a glimpse into MY process; hopefully you enjoyed it! In my next article I’ll give some more specific examples of story hooks, plot twists, and characters you might use in high level Eberron campaigns. Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters, who chose this topic and who make it possible for me to write these articles!
The Five Nations never expected Droaam to last. A nation of monsters? Medusas and harpies working with trolls and ogres? Surely they’ll turn on each other. It’s only a matter of time. A decade later, Droaam stands stronger than ever. Dragonmarked houses and independent traders smell opportunity. But some are afraid to invest too heavily in Droaam itself. After the bloody incident at Kundarak’s outpost in Graywall, many houses are looking for a foothold on the Brelish side of the border… And that foothold is Threshold.
A small mining town on the edge of the Graywall mountains, Threshold was devastated by raids during the Last War. In the last decade a number of forces have converged to rebuild and expand the town. Followers of the Three Faces of Coin believe in unhindered trade, and have an interest in creating a haven for smugglers. Count Thavius ir’Blis has allowed a group of Cyran refugees to settle in this corner of his domain, while also granting a stake in Threshold to the Brelish soldiers that served him faithfully during the Last War. House Orien has brought the lightning rail to Threshold… the last stop as it considers expanding into Droaam. But Threshold was never a large town. There are still secrets in and below the mountains that the townsfolk have yet to discover. And Droaam may be a source of opportunities, but it unquestionably holds deadly threats. Threshold fell during the Last War. Will this new incarnation thrive, or is it a disaster waiting to happen?
Threshold and the region around it are the subject of the sourcebook I’m currently working on—Frontiers of Eberron: Threshold. It’s also the setting of an online campaign I’m running for my Patreon supporters. This is an experiment: while I may livestream it in the future, to begin with I’ll just be recording it and sharing the episodes with supporters. Rather than having a set cast of players, there’s a set roster of characters, but each session I’ll recruit a new set of players from my Patreon supporters. Before each session, I’ll pose a creative challenge (as the rules governing Patreon prevent it simply being a random determination); I’ll use this to choose the players for the session. Once someone plays in a session they can’t be chosen again for the next few sessions. I’m sure this process will evolve; I see the first three sessions as an experiment. But the point is that we’re creating an ongoing story about a set of shared characters, and every patron has a chance to participate. Even people who don’t get to play will be able to shape the story. Over the last two months, supporters have helped to create our roster of characters, and every month I’ll be posing a few polls that will help to shape the story and the town. Here’s the cast of characters that emerged from this process; the image above is Julio Azevedo’s interpretation of Ja’taarka, a worg ranger.
Bel, the Smith (Beasthide shifter, Beast barbarian, folk hero)
Briar, the Greensinger (Changeling, Dreams druid, entertainer)
Deven, the Tailor (Goblin, Mastermind rogue, spy)
Ja’taarka, the Good Boy (Worg, Dark Stalker ranger, soldier)
Rolan Harn, the Marshal (Deneith human, Battle Master fighter, soldier)
Sora, the Stonespeaker (Sivis gnome, Scribe wizard, entertainer)
Tari, the Flame (Kalashtar, Divine Soul sorcerer, urchin)
Three-Widow Jane, the Wandslinger (Khoravar, Genie warlock, smuggler)
Ink, the Scholar (Ruinbound dwarf, Alchemist artificer, sage)
Vael, the Mystery (Valenar elf, Glory paladin, folk hero)
I’ll be running the first Threshold game at 1 PMPacific Standard Time on January 23rd. I’ve just posed the challenge to determine the first set of players on Patreon, and it will run until Sunday, January 17th. If you have questions you can ask them here, or find out more in the Threshold posts on Patreon! I’m looking forward to getting the campaign underway.