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.
In the last article you mentioned the Guild of Moonlight and Whispers. Could you provide the names of some of the other wizard circles and arcane orders that make up the Arcane Congress?
Certainly! Arcane orders have played an important role in the development of arcane science. and can provide both connections and rivals for spellcasting characters. Eberron: Rising From The Last War discusses the costs and benefits of arcane orders on page 158, while Sharn: City of Towers discusses them on page 146. In short, membership in an arcane order provides you with high-quality lodging, advantage on arcane research and benefits when creating magic items when you have access to the facilities of your order. But beyond that, it provides a degree of status: If you’re a member of the Esoteric Order of Aureon, you’re a REAL wizard. While these are tangible benefits, a second point is that in means that you have peers. As we’ve always said, true wizards are rare and remarkable. If you’re in an arcane order, you know other wizards and artificers. They could provide you with useful leads or insights for your adventures. You could learn spells from the order’s library; if a DM wants to limit spell access, it could be that certain orders are the only place to acquire a specific unusual spell, because Maximillian Hysian of the Esoteric Order created Maximilian’s Earthen Grasp. It can also be a fun source of rivals—whether establishing that you have a friendly rivalry with a member of your own order, or a more bitter feud with a member of another order. It is the case that not all arcane scholars use the wizard or artificer class; there could be a sage in your circle who knows 5th level spells even though they can’t cast them, or someone capable of creating magic items even though they don’t have the full abilities of an artificer.
The canon books specifically discuss the three orders known in Sharn and Breland: the Esoteric Order of Aureon, the Guild of Starlight and Shadows, and the now-shunned Closed Circle. Arcane orders are found across the Five Nations, but they began in ancient Thaliost and Aundair has more than any other nation.
As with anything I write, this is a foundation for DMs to build upon. Ignore what you don’t like, and add your own ideas to your Eberron!
THE ARCANE ORDER OF AUREON (Aundair, Thrane)
The Arcane Order of Aureon is the largest and most powerful circle in Aundair, wielding influence both within the Arcane Congress and among the nobility of the nation. For this reason it is often disparaged by the other circles, who assert that it has become a hollow shell choosing members based on pedigree rather than arcane talent… essentially, that its members are more likely to be nobles rather than sages. Members of the Arcane Order must swear to use “Aureon’s Gift” to preserve civilization and in the service of the law. While its diverse membership practice all forms of magic, the schools of evocation, abjuration, and divination have especially strong support in the order.
Though not the first wizard’s circle, this was the first circle to use the term arcane order. The Arcane Order was founded in ancient Daskara by monks devoted to Aureon, but quickly spread into Thaliost. Bound by the belief that magic should be a force for law and order, the circle were staunch supporters of Galifar I. They provided magical support during his conquest and helped enforce order across the united kingdom in the aftermath. They formed the solid foundation of the Arcane Congress and ensured the Congress served crown and kingdom. It’s worth noting that the Princess Aundair was originally a member of the Guild of Moonlight and Whispers—and that Aundair herself was instrumental in convincing the other circles to unite in the Arcane Congress, setting aside the feuds many of the lesser circles had with the Arcane Order. Those feuds continue to this day, but are conducted within the confines of the Congress.
Over the course of centuries, internal rivalries caused the Arcane Order to split along national lines. This resulted in Breland’s Esoteric Order of Aureon and the Erudite Order of eastern Cyre. The Arcane Order remained a force in central Cyre and in Thrane, though its support dropped significantly in Thrane following the depredations of Sarmondelaryx, the Year of Blood and Fire, and the rise of the Silver Flame. Today the Arcane Order maintains a single hall in Thrane, in the city of Sigilstar.
THE GILDED LABYRINTH (Thrane)
While small, the Gilded Labyrinth is the one truly respected arcane order in Thrane. Its members are more commonly known as Silver Pyromancers, and specialize in incorporating the divine energy of the Silver Flame into arcane spells. This requires a deep devotion to the Flame in addition to arcane knowledge. Mechanically, members of the Gilded Labyrinth might be Divine Soul sorcerers or Celestial warlocks, but their traditions are grounded in arcane science and members must be proficient in Arcana. The Labyrinth is an arm of the Church of the Silver Flame, operating under the broader umbrella of the Order of the Pure; more information can be found on page 152 of the Five Nations sourcebook.
THE GUILD OF MOONLIGHT AND WHISPERS (Aundair)
Said to be the first true wizard’s circle in Khorvaire, the Guild of Moonlight and Whispers was founded in ancient Thaliost by Margana Lain. The guild was dedicated to finding ways to replicating the mystical powers of the fey through arcane science. Members specialize in illusion, enchantment, divination, and magic related directly to the fey, and the Guild is an exceptional source of knowledge regarding fey and archfey.
Moonlight isn’t a large circle, in part because of its extremely high standards. However, it is the most widely respected circle in Aundair, in part because Princess Aundair was herself a member of Moonlight and Whispers. While its members are devoted to their nation, they believe that the Arcane Order of Aureon’s obsession with laws and political power undermines the pure pursuit of arcane knowledge. When someone challenges Aureon in the Arcane Congress, it usually takes the support of Moonlight to have a chance to succeed. Breland’s Guild of Starlight and Shadows was founded by members of Moonlight, and the two are generally friendly; while Starlight has less of an interest in the fey, both circles have a common interest in illusion and enchantment. Members of one of these circles will usually be admitted to the halls of the other, though not accorded the privileges of full members.
Mechanically, most members of the circle are wizards, but the guild does accept Archfey warlocks as long as they are proficient in Arcana; the circle is devoted to understanding fey magic, not simply using it.
THE ORDER OF THE ETHEREAL BLADE (Aundair)
The Order of the Ethereal Blade was founded in the fifth century (YK) as a duelist’s society, where members of other circles could test their skills and spells in battle with fellow mages. What began as a mystical fight club became the core of the original Knights Arcane, and also pioneered Aundair’s Bladesinger tradition (the Tairnadal, Greensingers, and others have their own forms of this path). Today, the Ethereal Blade focuses on the study and development of war magic, but it remains a dueling society whose members are always ready to prove their mettle in battle. Many of Aundair’s finest warmages are members of the Order, along with officers of the Knights Arcane and Knight Phantoms.
While it began as a wizard’s circle, today the Order of the Ethereal Blade welcomes Eldritch Knights, Arcane Tricksters and others who blend martial and mystical techniques. With that said, it’s still an arcane order. There are other societies that cater purely to duelists and wandslingers, including Fairhaven’s League of ir’Lain and the Darkwood Wands of Passage.
THE UNSPOKEN WORD (Aundair)
The Unspoken Word is devoted to the pursuit of ultimate arcane power. Members believe that laws and moral concerns should never stand in the way of knowledge. Just as the Guild of Moonlight and Whispers seeks to unlock the mysteries of the fey, the Unspoken Word strives to master the powers of dragons, overlords, and daelkyr. Its members are determined to unravel the secrets of the Du’raskha Tul, the moon-shattering magics of the giants, and more. What has allowed this order to survive when similar groups—such as the Closed Circle of Breland—were destroyed is the absolute insistence that such magic should never be USED: that these words will forever remain unspoken. Unspoken mages insist that fear cannot be allowed to stand in the way of progress. But an Unspoken wizard pursuing the moon-breaking magic of the giants will insist that they have no desire to shatter moons; it’s simply that if such powers can be understood, could we use them in positive ways?
Members of the Unspoken Word are often viewed with a trace of fear, and most enjoy this infamy. They like to imply that they have dreadful secrets locked away in their vaults, fell powers they could unleash if they choose to. But again, they continue to exist because they never have caused disasters… and because their members are mages of considerable skill. While most are wizards, they accept Fiend and Great Old One Warlocks, provided they are proficient in Arcana and devoted to the pursuit of arcane science.
Mordain the Fleshweaver is said to have been part of the Unspoken Word before his fall from grace, though other accounts say that he began as a member but ultimately severed ties with the order in part because he believed such knowledge should be USED. However, the order may still have relics from his time as a member, and it’s possible Mordain still sends them little “gifts” — some of which could be very dangerous.
The circles mentioned above have considerable prestige and significant resources. They have broad areas of study; while Moonlight may specialize in Illusion and Enchantment, you can still discuss evocation in the hall. But especially in Aundair, there are a host of lesser orders. Most have a narrow focus and more limited resources. Members of the Lodge of the Eternal Flame are acknowledged as some of the most accomplished pyromancers in Khorvaire, but they only accept Evokers and refuse to practice any form of frost-related magic, and they only have a single hall. Here’s a few of these lesser orders.
Dolurrh’s Gate. Based in Fairhaven in Aundair, this is one of the only respected orders of Necromancers in the Five Nations. Members of the order focus on the positive uses of necromancy, such as the practical value of speak with dead; they’re also experts on undead, studying how to contain and control undead threats.
The Golden Seal. This order of Abjurers is based in Fairhaven in Aundair. Originally part of the Arcane Order of Aureon, they were split from the main order in 312 YK and charged with maintaining the mystic defenses of the Arcane Congress—and in replicating the abilities of the Mark of Warding. It was wizards of the Golden Seal who first perfected the common glyph of warding spells used in the Five Nations. While small, this is an elite order whose members gained considerable prestige during the Last War.
The Guild of Endless Doors. Based in the city of Passage in Aundair, this guild of Conjurers catalogs manifest zones that can serve as planar portals, along with the circumstances that can open them. They are determined to unlock the secrets of teleportation, and to make this a part of everyday life. They have often feuded with the Guild of Moonlight and Whispers, and some believe that House Orien has sabotaged their research. It’s worth noting that the Guild of Endless Doors did develop the forms of teleport, teleportation circle, and misty step currently taught at Arcanix; it’s simply that those first two spells are largely useless because of how few people in the Five Nations can actually cast them, and they are working on developing more accessible forms of this magic. However, they are a lesser order and lack the resources of Orien.
The Keepers of Aureon’s Veil. The Keepers are a semi-monastic order, who maintain the Starpeaks Observatory in the mountains close to the village of Askelios. While reclusive, they are respected for their exceptional work with divination; when a Keeper addresses the arcane congress, people listen. This is an excellent option for a Diviner with the hermit background.
The Lodge of the Eternal Flame. Located in the city of Thaliost, this order of Evokers specializes in pyromancy. The Lodge is located on a small manifest zone tied to Fernia, and the “Eternal Flame” is a manifestation of that.
The Children of Siberys. One of the newest circles is based in Arcanix, and is notable in that it doesn’t actually involve wizards. This article discusses “Dragonblood sorcerers”—sorcerers who use the trappings and techniques of arcane magic to focus their gifts. Traditionally these sorcerers have been rare curiosities. Recently Arcanix Provost Iria ir’Rayne posited that there may be considerably more latent Dragonblood sorcerers in the world than we realize, simply waiting for their powers to be recognized and released. Iria founded the Children of Siberys in 989 YK, with the intention of both guiding Dragonblood students and in studying the nature of Dragonblood sorcery. At the moment it’s a small order that lacks resources or influence, but ir’Rayne is fighting to expand the circle. A player character who chooses to be a Dragonblood sorcerer could easily be an important member of the Children, even at low level.
Again, these are just a few of the lesser orders… and these are orders that are active today, not taking into account the many circles that have fallen over time, on their own or through hostile action (like the Closed Circle of Sharn).
Arcane orders are exclusive, but generally not secret; part of the point of joining an arcane order is the prestige associated with it. While the Unspoken Word walks a dangerous line, it celebrates this and takes pride in its work. However, there are other cabals of mages that aren’t so open. TheCourt of Shadows is a league of warlocks and wizards inspired by Sul Khatesh. The Mosiac Committee is an Aundairian society that works to obscure the Draconic Prophecy. The College of Whispers is devoted to the Shadow, and counts both bards and wizards among its members. These are just a few examples; there are many more hidden below the surface of society.
What is the relationship between wizard circles and the dragonmarked houses? They come across like smaller, yet non-negligible businesses and start-ups standing under the shadow of much vaster megacorporations.
While Sharn: City of Towers highlights the ability to sell spellcasting services as one of the benefits of an order, this is rendered somewhat obsolete by the current implementation of magewrights and notably isn’t mentioned as a benefit of circle membership in Rising From The Last War. Essentially, while your wizard may know how to cast knock, imagine our world: if you need someone to open your door, are you going to go to the Mason’s hall and ask if someone there can help, or are you just going to go to the professional locksmith who has a store on the corner and is licensed by House Kundarak? And while the orders allow members to create magic items at a lower cost, they don’t have the facilities to produce such items on an industrial scale. It is the case that if you’re looking for a magical service no magewright can provide or a magic item Cannith doesn’t sell, the Esoteric Order of Aureon might be able to help you — but precisely because that would be dealing with services the houses can’t provide, they aren’t direct rivals.
With that said, the circles are responsible for many of the developments that have brought services that were once solely tied to the dragonmarked houses to the public domain. I believe the Guild of Endless Doors has already cracked the basic mystery of teleportation, which is why an Arcanix-trained wizard can learn the teleport spell; it’s simply that as a 5th level spell it’s beyond the ability of any common magewright and hasn’t been able to be incorporated into everyday magic, and they’re still trying to develop a more accessible form of it. Likewise, while the guilds are not run to make a profit, some receive grants from the Arcane Congress while others sell their work to the Arcane Congress; these funds have been invested over centuries and ensure the solvency of the circles.
Would the Aurum count among its number many members of arcane orders?
Yes, it’s quite likely that the Aurum includes a number of influential members of arcane orders. And it may well be that there are Aurum concordians helping to fund the work of the Guild of Endless Doors and other circles that have the potential of undermining dragonmarked monopolies.
When you say the Guild of Moonlight and Whispers has high standards, what form might that take? Do you need to be able to cast second level spells, or have at least a +7 to Arcana, or pass a series of tests (or all of the above)?
Largely this is a plot device. It’s quite reasonable to say that they’d actually require someone to be able to cast a spell of the Third Circle (3rd level) or to hit a repeated set of high Arcana checks in an extended challenge. But if you WANT a PC to be part of an order at 1st level, you could say that an influential member of the circle has sponsored them because “They can see their exceptional promise” or simply as a mysterious favor—no one knows why Syla ir’Lain broke protocols to allow her in, but some say the request was made by the Lady in Shadow herself! The main point is to say that membership is exclusive and that members must be remarkable in some way — it’s not just magewrights and wandslingers.
Can you explain the relationship between the Wizard Circles and the Arcane Congress?
The formal structure of the Arcane Congress would need to be the topic of another article. The circles are part of the foundation of the Arcane Congress and have representatives in the Congress, along with the noble families, but the Congress is a formal institution that directly serves the crown (and is funded by it). The Arcane Order of Aureon was instrumental in building the foundation of the Congress, but the Order and the Congress are two separate entities (though many members of the Order serve in the Congress).
In a sense, the circles serve as research arms of the Congress. If the Guild of Endless Doors unlocks new secrets about teleportation, it will pass those along to the Congress. In some cases circles receive research grants from the Congress, while others operate independently and sell the fruits of their labor to the Congress.
Are there similar organizations for sorcerers and warlocks?
Part of the challenge here is that WE see the world through a mechanical lens. WE see all wizards as wizards, all sorcerers as sorcerers. But the WORLD doesn’t necessarily have such ironclad distinctions. Consider this: Wizards don’t choose their Arcane Tradition until 2nd level. They all start with the same basic foundation. They are all using the same arcane science; even if they debate the merits of Externalism versus Siberyan Theory, two wizards can trade spells. Arcane Tradition is a point where they diverge, but it’s a specialization rather than a completely different path. I may be an Evoker while you’re a Diviner, but we’re still both WIZARDS… And I can still cast divinations, and you can still cast fireballs. We still have a common frame of reference. And that’s part of what wizards circles are for: for wizards to learn from one another, to collaborate on research, and so on.
By contrast, WE see all sorcerers as sorcerers, but in practice they don’t have a lot in common. This is part of why THEY choose their archetype at 1st level: because sorcerers with different origins are extremely different. Consider three sorcerers: a human with red scales and an affinity for flame, who might grow wings if they become powerful enough; a Lyrandar half-elf who channels power through their Mark of Storm; and a kalashtar orphan who intuitively wields divine energies as a Divine Soul sorcerer. What do these three have in common? What can they teach one another? What would cause THEM to think that they should form a club?
Having said that, there are some organizations for sorcerers. The biggest are called “dragonmarked houses.” The previous article on Arcane History touches on “Dragonblood” sorcerers, who DO use the trappings of arcane science to master their abilities, and I’ve given them a lesser order in the list above… But that’s because they’re TRYING to approach their powers from a scientific perspective and learn from them.
Warlocks are in a similar position. They choose their patrons at 1st level, and again, an Archfey warlock devoted to the Forest Queen doesn’t feel some sort of kinship to a Great Old One warlock working for Dyrrn the Corruptor just because they are both arbitrarily classified as “warlocks.” Warlocks with an interest in arcane science can join circles, as described above. Other warlocks generally only ally with warlocks serving the same patron, and often these covens are highly secretive (such as the Court of Shadows). So there are definitely alliances of warlocks, but they are usually driven by allegiance to a common patron, not by a shared scholarly interest in the abstract experience of being a warlock.
Also are there any other circles outside of Aundair, like Cyre and Karrnath?
The question raised was specifically about the circles aligned with the Arcane Congress, so I wasn’t covering other nations; Thrane just snuck in (since admittedly the Gilded Labyrinth isn’t part of the Congress). Breland has the Esoteric Order of Aureon, the Guild of Moonlight and Shadows, and had the Closed Circle. Karrnath doesn’t support wizard’s circles; it focused on martial orders and chivalric societies. With that said, some of those martial orders include warmages and the like; the Order of the Blackened Sky is an example of this. but they are martial orders with a magical aspect, not wizard’s circles.
Would The Unspoken Word be trying to discover the cause of the Mourning? Given that discovering the cause of the Mourning might return the world to war, might the Aurum, the Houses, or peace-loving monarchs be trying to stop them?
In my opinion, there are MANY forces trying to discover the cause of the Mourning. The Unspoken Word, the Arcane Order of Aureon, the Royal Eyes, the King’s Dark Lanterns, Rekkenmark, the Order of the Emerald Claw, the Lord of Blades, the Shadow Cabinet, every branch of House Cannith, and many more. Yes, while we don’t know the cause of the Mourning, there will be peace because we are afraid to return to war. However…
It is entirely possible that the Mourning was caused by a manufactured weapon or ritual.
If that’s the case, someone already KNOWS the cause of the Mourning. They could be perfecting the ritual or building an improved, focused version of the weapon.
If someone does master such a weapon and we know nothing about it, we will have no defense. Whether we intend to build such a weapon ourselves or simply to discover how to protect ourselves from it, we must understand it.
We cannot take the risk of someone else discovering and mastering this power while we remain in ignorance. Even if every nation agreed not to pursue it, that would leave groups like the Lord of Blades and the Emerald Claw pursuing it, and imagine the horrors we would face if one of them mastered such power?
For a more idealistic approach, a certain queen might think with the power of the Mourning at my disposal, no nation could stand against me. I would be able to restore a peaceful, unified Galifar without even fighting a war, because who would dare challenge such power?
Given that: are you so certain that the Unspoken Word wasn’t actually behind the Mourning? If anyone could have produced such a horrific weapon, wouldn’t it be them—most likely working in the direct service of the crown? You can be sure the Voice of Breland has accused them of it…
So first of all, I think the Unspoken Word is one of the top suspects among those who believe the Mourning was a weapon. Within Aundair, I think it’s entirely possible that it’s actually caused their stock to rise, either because people believe they might have caused the Mourning or because people believe they might be the key to mastering its power and coming up with a viable defense against it. The question of which they want is up to you. Do they think the best way to defend Breland is to harness this power as a weapon? Or are they actually true to their stated principles, and are determined that no one should ever USE such a weapon? The answer could determine if they’re a dangerous enemy or a valuable ally for the adventurers…
That’s all for now! Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters for posing the question and making these articles possible.
This is my third article on this topic, following Arcane Science and The Arcane Arts. Arcane magic is a part of everyday life in Khorvaire. But how did we get to this point? If you travel back a thousand years, what sort of magic did the Princess Aundair using in battle? Who were the Teslas and Edisons of Khorvaire… or, if you prefer, the Tashas and Mordenkainens?
One way to approach this would be to a big timeline of specific dates: “535 YK: First confirmed use of the phantasmal killer spell.” However, this is impractical. Among other things, there is no single path of development in Eberron. Over the course of tens of thousands of years, many different cultures have developed arcane traditions. Take fireball; the externalists of Khunan invented one form of fireball, but the Siberyan wizards of Thaliost independently created a different form of the spell, and Brelish sympathists created a different version of the spell… Meanwhile, the Sulat giants were flinging fireballs forty thousand years ago. So the goal of this article isn’t to tell you who invented fireball. Instead, it’s a broad overview of the history of Arcane Magic in Khorvaire over the course of the last two thousand years, noting a few specific developments, movements, and individuals. It is NOT comprehensive; it is a foundation for DMs to build upon. If you’re looking for older civilizations, a few are touched on in the Arcane Arts article. If you’re interested in the weapons of war, check out Exploring Eberron.
Beyond that, this article assumes you have read the two preceding articles—that you know the difference between Siberyan theory and externalist magic, and that you know that magic is more complicated than it may appear. If you haven’t read those articles yet, now would be a good time to do so.
As with the previous articles, where this article references rules, it assumes the use of the fifth edition of D&D. This specifically addresses the development of ARCANE MAGIC as opposed to psionics, divine magic, or primal traditions. And as always, this is what I do at MY table, and what follows may contradict canon material. Use what you like, ignore what you don’t!
THE NOT-WIZARDS: Sorcerers, Warlocks, and Dragonmarks
Sorcerers and warlocks typically manipulate the same forms of energy as wizards. However, neither sorcerers or warlocks need to understand the powers that they wield. Later sections will discuss their role in history, but on the whole warlocks and sorcerers didn’t band together or seek to apply scientific knowledge to the development of their gifts; however, they served as an inspiration to those scholars who believed it was possible to replicate their powers through scientific means. While sorcerers and warlocks were scattered individuals, dragonmarks were a greater force in history; due to their hereditary nature, they served as the foundation of powerful guilds, ultimately becoming the houses that continue to shape the world today. Here’s a quick look at these three paths.
Sorcerers appear in every humanoid society, spread out across history. Generally, sorcerous power isn’t as reliably hereditary as dragonmarks are, so families of sorcerers haven’t become a powerful force in Khorvaire. There are exceptions—notably the Houses of the Sun and Moon that ruled ancient Corvagura in Sarlona—but even there it is likely the case that ongoing exposure to the wild zones of the region was the primary factor in the development of sorcerous power, not simply bloodline; those few Corvaguran nobles who came to Khorvaire failed to pass their powers on to their children. There might be similar regional pockets of sorcery in Khorvaire, or families with a greater chance to manifest dragonblood talents; however, this still isn’t reliable enough for sorcerers to wield the same sort of power as the dragonmarked houses. In general, sorcerers are considered to be remarkable and unique; during the Dark Ages they were valued for their power but didn’t seek to form any sort of fellowship of sorcerers or explore the science behind their gifts. While sorcerers generally don’t need to understand the science behind their powers, the most common forms of sorcerers do map to the common theories of arcane science. Those with “Planar Power” are effectively using Externalist magic, while “Dragonblood” sorcerers are channeling Siberyan power. The other most common manifestation of sorcerers are dragonmarks themselves… though there is also the possibility of sorcerers whose gifts are in some way engineered. Here’s a quick breakdown of these paths.
Planar Power. In the past, the most common form of sorcerer was touched by the power of one of the planes. This is believed to be tied to planar conjuctions, being born in a manifest zone, or perhaps because a parent attracts the attention of a planar entity. However, it is still extraordinarily rare; Sharn is in a manifest zone to Syrania, and of the tens of thousands of children born there every year, only a handful develop sorcerous gifts. While there’s no absolute limitations imposed on player characters who choose this path, generally the origin and spells of a planar sorcerer will reflect the influence of the plane they’re connected to. A sorcerer tied to Irian might be a Divine Soul with powers of light and healing, while one connected to Daanvi might be a Clockwork Soul with spells that enforce order. Keep in mind that the title of an origin is implied lore, not an absolute restriction. A sorcerer with the Draconic Bloodline could be tied to Shavarath or Fernia, with their “Draconic” features resembling the characteristics of a denizen of the plane. In general, however, planar sorcerers don’t manifest dramatic physical mutations. This is something that distinguishes them from tieflings and people with aberrant dragonmarks, both of whom are seen as dangerous. The powers of a sorcerer are generally seen as a blessing; even before the sorcerer learns to control them, they rarely trigger accidentally or pose the sort of threat associate with aberrants and tieflings.
Dragonblood. As arcane science advanced, sages discovered a new form of sorcerer: individuals with an innate power to channel the ambient magical power known as the Blood of Siberys. These sorcerers use the techniques and trappings of Siberyan wizardry to harness their power; they study Arcana and apply it to their magic. But a dragonblood sorcerer doesn’t prepare spells as a wizard does; instead they must discover the spells they are naturally attuned to—the spells they are innately prepared to cast. This is the “Harry Potter” model of sorcerer; they resemble wizards and study alongside wizards, but their gift is tied to an innate talent, not simply learned. The Arcanix scholar Iria ir’Rayne believes that there may be more people with latent dragonblood talent than has been realized; it’s simply that there’s no widespread method to test for this talent. Dragonblood rarely has any obvious physical manifestation and as such generally doesn’t involve the Draconic Bloodline origin, but most other origins could be tied to this form of sorcerer.
Dragonmarks. Characters with dragonmarks can present sorcerer or warlock abilities as expanded powers of their dragonmark. A halfling could be a Divine Soul sorcerer who presents their healing and strengthening spells as being channeled through their mark, whiile a Lyrandar heir could be a Storm Sorcerer. Such a character doesn’t have to present all of their spells as being tied to their dragonmark, but the point is that they have learned to channel power through their mark in ways that most of their kin cannot… and along the way, discovered a few other dragonblood talents or planar gifts.
Aberrant Dragonmarks. This follows the same principle as the dragonmarked sorcerer, with the added note that aberrant marks are typically destructive or dangerous. An aberrant sorcerer possesses greater power than someone who solely possesses the Aberrant Dragonmark feat, but they are still channeling their power through their mark, and as they gain Sorcerer levels their mark may grow, spreading across their body. A core idea of aberrant dragonmarks is that they are dangerous: that while a player character may be in full control of their mark, there may have been tragic incidents before they mastered its power—and that they still may have to deal with some sort of quirk or manifestation of the mark that continues to be a burden, as described in Rising From The Last War. Sorcerer-grade aberrant marks have been rarely seen since the War of the mark, but over the last century they’ve been appearing in ever-increasing numbers. Iria ir’Rayne has advanced the idea that some aberrant dragonmarks (notably not the “mixed marks” that occur from mixing dragonmarked bloodlines) could be the result of untapped dragonblood potential “spoiling”—that if a child received guidance and training before the manifestation of a mark, they could develop the talents of a dragonblood sorcerer instead. However, this is controversial theory has largely been dismissed by the Arcane Congress.
Magebred Sorcerers. Actual draconic ancestry isn’t commonly seen as an origin for sorcerers, but as Erandis Vol shows it’s not entirely impossible. Celestials and fiends don’t reproduce biologically, but it’s possible that a sliver of an immortal’s power could be imbued into a sorcerer; in this case their origin and spells would likely reflect the powers of that being. It’s also possible that either of these options—dragon or immortal—could be infused into a bloodline as a result of arcane experiments as opposed to any voluntary interaction on the part of the donor; a sorcerer with the Draconic Bloodline origin could be the result of a Vadalis experiment.
Sorcerers have always been uncommon. People know they exist, but because sorcery isn’t something that can be learned it’s increasingly less common that wizardry or artifice, not to mention magewrights. With the exception of aberrant dragonmarks, sorcerers generally aren’t feared. Sorcerers have always been allowed in arcane institutions, but because of their lack of flexibility have often been dismissed as flawed students. During the last century, Iria ir’Rayne has fought for greater recognition for sorcerers and to find ways to expand and embrace the potential of sorcery.
Like sorcerers, warlocks can be found in most civilizations throughout history. This article examines warlocks in more detail, discussing both possible patrons and interpretations of the class that don’t rely on patrons. But the classic warlock is someone who draws their power from their ongoing, active relationship with a powerful patron. They don’t have to have any sort of supernatural heritage and they don’t need to understand the powers that they wield; they simply need to earn the favor of a powerful being. This has led to a largely negative view of warlocks over the course of history, for a few reasons…
Wizards and arcane scholars often see warlocks as reckless fools, wielding powers they haven’t earned and don’t understand.
The Cults of the Dragon Below—both those devoted to daelkyr and those tied to overlords—are the most common source of warlock powers. Both tend to draw their warlocks down malevolent paths, eroding their morals and sanity and compelling them to do terrible things.
Even warlocks devoted to less malign powers are still serving supernatural entities. There is a common sense that this comes before faith in religion or loyalty to a nation—that warlocks are essentially spies serving unknown powers.
This is a simplistic view, and the actual reaction will depend on the nature of the patron, the views of the people the warlock is dealing with, and local customs. In Aundair, many noble families have longstanding pacts with archfey. In Breland, the wandslinger who won magic powers by gambling with an efreeti may be celebrated for their wit rather than reviled. The members of the Court of Shadows are arcane scholars lured into the Court by a hunger for knowledge. In the Mror Holds, there are warlocks who have stolen their powers from the daelkyr rather than earning them with allegiance… but Mror purists argue that any use of such powers has a corrupting effect. One could argue whether the relationship of a warlock and patron is really so different than that of a cleric and their deity, but the general opinion is that it is—that warlocks are driven by greed and the desire for personal power, that patrons likewise seek to meddle with the natural order, while the Sovereigns are the natural order.
Warlocks with different patrons have little in common with one another; they may have access to overlapping spell lists, but an Archfey warlock who’s working for Fortune’s Fool and a Great Old One warlock drawing power from Dyrrn wield very different powers; depending on their choice of spells, it’s possible that the GOO warlock could be considered to be wielding psionic power. Aside from the differences in the nature and source of their powers, patrons may have very different goals and limitations. A particular archfey could be limited to only having a single warlock at a time; they can’t imbue another mortal with power unless they dismiss their current agent. On the other hand, a cult of the Dragon Below might grant power to anyone who swears an oath… But it might also sink hooks into the psyche of the newly minted warlock, corrupting them and remolding them in the image of the patron.
The average commoner can’t tell the difference between a sorcerer and a warlock. It’s not that a warlock will inherently be distrusted the moment they step into a room; but if they announce their status—”Well, I was talking to Sul Khatesh last night in my dreams, and she taught me this new spell… Neat, huh?”—they may have to deal with fear and prejudice. Arcanix accepts Archfey warlocks and studies other paths, and other warlocks might be allowed as curiosities—but Arcanix forbids trafficking with overlords, daelkyr, or other entities defined as malefic forces. This isn’t a crime under the Code of Galifar, and even in the Arcane Congress there are ways a scholar to defend interactions with such entities—but it can be cause for inquiry, censure, or even expulsion. This is discussed further in the section on Arcane Research.
A dragonmark is a lens that allows the bearer to focus magical energy for a specific purpose. From the moment it manifests, it provides certain innate gifts—a few minor spell effects, an intuitive talent for a particular skill or tool. But the potential of the dragonmark is far greater than that. Heirs who learn how to channel magical energy can use their mark to produce greater effects, as reflected by the Spells of the Mark. And as noted before, a character could ascribe their class abilities to their use of their dragonmark. A Lyrandar Storm Sorcerer might have unlocked the greater powers of the Mark of Storm, while a Jorasco Life Cleric could attribute their healing abilities not to divine power, but rather to their dragonmark. A Thuranni rogue could even class features such as Uncanny Dodge or Evasion as manifestations of their dragonmark, as they conjure concealing shadows.
There was a time when cantrips were all but unknown to the people of Khorvaire: when those tinkers who carried the Mark of Making were the only humans capable of casting mending, when the Ghallanda gift of prestidigitation was a truly remarkable gift. Likewise, there was a time when the Spells of the Mark could only be cast by those with the Mark—when knock and arcane lock were the sole provenance of the Mark of Warding. But beyond all of this, the core strength of the dragonmark has always been focus items. The idea is simple: it is easier to produce a magical effect that channels the power of a dragonmark than one that doesn’t. It’s easier to make a serpentine mirror than a crystal ball… Not to mention eldritch machines like the creation forges or storm spires. Over the course of centuries, the Arcane Congress and other mages have worked to reverse engineer these powers, discovering how to mend, to detect poison, to feather fall. By default, all such spells are now in the public domain. But again, dragonmark focus items allow heirs to provide services no one else can offer. And beyond this, while player characters can learn any spell, a DM who wants to emphasize the power of the houses can assert that magewrights are more limited—that there are rituals that can only be learned by magewrights that carry a particular mark. Looking to page 318 of Rising From The Last War, it could be that healer magewrights must carry the Mark of Healing, and that locksmiths require the Mark of Warding—or, if you want to be less restrictive, it could be that any magewright can master these rituals, but that the guild trade schools tied to Kundarak and Jorasco have the best teachers.
The key points to bear in mind when moving forward are that there was a time when most Spells of the Mark were known only to the houses, and when many useful magic items existed only as dragonmark focus items. The fact that such spells can now be learned by wizards and that such items can be created in a form that anyone can use reflects centuries of effort on the part of the Arcane Congress. The houses aren’t happy about this gradual erosion of their monopolies. But while Lyrandar may be able to suppress the development of airships anyone can pilot, not even the Twelve can block the slow and steady advancement of arcane science. It’s still easier and cheaper to produce a serpentine mirror than it is to make a crystal ball… But the Royal Eyes of Aundair have a surveillance network employing crystal balls.
THE DARK AGES
When Lhazaar’s ships arrived in Khorvaire approximately three thousand years ago, they brought little in the way of arcane magic. The Khunan externalists were powerless in a land without wild zones, and the shadow lords of Ohr Kaluun didn’t join Lhazaar or the expeditions that followed her. While these explorers didn’t have wizards, they still had magic. The divine magic of the Pyrinean missionaries played an important role in ensuring the survival of the settlers, which in turn helped to cement the strong faith in the Sovereigns that remains to this day; however, the evolving role of divine magic is a topic for another article. The explorers, settlers, and reavers also counted sorcerers and warlocks among their champions. While celebrated or feared, those that followed these paths couldn’t simply teach their gifts to others, and were limited by their own heritage or the whims of patrons.
At this moment in history, none of modern nations existed; human civilization was an assortment of warlords, colonies, and small city-states. As humanity carved out its place on the continent, the first dragonmarks were appearing. The houses didn’t emerge fully formed. Each mark appeared on multiple families, and it took centuries for some houses to unlock the potential of their marks and to come together. This is discussed in this article, as well as in the 3.5 sourcebook Dragonmarked. The Scribing families were relatively quick to form the Sivis League, but the Sentinel families were actively opposed for centuries. Even before the houses were fully formed, the reliably hereditary nature of these powers meant that the dragonmarked had a degree of organization and unity—that they were able to explore their potential in ways unmatched by the warlocks and sorcerers of the age.
Another crucial element in this age was the arrival of the elves. The eradication of the line of Vol resulted in both the exile of Vol’s allies and the voluntary exodus of the Phiarlans and other elves who feared persecution. There’s a few important things to understand about this process. This wasn’t an orderly step by a nation seeking to establish colonies; it was a scattered wave of exiles and rebels. These were elves who fought against the Undying Court, or at least opposed its goals; they weren’t seeking to preserve its traditions or values. The Bloodsail Principality and House Phiarlan were the two places where these immigrants sought to retain some element of cultural identity; but the majority of exiles dispersed among the masses building nations. There are many reasons that these immigrants couldn’t raise humanity to the level of arcane sophistication seen in Aerenal. The everyday magic of Aerenal relies on an arcane infrastructure built up over tens of thousands of years. The exiles were removed from the powerful manifest zones of Aerenal, the ancient eldritch machines, the deathless mentors, and the underlying support—not to mention traditions that might call for a magewright to spend a century perfecting their skills. Even had they wished to, a single elf exile couldn’t reproduce the wonders of Aerenal in Khorvaire. Instead, most exiled wizards chose to use their talents to achieve personal power and influence. In the northeast, exiles laid the foundation of what would become the Blood of Vol. In the northwest, some helped powerful families forge ties with the local fey.
So overall, the exiled wizards of Aerenal filled the same role as sorcerers and warlocks: individuals feared or celebrated for their powers rather than the cornerstones of institutes of learning or the forces of innovation. However, merely by existing they served to inspire others—sages who recognized that these powers weren’t simply the gifts of immortal patrons or mystical mutation. Another important point is that Aereni magic hasn’t actually changed much over the last few years. So the spells of these wizards were much like those used today… and precisely because they were severed from Aereni culture (and had in many cases rebelled against it), they’re a possible source of unique spells or rituals that could be useful to a player character wizard. Consider the story of the Queen of the Burning Sky, still told in parts of Breliand even though she predates their nation. Raela Solaen was an Aereni wizard. She opposed the Undying Court and chose exile; making her way west she married Breggor Firstking of Wroat. Her arcane might was a key element of Breggor’s success; in the tales of Breggor’s siege of Shaarat (a former incarnation of Sharn), Solaen devastates the defenders with massive waves of fire. These stories may be exaggerated; Raela may have just been using fireballs and flaming spheres. On the other hand, it’s possible that the Queen of the Burning Sky developed unique war rituals—likely spells that inflicted less damage than a fireball, but with a far greater range and area of effect. As she had no interest in sharing her knowledge with others, her secrets died with her. But if Solaen’s spellshards were found today, her war rituals might be a boon to the nation that obtained them.
The key point is that in this time, few of the civilizations of Khorvaire had actually embraced the idea of SCIENCE. Warlocks and sorcerers gained their power through bargains or accidents of birth, as did the dragonmarked houses. The wizards of Aerenal were likewise considered to be enigmatic wonders; this wasn’t a path a normal person could follow. It would be centuries still before people recognized that magic was a tool that anyone could master, not some sort of divine gift.
FIVE NATIONS RISE
Two thousand years ago, Karrn the Conqueror sought to dominate Khorvaire. Five strong nations emerged from this conflict: Karrnath, Metrol, Daskara, Wroat, and Thaliost. While only shadows of the powerful nations of the present day, these young realms possessed greater resources and brought together larger numbers of sages than had been possible in the past.
During Karrn’s conquest, magic was still largely a thing of wonder rather than a tool of science. Kings and warlords employed mercenary sorcerers or exiled elves. But there were a number of crucial developments in this period.
Dragonmarks: The War of the Mark and the Twelve
It was in this time that the dragonmarked houses coalesced into something resembling their modern form. Cannith and Sivis were the first true dragonmarked houses, and both actively worked to identify other houses and to encourage them to adopt similar traditions and structure. These early houses wielded far less power than they have today, in part because they didn’t have the tools they have today; there were no airships, no lightning rail, no message stones. But Kundarak could craft arcane locks, Jorasco could cast lesser restoration, and Cannith excelled both at the creation of mundane goods and at the creation of magic items—though at this time, even something we’d now consider to be uncommon would be a great treasure. The houses were still learning what they could do: but even beyond their active magic, the intuition granted by a dragonmark meant that the house heirs excelled at certain fields. An Orien heir is faster than an unmarked courier and excels at the operation of land vehicles, while even before elemental vessels, any marked Lyrandar heir has a knack for navigation. Artisan’s Intuition provides a Cannith heir with a bonus to any ability check involving artisans’s tools. The heirs of the dragonmarked houses were simply better at certain things than unmarked folk, and even as they learned the full powers of their marks, they also worked to establish their dominance in those fields.
In addition to their innate powers, the houses were pioneers in the field of wizardry. Cannith and Sivis were foremost in this. Having observed the exiled elves of Aerenal, recognizing the power of words and the fact that their own marks were manipulating a form of energy in a measurable way, the members of these houses dug deeper into arcane mysteries. Sivis explored the science of sigilry and the paths of divination and illusion, while Cannith delved more deeply into conjuration, abjuration, and transmutation. Two of the greatest pioneers were Alder d’Cannith and LyssiaLyrrimand’Sivis. Were you to meet either of these two in combat today, their magic might not be so impressive; as discussed in previous articles, they required higher level spell slots to cast spells we know today. But it was Lyssia who developed the basic foundation of the elemental sigils—the verbal and somatic components used by most modern externalist wizards. Alder developed the earliest form of the modern magecraft spell, as well as pioneering techniques of spell preparation and aspects of artifice.
Even as the dragonmarked houses were carving out their places in the world, aberrant dragonmarks were becoming more common and more powerful. Aberrant heirs were by far the most common form of sorcerer or warlock in this age. Aberrant dragonmarks are a dangerous burden for those who bear them, but they can be mastered and wielded safely. There were places where aberrant sorcerers served in the military, or found other ways to use their destructive powers for the greater good. But any possibility for the peaceful integration of aberrant dragonmarks came to an end with the War of the Mark. This conflict occurred approximately 1,500 years ago and is covered in other sources, but it had two major effects. The first was the near eradication of aberrant dragonmarks and lasting prejudice against those who bear them. The second was to strengthen and unify the dragonmarked houses. It was in the final days of the War of the Mark that Hadran d’Cannith proposed that the houses work together to create an “institute for the application of magic“—a foundation that would study both the dragonmarks and ways to harness their power, but also other forms of arcane magic. It was Hadran’s charisma and dreams that paved the way for the Twelve, but it was Alder d’Cannith who made it a reality. It was Alder who designed the Tower of the Twelve, and who insisted on the name of the organization, and it was in this tower that Lyssia d’Sivis perfected the elemental sigils.
For the next five centuries, the Tower of the Twelve was the greatest institute of arcane learning in Khorvaire. While much of its resources were focused on the development of dragonmark focus items and other ways to harness dragonmarks, it also drove the development of wizardry and the earliest magewrights. A key point is that the Twelve didn’t seek to create forms of the Spells of the Mark that anyone could use. They weren’t interested in crafting an arcane lock that anyone could cast. But they were interested in the potential of arcane magic, and many of the spells and rituals they perfected could be learned by anyone with talent, marked or otherwise.
Hedge Wizards and Other Traditions
It’s a simple fact that magic works. Even in the Dark Ages, the priests of Aureon mastered a few basic principles of wizardry. Externalist wizards learned to tap the power of their local manifest zones, even if these spells were rough in form and only possible in specific rituals. Here’s a few figures known to history.
Heken Askarda was a Daskaran monk devoted to Aureon, who pioneered the development of utilitarian magic. Notably, she created spells—at the time, 1st level wizard spells—that produced the individual effects of prestidigitation (heating, chilling, cleaning, soiling, etc). Later generations would refine these spells to the level of cantrip and ultimately to the versatile spell that people use today. Early wizards were often focused on the combat applications of magic; Heken sought to show how Aureon’s gift could improve all aspects of life.
Duran perfected many of the basic techniques of arcane necromancy employed by the Blood of Vol. While Duran died long ago, some say that he was also the first human of the Five Nations to master the rituals required to become a lich.
Beren’s Hearth was a legendary inn located in a Fernian manifest zone. The innkeeper Beren had crafted externalist spells allowing him to channel the power of Fernia to heat food and the inn itself. According to the tales, when a group of bandits threatened Beren and his guests, the innkeeper called the fire out of the hearth, and it chased down his enemies and burned them. To this day, Brelish wizards often call flaming sphere “Beren’s blaze” and fire bolt “Beren’s blast.” According to the tales, Beren’s Hearth finally burnt down and the land was claimed for a Cannith foundry. There are many conflicting accounts of just where the Hearth was, and some who say that it was the Twelve—notably agents of Ghallanda and Cannith—who burned down the Hearth.
Beren and Heken are good examples of the wizards of this time. Both focused on narrow fields of magic. Heken’s spells were effects that can now be cast as cantrips, while Beren’s fire spells were strong but relied on a direct tie to Fernia; nonetheless, they were spells that they developed and improved in their lifetimes, and which were further improved upon by future generations of wizards. When a Brelish wizard casts Beren’s blast they aren’t actually casting the spell created by the Wroatian wizard, but they are using the pyromantic principles he pioneered.
The Mages of Thaliost
There’s a strong fey presence in the land now known in Aundair. The earlier settlers found ways to make peace with these spirits, and the great families that forged the nation of Thaliost attributed their success to their fey pacts. While this produced a number of legendary warlocks, such as Tyman Three-Cloaks and Vilina the Unseen, not all of the fey the families dealt with had the power to create warlocks—and those that did might only grant such gifts to one child in a generation. Thaliost also drew an unusual number of Aereni exiles during the Dark Ages. Some of these chose to settle in the Towering Wood, ultimately producing the first Greensingers. Others joined the ancient families, earning influence with their arcane knowledge. As noted earlier, it was no simple thing for the Aereni to share their traditions, and few wanted to; most of the exiles preferred to keep their secrets as a unique resource preserving their value. While the elf wizards and Archfey warlocks were rare, they were a part of life. Margana Lain was an early arcane pioneer, convinced that what the fey seemed to do by whim, mortals could master through will. Over the course of her life she made dramatic breakthroughs in the basic techniques of Illusion and Enchantment magic. While she was a wizard whose powers were based on arcane science, many stories that followed called her Margana the Fey, claiming that her studies allowed her to become an archfey. Arcanix-trained mages may refer to disguise self as Margana’s masque;invisibility as Margana’s veil; and minor illusion as Margana’s mirror (according to legend, Margana would weave images in a mirror, then pull them out into the world). In the present day, the ir’Lains are a proud Aundairian dynasty; Darro ir’Lain is Second Warlord of the Realm and Commander of the Knights Arcane.
Beyond her own accomplishments, Margana was instrumental in the creation of the Guild of Moonlight and Whispers, the first true wizard’s circle of the Five Nations. The Guild became an influential force in Thaliost, and soon other circles followed in its footsteps. These circles lacked the numbers or resources of the Twelve, and members were often distracted by petty feuds with other circles. But they also became an important element of Thaliost culture and fueled arcane research, ultimately forming a foundation for the Arcane Congress.
GALIFAR AND THE ARCANE CONGRESS
Approximately one thousand years ago, Galifar Wynarn of Karrnath succeeded where Karrn the Conqueror had failed, uniting the Five Nations under the banner of the kingdom that bore his name. A key element of his victory was the work of his daughter Aundair. Long intrigued by arcane science, Aundair studied with both the Twelve and the Guild of Moonlight and Whispers, and had come up with her own unique theories of magic—the basic elements of Siberyan theory. The people she worked with had great respect for her talents—and this in turn played an important role both in Galifar’s negotiations with the Twelve and in recruiting Thaliost mages to his cause. There was no question that Aundair would govern Thaliost in the united kingdom. As the princess took stock of her domain, she worked to quell the conflicts between the rival circles of magic. Aundair recognized that the Twelve was capable of accomplishing grander things than the little circles… but she likewise knew both that the Twelve would always approach magic with a desire for profit, and that their greatest interest would always be harnessing the power of the dragonmarks. Beyond this, she had witnessed firsthand the desire to the houses to prevent people from developing spells that replicated the Spells of the Mark; she concluded that her father’s kingdom needed an institution that would pursue arcane science for the good of the kingdom, not simply in pursuit of gold. In 15 YK, Galifar I established the Arcane Congress, which united the resources of the Aundairian circles… though the circles have always continued to exist as fraternal orders in Aundair, and additional circles were established across Galifar.
The question has come up before: If you went back in time, how would the magic used by Aundair differ from that a wizard wields in the present day? Using the terms discussed in this article, the wizardry of early Galifar had higher spell slots (1-2 level higher cost than modern spells), lengthy preparation, and limited options. Notably, it would be centuries before any form of necromancy was part of the curriculum. Likewise, in the early days there simply weren’t many spells known over 3rd level. Today, the library of Arcanix includes spells created by the prodigies of the past even though few modern mages can cast them, but in the first days of the congress it would be possible for an exceptional wizard to have a 5th level spell slot… and simply not know any 5th level spells.
Institutes of Learning
This article talks about the education of magewrights, but what of wizards? The Arcane Congress was supported by Galifar, but it wasn’t the only institute of learning… And especially in the wake of the war, other nations had to develop their own
The Arcane Congress / Arcanix (Aundair). The Arcane Congress is a massive institution with campuses across Aundair. The most renowned among these is Arcanix, which serves as a center both for cutting edge research and for teaching the most advanced students. The original mission of the Arcane Congress was to improve the quality of life for the people of Galifar, and some of its greatest achievements were the development of the prestidigitation and mending cantrips, and the development of the everbright lantern.When Galifar collapsed, the Congress was immediately militarized. The core of Arcanix is located in a cluster of floating towers, and it was moved to its current location during the Last War to secure territory claimed from Thrane; while Arcanix is a school, it’s also an arcane citadel. All schools of magic can be studied at the Arcane Congress, but Aundair is particularly noted for diviners, abjurers, and conjurers. Aundair’s intelligence service—the Royal Eyes—makes extensive use of divination, and a skilled diviner may be recruited by the agency.
Atur Academy (Karrnath). Based in the so-called “City of Night” in Karrnath, Atur Academy specializes in mystical studies shunned by other institutions. Atur is a stronghold of the Blood of Vol, and the Academy has no equal when it comes to the study of necromancy. While its coverage of other schools of magic is unremarkable, its researchers develop spells that others would consider to be horrifying, and its vaults are said to contain tomes and scrolls of many spells forbidden during the reign of Galifar.
The Library of Korranberg (Zilargo). The gnomes of Zilargo place great value on illusion, divination, and enchantment magic. Most of Zilargo’s many universities teach at least one of these subjects. The Library of Korranberg is especially noteworthy, and its divination facilities rival those of Arcanix.
Morgrave University (Breland). Breland relies on the trade schools of the Twelve for general magical education, and the King’s Citadel trains spies and war mages. But Morgrave University is Breland’s best option for general research and private training. Morgrave’s faculty is eclectic, and its facilities are no match for Arcanix. But Morgrave still produces an impressive number of wizards and artificers. This is driven by a tradition of encouraging students to personalize their techniques, shifting verbal and somatic components to find a uniquely effective approach. Aundairian and Aereni wizards find this to be revoltingly slipshod, but it has produced some impressive results.
Rekkenmark (Karrnath). While its focus has always been military strategy and martial excellence, since the collapse of Galifar Rekkenmark has aggressively expanded its mystical studies. While still limited in scope, Rekkenmark has top-notch facilities for evokers and war magic, and reasonable instructors for conjuration and abjuration.
The Tower of the Twelve (Karrnath). Each dragonmarked house maintains trade schools tied to its guilds across Khorvaire, and many houses have their own facilities that engage in the secret or private work of their house. The Tower of the Twelve isn’t a production facility; rather, it is both a symbol of house cooperation and a center that brings together the finest minds of all of the houses to conduct shared research and to train promising heirs. It has access to unrivaled resources, drawing on bother the finest minds and vast resources of the houses. However, its primary focus is always on the applications of the dragonmarks and on things that can produce profit, rather than on purely abstract knowledge.
Two other noteworthy schools were lost in the Mourning. The Vermishard Academy trained promising nobles in the arts of enchantment, while the Wynarn Institute of Art (WIA) focused on the artistic potential of illusion and conjuration magic. Like other nations, Cyre embraced the martial aspects of magic during the Last War, but its war magic programs weren’t as developed as those of Karrnath or Aundair.
The Pace of Innovation
If I had more time, this article would include a timeline of the development of key arcane tools, from the siege staff to the speaking stone and beyond. I’m afraid this will have to wait for a future article. But it is crucial to understand that arcane science in the Five Nations is advancing at an exponential rate. The first lightning rail went into service in 811 YK. The first true warforged was created in 965 YK. The first elemental airships took flight in 990 YK. The Last War dramatically ramped up the pace of innovation, and saw more widespread training in the use of offensive cantrips (resulting in the more widespread presence of wandslingers). Beyond this, House Tharashk’s ever-greater ability to gather dragonshards and evolving ability to refine them has helped to support the more industrial role of magic—something that will be discussed in the upcoming article of Arcane Industry.
Alternate Spell Names
This article suggests a number of alternate names for spells tied to historical figures; a Brelish evoker might refer to flaming sphere as Beren’s blaze, while an Aundairian illusionist could refer to invisibility as Margana’s veil. The goal here isn’t to replace names and demand that you use these new names. Rather, it’s an example of the fact that spell names—like fireball— are largely generic and that different nations and cultures may have their own names for them. A Cyran wizard might cast an externalist form of fireball they call Fernia’s fury, while a Karrn evoker might use a Siberyan form called red dragon’s wrath. Spells are tools, and it’s not like there’s only one version of a sword in the world. But the key point here is that I’m never going to come up with a complete list of unique Brelish spell names… and that it’s always ok to just call a fireball a fireball. Use my suggestions if you like, but as a player or DM you should always feel free to name your own spells. If you don’t want to just cast ray of frost, YOU can decide you call it ice drake’s tooth… though, or course, you may have to tell your DM “That’s ray of frost.”
The same principle applies in reverse to any spell in D&D that HAS a proper name attached, like Tasha’s hideous laughter. One option is to simply drop the proper name; the spell is hideous laughter. Another is to replace it with someone from Eberron; Tenser’s floating disk could be Heken’s floating disk. A third option is to create Eberron versions of these common characters…
Sora Tasha was a wizard of Thaliost who was adopted by the infamous Sora Kell. In some stories, Tasha was a beloved protege of her “grandmother,” who disappeared into the planes long ago searching for Sora Kell. In other versions of the story, Tasha was responsible for Sora Kell’s disappearance, stealing her mentor’s grimoire and trapping her in a planar prison. Some stories say Tasha is long dead, while others say her spells have preserved her and she has taken Sora Kell’s hidden sanctum as her own.
Mordenkainen d’Phiarlan is the original name of the wizard now known as Mordain the Fleshweaver. As Mordain, he is infamous for his mastery of transmutation magic; but he was a remarkably gifted wizard who came up with a number of innovative spells before he became obsessed with transmutation, and those that use this name are among his earlier works. The slight twist is that most of his spells draw on Xoriat in various ways. The phantom hound of Mordenkainen’s faithful hound is a many-eyed multiidimensional denizen of Xoriat. Mordenkainen’s blade is a shard of Xoriat itself. Mordenkainen’s magnificent mansion creates a pocket of space in Xoriat; fortunately, it’s impossible to breach the walls of the manor (probably…). Note that this has nothing in common with magnificent mansions created through other methods (such as Ghallanda’s manor key)… Again, one spell can have many variants. It’s also the case that there are few living spellcasters who could actually CAST Mordenkainen’s sword; it’s something that might be found in one of Mordain’s abandoned spellshards, deep in the library of Arcanix.
Bigby is said to be a giant wizard of the Cul’sir Dominion. He was one of the mentors (and slavemasters) of the legendary elf wizard Cardaen. When the warrior queen Vadallia rescued Cardaen from the citadel he was imprisoned in, she cut off the giant’s hand. Cardaen later perfected the series of spells, saying that he had bound Bigby’s hand to do his bidding. Cardaen’s spells are known both to Tairnadal and Aereni wizards, and could have been shared with wizards of the Five Nations.
I had hoped to incorporate a more lengthy list of innovators and a timeline of some of the major developments, such as the everbright lantern and the siege staff. However, the fact is that this article has already taken more time than I have available—and that if I were to add every detail I’d like to add, it might be weeks before I could complete it. The next article in this series will cover Arcane Industry, and if time allows I’d love to do a shorter article speicifically about innovators and innovations—but time is always the enemy. I will note that Arcane Industry will cover the questions about the regulation of magical research that’s come up in the past.
Thanks to my Patreon supporters for choosing this topic. It’s your support that makes these articles possible, and that determines the amount of time I can spend on them. I’ll be posting a poll for the next new topic soon!
Magic is a part of Eberron. The world is drenched in eldritch power—the force that flows from the Ring of Siberys, the energies of the planes, enigmatic divine power sources. Like wind, tide, iron or fire—magic is a resource waiting to be harnessed.
This is the second in a series of articles. The previous article covered the THEORIES of arcane magic. This article delves deeper into the practical evolution of magic—the concrete elements of a spell and how less advanced forms of magic differ from what we cast today. Subsequent articles will deal both with the specific evolution of arcane science in Khorvaire—including specific innovators and key discoveries—and arcane industry in the Five Nations. However, to understand how magic has evolved we need to understand the elements of magic in more detail.
Where this article references rules, it assumes the use of the fifth edition of D&D. Also, as with the previous article, this specifically addresses the development of ARCANE MAGIC as opposed to psionics, divine magic, or primal traditions. In fifth edition, the distinction between these is more story-driven than mechanical; nothing’s stopping you from describing your bard as using primal magic. But this is about the development of arcane science as described in my previous article—and with that in mind, primarily focused on artificers and wizards. As always, this is what I do at MY table, and what follows may contradict canon material. Use what you like, ignore what you don’t!
Magic: More Complicated Than You Know
To understand how arcane magic has evolved, we have to look under the hood and understand exactly how it works today. The rules of Dungeons & Dragons deal with the game mechanics of magic. For a wizard to cast a fireball, they must prepare the spell during a long rest. It takes an action to cast the spell, burning a 3rd level spell slot and requiring verbal, somatic, and material components. That fireball has a range of 150 feet and inflicts 8d6 fire damage. These are the FACTS of the fireball, and it doesn’t matter if the wizard is drawing on the essence of Fernia, using sympathetic magic, or focussing the Blood of Siberys to produce this effect: Fireball is one action; V S M components; 3rd level spell slot.
Those are the facts of the fireball. But what does any of that mean? What IS a spell slot? What are components? What does it mean to “prepare a spell”? What is the STORY behind these things, that explains what your wizards is actually doing? As described in the Arcane Science article, the basic principle of arcane magic is that the spellcaster is harnessing a particular power source—perhaps the emanations of the Ring of Siberys or the power of the planes—through scientific principles. They have mastered reliable, repeatable techniques that allow them to alter reality in specific ways. Let’s take a closer look at each element of spellcasting.
Both wizards and artificers have access to a wide range of spells. Artificers have access to the full artificer spell list, while wizards can cast any spell in their spellbooks. But they have to prepare a specific subset of those spells during a long rest, and these are the only spells they can cast until they go through a second round of preparation.
It’s easy to overlook the importance of preparation. It’s something that happens between adventures. But the point is that while a wizard or artificer may know how to cast dozens of spells, that knowledge is useless to them without proper preparation. And this is a key part of recognizing the complexity of arcane magic. Yes, it only takes a wizard six seconds to cast fireball… But that’s because they have spent hours preparing to cast fireball. For the artificer, this is a little more obvious; they produce their spell effects using tools, and they are literally preparing those tools. When an Alchemist artificer prepares cure wounds, they are mixing up a base salve that can be triggered to generate an instant healing effect; the salve they’d use for alter self is entirely different, and if they haven’t mixed it up during the long rest, they can’t prepare it in the middle of an adventure. This same principle applies to the wizard. They aren’t preparing physical tools, but they are performing a host of minor rituals and formulas that are required to be able to cast that swift spell. When a wizard prepares fireball, they might first need to mediate on the twelve principles of fire, running through a series of equations in their mind. Next, they build on that to establish a source of power. This could be forging a connection to Fernia, or it might be igniting a spark within their own spirit—an ember forged from the Blood of Siberys that they carry within. Think of the actual casting of the spell as turning on the gas to a gas stove; it doesn’t do anything if you don’t have the spark prepared to ignite it. But even then, there’s ANOTHER series of rituals that need to be performed—to protect the caster from the powers that they are channelling. Consider how dangerous it is to work with other sources of power in our word—electricity, fire, nuclear power. Arcane power is no different. A wizard who casts fireball without proper precautions could spontaneously combusts, or simply boil the blood within their brain. Part of preparing fireball is preparing the wards that protect you from the dangers of casting the spell. To be clear, this is a very specific set of wards that only protect you from CASTING the spell, and that are shielding you an arcane level—reinforcing your aura, not your flesh. Consider also that these preparations are distinct for each spell. You may use the same arcane spark to ignite your fireball and burning hands, but the fact that you have to prepare those two separately shows that each one has its own unique set of required rituals. All of which is to say that this preparation is extremely specific; preparing fireball doesn’t automatically protect you from FIRE, it just protects you from the very specific dangers involved in casting fireball.
The main point here is that as a wizard, you do most of your actual WORK during your long rest. You likely don’t get as much sleep as your comrades, because you’re going over Fernian formulas in your mind and tracing draconic sigils in the air, gathering the forces you will unleash the following day. Your power doesn’t come without effort; you put in a lot of work to prepare your spells.
I talked about components at length in this article. The short form is that components may vary and will reflect the arcane tradition you’re following. A Siberyan wizard will speak a few of the hundred Draconic words for fire, while an Externalist chants in Primordial. Components serve two purposes. They trigger the effects the caster spent hours preparing, and they also help to focus and channel that power. The key point is that the components are the trigger that invokes the previous preparations; they don’t produce the effect on their own.
If you think of a spell as a gun, the components are the trigger. The preparations are the bullet, carefully loaded in place and ready for use. The spell slot is the powder—the surge of energy that imbues the bullet with deadly force. So it is with spells. Someone can perform all the proper steps, say the words of power, trace the proper sigils in the air, but it’s all meaningless unless they can channel the POWER that enforces their will upon reality.
Spell slots reflect the maximum amount of energy a particular spellcaster can draw on in an instant (their maximum spell slot level) as well as their overall endurance (total number of slots). A low level wizard could understand the principles behind fireball, but they can’t grasp the power required to cast it. Possessing a spell slot means knowing both how to channel this degree of power, but also how to channel it safely. Again, arcane energy is like electricity, like fire, like radiation; it is dangerous, and there are limits on how much of it any one person can handle. When a wizard has exhausted their spell slots, they have pushed their mind and spirit to dangerous levels; they just can’t marshal the mental focus required to weave the threads of magic, and even attempting it could kill them.
WHAT ABOUT RITUALS AND CANTRIPS?
Performing a spell as a ritual allows the spellcaster to draw on the energies slowly and evenly, without taking the same physical or mental demand on the spellcaster… which is why spells cast as rituals don’t use a spell slot. Meanwhile, cantrips channel trivial amounts of arcane energy, which is why they also don’t require spell slots.
NPC arcane magewrights and wandslingers can typically only perform rituals or cantrips, though some may know one or two spells they can cast once per day. The flip side to this is that magewrights can often cast spells as rituals even though those spells don’t have the ritual tag. First and foremost, this reflects a deep and absolute dedication to a small set of spells. It’s not JUST that they have spent years honing those few spells; an elf wizard could do that. It’s that they focus on those things to the exclusion of all else. The arcane locksmith can’t spend a few more years and become a lamplighter as well; learning to cast continual flame as a ritual would cause them to lose the focus on locks that allows them to cast arcane lock as a ritual. Which is why player characters can’t learn these magewright rituals: the very act of being an adventurer would distract from the intense focus required to be a magewright. And as noted in Rising From The Last War, magewright rituals have an additional component cost, typically paid with refined Eberron dragonshards; it’s a specialized form of spellcasting that’s quite different from the flexible casting of a wizard.
SCHOOLS AND SPELLS
A PC wizard can cast any wizard spell. They may have an affinity for a particular school of magic, but a Diviner wizard can cast any wizard spell, and spells of all schools are taught at Arcanix. However, this reflects the remarkable talent and flexibility of PC wizards and the fact that Arcanix is the pinnacle of centuries of arcane research. The different schools of magic are different branches of science, and few people can master them all. An NPC evoker might not be able to cast divination, illusion, or enchantment spells; they’ve learn to conjure, to abjure, and to evoke powerful forces, but they simply can’t grasp the softer schools. A particular branch of the Esoteric Order of Aureon may not have any members who can actually perform necromancy. This same principle applies to spell selection. In general, PCs are allowed to learn any spell from the wizard spell list. But a DM could choose to limit certain spells, saying that they haven’t actually been developed by the character’s culture. Here’s a few ways to approach this…
Have the character acquire a spellbook belonging to a legendary mage—Mordain the Fleshweaver, Minara Vol—whose contents never became part of the common canon. it could be that these spells are higher level than most NPC wizards can cast, or it could be that there’s something about them that keeps lesser mages from being able to master them.
Tie the spell to an elite organization. This is why a wizard may want to join the Esoteric Order of Aureon or the Guild of Starlight and Shadows—to get access to spells that aren’t part of the common canon. It could be that multiple organizations have different versions of the same spell—the Aundairian Knights Phantom, the Tairnadal, and Thrane’s Order of the Silver Blades—all teach sword burst, but all use different variations with different physical manifestations.
Tie the spells to an ancient culture—Qabalrin necromancy, Cul’sir evocation. Examples are provided later in this article. It could be that the character is able to directly scribe spells from an ancient spellshard or spellbook, or it could be that the old spellbook provides inspiration that allows them to create entirely new spells—perhaps adding a new spell each time there’s downtime. Or it could be that the ghost of a giant wizard is haunting the ruins of Xen’drik, seeking to pass on its knowledge before it releases its grip on the world.
The adventurer could be the chosen protege of a powerful being—a dragon of the Chamber, Lady Illmarrow, one of the Lords of Dust. Or the mentor could be a purely intangible presence: Sul Khatesh, an Archfey, an Ascendant Councilor, or a force claiming to be Aureon. Why has such a powerful being chosen to help the PC? Do they have knowledge of the character’s potential actions through the Prophecy? Or do they have some personal investment in the character?
Personally, I wouldn’t do too much of this with spells of third level and below. There are places stronger in different schools of magic—for example, Atur is the best place to learn about necromancy—but 1st-3rd level spells are supposed to be easily accessible, and I wouldn’t want to place restrictions on a PC wizard early in their career. It’s in getting to higher level spells that AREN’T supposed to be common in Khorvaire that I’d put more emphasis on the wonder involved in acquiring them. There are very few wizards in the Five Nations who can cast a 7th level spell, so they’re shouldn’t BE a vast library of such spells just sitting on the shelf in Arcanix; acquiring such power should feel dramatic, whether the character is scribing their own spells, uncovering ancient secrets, or working with an enigmatic mentor. Having said that, wizards and artificers shouldn’t suffer for the story; the point is not to limit their access to spells, but to highlight how remarkable such characters are.
WHAT DOES ALL OF THIS MEAN?
Magic as it exists in the rules of fifth edition reflects the current state of the art. It didn’t begin this way. More primitive forms of arcane magic could have a number of limitations, and such things could be encountered through time travel or simply when dealing with some sort of primitive culture. Here’s a few ways to represent more primitive magic; I’m numbering them so that you could roll a d12 if you want to randomly generate a flawed form of magic.
Higher Spell Slots. The techniques of modern magic are designed to allow the caster to safely channel a significant amount of arcane energy… which translates to spell slots. A spellcaster using more limited techniques can’t channel so much magic as easily; they have to channel more energy to produce the same effect as a more advanced mage, which is to say their spells have an increased spell slot cost. This is one of the basic aspects of the pre-Galifar magic of the Five Nations; it used to be that magic missile was a second level spell. And the idea of someone being able to cast teleport? Don’t be ridiculous, it would take an impossible amount of power! So using this approach, you can use the same SPELLS, but increase the required spell slot by 1 or more levels. In such a scenario, it’s quite likely that the culture has no cantrips—that cantrip effects might require the expenditure of a 1st level spell slot.
Lengthy Preparation. The ability for a wizard or artificer to completely change out their prepared spells during a long rest reflects the sophistication of current techniques. A less advanced wizard might be limited in how swiftly they can change spells; it might take a full long rest just to prepare/replace one new spell.
Lengthy Casting. The ability to cast a spell in six seconds is a feature of advanced spellcasting. A slightly less advanced tradition might mean that a spell that normally takes an action to cast instead requires a full turn, preventing the caster from moving or taking a bonus action. An even more limited spell might require multiple actions to complete… though an interesting variation of this would be a tradition that allows multiple spellcasters to work together; so if a primitive fireball takes three actions to cast, one spellcaster could use three actions, or three spellcasters could work together and each use one action to complete it. This could also apply to the spell slot expended, which would be a way to offset a higher cost. So perhaps the primitive fireball takes 3 actions and a 6th level spell slot to cast—but up to three casters can work together on both, each contributing an action and a 2nd level spell slot to cast it. A more limited tradition might only be able to cast spells as rituals.
Limited Options. Simpler traditions may very well be restricted to specific schools of magic. An old Seeker wizard of pre-Galifar Karrnath might only know Necromancy and Divination spells, and be unable to master spells of other schools.
Limited Location. The spellcaster can only cast spells in a specific area. This could be quite large; an ancient externalist wizard might be able to cast spells while within 20 miles of a powerful manifest zone. On the other hand, it could be very limited; a wizard who can only perform magic within their tower. It’s possible that a player character wizard could use Arcana to adapt such spells to a form that could be used in any location, but it’s equally possible that the spell is too dependent to be adapted.
Required Focus. A modern wizard has the option to use a focus instead of material components, and can quickly switch between different focuses. A more limited tradition might require the spellcaster to make use of a particular focus: a haunted skull that guides a necromancer, a staff carved from a tree watered with the wizard’s blood. Such things could be magic items that anyone would find useful, or they could only have power in the hands of the mage that made them.
Required Species. A wizard’s spell uses the caster as a lens for its power. The spells of a particular tradition might only work with a specific type of lens—which is to say, a spell crafted by a giant might not work when cast by a human wizard (it might even harm the caster, who lacks the endurance of a giant). This is a case where a modern wizard might be able to make an Arcana check as a downtime activity to adapt the spell so anyone can cast it.
Expensive Components. A limited tradition could require the expenditure of expensive components for spells that don’t require such things in the modern form. These could be very specific (the eye of a griffon) or more general (50 gp worth of Eberron dragonshards). Note that this is an aspect of modern magewright magic; it could be more severe in limited traditions.
A Higher Price. A basic principle of this idea is that magic is dangerous and that the preparations wizards make allow them to safely perform magic. A more primitive tradition might not have all those preparations in place, in which case a spellcaster might suffer a level of exhaustion when they cast a spell, suffer direct damage, or have some other lingering consequence.
Unpleasant Cosmetic Effects. Not all effects have to have a mechanical impact. It’s possible that a primitive style of magic has a cosmetic effect that makes the spell difficult to use. Perhaps it creates a foul stench, or causes minor vegetation around the caster to die, or leaches the color from the caster’s hair and clothes. Perhaps the caster needs to shout their verbal components as loudly as possible. Perhaps an old form of necromancy causes the caster to attract restless spirits; they and everyone around them hear the whispers and moans of these minor shades for hours after the wizard casts a spell.
Challenging Concentration. The ease of maintaining an ongoing spell is a facet of modern magic. Someone using less advanced techniques might have disadvantage on Concentration checks to maintain their spells.
Greater Power. One unexpected side effect is that some primitive traditions of magic could be MORE powerful than modern magic—but the point is that this benefit is offset by the negative side effects described above, and the pioneers of modern magic sacrificed a degree of power for safety and ease of use. So it could be that the Externalist fire wizard of ancient Khunan adds the benefits of the Distant Spell and Empowered Spell Metamagic features when she casts a fireball—but she can only cast it within a mile of a Fernian manifest zone, and she suffers ten points of fire damage herself. Or it could be that an enchanter gains the benefits of Subtle Spell, but can only perform magic in his tower. Again, the point is that the side effects outweigh the benefits—but it’s still a way make “primitive” magic an unexpected challenge. Adding the Metamagic features of the sorcerer is a simple way to reflect such benefits, but anything is possible.
The basic point to all of this is that magic as we know it is quite sophisticated. The reason the Aereni, the dragons, and the wizards of Arcanix all use the same basic techniques is because it’s about as good as it gets. The Aereni wizard is a higher level wizard than the typical Arcanix graduate, which means that Aereni wizard has more spell slots and can cast spells that are beyond the ability of the students of Arcanix. But the techniques—the casting time, the components, the ease of concentration and preparation—are generally equivalent. With that said, part of the point is that it’s the PLAYER CHARACTERS who can perform this sophisticated magic. The tradition of the magewright is more limited: spells have Lengthy Casting (ritual only), Expensive Components (dragonshards), and Lengthy Preparation (well, in fact, NO ability to swap spells). The common wandslinger requires a focus. Beyond that, the general idea is that cantrips themselves are a relatively recent development in the mystical history of Galifar—which is why wandslingers were first fielded during the Last War. This in turn reflects the idea that the Five Nations are still evolving… while Aerenal, for example, has surely had cantrips for thousands of years, if not tens of thousands.
WHAT ABOUT ADVANCED MAGIC?
The previous section suggests ways that primitive magic could be inferior to magic as presented in the rules. Does that mean that the magic of advanced societies—such as Aerenal, Argonnessen, or the Venomous Demesne—should break the rules in other ways? If a primitive fireball is a 6th level spell, should an advanced one be a 1st level spell? While there is a certain logic to this, it’s not the path we’ve taken in the design. Given that player characters can COME from Aerenal or the Demesne, changing the rules of magic for that culture creates all sorts of issues—either story problems if you need to explain why the player character doesn’t use those superior rules, or balance problems if you allow them to. So what marks an advanced society isn’t that the rules are different; it’s that spellcasters are higher level.
What we’ve established in Khorvaire is that magic of 1st-3rd level is incorporated into everyday life, magic of 4th-5th level is rare but possible, and spells of higher level than that are all but unknown. Meanwhile, the rarity of a magic item is fairly accurate; common items are common, rare items are possible but rare, and legendary items are in fact legendary. By contrast, in Aerenal magic of up to 5th level is part of everyday life, while up to 7th level is known, and Aereni crafters can produce rare and very rare items. In part this applies to wizards and artificers, but the same principle applies to Aereni magewrights and adepts; even if they don’t actually use spell slots, they have access to spells of higher level than mages of the Five Nations. Go to Argonnessen, and great wyrms can cast spells of 9th level—or higher! So the point is that advanced civilizations don’t use different rules, but rather that powerful effects or more widespread. A player character from Aerenal CAN master the magic of their homeland by simply gaining enough experience; it’s simply that there are more NPCs that wield similar power there.
With that said, it’s certainly the case that advanced magical civilizations may have access to tools or rituals that don’t adhere to the rules—eldritch machines, or rituals such as the Du’rashka Tul or the spells the giants used to destroy the 13th moon. Like magewrights, these are things that exist outside the standard rules for player characters. The moon-breaking ritual of the giants wasn’t something that was cast by a single giant and it wasn’t a standard spell; it was something channeled through an eldritch machine and that required multiple mages—and quite possible a planar conjunction—to work. The magic wielded by player characters is reliable and convenient; the point of the eldritch machine is that magic doesn’t always follow those rules.
In the vast swath of time since the Age of Demons, many civilizations have harnessed arcane power. Delving deeply into these civilizations is beyond the scope of article, but it’s useful to explore a few of them at a high level, to have some concept of what’s gone before and what wonders player characters might discover in their adventures. Most of these civilizations are (or were) more advanced that the Five Nations in at least some ways; this is why their relics are valuable, and not simply something you could buy from Cannith. But there’s a number of important things to keep in mind. First of all, many of these civilizations existed for thousands—in some cases tens of thousands—of years. It’s not that these civilizations were in some way innately superior to humanity, capable of grasping secrets the Five Nations could never unravel on their own; it’s that they had time to unravel those secrets. This ties to the second point. It’s a common mistake to think that many of the great arcane innovations of the last millennium—for example, elemental binding and the warforged—were simply stolen from past civilizations. In both cases, these developments were inspired by discoveries made in Xen’drik, but the simple fact is that most advanced magic items can’t easily be duplicated by less advanced civilizations. You can’t just take the wand of Orcus apart and figure out how it works. An artificer can look at a Sulatar firesled and tell that it’s using a bound elemental. But how is it bound? What’s maintaining the wards? How was it constructed? Is it using unfamiliar materials—materials harnessed from a manifest zone, harvested from a creature never seen in Khorvaire, or created through transmutation? Was it created using an eldritch machine, in which case we’d need access to that machine to fully understand it? Did it use dragonshards refined with an unknown technique, or altered in some way (like the dusk shards of Q’barra)?
The point here is that it’s generally possible to identify the function of an alien magic item and to find a way to attune to it or use it, but that doesn’t mean it’s possible to duplicate it. It could be a wizard’s life work just to duplicate the material used on a firesled… which would be a crucial insight into the overall arcane science of the Sulat League. As is, the point is that the Zil binders were inspired by their discoveries of Sulat artifacts, but they developed their own, unique tradition of elemental binding based on that inspiration. Notably, the Sulatar drow do not have airships, and the Zil don’t currently have small vessels like firesleds. The same thing is true of House Cannith and the warforged. The discovery of the quorforged inspired Merrix and Aaren’s work, but quorforged weren’t sentient and weren’t created using the Mark of Making. If a team discovered an ancient Sulat FACTORY and were able to hold it for an extended period of time, they might be able to unlock its secrets and employ those techniques. But generally ancient relics are a source of inspiration as opposed to being the key to transforming society. Which means that if your fighter gets a vorpal blade from the ruins below Stormreach, it’s not irresponsible of you to hold onto it instead of handing it over to Cannith; they’d be impressed by its enchantments, but they couldn’t just turn around and start mass-producing them tomorrow. Having said all that, there ARE sages in Arcanix, Morgrave, and Korranberg who are studying all of these ancient cultures and working to unlock their secrets; but it’s not a trivial challenge.
The following list doesn’t cover all of the advanced arcane societies of Eberron, because there are a tremendous number of them. This doesn’t deal with the dragonborn empire that once spread out from Q’barra, the Umbragen drow below Khyber, or the countless civilizations that have risen in Xen’drik and been consumed by the Du’rashka Tul. But it covers a number of arcane civilizations, some long fallen, others still thriving. Likewise, this is a brief overview; it’s up to the DM to expand and add details to if one of these civilizations plays a major role in a campaign.
The Lords of Dust
The overlords of the Age of Demons possessed immense mystical power. They didn’t need SCIENCE to reshape reality; they simply did it intuitively with their own raw power. The same is largely true of their lesser minions. While rakshasa and other fiends often possess supernatural powers, these generally aren’t arcane; they are simply harnessing their own personal power. They’re more like sorcerers than wizards; they don’t need to understand their powers to use them. So it’s a fact that the overlord Katashka created the first (draco)liches through his own transcendent power, but he couldn’t teach mortals how to make liches on their own; they had to discover that over time.
A key element to this is that relics and artifacts of the Age of Demons are immensely powerful but largely can’t be replicated today. This is the origin of the name the Lords of Dust; because the rakshasa themselves dwell in the ruins of their masters’ citadels, and couldn’t repair them even if they wished, because it was the near-divine powers of the overlords that raised them. So magic items tied to the Age of Demons can be extremely powerful—artifacts, legendary, very rare—but there’s little to be gained by studying them, because they weren’t created using scientific principles and can’t be replicated without the power of an unbound overlord. Relics of the Age of Demons are usually tied specifically to the sphere of the overlord they are associated with; Rak Tulkhesh created many horrifying weapons of war, but didn’t create healing potions or things that soothed pain. This is a reason that most spellcasting agents of the overlords are warlocks rather than wizards; they may be granted direct power in exchange for their devotion, but they don’t learn scientific principles.
There are, of course, exceptions, and the most notable of these is Sul Khatesh. Known as the Keeper of Secrets and the Queen of Shadows, Sul Khatesh embodies dangerous secrets and the threat of magic. Sul Khatesh can teach magical secrets to her servants, provided that such secrets are dangerous. It’s worth noting that Sul Khatesh is bound and effectively dreaming. Her Court of Shadows is spread across Khorvaire, but she doesn’t always use it in ways that would seem to maximize its value to her; her actions are essentially reflexive, driven by her own subconscious, a dream that she may forget within an immortal moment. So when Sul Khatesh offers to teach a spell to a wizard in Aundair, you can be sure that the knowledge is dangerous… but that doesn’t mean that the offer is somehow tied to the schemes of the Court of Shadows in Karrnath. Beyond Sul Khatesh herself, her minions possess far greater arcane knowledge than most of the Lords of Dust. The rakshasa Hektula—who calls herself “The First Scribe”, though her enemies called her “The Bloody Scribe” due to her penchant for using the blood of dragons to write her spells—is the keeper of the Library of Ashtakala, and may be the greatest expert on arcane knowledge in existence. It is Hektula and her servants who create new magic items for the Lords of Dust… though largely, Hektula is absorbed with her endless work cataloguing and maintaining the library. Hektula could be an interesting patron for a wizard or artificer; for all her knowledge, Hektula doesn’t possess the mortal ability to innovate, and it could be that she sees a mortal’s potential to develop something entirely new.
The Dragons of Argonnessen
The dragons have been working with magic for a hundred thousand years. They have forgotten secrets lesser civilizations have yet to learn, and they can perform rituals that can devastate continents. In considering draconic magic, there’s a few important things to keep in mind.
The civilization of Argonnessen is based upon the depiction of dragons in the 3.5 rules of D&D, which makes the assertion that every dragon has an inner well of magical power, a force that grows stronger over time. Under the 3.5 rules, a typical gold great wyrm had the spellcasting ability of a 19th level sorcerer—and that’s without adding any class levels. A key consequence of this is that the magic of Argonnessen isn’t directly transferable to other creatures—because rather than harnessing external powers, it begins by drawing on the inner power of the dragon itself.
Like the overlords, this means that the magic items created by dragons usually can’t be reverse engineered by lesser creatures, because you can’t replicate the techniques used to create them unless you actually possess the inner power of a dragon. With that said, unlike the overlords, the dragons do wield their powers in a scientific way, not simply by acting on instinct. They’ve studied and honed their powers, and I would personally say that wild dragons that have grown up without any contact with the civilization of Argonnessen likely wouldn’t possess the full spellcasting abilities described in the 3.5 SRD. They might possess a fraction of those powers, channeling their innate might in very specific ways through insight, but I wouldn’t give them the versatility of an Argonnessen-trained dragon. This is a way to reconcile 3.5 and 5E. The 5E dragons reflect wild dragons either not raised in Argonnessen, or who have consciously refused to develop their powers. The “Dragons as innate spellcasters” option rule can reflect rogues or basic agents of Argonnessen. The true loredrakes of Argonnessen should have powers more on par with those presented in the 3.5 SRD. With this in mind, it’s also worth noting that the oldest dragons presented in 5E are ancient, described as being more than 800 years old; 3.5 has wyrm (1,000+) and great wyrm (1,200+). Again, the easy answer is that the dragons encountered in 5E aren’t the most powerful dragons in existence, and that wyrms and their elders rarely leave Argonnessen. The base stats for 5E dragons aren’t inaccurate, they just don’t show the full spectrum of draconic power.
Many of the greatest powers of the dragons aren’t things that would be represented by a traditional spell. When the dragons laid the Du’rashka Tul upon Xen’drik—a curse that has lingered for tens of thousands of years, disrupting any civilization that grows too large—that wasn’t the work of a single dragon burning a spell slot. It was a ritual that involved MANY dragons working in concert, all lending their immense power to the effort. So the greatest powers wielded by the dragons aren’t spells that can be cast in six seconds; they are rituals and eldritch machines.
Now, the dragons CAN teach magic to lesser creatures, as shown by Vvaraak teaching the Gatekeepers and the dragons sharing knowledge with the giants of Xen’drik. But the point is that in doing this they aren’t teaching the same techniques THEY use, because a giant doesn’t have the innate power of a dragon. Rather, it’s that over the course of eons, the loredrakes of Argonnessen have studying arcane science (and primal magic, as shown by Vvaraak) in depth. Unlike the elves of Aerenal, the dragons aren’t stagnant; they ARE always interested in learning more about how the world works. However, after the disastrous experience with the giants, they have sworn never to share their knowledge with lesser creatures.
The upshot of this is that the dragons of Argonnessen are the most advanced civilization on Eberron and possess immense arcane knowledge. However, they don’t share this knowledge with lesser creatures and they rarely interact with the world beyond Argonnessen. Beyond this, even for dragons, a hundred thousand years is a long time. The dragons could have forgotten or forbidden various magical techniques; adventurers could find the lair of a rogue dragon, now long dead, who’d been working on something forbidden by the Conclave. Likewise, just because the dragons are so advanced and have been studying magic for so long doesn’t prevent a player character from stumbling on something that somehow, no dragon has ever learned. The question is whether the Chamber would take an interest in such a development, or if they would choose not to meddle with humanoid civilization.
The Giants of Xen’drik
Long ago, the dragons of Argonnessen taught the first secrets of magic to the young giants of Xen’drik. Today, this is known as kurash Ourelonastrix (“Aureon’s Folly”), and has resulted in the Conclave of Argonnessen forbidding dragons from sharing knowledge with lesser creatures. But a key point here is that the dragons couldn’t share their full secrets; as noted above, draconic magic draws on the inner power of the dragon. Instead, they taught the giants the basic principles of arcane magic—the fundamental building blocks of artifice and wizardry—and what followed was the result of tens of thousands of years of giant innovation. With that said, the early giants weren’t giants as we know them today. They were highly intelligent, powerful beings—closest to the modern cloud and storm giants, though even more intelligent and advanced. It’s known that their greatest leaders with something even greater—titans, or in 5E terms, empyreans. What’s unclear is whether these empyreans were always empyreans—if they were immortals infused with this power in the first age of the world—or if they were born mortal and somehow attained empyrean power. The latter theory is implied by a number of sources, but as of yet no one has recovered any information about how a giant could become an empyrean—and whether modern giants, or even other humanoids, could make use of these techniques.
The giants were never a single monolithic culture. Beyond that, over the course of tens of thousands of years, many cultures rose and fell within Xen’drik. Three cultures have been called out in canon sources, but keep in mind that this isn’t supposed to be a comprehensive list. These are examples of giant cultures, and perhaps the greatest of them. But it’s possible that there were others before them—and certain that there were others that rose after their fall, only to be destroyed by the Du’rashka Tul.
TheCul’sir Dominion was the largest and most widespread of the giant nations. It’s hard to know the truth about a civilization that fell forty thousand years ago. According to the tales of the elves, the Cul’sir were ruthless tyrants who crushed countless lesser nations (including the feyspire Shae Tirias Tolai) while the recovered accounts of the Cul’sir depict their nation as a utopia that sought to assimilate more primitive nations for their own good. Likewise, it’s still unclear whether the Cul’sir suffered an unprovoked attack from Dal Quor, or whether the titan emperor Cul’sir sought to claim dominion over the Realm of Dreams, setting disastrous retribution in motion. What is known for certain is that the Cul’sir were a disciplined society with a strict social hierarchy and slaves of many species, that they destroyed the moon Crya in their war with the quori and that they were prepared to unleash even greater devastation rather than to allow the elves and other rebel slaves to bring down their empire. Cul’sir wizards and artificers excelled at evocation, conjuration, and enchantment—creating devastating weapons and enforcing their will upon lesser creatures.
The Sulat League was powerful, but less ambitious than the Cul’sir Dominion. Its power was such that the Cul’sir acknowledged the Sulat giants as equals and traded with them, the League doesn’t appear to have sought greater dominion… Though it could be that there were unrecorded conflicts between the two powers that established this detante. The Sulat mages excelled at transmutation and abjuration, and especially elemental binding and magebreeding (here meaning the use of transmutation magic and mundane techniques to change a species in ways that could be passed on to offspring). The Sulat giants are said to have created the drow, and fire giants are also thought to be a devolved legacy of the Sulat League. Any number of monstrosities in Xen’drik could have been created by the magebreeders of the Sulat League.
The Group of Eleven was an alliance of eleven city states, each ruled by an empyrean mage. The Eleven are known to have encouraged competition both within each city-state and between them, though this was a more ritualized and intellectual competition, not bloody warfare; nonetheless, this internal rivalry kept them from seeking power over other nations. The mages of the Eleven studied many branches of arcane science. Over time, each city chose to focus on the study of a single plane; the two that they left out of this efforts were Dal Quor (one reason the Cul’sir took such an interest in it) and Mabar. The Eleven explored the potential of externalist magic, of bargaining with the powers of a plane (though they seem to have had less success at this than the Unspoken of the Qabalrin, described below), and even exploring the planes; there are remnants of an Eleven outpost in the layer of Lamannia known as Titan’s Folly, and the empyrean Il’Ara now dwells in Risia with her subjects and slaves. While the Group of Eleven lacked the expansionist ambition of the Cul’sir Dominion, there’s no question that they did subjugate other species and considered themselves to be superior to other nations; it’s simply that conquest was never their primary goal.
One notable point is that none of these cultures employed necromancy. it could be that they dabbled with it and chose to turn away from it, or it might be that they simply never mastered this field of arcane science. It’s known that the Cul’sir Dominion feared and despised the Qabalrin elves (described later in this article) and that the Qabalrin practice of necromancy was part of this.
In general, the relics of the giants are a powerful draw for explorers and sages. Unlike the tools of the fiends and dragons, the giants relied on scientific principles (albeit arcane science) and as such there’s more that can be learned from their tools and their spells than those of the elder civilizations. However, as noted earlier, this doesn’t mean that it’s a simple matter to simply duplicate a Cul’sir technique or tool; there’s still a vast amount that modern sages have yet to unravel, and there’s a common belief that they may have used some form of dragonshard—either artificially created, or something naturally occurring that has been lost in the intervening millennia—that has yet to be identified. Nonetheless, the ruins of the giants can provide inspiration for modern artificers and wizards… and their artifacts and relics are more plentiful than those of the Age of Demons.
If you support my Patreon, this article goes into detail about the ancient nations of Sarlona. For the most part, these nations used techniques that are considered primitive today, but they had their own strengths. Here’s a quick overview.
Corvagura was dominated by two lines of sorcerers. The House of the Sun had Thelanian ties and was tied to Wild Magic, fire, and enchantment; the House of the Moon produced Shadow sorcerers who worked with necromancy, though they didn’t animate the dead. Corvagurans relied on innate sorcerous talent rather than understanding the science behind their powers, but it’s possible there are relics in the ruins of Corvagura that can enhance the powers of modern sorcerers.
Ohr Kaluun was dominated by Shadow Lords, who harnessed the powers of Kythri, Mabar, and Xoriat. Thanks to the influence of Kythri, they made countless breakthroughs in arcane science but would rarely maintain or preserve these techniques; thus Kaluunite wizards wielded astonishing powers but rarely passed their knowledge on to future generations. As such, the war mazes of Ohr Kaluun are a possible place to new spells or relics that could potentially be duplicated… but its possible that there’s good reason those relics and secrets were buried.
Khunan developed a strong arcane tradition based in the principles of Externalist magic, drawing on the power of the planes—influence that’s especially strong in that region, because of the wild zones of Sarlona. The Khunan refugees who fled the Sundering discovered that their techniques didn’t work on Khorvaire, and lacked the resources to build a new path to power. However, the ancient wizards accomplished great things, and there may yet be those in Syrkarn who still use their ancient knowledge… Or who have found specific places in Khorvaire where the ancient spells still work.
The very existence of the Qabalrin is something hotly contested by modern scholars. Many suggest that the very idea of the Qabalrin—an isolated city-state of elves wielding such vast arcane power that they were feared by the Cul’sir Dominion—is a ludicrous myth, at odds with the proven existence of elf slaves and wild tribes. And if these mighty elves existed, why didn’t they leave a greater mark on the world? Others point to elements of this civilization that have persisted in Aerenal—the calendar known as the “Qabalrin Wheel”, certain techniques used by the line of Vol. The primary source on the Qabalrin is the Ouralon Fragments, a set of damaged Cul’sir spellshards. The Fragments include the following details…
The god Ouralon came to the giants and taught them the secrets of arcane lore.
While the giants stood in Ouralon’s light, his shadow fell across a city of elves. They embraced the Shadow and it taught them vile secrets.
These Qabalrin blotted out the sun above them so that their city would always lie in shadow. Rather than expanding out, they delved down into Khyber.
The Qabalrin practiced dangerous magics forbidden by Ouralon. They broke the laws of life and death and trafficked with fiends. Giant and elf alike feared their magic, but none had the strength to challenge them in battle.
Finally Ouralon himself decided to destroy them. He ripped the heart of Siberys from the Progenitor’s corpse and hurled it at the city of the Qabalrin, utterly destroying the evil elves.
Part of the point of the Qabalrin is that they are essentially unknown—so it’s up to the DM to decide the absolute truth of the legends. Were they an independent civilization that evolved over the course of tens of thousands of years, which would disprove the idea that the elves were created after the Cul’sir Dominion sacked Shae Tirias Tolai? Or might the heart of their great city have been another stranded feyspire, perhaps one that chose to anchor itself to the material plane?
The concrete facts are that the Qabalrin were an isolated nation of elves located in the region of Stormreach now known as the Ring of Storms. They are said to have bargained with the Shadow (which could have been an overlord like Sul Khatesh), and the Qabalrin faction known as the Unspoken had extensive dealings with both native fiends and the denizens of the planes. A second faction, the Shapers of Night, worked with the powers of Mabar to unlock the secrets of necromancy, creating the first vampires. These two factions were rivals; the Unspoken considered the first vampires to be an unforgivable corruption of the elven spirit. Long feuds finally ending in open conflict. The Unspoken sealed the vampire lords of the Shapers of Night in prison tombs… but as they celebrated their victory, the sky began to fall. An early rain of Siberys shards devastated the city, culminating with a massive shard that devastated the region and utterly destroyed the Qabalrin. Before the end, the Unspoken performed an epic ritual that drew the spirits of the Qabalrin from their bodies, binding them together in a well of power not unlike the Silver Flame (on a far smaller scale). This power is the Umbra, the force harnessed by the Umbragen drow.
The upshot of this is that the Qabalrin were almost entirely destroyed, and that the greatest minds among them were either imprisoned in the depths or drawn into the Umbra—so those few who did survive the devastation and fled their home weren’t masters of their society’s great powers. So while it is the case that the Line of Vol had Qabalrin roots, those “roots” were tied to a handful of refugees who had likely been children or servants; the techniques they passed down were the simplest and most basic techniques. With that being said, the first vampires of the Qabalrin are still buried in the Ring of Storms, and one possibility—suggested in some canon sources—is that one or more of these ancient vampires could have been released, and could be influencing or assisting Lady Illmarrow, House Thuranni, or some other force.
In terms of magic, the Shapers of Night were the greatest mortal necromancers ever known. Beyond the initial guidance they received from “the Shadow,” they harnessed the power of Mabar in ways that no-one has managed since, and forged alliances with the dark power known as the Bone King. They crafted eldritch machines, spires that drew the power of Mabar directly into Eberron, draining the life from vast swaths of the Ring of Storms and sacrificing thousands of their own people in their question to master undeath. It is these acts that turned their own against them, and that ultimately resulted in their defeat at the hands of the Unspoken. It’s worth noting that they are primarily celebrated for creating the first VAMPIRES; it’s entirely possible that liches were a later innovation that the line of Vol developed tens of thousands of years later (though it’s also worth noting that the overlord Katashka created the first dracoliches during the Age of Demons)… and possible that the first oathbound (mummies) were actually the product of, say, Ohr Kaluun, meaning that the modern Blood of Vol reflects a blend of many traditions. Likewise, the Qabalrin created the FIRST vampires, but that doesn’t mean that all vampires are tied to the Qabalrin; they were simply the first to do it, but different strains of vampire were created at later times across the world, each with their own particular traits. Nonetheless, the Shapers of Night could be the source of epic necromantic rituals and artifacts, along with magic items that drain life, channel the power of Mabar, or command undead.
The Unspoken were peerless conjurers and abjurers, known for their bargains with fiends and powerful spirits. Their numbers may have included warlocks as well as wizards, but largely they bargained with dark forces as equals as opposed to pledging their services. Their artifacts and relics could be tied to summoning or binding spirits, such as the iron flask, or tied to planar travel, such as dream of the blue veil. Adventurers could encounter spirits bound by the Unspoken, or mighty beings who dealt with them in the distant past. A Qabalrin journal might include secrets about one of the Lords of Dust that could be invaluable to those fighting them. beyond this, the Unspoken still linger in the force known as the Umbra—though this is a gestalt entity, and it’s questionable if the spirits within it still possess any sense of individual identity.
Aerenal, the dwarf nation of Sol Udar, the Eternal Dominion of the Sahuagin, and the Empire of Dhakaan are all described in more detail in Exploring Eberron. The next article will explore a number of “primitive” techniques that rose in Khorvaire and are still practiced in places. There are far more—the Umbragen drow, for example—but this is all I have time to cover in this article.
Now that we’ve explored the nature of magic and the advantages of the modern style, the next article will look at the specific evolution of arcane science in Khorvaire, including the role of the Dragonmarked Houses, the Arcane Congress, and traditions that were abandoned over the passage of time. Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters, who are the only reason I can afford to spend time writing these articles! In addition, starting in January I’ll be running the first session of my Threshold campaign for Patreon supporters, so if that’s something that’s interesting, check it out!
It’s the last hours of 2020 as I post this, and I do just want to thank all of you for making this a wonderful year for Eberron. It brings me joy to see people building their own adventures within the world, and the ongoing support for Exploring Eberron and for my Patreon—which allows me to spend time on this website—means the world to me. So thanks to you all, and I hope 2021 will bring even more adventures (and, I hope, happier times) for all of us.
Happy holidays! Here’s the latest news from KB Presents.
2020 has been a wild ride for KB Presents and we’re excited for things to come!
In July, we released Exploring Eberron, a 247-page book that gave Eberron creator and designer Keith Baker the freedom to write about topics he never had the opportunity before. As extensive as the book is, there is so much more to explore! While working on Exploring Eberron, we were also looking towards the future. An outline for a new book, codenamed FOES, was discussed. In August, we began development work on a project codenamed Fool’s Gold—a PDF product that was planned as the next release. Thomas Bourdon worked on the cover and development began in earnest.
However, inspiration is tricky and you never know when it might strike!
The first idea wasEberron Confidential—a book of character secrets inspired by Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden that inserted itself into the production cycle. It launched in November 2020 and is now our second Eberron product on digital shelves.
The second idea was Threshold. For years, Keith has run Eberron campaigns set in the jungles of Q’barra. Fans have expressed great interest in this fantasy western approach. In September, we began development on an adventure, codenamed Hunger, that drew on the same principles—but set on the actual western frontier border between Breland and Droaam. Hunger is intended as an ideal starter campaign for new players to the setting. As Project: Hunger grew, Keith decided to run an online campaign in this region, focusing on the town of Threshold. The game will be played with a shifting cast of players drawn from his Patreon supporters. While Project: Hunger is not the focus of this announcement, more information will be forthcoming in 2021.
Which brings us to the announcement! We are proud to reveal Frontiers of Eberron: Threshold, a sourcebook that will provide everything you need to run your own campaign and adventures in the exciting Breland-Droaam border region. In addition to a full chapter focused on the town of Threshold and its denizens, this book will contain expanded locations, power groups, adventures hooks, and monsters that can be found on the frontier, along with a host of character options. It will be available both in PDF and print when it is launched on Dungeon Masters Guild in 2021!
Frontiers of Eberron: Threshold (Project: FRAG) is designed by Keith Baker, supported by the talents of Will Brolley, Laura Hirsbrunner, and Wayne Chang, along with an expanded group of playtesters. In the coming months, we will continue to tease and preview as we always have. You can even get a sneak peek at Threshold by joining Keith’s Patreon.
What about Project: Fool’s Gold? It’s still in development and on the production slate. In fact, we have significantly expanded the scope of Project: Fool’s Gold—now Project: Fool’s Platinum—and it’s scheduled for an early 2022 release.
There are exciting times ahead! Stay tuned and we’ll see you on the frontier!