Phoenix Friday: Manifestations of The Dread

It’s Phoenix Friday! If you haven’t seen it yet, check out our new website for Phoenix: Dawn Command. We’ve just submitted the test run of our first Phoenix expansion – we’ll have more news on that soon.  Meanwhile, I’d like to take a moment to talk about the force that threatens the world of Phoenix… The Dread. 

The Dread began slowly. Over the course of months, stories began circulating around the Empire. People murmured of savage beasts attacking travelers on the road, and caravans disappearing. There were reports of sudden plagues and strange weather. But these tales weren’t taken too seriously…until 591 IC, when the Bone Legion sacked the city of Westergate and began its inexorable march along the Summer Shore. Without the Phoenixes, news traveled slowly across the Empire. By the time the Emperor heard about the fall of Westergate, there was another, closer catastrophe: The town of Dulacia had fallen to the Chant, a form of infectious madness. It was at this point that the enemy was given a name. The Emperor assured the people that the Dread now gripping the Empire would not last, that order would soon be restored.

Thus began three years of escalating terror. The Imperial Army has done its best, but mortals cannot face these threats. The Army has been powerless to stop the advance of the Bones along the Summer Shore. When a town falls to the Chant, all anyone can do is ensure the curse spreads no further. Fortified cities provide shelter against many threats, and refugees have flooded the largest cities…but many manifestations of the Dread can strike anywhere. The Emperor has done his best to give the people hope, but in truth, there’s little he can do…and in their hearts, the people know it.

The most critical point in understanding this threat is that The Dread is a name the people have given to this wave of horrors. It gives the sense that they are facing a single foe that could potentially be engaged. But the Dread is anything but monolithic. Is the Chant related to the Bones? Do either of them have anything to do with the reports of Fallen activity in the north, or skinchangers in the Grimwald? No one knows. While missions in Phoenix often involve battling some manifestation of the Dread, investigation is equally important; the long-term goal is to unravel the mystery, not simply to kill a few monsters. The Chant is a contagious curse: someone starts chanting and attacking the people around them. Suddenly others are chanting and fighting. Within hours it can engulf a city. But… how does it spread? Are mortals afflicted when they touch chanters, or is just hearing them enough to spread the curse? Is there a way to cure those afflicted without killing them? Beyond that, how and why does it begin… and what does it have to do with the Bones, or other major manifestations? If you encounter a Chant outbreak in a village, containing it is a start… but uncovering the answers to these questions is the real challenge.

What does this mean for Players?

You become a Phoenix by dying, making your way through the Crucible, and returning to fight the Dread. In thinking about how you died and what drove you to come back, consider if you encountered the Dread — and if it was the Dread that killed you. What manifestation did you encounter? Was it your first interaction with the Dread, or had you dealt with other aspects of it? How will you react if you encounter it again? If you were killed during a Chant outbreak, are you terrified of the Chant, or are you determined to find a cure? And as you face the Dread in play, think about how your character conceives of it. Do you believe the Dread is a single force that can be fought, or do you think it’s the end of days? Are you shaken by the things you’ve seen, or does it just fuel your conviction to somehow bring an end to it?

What does it mean for GMs?

Whether you’re developing your own stories or using the mission arc in the basic set, keep the scope of the Dread in mind. The Bones and the Chant are major threats. But the Dread manifests in hundreds of lesser ways, and part of what’s terrifying about it is that no one knows where it will manifest or what form it will take. It’s as if nightmares are bleeding through into the world. Not every manifestation is deadly or even dangerous. But they are happening with increasing frequency and that is part of the fear that grips the Empire: dealing with a seemingly endless parade of terrors, never knowing what will come next.

Lesser Manifestations of the Dread

The Chant, the Bones, the Fallen Folk — these are major manifestations that can threaten cities. But not every face of the Dread is so epic in scope. Here’s a list of a few lesser manifestation of the Dread. If you’re a marshal, this might give you some ideas to add color to a scene or an interlude; if you’re a player, perhaps one of these could fit into your backstory.

  • Unnatural Weather. It’s summer, and the Phoenixes are approaching a village in one of the green valleys of Ilona when the snow begins to fall. The chill could soon prove deadly to mortals… and are there strange shapes out there, obscured by the fallen snow? Whether it’s a freak blizzard, rain of blood, a fog that won’t lift, unnatural heat or devastating storms, the Dread can create any sort of localized weather you can imagine.
  • Blighted Crops. An unnatural blizzard could ruin crops, posing a threat of famine and ensuing panic and chaos. Plants could grow, but in unusual forms. What will happen if anyone (human or animal) eats this strange fruit? Crops could appear normal, but be tainted and cause hallucinations in those who come into contact with them… or simply become incredibly toxic. Or perhaps the fruit of a plant bleeds when you cut or bite into it, and the plants scream in pain when cut.
  • Afflicted Animals. The Dread can turn wild beasts into monsters, transforming them into fearsome and unnatural forms. Animals – even herbivores – could begin craving blood or meat. Animals could be warped in ways that don’t make them a threat, but simply disturbing: loss of all hair; twisted limbs; animals with no eyes, who somehow still seem to be able to see; strange coloration; beasts that speak or sing in a language no one knows, but that don’t respond to attempts at communication. Maggots could spontaneously manifest, or hordes of vermin or insects could be inexplicably drawn to locations. Non-migratory animals could nonetheless migrate in large numbers. Phoenixes could come upon hundreds of dead animals of a particular species, all of which apparently dropped dead in an instant. What does it mean?
  • The Dead Rise. The Bones are the corpses of warriors who have risen to continue the battles they fought in life. The Bone Legion in the south is the most visible manifestation, but Bones can rise anywhere there’s been great violence. Bones don’t have to be human; the core set includes the Carrion Birds, and you could easily have other animals. These things are challenges to be fought, but death can be broken in ways that are eerie as opposed to deadly. Imaging a pack of ghostly wolves – entirely insubstantial – that stalk travelers but can’t actually touch or be touched by them. Ghosts of lost loved ones could dog the steps of a Phoenix, or you might have a town where such spirits haunt the inhabitants… or perhaps they just scream and wail. Phoenixes might come upon a farm whose inhabitants were killed by a plague… but their corpses continue their daily tasks, mechanically going through the motions. On a less direct level, strange footprints or handprints could appear with no explanation. Menacing graffiti could appear on walls. The haunting spirits could be known to the locals, or they could be from a distant past and be angry about the strangers in their homes.
  • Mass HysteriaEven without supernatural influence, people are terrified of the Dread. This is exacerbated by the fact that many people have been driven from their homes. There is panic, scarcity of resources, anger and suspicion that turns people against one another. Add the unnatural influence of the Dread to the mix, and things get worse. People could be haunted by terrible nightmares — threatening visions of a possible future, images of betrayal by friends or neighbors, or bizarre dreams depicting alien worlds. Large groups could be afflicted with collective amnesia… or perhaps their bodies are seized by hostile spirits for brief periods, and they can’t remember what happened while they were possessed. Groups could be gripped by burning anger, crippling despair, or deep ennui. People could find themselves speaking in languages they don’t understand, suddenly unable to communicate with one another. Can the Phoenixes calm those afflicted? Is this the work of spirits that can be exorcised, or something else?
  • Breaking Natural Laws. Be it on a small or large scale, the Dread can simply break the way the world works. Reflections or shadows threaten those who cast them. In a particular body of water, nothing will float. In a particular region, wounds won’t close… or perhaps people die, but their bodies won’t rot. Glass dissolves into sand. Water turns into acid. There’s a smell of rot in the air, though there’s no source. When people breathe, the exhale smoke or foul odors. Combustion won’t occur in a village; candles and hearths alike are cold, casting the people into darkness.

These things may not have a direct effect on the action of the game. They aren’t as dramatic as a pack of hungry Skinchangers or the arrival of the Harvester of Fear. But details like these can add interesting flavor to a scene, and emphasize the fact that the Dread is entirely unpredictable… you never know what’s going to happen next, and we don’t know why all these things are happening now.

if you have questions about Phoenix or the Dread — or favorite supernatural disturbances of your own — add them in the comments!

Dragonmarks: Origin Stories

Recently I made a post about developing origin stories for my new RPG Phoenix: Dawn CommandIn Phoenix, the PCs aren’t casual adventurers; their world is facing a mysterious and terrible threat, and the narrative is about fighting that Dread and trying to unravel its mysteries. As such it’s vital for every character to establish what they are fighting for. Further, the protagonists of Phoenix have died and returned imbued with new skill and supernatural power, and the type of Phoenix you become is determined by the nature of your death and the lessons that you learned… so it’s important to think about who your character was before they became a hero, and exactly how they died.

In Phoenix, this is a cornerstone of the story that drives the campaign. In Eberron — or D&D in general — that’s not always the case. If you know you’re just doing a straight-up dungeon crawl, it may be that the only thing that really matters is your statistics. But even so, what I love about RPGs — as player or GM — is the fact that we’re building a story together. And I want my character to be someone whose story I’d like to know. I could be a 1st level human fighter — done. Or I could be a dragonmarked heir who broke ties with his house to fight for Cyre, because he truly believed their cause was just and the Sovereigns were on their side. Now the war is over, and the Mourning shattered his faith and destroyed everything he loved. Will he try to get back into his house? Will he seek out Prince Oargev and fight on behalf of the Cyran people? Will he find his faith again in a divine revelation, and take levels of paladin or cleric? Will he be approached by the Twelve to become part of a secret group of excoriates doing deniable missions for the houses, or uncover a Quori infestation that’s taken over his old family? I don’t know. But I’d love to see any of those stories play out. And even if we DO just go on a few dungeon crawls, I still feel like this is a character and not just a set of numbers.

If I want a campaign with a clear focus, I’ll often talk to the players and encourage them to come up with a shared character concept that gives them a clear connection from the start and defines the direction of the campaign. Perhaps they’re all members of the Boromar Clan. Or they’re all agents of the Royal Eyes. Or they’re a Valenar warband. Or they all fought for Cyre in the Last War. Or they own an airship. Everyone understands the core story — “We’re all secret agents” — and they should come up with a concept that fits that.

But sometimes it’s more fun to have everyone come up with a unique character that doesn’t have any pre-existing connection and to have the campaign be what brings them together, and that’s what I’d like to explore now… when you’re making a character on your own, but want to develop a compelling story.

Eberron gives a number of handles for you to latch on to. The Last War is one of the easy ones. The war only ended two years ago. If you have the skills of a player character, you’re a capable person… so did you fight in the war? If so, who did you fight for? What did you do? How do you feel about the outcome? If you didn’t fight in the war, why not? What did you do instead? Did you oppose the war or simply find a different path? Personally, I often choose Cyre as a nation for my PCs because the concept of having lost everything is a strong foundation for why a person would become an adventurer. They have no home to return to; everything they once had is gone. So why not seek their fortune in an unconventional manner? On the other hand, there’s ways to do this with any nation. Consider…

  • I fought for Karrnath during the last War. But I’m a follower of the Blood of Vol, and King Kaius betrayed us. Now my friends and family are pariahs in my homeland. I’m equally angry at Kaius for turning on us and on the Order of the Emerald Claw for taking actions that turn the world against us… and if I every have the chance, I’ll make sure that both Kaius and the Emerald Claw pay for what they’ve done.
  • I fought for Thrane during the Last War, as a paladin of the Silver Flame. I love my home and my family, but far too often my duties as a soldier seemed to be at odds with what the Voice of the Flame tells me is right.  I fear that ruling Thrane distracts the Church from its true mission and invites corruption, and I want to protect the innocent – all innocents – from supernatural evil, not serve the cause of one nation over others. So I have struck out on my own, following the Flame as I hear it.
  • I fought for Aundair in the Last War, as youngest son of a noble family of wizards. My parents urged me to stay in the army; there can be no true justice in the world until Galifar is restored. But I know that I will never reach my potential studying with military preceptors. Beyond that, I feel that if Aundair is to triumph in the next war, it needs more than just well-trained wizards. It needs to unravel the mystery of the Mourning. It needs to learn the epic magics of the giants and the dragons. I have left my nation in pursuit of power, but it is always a part of me and I will return.
  • I fought for Breland during the Last War. I’m proud of what I did, but I was looking forward to coming home and hanging up my sword for good. Instead I returned to find my family and friends (being extorted by the corrupt watch/murdered by Daask/squeezed by the Twelve/consumed by a Cult of the Dragon Below/haunted by an ancient curse). I may not serve the crown any more, but it looks like my war has just begun.

When developing a character on your own, it’s important to remember that you will be part of a group. So however powerful and compelling your personal story is, it has to be something that can accommodate other stories. If your backstory is I must get to Thronehold to stop the second Mourning, it’s hard to explain why you’d take a break from that quest to help a friend or investigate a murder. While with the examples above, the goals are long-term as opposed to being urgent. The Karrn generally hates Kaius and the Order of the Emerald Claw, which gives the DM two hooks they could use… but he doesn’t have a specific Emerald Claw plot he has to deal with RIGHT NOW. The Aundairian wants to uncover magical secrets, so any story that could justifiably include an opportunity to learn something new will be of interest… and if nothing like that shows up, there’s no reason she can’t do something else while waiting for the next opportunity. You want a backstory that can add a sense of depth to any situation — not one that’s entirely reliant on the whole group embracing your personal story.

The Last War is one easy source of character hooks. The Dragonmarked Houses are another. Here’s a few ideas off the top of my head:

  • You’re a dragonmarked heir working as an agent of your house. You have a patron in the house who may offer you advice or assignments.
  • You’re an excoriate unjustly banished from your house and you want to find a way to clear your name.
  • Your parents were excoriates. As a foundling, you have to decide if you want to return to the house… and is there a mystery to solve or a feud to settle involving your parents’ excoriation?
  • Your parents were remarkable artificers who made a breakthrough and then were mysteriously killed/vanished/were ruined. You believe House Cannith was responsible and have sworn to take vengeance on the house. Are you correct? Or might you uncover some deeper truth as the campaign goes on? This same premise could be translated to any house; just change the occupation to match the house’s sphere.

In the recent Phoenix post I presented a number of more exotic backstories. Even these can be adapted to Eberron if you use some imagination.

  • The Ship’s Cat is the idea of an unnaturally talented child. Personally, I am a strong advocate of changing the flavor of mechanical elements to fit the needs of a story. In this example, I’d be open to the idea of letting the player use the mechanical statistics of a halfling, even though for other purposes (including Dragonmarks) we’d consider the character to be human.
  • The Adventuring Archaeologist doesn’t require any unusual mechanics, but it is also about the story… the idea that the character is driven to uncover some of the secrets of the world. In this case, I’d advise picking a mystery that’s big enough that it doesn’t have to be solved all at once. For example, you could be intrigued by planar incursions, wanting to investigate the Xoriat incursion that destroyed the Empire of Dhakaan; the Quori-Giant Conflict; and along the way, perhaps you will discover evidence of previously unknown planar incursions, either something that happened in the past or an incursion that’s about to happen. Or perhaps you want to uncover magical secrets, looking for forgotten lore of the Culsir, the Qabalrin, or even the dragons themselves.
  • The Old Soldier is a concept closely tied to Phoenix: a hero of a previous age who has returned to accomplish a task in the present day. But there’s a few ways to explore the same idea in Eberron. The article Dolurrh’s Dawn presents an entire village of reincarnated legends. You could be a creation of Mordain the Fleshweaver or House Vadalis — you have the appearance of the legend, but are you truly the hero reborn or are you some sort of trick? Alternately, the Watchful Rest is a sect that maintains that Aureon and the Keeper preserve great souls from Dolurrh so they can be reborn when needed… could this be your story? Obviously it may be odd if you’re starting at a low level when you were once a hero… but this can still be justified as your full memories not having been instantly restored.
  • The Bad Dog is a bigger challenge. Equipment isn’t important in Phoenix, so the idea of playing a talking dog doesn’t create as many challenges as it does in D&D. With that said, you could certainly play an animal reincarnated into human form. The question then is who performed the spell. Were you the companion of a lone druid, who may have died themselves? Or do you have a connection to one of the druidic sects? Like playing a warforged, an animal reincarnated into human form is an interesting opportunity to explore what it means to be human.

I have a lot of fun building backgrounds with my players for their characters, and I always try to encourage them to develop a story or even run through character background quizzes if they are stuck.

Presenting concrete questions is a good way to help players who don’t know where to begin. Phoenix has a list of basic questions people answer as part of character generation. When I do one-shots, I often present people with multiple-choice questionnaires to give them a quick jump into the world; you can see an example of this in this set of pregens for Phoenix.

Recently I have started a roleplay exercise where in between sessions we will ask background questions that may not come up in game, but help shape the character. The goblin PC might hail from Darguun, but how does he feel that his parents were Cyran? The old orc Gatekeeper lived a full life before he ever left the Marches, so does he see his children or have they grown into adventurers of their own?

This is an excellent approach. When a campaign just begins, people don’t know who their characters are, and trying to nail down this level of detail is simply going to be overwhelming. But as the players become more familiar with their characters, it can be be a lot of fun to explore further during downtime. In Phoenix we encourage players to talk about what happens between missions – Interludes – during these “offline” times.

Do you have any suggestions for characters from lands outside of the Five Nations such as Xen’drik natives coming to Khorvaire, or ways for a Seren to get pulled into the Last War?

It’s a pretty broad question – “Xen’drik natives” covers a lot of ground. But focusing on the Seren, with answers that could apply to some Xen’drik backgrounds…

  • Following a personal divine vision
  • Sent by tribal leader/mystic/dragon to accomplish a quest
  • Driven by insatiable curiosity; you want to see the entire world.
  • Exiled from your tribe for a crime (was this justified, or are they innocent?)
  • Seeking vengeance on foreigner who came to your land and did something terrible; realizes it will take a long time to find this person and to gain the power/allies needed to defeat them, but starting that journey.
  • Same as above, but consider that “a foreigner” could be “a Dragonmarked house” – you’re going to bring down an organization that has done you wrong (better match for Xen’drik than Seren, but still).
  • A foreigner lived among your people. Depending on race, they could have been one of your parents, or could have been your mentor or best friend. Following your death you have traveled to their land to find the truth to their stories/finish the quest they never completed/avenge them/carry out their dying wish.

I used a variation of that last one with the Ghaash’kala half-orc paladin I played in the last 5E Eberron campaign I was in; my father was a paladin from Thrane who came to the Demon Wastes & lived among the Ghaash’kala, dying long before I ever knew him; in the campaign, I was dispatched to the green lands with my father’s sword with a specific mission (protect one of the other PCs, a mysterious reincarnation of Jaela Daeran – long story) but I personally wanted to learn more about my father and why he’d left his homeland.

As for what could draw them into the Last War? Mercenary work. Friendship — fighting to protect their best friend, even though they know nothing of the politics of the war. A vendetta against an enemy commander; they don’t care about the war, they were just hoping to get close enough to kill the commander. Testing the skills of these foreign soldiers, while honing their own.

If you have any questions — or if you’d like to share your own favorite origin story — post them below!

Phoenix Friday: New Website!

It’s Phoenix Friday, and to celebrate we’re unveiling our new website for Phoenix: Dawn Command. In addition to providing a portal to purchase the game, this will be our nexus for information and support, including downloads and videos. Please take a look and share it with anyone who might be interested!

This is a major milestone for me and for Twogether Studios. We’re a small company and Phoenix is our first product, but we’ve got big plans for what we want to do for Phoenix. I’m currently working on a new mission arc, and we’ve got a number of things in development — including an easy solution for groups that want to play with five or six players. With that said, the more people who know about Phoenix, the more we’ll be able to do for it. If you’ve played it and enjoy it, please help spread the word. If you haven’t played it and you have questions, ask in the comments below. And if you’re planning to run Phoenix at a convention, let me know so Twogether Studios can send you some swag!

Thanks to everyone who’s joined me on the journey to this point. Join me next Friday as I delve deeper into the mystery of the Dread!

 

Phoenix Friday: Origin Stories

Welcome to the second installment of Phoenix Friday! Every week in June I’m going to be posting material for my new RPG, Phoenix: Dawn Command. Phoenix is now available for sale, either from Amazon or directly from me through Twogetherstudios.com. If you have any questions about Phoenix, please post them in the comments below. If you’d like to see Phoenix in play, you can check out the livestream PDC game on the Saving Throw network — the final episode of Season Two will be streaming Saturday, Jun 10th at 12:30 PM Pacific Time! 

Phoenix: Dawn Command is a war story. Your world is under attack by a host of supernatural terrors. The dead prey upon the living. Ghosts howl with the wind. Skinchangers and stranger beasts lurk in the wilds. Entire cities have been lost to a chant that turns those who hear it into killers. As the game begins, we know we are at war with the Dread, but we know almost nothing about it. Why are these things happening? How are they related to one another? Can they be stopped, and if so how?

As a Phoenix, your character is someone who died and was given the chance to return to life with the power to fight the Dread. But that power didn’t come easily; you went through spiritual and physical trials to earn the right to return as a Phoenix. So when you are making a character, there are questions we want to answer.

  • Who were you in your first life? How did you die, and how long were you in the Crucible before you were reborn as a Phoenix?
  • What are you fighting for? What gave you the strength to overcome the trials of the Crucible?
  • What do you have left in the world? Do you have relatives or descendants? The town you grew up in, or failing that, a homeland? What do you care about?

In some RPGs, these things don’t really matter. But Phoenix is a game where you may be called upon to lay down your life — more than once — for the things you care about, and it’s going to be a much more satisfying experience if you actually care about something. With that said, this is a tall order to drop on a beginning player who knows nothing about the setting. What concepts are even possible? Where could they be from?

If you want a quick start, you can download a wing of pregenerated characters from the Twogether Studios website. Meanwhile, here’s a set of backgrounds that explore some of the more exotic possibilities of the setting. As a Phoenix, you might have been a child; a former Emperor; or even a very bad dog. These ideas are intended to be inspiration — showing what’s possible within the setting. If one of your players would like to play one of these characters, that’s great. But they could also take a piece of the idea and change it. Perhaps they like the Old Soldier, but they want to have fought alongside the Phoenixes in the Civil War instead of having opposed them. Or they like the basic concept of the Ship’s Cat, but want to be Bitter instead of Forceful. That’s great! The goal of these pieces is to give you an idea of what’s possible; what you do with them is entirely up to you. And if you don’t use any of these ideas, you might want to use them as members of the Rival Wing, as described on page 145 of Guidelines for the Newly Inducted Marshal

 

THE SHIP’S CAT: FORCEFUL

What’s over there?”

To be clear: you weren’t an actual cat. But you were born on a ship. Your people — the Wynderi — are the best sailors in the known world. Your family believe that the land first rose from the water, and that some day the waters will rise and reclaim the land. As a result, they sought to spend as much time on the open water as possible, and you almost never set foot on solid land. They called you the Ship’s Cat because you were small and endlessly curious. You were always climbing in the rigging and looking for new things on the horizon, and whenever you encountered another ship you’d sneak aboard and poke around. As it turned out, your parents’ conviction that it was safe on the water was misplaced. One day you were beset by fog. A new ship closed with you, and you naturally boarded and began to poke around. You were surprised by the rotting wood and torn sails, and too late you realized that it was a ghost ship crewed by corpses. The ghostly sailors pursued you, and you tried to get to the rigging and make it back to your ship, but you weren’t quite fast enough; the moldy ropes slipped through your fingers, and you’ve blocked out the details of what happened next. But instead of dying, you found yourself in the Crucible, with the promise of endless adventures ahead. Your optimism and your curiosity carried you through the trials, and now you’re back in the world and faster than ever. You’re on a grand adventure, and you’re going to stop the Dread and save the world.

You died as a child, and while you spent what seemed like years in the Crucible, you still maintain the essential optimism, curiosity and enthusiasm that you had in your first life. You spent your life on a boat, and now you’re getting to explore the entire world! However grim and horrifying a situation is, you’re always looking at the bright side of it. You’ve never seen a swamp before! Or a hungry ghost! What’s it going to do? Why? You want to help people — you’re a hero, and that’s exciting — but you also are just thrilled to be out in the world and on an amazing adventure.

  • You’ve blocked out exactly what happened when you died. You don’t actually remember if your family escaped or if they were killed by the ghost ship. Your life is full of new adventures and there’s a lot of distractions and things you have to deal with right now. Are you excited when you see Wynderi? Do you want to find out if your family are OK? Or are you intentionally trying to ignore the Wynderi to avoid thinking about your family?
  • Everything is new to you. You’ve never been in a big city or a forest. You’ve never fought a werewolf. It’s all extremely exciting. You generally look for the best in everything, as reflected by the Never Gives Up suggested Trait… but at the same time, you’re not an idiot and you’re not going to try to hug a zombie. Probably.
  • As a Forceful, your greatest strength is your speed and mobility. You hate to stand still, and you’re always looking for the next interesting thing. You want to be a hero, so try not to cause too much trouble for the rest of the wing with this — but what happens if you poke that thing over there?  

Suggested Traits: Crude But Effective, Small & Quick, Never Gives Up, Untouchable

 

ADVENTURING ARCHAEOLOGIST: SHROUDED

“That belongs in a museum!”

You’re one of the Shadovar. Your people were driven from their homeland centuries ago, before the first Phoenixes formed the Empire, and today they are nomads who travel from place to place. Superstitious people accused the Shadovar of being necromancers who traffic with the spirits of the dead, and there is some truth to this; there are skilled mediums among your people. But this is simply because you choose to honor the dead, because if you preserve the memory of those who have come before you, they never truly die. For you, this principle applies to the past as a whole. You’re intrigued by the heroes of the Empire — both the Phoenixes who founded it and the humans who took it from them. You’re equally fascinated by the cultures that existed before the Empire. And most of all, you’re fascinated by the Old Kingdoms — civilizations so old that we don’t even know if their people were even human. There are a only a handful of ruins and relics of Old Kingdoms still in existence, and they are often imbued with tremendous magical power. You believe it’s possible that the Imperial Flame itself — the force that empowers all Phoenixes — could be a relic of the Old Kingdoms. You love exploring these mysteries. And the Dread is the greatest mystery of all! It began three years ago… what caused it? How are the various manifestations of the Dread related? Is there a purpose to the Dread beyond simply destruction?

You died pursuing these questions, and you refused to remain dead while this mystery threatens to destroy all that you love. You were a great scholar in your first life, and you used your time in the Crucible to hone your skills even further. If you use the suggested Traits, Seen This Before and Brilliant Deduction may reflect your experiences in your first life, but it could also tie to your extensive training in the Crucible. You may not have actually seen this before, but you read an account of it in the endless library in your Crucible; and your brilliant deductions about the Dread may be tied to your extensive research between lives.

  • Your primary concern is unraveling the mystery of the Dread — and in so doing, saving the entire Empire. With that said, superstitious people have always blamed the Shadovar for trouble, and in the present day there are many who think the Shadovar are tied to the Dread. Do you want to help the Shadovar, if you can?
  • Is your family still alive? The Shadovar are traveling people, so even if they are alive you have no idea where they might be right now. But are they important to you? If so, which living family member is most important to you?
  • You are fascinated by history. What period of history intrigues you the most: the golden age of the Empire? The time of the first Phoenixes? The first known human civilizations — the time before the Shadovar were driven from their homeland? Or the mysterious Old Kingdoms, about which almost nothing is known?
  • You died pursuing secrets. What was it you were trying to discover? Were you killed by a manifestation of the Dread — undead soldiers, a terrible curse — or did you die in a more mundane way?
  • As a Phoenix you will be fighting to protect people from the manifestations of the Dread. But you want to always be looking for answers. You’re never content just to stop a threat; you want to know why it happened and how it relates to the Dread as a whole. And meanwhile, keep an eye out for other interesting connections to history!

Suggested Traits: Brilliant Deduction, Makes It Look Easy, Seen This Before, Superhuman Reflexes

 

OLD SOLDIER: DURANT

“I built this Empire, and I won’t let it fall.”

Two centuries ago, a civil war split the Empire. The first Phoenixes had formed the Empire by conquest and forced its people to join together. While that may have served a greater good, in time the people grew weary of being ruled by immortal overlords. Humanist forces challenged the Phoenixes, and after a long and bitter war the Phoenixes stood down, turning control of the Empire over to humanity. The first Emperor was Mikan Dolanti of the Dol Talu — your family. You were a general in the civil war, and your military expertise helped usher in the golden age of humanity. You clung to life for as long as you could, and after your death you lingered in the Crucible… until you eventually felt the suffering of your people. You fought your way through the trials and now you have returned as a Phoenix yourself. But you will never be a tyrant. In your first life you saved the Empire from a supernatural threat; as a Phoenix, you’ll do it again.

You’re from Ilona, and as far as you’re concerned it embodies all that is good in the Empire. It’s a place of fertile fields and green valleys. Its cities are havens for culture and education. Ilona is sustained by the noble houses of the Talu, and your house — the Dol Talu — is the noblest of all. Almost two hundred years have passed since your death, and while you care deeply about the Empire, the modern world may be strange to you. Consider the following…

  • What was your exact position in your family? You served as a general in the war, but did you hold a high place after the war? One possibility to consider: you could actually be Mikan Dolanti, the first mortal emperor. It would be up to you to decide whether you announced that or kept it hidden; as a Phoenix, everything about your appearance (even gender) can change upon rebirth, so it wouldn’t necessarily be obvious that you were the first emperor.
  • Are you an idealist who truly cares about the entire Empire? Or are you primarily concerned with protecting your family — which includes the current Emperor?
  • You’ve been dead for two hundred years. Setting aside the Dread: Are you happy with the state of the modern world? Are you thrilled with everything your descendants have accomplished, or are you a curmudgeon who feels that everything was better in your day?
  • You fought against the first Phoenixes after they became tyrants. You are now part of Dawn Command, but in addition to saving the Empire from the Dread, you’ll want to make sure that these new Phoenixes don’t abuse their power.
  • You were a great military leader in your life. If you use the suggested Traits, this is what Noble and Commander reflect; you can give bonuses to your allies by offering strategic guidance.

Suggested Traits: Noble, Commander, Seasoned Veteran, Superhuman Strength

 

WARLOCK: ELEMENTAL

“Heed my words, spirits of the Dusk, and let your flames consume my enemies!”

You were born in a crumbling farm on the barren plains of Skavia. Your family was poor and struggled to survive, though in the distance you could see the great bastion city filled with the rich and powerful. When you were young, a mysterious masked figure stepped out of the shadows and told you that it could change your family’s lot and give them wealth and comfort… but you would have to perform a service in the future, with no questions asked. You agreed, and the very next day a messenger arrived. Your mother, it turned out, was heir to a fortune; you moved to the Bastion city and lived there in comfort. As you grew older you learned about the Fallen Folk, the enigmatic spirits that lingered in the shadows of your homeland. In the past, warlocks gained great power by bargaining with the Fallen. But the first Phoenixes banished the Fallen Folk when they established the Empire. By all accounts, the Fallen were just a myth, and any interaction with them forbidden. Needless to say, you were fascinated. You studied the legends and learned the basics of Duskcraft. Most of the spells you found no longer worked, as the Fallen were banished and bound in Dusk, but the potential was intriguing.

When the Dread began, you were fascinated and concerned. Before you could delve too deeply, your masked benefactor returned. It told you that it was time for you to make good on your promise. You were to leap to your death from the top of a high tower. But the Fallen Prince promised that you would not die; you would have the chance to be reborn, imbued with great power. You could use that power to fight the Dread, and to save the world… but in the process, you must help the Fallen Folk return to the Daylit World. Most Fallen aren’t evil, or so your benefactor says; they wish to be free from their prison, and to help your people once again. Your patron promised to protect your family from the Dread if you honored your arrangement; and it pledged to destroy both you and your family should you refuse. It was your duty to die, and so you did.

As an Elemental Phoenix, your powers are tied to your studies of Duskcraft. You learned about the art of fireshaping in your mortal life, but it is only as a Phoenix that the flames began answering your call. Your astonishing luck reflects minor Fallen helping you when you are in need, and your Charming trait reflects the beguiling power of the Fallen. All this power is a great gift that can help you protect those in need. But will you honor your pledge? As you fight the Dread, will you also seek to restore the Fallen and bring them back to the Daylit World?

  • Your bargain with the Fallen gave you the power you need to try to save your world. But how do you feel about it? Are you reluctantly going along with this because it’s what you need to do to protect your family? Are you excited about the idea of bringing back the Fallen Folk because of the power they could give you… do you hope to save the Empire so that you can rule it? Or are you hoping to find a way to renege on the deal and banish the Fallen you’ve been bargaining with?
  • What do you know about your Fallen patron? What does it look like? Sound like? Is this reflected in your Elemental powers at all? Are the flames you conjure normal flames, or are they an unusual color? Are they flames at all, or are you actually conjuring lesser Fallen spirits that attack your foes and then vanish? Is your patron a spirit known in popular stories, or has it hidden its identity from you?
  • Your Fallen patron is protecting your family, and has promised to destroy them if you betray the Fallen. How big is your family? Who’s your favorite relative, and why?
  • Skavi warlocks traditionally wore half-masks covering their lower faces. Do you wear such a mask? If so, what’s the design?

Suggested Traits:  Astonishing Luck, Charming, Master Plan, Warlock

 

BAD DOG: BITTER

“I’m going to chew you up and spit you out.”

Once upon a time, you were a good dog. You lived in the swampy Fens with a big family and you loved them very much. Then one day bad things came out of the water. They smelled rotten and sour, and though you bit them and fought them they crushed you and killed the people you loved. As you died you were consumed with anguish and loss… and filled with hatred for the things that killed your people. And somehow, that hatred carried you into the Crucible. Somehow you knew that if you fought long enough and hard enough you could return with the power to destroy the things that hurt your family. Finally you made your way through the big fire and into the world. Along the way you’ve learned many things. You’ve learned how to speak as people speak. You’ve learned that you have a new pack, or “wing” as they call it, that will help you take revenge. You aren’t going back to fight the specific things that killed your family — not yet — but you will hunt down these bad things wherever they appear and you will make them pay.

You’re a dog who has somehow returned as a Phoenix, something that’s never happened before. The Fens have stories of remarkable bond beasts, and perhaps such a creature was in your lineage. Nonetheless, here you are. Your intelligence has been enhanced in the process of becoming a Phoenix, and you are as smart as any human; you also have the power of speech. Your exact appearance is up to you — you could resemble a domestic hound, or you could be a enormous wolf with coal-black fur and burning eyes — but you are huge, strong, and you have a collar made from Pyrean steel; this is your talon, and marks you as a Phoenix. Your appearance is largely defined by the way you see yourself, and when you die and are reborn you could chose to be reborn in a humanoid form — whether as a werewolf-like hybrid, or in a purely human form. For now, you don’t have hands… but you don’t need weapons to fight, and your strength is sufficient to overwhelm most enemies.

  • The wing is your pack. Is it important to you to be the alpha? If not, you may want to pick a member of the wing who takes the place of your lost family for you… whatever else happens, you are fighting to protect that character.
  • You have intelligence on par with a human, but you’re not human. Many aspects of Imperial civilization make no sense to you, and you may interpret the actions of strangers in ways that fit the logic of a dog.  
  • Do you have the excited enthusiasm of a happy dog? Or are you entirely consumed by your quest for revenge on the Dread?
  • Do you want to be human (which could eventually lead to assuming a human form upon rebirth)? Or do you consider the canine form and life to be superior to that of humanity?

Suggested Traits: Hunter, Vengeful, Terrifying, Too Big To Fail

 

GODSPEAKER: DEVOTED

“Let the Merciful Mother ease your pain.”

You were born into the Myr Talu, one of the noble families of Empire — though admittedly, you’re one of the noble families of the Fens, so your people are princes of the backwater swamp. Nonetheless, you were born into wealth and luxury, and you lived as hedonistic a life as was possible in the Fens. You had a lot of good times. And then something unexpected happened. You were having a mushroom party with your friends — there’s a lot of mushrooms in the Fens — when a pack of twisted beasts came crawling out of the water. You’re not sure what came over you — something in the mushrooms, perhaps? — but you ordered your friends to run and charged the beasts yourself. You were torn apart, but you bought enough time for the others to reach the boat and escape. And instead of just dying, you found yourself in the Crucible… and you weren’t alone. Your ancestors founded the Myr Talu using the power of their House Gods — mighty spirits that bound themselves to your bloodline. The House Gods were banished to the Dusk in the first days of the Empire… but now you found yourself face to face with the gods of your people, and they told you that you have a destiny to fulfil. The Dread threatens to wipe out the Myr Talu and all the people of the Empire. They will not allow that to happen, and since they cannot return to the Daylit World, you must be their hand.

You’re not the smartest person in the room. But your gods can offer your guidance, and if you use the suggested Traits, this is what Extensive Training and Smartest Person In The Room represent; when you need to do something beyond your personal talents, you can draw on the Myr gods for inspiration. Beyond this, you can channel their power to inspire others; this is reflected by your Inspiring trait and by the Core Devoted Lesson that allows you to add your cards to the spreads of your allies. When you use this ability, call on one of your gods… “Merciful Mother, give my friend the strength she needs to survive this.” Existing Myr Gods include Myr, the Bringer of Fortune, chief goddess and general source of prosperity and wisdom; Taeloch, the Serpent in the Water, the aggressive bringer of justice; and Lassia, the Merciful Mother; but you can expand this pantheon if you have an idea for a particular god that can expand the pantheon. At the moment, the gods are imprisoned in the Dusk; while they have great potential power, at the moment they can only affect the world by acting through you.

  • What is your relationship with the gods? You were a slacker in your youth. Has this divine revelation inspired you and made you yearn to be the best person you can be? Or are you still somewhat reluctant, a hero only because the gods constantly drive you and demand that you be better than you are? Do you praise your gods, or do you consider them to be annoying aunts and uncles?
  • Do you have a special relationship with one god in particular, or do you interact with them all as a group?
  • Most Phoenixes don’t interact with gods in the Crucible: they only interact with the spirit of a previous Phoenix. Are you very open about your relationship with the divine, or do you keep it secret? It was the first Phoenixes who banished your gods to the Dusk, when your ancestors abused their power; some might fear that your gods are in league with the Dread.
  • Your family, the Myr Talu, were the leaders of the southern Fens and the protectors of its people. The Dread has overrun the Fens and the Myr Talu have been driven from their homes. The gods have urged you to work with Dawn Command; defeating the Dread is the only way to save the Fens. But do you yearn to know if your family has survived? Do you want to help your scattered people? Or are you solely concerned with your divine mission?

Suggested Traits: Extensive Training, Inspiring, Misspent Youth, Smartest Person In The Room

That’s all for this week! Post questions —or YOUR character concepts — below!

Dragonmarks: Fens and Marches

Last week I posted my first Imperial Dispatch article, delving more deeply into the world of Phoenix: Dawn Command. While I can’t create new material for Eberron, I want to look at what the Fens have to offer if you’re running an Eberron campaign.

The Fens are a region of deep swamp. The exist on the fringes of Ilona, one of the most civilized regions of the world; while they have cultural ties to Ilona, they are generally thought to be backwards. There are two distinct subcultures within the Fens; the Myrai seek to live in harmony with nature, while the Barochai see the natural world as something to be brought to heel and exploited. The noble families of both subcultures derived power from their House Gods, powerful spirits that took mortal avatars within their houses; many lesser families had bond beasts, animals serving as hosts for spirits. Both types of spirits were banished centuries ago when the first Phoenixes came to power, but their cultural influence remains. Meanwhile, in the present day dark powers are at work. Restless dead rise in the shadows. Corrupted bond-spirits merge with beasts and produce twisted monstrosities. And new creatures never seen before are appearing, as if the world itself is trying to make something that can survive the Dread. The greatest city of the southern Fens has been lost, and the Myrai people of the south seek shelter in the Barochai communities.

The Shadow Marches are the simplest match in Eberron. They too are a swampy region whose inhabitants are often considered backward; a region with two distinct traditions rooted in a past conflict, where cults still cling to those ancient traditions. For purposes of this conversion, I’m going to match the Myrai to tribal orcs that generally adhere to the traditions of the Gatekeepers, while the Barochai are a closer match to the blended clans – and especially to House Tharashk itself, as the Barochai are focused on industry and wringing a profit from nature. So I’ll be referring the Myrai as “the tribes” and Barochai as “the clans.”

We’ve never delved too deeply into the environment of the Marches, beyond “swamp.” As such, you could easily incorporate the most distinct physical feature of the Fens into the Shadow Marches. These are the Titans: trees which once grew up to a mile in height, but which were struck down in some ancient cataclysm. Their wood is infused with magic that prevents decay. So although the trees are long dead, but they form the physical foundation of the swamps. If you embrace this idea, the clans and House Tharashk carve their cities into the stumps and trunks of the Titans, while the tribes generally live atop them or make use of natural cracks and crevasses in the surface of a Titan. Both groups harvest lumber from the Titans, though the tribes approach this in a more industrial manner; this process is more akin to quarrying stone than the work of the traditional lumberjack. In d20 terms, the wood of a Titan would generally be considered to be Densewood, with veins which if harvested and treated properly can yield Bronzewood (both materials described on page 120 of the 3.5 Eberron Campaign Setting). In canon Eberron these rare woods come from the forests of Aerenal, but it’s not particularly unbalancing to give these resources to the Shadow Marches… and it justifies Gatekeepers having ancient bronzewood weapons and armor dating back to the Xoriat incursion. While you could make this one of House Tharashk’s industries, I’d be inclined to have Tharashk keep its focus on finding rarer things. Densewood-grade lumber could be an industry that the clans focused on before the rise of Tharashk, while Tharashk uses the Mark of Finding to locate the rarer veins of Bronzewood.

Aside from creating an additional industry for the Marches, this has a few effects.

  • The clans live in fortified communities, carved into the natural shelter of the Titans. Tribes or more isolated families will live atop Titan trunks or in natural “caves.”
  • The people of the region use wood for things that would be made from stone or steel in other places. If a building isn’t carved into a trunk or stump, it will be made from wooden blocks. Wooden spears are very common — used both for defense and as walking staffs — and knives and swords are typically made of Bronzewood.
  • The fallen Titans create a network of islands in the swampy morass. In heavily trafficked areas, bridges connect these islands; beyond this people generally use small boats to get from place to place.
  • The Titans add a vertical aspect to the landscape, especially as people generally live atop them or in their trunks. Bear in mind that the Titans fell thousands of years ago, and many have layers of soil and vegetation that have built up on their trunks.
  • In the Marches/Fens, the Titans have all fallen. However, in Eberron it is possible that living Titans can still be found. The most logical location for this would be the so-called Towering Wood in the Eldeen Reaches. You’d have to decide if the trees of the Towering Wood are full-sized Titans, or perhaps a similar but smaller variant. If you do have Titans, the next question is if one could be awakened. A human is essentially an ant to a Titan, which would make interaction with a Titan difficult. Even speak with plants might not bridge that vast difference of scale; if the Titan noticed the druid they could understand them, but they are still a tiny speck with a tiny voice. Given this, it could be interesting to have a single awakened Titan that’s wandering around the Reaches. Humans have no way to speak with it, but if necessarily Oalian himself might be able to communicate with it.

So to begin with, blending the Fens with the Marches adds an interesting physical element to the Marches in the form of the Titans. The city of Baroch is a fortress carved into the trunk of a Titan. You could use this concept to reimagine Zarash’ak, Tharashk’s capital city; or you could imagine Zarash’ak as a city suspended between a number of Titan stumps.

The Fens are defined by their relationship to the House Gods and bond beasts. While these things don’t exist in Eberron, some of the ideas are still relevant. The Myrai have some easy overlap with those who follow the Gatekeeper traditions… while the Cults of the Dragon Below could pick up the idea of the cults of Zaria or Taeloch. Bear in mind that there’s nothing saying that the members of a Cult of the Dragon Below couldn’t be vigilantes who are actually fighting evil people; it’s simply that they’re doing so because they believe a divine force is telling them to act. The Cults aren’t always evil; they’re just crazy. Meanwhile, you could explore the concept of bond beasts in Eberron. This could easily be a tribal tradition involving animals awakened by Gatekeeper druids; having each major tribal family have its own talking beast could add interesting culture for PCs who leave the cities and deal with the tribes.

With all that said, the Fens are shaped by their current troubles. This is tied to The Dread, the supernatural threat that is the foundation of the story of Phoenix: Dawn Command: a pervasive wave of terrors manifesting across the known world, with no clear rhyme or reason. if you wanted to explore this in the Marches, here’s some easy ways to adapt the threats of Phoenix.

  • The Bones are the corpses of dead soldiers, risen to continue the wars they fought long ago. In the Shadow Marches, these could be the corpses of the early Dragon Below cultists who fought for the Daelkyr in the Xoriat incursion. Alternately, you could have the bones of ancient Gatekeepers and Dhakaani goblins; even though they fought the Daelkyr in the past, that was long before humans, half-orcs, or other common races came to the Marches, and the Bones see all such creatures as invaders. Depending on the level of the PCs, you could use stats for Karrnathi undead for these Bones; with that said, the Bones use the tactics and techniques they used in life, and Gatekeeper Bones would employ druidic magic (perhaps twisted to add flavor).
  • The Fens are dealing with creatures warped by corrupted bond-spirits. This is an easy analogue to an increased surge in aberrations manifesting throughout the Marches, and you could decide whether these aberrations are “naturally” occurring, or if this is about mundane creatures being twisted into aberrations… which certainly was the hallmark of the Daelkyr back in the day.

The current situation in the Fens is driven by the mysterious loss of the great city of Myrn and by the idea that the Myrai are being driven north into the Barochai communities, which is causing overcrowding and tension. If you want to explore this idea, the concept would be that a surge in the appearance of undead and aberrations are driving the tribes to seek shelter in the clan communities. While Tharashk has some roots in the tribes and would likely show some sympathy for their plight, most of the clans consider the tribes to be willfully backwards and wouldn’t be happy with this surge of refugees, especially if people are worried about this rising supernatural threat. And what exactly is causing it? It is a resurgent Daelkyr, which is likely what the Gatekeepers would assume? Or could it be an Overlord rising — a twist that the aberration-focused Gatekeepers might not be prepared for? Either way, this could make an interesting saga for the PCs, especially if one of the PCs has roots in the region; cant they figure out what is behind this rising power before the Shadow Marches are consumed by darkness?

Now let’s look at a few questions…

Would the Titans be naturally occurring behemoths in the Marches, or would their growth be the result of Manifest Zones from ages past?

In Phoenix the idea is that the Titans are organic relics of the Old Kingdoms, and were brought down in the cataclysm that ended those civilizations. In Eberron, I’d mirror this with the story that the Titans were created by Eberron herself when the world was first formed and were brought down during the apocalyptic battles of the Age of Demons. Perhaps it’s literally true, or perhaps the first Titans were the product of a particularly powerful coterminous period/manifest zone interaction with Lamannia… or the work of an Overlord or similar benevolent spirit in the first age of the world. But to me, the idea of the Titans is that all that is left are their corpses. If you were to add them to the Towering Woods, I’d still consider the idea that those are smaller cousins, maybe a thousand feet in height – still huge, but leaving the idea of the Titans as something truly primordial.

Do you have any ideas beyond serpents and alligators (crocodiles?) that could be used as bond animals for a particular tribe? Or any animals added to the gleaner list for the Shadow Marches region?

Wolves, deer, raccoons, bears, beavers, muskrats, and various sorts of birds can all be found in swamps, and you can easily adapt such creatures to a fantasy environment (start with crayfish, end with a chuul) and that’s not including creatures that humanity could have brought over from Sarlona. In the Fens I’ve added the idea of the Fen-Cat, and the idea that humanity brought various sorts of dogs into the Fens with them. But there’s a fairly wide range of swamplife to choose from.

There really isn’t a physical border between Droaam and the Shadow Marches. Presumably the Daughters have their reasons for not invading, but I doubt the people of the Marches know what those reasons are. Have any arrangements been made between both nations?

There’s a number of factors here.

  • Droaam has only been a nation for a decade. The work the Daughters have done to unify the warlords and disparate elements is impressive, but they’ve still never fielded a true army and are working on maintaining discipline and order within their own borders.
  • House Tharashk is the greatest single power in the Shadow Marches. They already have close ties with Droaam, and this is important to Droaam because it’s their one channel for peaceful communication and integration with the Thronehold nations; while for Tharashk, Droaam is a source of a unique resource (monstrous mercenaries).
  • The Shadow Marches are an inhospitable environment with a very diffuse population that knows the environment better than anyone in Droaam. And it’s an environment that may be filled with hostile aberrations.

The critical point: What does Droaam have to gain from conquering the Shadow Marches? They’d get control of its resources, but in the process they’d shatter their ties with Tharashk and make an enemy of the Twelve, which would severely curtail any possibility of peaceful expansion of power into the Five Nations. As a side note, the Marcher orcs were never conquered by the Dhakaani Empire because the Marches had nothing that would make the difficulty of the conquest and occupation worth the trouble of doing it.

Are there still Daelkyr ruins in the Shadow Marches? What does Daelkyr architecture look like?

When the Daelkyr first came to Eberron, they established themselves in Khyber. No one knows exactly when they arrived, for they certainly spent a period of time capturing and altering local creatures to create their armies before unleashing those forces on Dhakaan. But from the start, they struck from the depths. One reason they were easily sealed in Khyber is that for the most part they were already there; the Gatekeepers simply bound them in the depths.

So the Daelkyr didn’t build cities on the surface; where they had strongholds above ground, they were existing structures that they captured. As far as “ruins” go, these would generally appear to be ruins from the original culture, and the differences would be things you’d only spot on closer examination (and largely relate to what unpleasant creatures or magical effects might linger in such places, as opposed to physical architecture).

As for what Daelkyr structures in Khyber look like, they are like the Daelkyr themselves: deeply alien and often inexplicable. In my opinion, they would also be extremely unique; there’s no one Daelkyr style. The halls of Dyrrn the Corruptor might have the biomechanical look of HR Giger. Belashyrra’s citadel could be a massive gibbering creature — a living fortress, every surface festooned with eyes. Orlaask’s fortress is inside a massive gargoyle that wanders the depths of Khyber. Whatever the appearance, the design should feel illogical. You might have a spiral corridor that corkscrews into a dead end, stalactite-like structures that project from the walls for no apparent reason, pools of luminescent liquid scattered around. These things may all have practical value – but if so, it shouldn’t be immediately clear to the human observer.

Almost nobody knows of the Daelkyr invasion. Is that right?

The Xoriat incursion predates human arrival on Khorvaire by thousands of years, and as noted above didn’t leave a lot of obvious physical remnants on the surface (aside from fallen Dhakaani cities). When humans arrived, most assumed that the Goblin civilization had collapsed in civil war, which was partially true; others assumed that the Dhakaani ruins were obviously too advanced to be associated with goblins, and were the work of some other advanced race. In the present day, the people of the Shadow Marches are familiar with stories of the Daelkyr and the ancient incursion, and scholars across Khorvaire are familiar with the theory, but most of the people of the Five Nations know nothing about it.

If you have questions or ideas, post them below!

 

Imperial Dispatches: The Fens

Over the last three years I’ve developed Phoenix: Dawn Command with my friend Dan Garrison. This fantasy RPG is now available, and in the weeks and months ahead we’re going to be producing new material for Phoenix. I’ll keep you posted about the availability of new missions and cards. In the meantime, I’m going to be posting a variety of Phoenix material here. This is the first installment of Imperial Dispatches. This series will delve deeper into the world of Phoenix, providing insights for players and GMs alike; GM-only tips for using the Fens can be found here. I hope that this material may prove useful even if you’re not playing Phoenix, and you can find ideas for adapting the Fens to Eberron here.

Without further ado, let’s explore to the Daylit World…

You live in a sunlit valley, surrounded by butterflies and songbirds. You think that the world is a good place, and you don’t understand how the terror that haunts you now could possibly exist.

My family lives in the bones of giants, and we scrape those bones to earn our bread. We tell our children stories of the sun, for they have yet to see it with their own eyes. And we warn them not to stray too far from the paths, lest they be consumed. This Dread is new to you, but I have lived with it all my life. And I will drive it back to the shadows where it belongs.

The Fens are a marshy peninsula in southern Ilona. Sunlight struggles to penetrate the dense canopy, and venomous reptiles and blind leeches flourish in the shadowy swampland. But the most remarkable feature of the Fens are the Titans. These are ancient trees, stretching over a mile into the sky… at least, back when any of them were standing. The Titans fell before humanity settled in the Fens. No one knows what brought them down, but their stumps are jagged and suggest tremendous force. It’s been thousands of years since they fell, yet the Titans remain. Some primal magic infuses their wood, preserving them from the ravages of time and the elements.

The fallen Titans form the foundation of the Fens, forming a stable platform in the otherwise inhospitable swamp. The Fenfolk have raised villages on the stumps of the Titans, and the great city of Baroch is carved into the largest Titan in the Fens. Over the centuries vegetation has taken root on the trunks of Titans, and Fenfolk tend gardens on the trunks even while they carve lumber from elsewhere on the same tree. Titan wood is a valuable commodity, prized across the Empire for its durability. The Fens are also home to leeches with remarkable medicinal properties; Fen leeches cleanse infected wounds and help calm patients. Despite these precious resources, few people choose to immigrate to the Fens. It’s dark, dank, and filled with dangerous creatures. The Fenfolk are generally seen as backwards and ignorant.

So what drew people to the Fens in the first place? Another rare resource: gods. In the days before the Empire, the Talu families of Ilona maintained their rule through the power of their House Gods. These powerful spirits were bound to both location and bloodline, and an enterprising group of scholars theorized that the key to gaining power was to find spirits that had yet to bond to any bloodline… which meant searching in the least hospitable lands that they could find. They found what they were searching for in the Fens. The greatest of these became the House Gods of the Bar Talu and the Myr Talu. But even beyond this, the settlers found there were many lesser spirits in this land. These spirits bond to living creatures, enhancing their power and strength. This was one of the dangers of living in the Fens, as these bond-spirits produced unnaturally fierce beasts in the wilds. But occasionally one of these spirits could be drawn to aid a family, binding to a hound, cat, or snake that would assist its keepers. The Talu families wielded the greatest power, but lesser folk took pride in the spirits that bonded with their lines.

When the first Phoenixes conquered Ilona, the Fens were the last region to surrender. Between their knowledge of the environment and the power of their gods and bond-beasts, the Fenfolk were difficult to dislodge. Ultimately the Devoted Legion broke the power of the House Gods and banished the bond-spirits, and the Fenfolk were forced into the new Empire. But they never embraced its ways. The House Gods may have been trapped in the Dusk, but many Fen families held to their old traditions, offering sacrifices to the gods and honoring their bond-beasts. The Fens were one of the strongholds of the Humanists before and during the Civil War, and they rejoiced when Justice finally fell. Given this, the actual rise of the human imperium was something of a disappointment. Many Fenfolk dreamed that the downfall of the Phoenixes would mean the restoration of their gods and spirits. As is, most see the human Emperor as little better than the Phoenixes… Just more arrogant people from soft green lands telling them what to do. Cults of Baroch and Myrn flourished, preachers swearing that the time was nigh when the spirits would return to the people. Instead of this — and some wonder, could it be because of it? — the Dread came. The Dread has indeed brought bond-spirits back to the Fens, but they have been twisted by the darkness. Rather than being loyal guardians of the people, these spirits turn the creatures they bond with into savage monstrosities. The great city of Myrn was brought down by warped beasts. The dead have risen from the depths of the swamps to prey on their descendants. And some say nature itself is fighting back against the Dread. Whatever the truth, most of the Fens have fallen. Baroch is the last great stronghold, with a few stumptowns remaining in its orbit.

GEOGRAPHY

The true foundation of the Fens are the roots of the Titans, now supplemented by mangroves and other wetland vegetation. Rivers and streams wind through mazes of tangled vines and branches. These are punctuated by the fallen Titans and their jagged stumps, which can have a diameter of up a third of a mile. The Titans add a vertical element to the landscape; many are overgrown with lesser vegetation, cracks or gaps in a broken trunk can serve the same roles as caves in stone; many creatures make their lairs on or in the Titans. The people of the northern fens generally make their homes in stumptowns, densely packed fortress-villages built onto or carved into the stumps of the Titans. To the south, the Fenfolk lived in more broadly dispersed towns… which may be one reason they fell more quickly to the Dread.

There is one main road that runs through the Fens, with titanwood bridges providing passage across the rivers and through the worst of the mires. But the simplest way to get around in the Fens is by boat, and every community has a collection of small boats available.

CULTURE

The Fens are part of Ilona, and Ilonan culture can still be seen in the Fens. The Talu families form the core of the major communities, and even those who live far from the great cities consider themselves to be tenants of one of the great lines.

The Barochai

The Barochai are the people of the northern fens, aligned with the Bar Talu. Baroch is the name both of the greatest of their House Gods and of the fortress city that serves as their seat of power. The Barochai are lumber miners, and they see the Fens as an enemy to be tamed and used. They live in stumptowns, densely populated communities carved into the stumps of Titans. The Barochai are grim and stoic people; they believe that everything worth having must be fought for, and that the world is always waiting for you to let down your guard. Yet if presented with the opportunity to live in a more pleasant land, a Barochai would scoff at the idea. Everything worth having must be fought for, but it’s the fight that makes it worth having; the plenty of the green lands makes the people weak and complacent. Given this, the Barochai have largely taken the Dread in stride; the world has always been against them, and they will simply continue to fight.

While there is a general sense of cultural unity, Barochai generally put their own families ahead of their community; charity and compassion for others aren’t as important as ensuring the survival of one’s own kin. Every major Bar family has a bond-beast that serves as the heraldic symbol for the family, and that is often the source of the family name. This doesn’t reflect any sort of harmony with nature; the Barochai earned the allegiance of their bond-spirits through strength, bending the spirits to their will. While the bond-spirits were banished centuries ago, families still keep mundane animals of the same type as their bond spirits as symbolic representatives. There are many stories of Fen cults who perform sinister rituals and even human sacrifice in order to strengthen their bond-spirits or call on the favor of other spirits of the Fens, but most of these stories are exaggerated.

The Bar Talu rule the northern Fens, and every stumptown is built around a Talu keep. They enforce justice, and while they generally abide by the letter of Imperial law, justice is swift and harsh. The Barochai respect strength, and they fear military leader Jonan Baragius… and they expect no less from the man they believe can protect them from the dangers of the Fens. Even in the face of the Dread, most of the Barochai aren’t looking for Phoenixes to save them; they believe Baragius will keep them safe.

The Bar Talu are based in the city of Baroch, a sprawling fortress carved into the trunk of the largest Titan yet to be discovered. It has spread throughout the trunk of the ancient tree, and towers rise up from the swamp around it. Baroch bears the scars of many sieges, and so far it has survived the predations of the Dread. It’s also the trade hub for the Fens, and has always supported a transient population of farmers, fisherfolk and leech-harvesters bringing goods that the Bar Talu deliver to the rest of the Empire. This transient population has swelled dramatically with refugees from the south, along with northerners who fear that their stumptowns offer insufficient shelter from the Dread. This crowding is a source of growing tension, and many northerners feel that the Myrai should be driven out of the city and left to fend for themselves.

The Myrai

The Myrai are the people of the southern fens, aligned with the Myr Talu. Myr is the chief House Goddess, and the city of Myrn is her seat of power. The Myrai are primarily fisherfolk, farmers, and leech-harvesters, and they ask Myr for good fortune and bountiful harvests. Legend has it that when the House Gods were banished, Myr remained by tying her spirit to a vast water serpent. The Myrai say the divine serpent sleeps in the deep waters where no Phoenix can find her, but even in her slumber she hears the prayers of her people. The Dread and the loss of Myrn has certainly shaken this faith, but many maintain that the serpent will soon wake from her slumber, and Myr will rise to save her people.

The city of Myrn was the seat of the Myr Talu and the largest city in the Fens — not so well fortified as Baroch, but spread across a wider area. It was renowned for Myr’s Fountain; built by the goddess in the days before the Empire, the waters of this well have remarkable restorative properties. Myrn was the center for the fishing industry and for leechcraft and healing, or at least it was until the city was lost to the Dread one year ago. Some say that it was overrun by a horde of twisted creatures; others say that a curse fell upon the city and turned its people into warped monsters. So far there are no known survivors of the fall of Myrn, and the exact details and fate of the city remain a mystery. The Dread has spread throughout the southern Fens, and the Myrai have been driven north where they are seeking shelter in the stumptowns of the Barochai.

Where the Barochai see the Fens as an enemy to be defeated and brought to heel, the Myrai seek to live in harmony with their environment. Their villages are generally spread out across Titan trunks instead of being carved into the wood. They’re at home on the rivers and farming fingal gardens, and take care not to over-fish a region. They take pride in their long-banished bond spirits, but they see these spirits as allies whose loyalty was won by their ancestors, not beings forced into service. The Myrai have a strong sense of community that goes beyond family, and this has helped them in their recent exodus; most Myrai will do what they can to help anyone in need, though some limit this compassion to other Myrai. There are stories of cults among the Myrai, who have also sought to call back the spirits of the Fens. However, such cults are rarely violent, and are more about continuing ancient rites that are supposed to strengthen the spirits and preserve the balance of Dusk and Daylight.

More than any other Talu lines, the Myr Talu always sought to aid their tenant families and put the overall good of the region ahead of their personal wealth and power. The leaders of the house were lost in the fall of Myrn and the survivors are scattered with the other Myrai refugees, though many continue to act as community leaders. Vesta Myrasa guides a large group of refugees in Baroch and seeks to mediate disputes with angry Barochai; meanwhile, Valius Myragi negotiates with the Bar Talu, trying to convince the nobles of the north to show compassion for the refugees.

IF YOU’RE FROM THE FENS…

  • Where are you from? Were your roots in Myrn or Baroch? Did you harvest lumber or work on the water? Do you view the natural world as an ally or an enemy?
  • What’s your connection to the Talu? Were you a noble, directly tied to the Bar Talu or the Myr Talu? Were you a member of a lesser branch of the family? Were you a simple tenant, and if so did you respect your ruling house or despise it? Or were you independent, a farmer living far from any town or a fisher who called a boat home?
  • Do you respect any of the House Gods? A few of the House Gods are described below, and you can develop others. While the House Gods were banished in the Conquest, many in the Fens still respect the old ways and gods. Do you believe you have a connection to one of the gods? How does this affect you?
  • Did your family have a bond beast? Even if the spirit was banished long ago, a bond beast reflects the values and history of a family. Did your family have a bond beast? What was it, and what does it mean to you?
  • How do you feel about the Empire and the Phoenixes? The Fenfolk were the last Ilonans to be conquered and the first to rebel, and many have little love for Emperor Dolanti. Do you believe in the Empire and want to restore it, or are you only concerned with protecting the Fens? Likewise, in all the Empire it’s hard to find a place with less love for the Phoenixes. How did you feel about Phoenixes in your first life, and has that changed since your rebirth? You wouldn’t have made it through the Crucible if you weren’t willing to work with Dawn Command and to fight the Dread… but have you embraced the Phoenix cause, or do you go along with it because you believe it’s the only real chance to defeat the Dread?
  • What do you miss? Fen cooking involves a lot of fish and fungus, along with eels and leeches. The thick canopy of the Fens filters out much of the sunlight, and bright days and broad fields are equally unnatural for you. Serpents, hounds, and swamp-cats are all common pets, and a few Fenfolk keep lizards. In the Fens you’re never far from water, though that comes in the form of shallow pools and rivers as opposed to the vast sweep of the Inner Sea.

HOUSE GODS AND BOND BEASTS

In the days before the Empire, the Talu families of Ilona ruled through the transcendent power of their House Gods. The House Gods are spirits possessing tremendous magical power, but unlike the Fallen Folk of Skavia they cannot manifest on their own. In order to interact with the world they require mortal hosts – children from their Talu lines. The hosts are still mortal, and when a host dies or becomes unsuitable the spirit moves to a new host. For centuries the House Gods were the champions of the Talu lines. During the Conquest, the Devoted Legion perfected a ritual for exorcising and banishing the House Gods. It has been centuries since a House God has manifested in the Daylit World, but with the rise of the Dread the walls between the world and the Dusk are growing thin and it’s possible a House God could return. More information about the House Gods and their capabilities can be found on page 205 of the Guidelines for the Newly Inducted Marshal.

Each of the Fen Talu had about six gods in their pantheons. While the gods could only affect the world through their avatars, the Talu encouraged their tenants to think of their gods as all-seeing and capable of affecting any action within their sphere. Many tenant families pledged loyalty to a particular house god, and believe that the god still watches over them or guides them today, even though it has been centuries since any of the gods have manifested.

Bond beasts are a lesser form of the bond-spirits. Instead of merging with a human, a bound beast is a spirit that inhabits the body of a particular type of animal. In many ways, bond beasts served as the House Gods of the tenant families that possessed them. According to legends, some bond beasts were fully sentient and could advise and guide their family. Others were simple paragon examples of their type. The Orlan Hound was an unnaturally large and powerful dog, and whenever the Hound was slain a new one would take its place.  

Here are a few notable House Gods and bond beasts from the history of the Fens, but as Marshal or player you can expand this list to meet the needs of your story.

Barochai House Gods

  • Baroch, The Bringer of Fire. Chief god of the Bar Talu, said to have carved the foundations of the city that bears his name. He rewards innovation and industry, granting strength to those who make sacrifices in the name of progress. His name comes the principle that one must burn wood to release fire; one must be willing to pay the cost of progress.
  • Xaria, The Huntress in Shadow. Where Baroch encourages his followers to bend wood and stone to their will, Xaria teaches them to bring down the beasts of the wild. She is also the chief war goddess of the Bar Talu, though she advocates victory through stealth and guile; it’s said that her cult of assassins still operates in the shadows of the Fens.
  • Seval, The Keeper of the Forge. While Seval is another industrious Barochai god, he focuses on defense of the homestead — on making any sacrifice necessary to protect your hearth and family — which plays to the isolationist element of the Barochai character.

Myr House Gods

  • Myr, Bringer of Fortune. The primary goddess of the Myr Talu, she is responsible for all the bounty that comes from the waters — fish for food, leeches for health — and in general for restoration, fertility and health. She is a merciful goddess who shares her bounty with those suffering from hardship.
  • Taeloch, The Serpent in the Water. Taeloch ensures that justice is done, especially to those who prey on the weak or helpless. Taeloch’s punishments often involve drowning, either literally for those whose crimes call for execution or simulated as a form of discipline. A cult of Taeloch might take vigilante action against those who wrong Myrai refugees.
  • Lassia, The Merciful Mother. A lesser Myrai goddess, Lassia oversees healers and midwives. She inspires healers to find new solutions to difficult problems, and provides safe and painless births. With that said, she is a goddess of the Fens, and the Fens are a harsh land; part of her portfolio is granting a merciful and painless death to ease the suffering of those she cannot heal.

Bond Beasts

  • The Orlan Hound. This mighty beast was the guardian of a Barochai tenant family. Once the spirit took hold of the hound, it grew to the size of a pony. While the hound couldn’t speak, it could sniff out any deception. The last incarnation of the Orlan Hound was slain by a Durant Phoenix during the Conquest.
  • Salassa. This bond beast took the form of a small serpent, and was noted for its wisdom instead of its might. It coiled around the neck of the head of its family and would whisper secrets and advice into the bearer’s ear, warning them of deception and dangers. Salassa could detect lies, and while she protected her family from those who would deceive them, she also demanded that they live an honest life; in her last incarnation, she throttled her bearer when he betrayed his family for personal gain.
  • The Count of Shadows. The Fens are home to wildcats with mottled black fur that renders them almost invisible in the shadows. The Count of Shadows was such a cat, and it claimed to know all things seen by every cat in the Fens. The Count advised its family, guiding them through cunning schemes that could bring them great fortune if they were willing to take the associated risks. It’s said that during the Conquest, the Count faced off against a Shrouded Phoenix. Some say the Phoenix killed the cat; others say that the Phoenix helped it escaped, in exchange for the Count’s pledge to aid all future incarnations of the Phoenix.

POINTS OF INTEREST

Baroch and Myrn are the largest cities in the Fens. There are a host of smaller communities — the densely populated stumptowns of the Barochai and the smaller farming villages of the south. Here are a few other locations familiar to every denizen of the Fens.

The Bloody Mire. This is one of the largest areas of pure swamp, with no Titans providing a foundation for structures. The greatest Talu victory in the Conquest came when a joint effort by Myr and Bar drove Imperial forces into the mire. Both sides suffered terrible losses in the conflict, and it’s said that the area is still stained with the blood of the fallen… though in fact, it’s microorganism that gives the shallow waters the distinct crimson coloring. The Bloody Mire has important symbolic value for the Fenfolk, but even before the Dread it’s always been said to be a haven for hungry ghosts and forlorn spirits; most Fenfolk appreciate the idea of the Mire, but keep their distance. Should the Dread take root in the region, the Bloody Mire is a likely source for Bones and other restless dead.

The Deadfall. Typically the Titans are widespread, and it’s rare to find two in contact. The Deadfall is formed from five fallen trees. Over the course of thousands of years, layers of vegetation and sediment have formed a maze of passages between the trees. The Deadfall has always been close to the Dusk, and in the past families would travel to the Deadfall to try to earn or claim the favor of a bond beast. The Devoted Legion placed wards in the region, but the Deadfall is still a favored gathering place for Fenfolk who hold to the old ways. With the Dread, it’s possible that the bond-spirits have returned… though who can say what this means?

Deep Wells. For the most part, the waters of the Fens are relatively shallow. However, there are a few places where the waters deep… so deep that the Fenfolk say these wells have no bottom. Legend maintains that the deep wells are home to massive water serpents and other monsters. There are legends of such creatures, but none have been seen in living memory and most maintain that these are merely stories.

Sentinel Holt. The Titans were all felled long ago… all save one. The Sentinel is a tree that towers over the region; over a mile in height, it stretches high above the canopy around it. The Myrai established a community on the tree, making their homes on its vast branches and knots. There’s been no contact with Sentinel Holt since the Dread overtook the southern Fens, but it’s possible that the tree-folk have been able to hold out against the Dread and are in need of assistance…

TITAN WOOD

The Titans are an important resource in the Fens. The wood of these ancient trees is infused with magic that gives them the general strength and durability of stone or even steel. Beyond using Titanwood to construct their homes, the people of the Fens use this wood for many things that would be made of other materials elsewhere in the Empire. Weapons and armor are a notable example. Knives, swords and shields are generally made from Titanwood. Short spears are common within the Fens, used both for protection and as useful walking staves. Titanwood is general very resistant to flame, but if prepared and treated properly can burn — even then, a Titanwood block can burn for days. All of these things make Titanwood a useful commodity beyond the Fens, and the major industry of the Barochai. Harvesting Titanwood is more akin to quarrying stone than to the work of a traditional lumberjack; blocks are removed from the vast trunks of the Titans, and shaped into the forms that will prove most useful in the world beyond. In general, when dealing with the Fens stop any time you’re dealing with something that would normally be made of metal or stone and consider if it could be made from wood, and how that would change the flavor.

Follow this link if you’re a Marshal looking for ideas about how to use the Fens in your campaign. If you’re playing Phoenix and would prefer to be surprised, you might want to stop here. If you have questions about Phoenix or the Fens, ask below!

Dragonmarks: Drow

These… they aren’t the elves you know from Khorvaire. Thousands of years ago, the elves fought the giants that ruled this land. Giant wizards captured elves and experimented on them, created their own soldiers to go places the giants could not. It’s said that they wove dark magic into the elven form, and that these are the result. The first elves call them the drow. 

Lakashtai, The Shattered Land

The conflict with Dal Quor weakened the giants of Xen’drik. In the centuries that followed, the elves rose up against the giants. In the early days of that conflict, the mages of the Sulat League created a new breed of elf. With perfect darkvision and a natural resistance to magic, the Drow were natural predators indoctrinated from birth to prey upon the rebel elves. At first the Drow were myths, spirits of the night that struck without warning and left no survivors. Even after the truth was revealed, the Drow remained a deadly threat throughout the rebellion. When Argonnessen crushed the civilizations of the giants, the Drow were caught in the destruction. Three primary cultures emerged from this time of chaos.

The bulk of the Drow are Vulkoori. Their ancestors took refuge in the deep jungles of Xen’drik and developed their own traditions. They are a primitive tribal culture; many focus their devotion on the scorpion spirit Vulkoor, while others revere a pantheon of primal spirits. Some tribes pursue an endless vendetta against the giants, taking vengeance against their ancient oppressors. Others are simply concerned with survival.

A smaller faction held to the traditions of their creators. These Sulatar held onto some of the techniques and artifacts of the Sulat giants, notably techniques involving the binding of fire elementals.

A third group fled underground, taking refuge in Khyber. There they found a source of dark power and bound their clan to it, drawing strength from this mysterious Umbra. These Umbragen are the most advanced of the Drow cultures, but they are locked in a conflict with the horrors of Khyber and they are slowly losing that war.

All of these cultures tend towards xenophobia and isolation. Explorers and the settlers of Stormreach have encountered the Vulkoori, but they know little about them. Few know the Sulatar or Umbragen exist… though an early encounter with the Sulatar may have provided the Zil with the inspiration that produced their elemental binding techniques.

Each of the Drow cultures serves a different purpose, both for players and gamemasters.

  • Vulkoori Drow can be an ally or a threat for characters exploring Xen’drik. They are resistant to the Traveller’s Curse, which makes them valuable guides for adventuring parties; however, most see the people of Khorvaire as outsiders and looters who have no place in Xen’drik. As a player character, a Vulkoori Drow is an opportunity to play an exotic primitive cast into an alien culture. Xu’sasar in The Dreaming Dark novels is a Vulkoori Drow, though from the pantheistic Qaltiar tradition.
  • The Umbragen are in many ways the closest to the Drow people are familiar with from other settings. They are an advanced subterranean culture centered around a dark power, and they are cruel and ruthless. They are driven by their bitter struggle with the Daelkyr, and this can make them a useful enemy-of-my-enemy; alternately, their quest for the power they need to defeat the Daelkyr could make them a threat to the people of the surface, as the Umbragen will sacrifice anything in pursuit of victory. An Umbragen PC could be an exile who turned on the dark traditions of their people, or a hero seeking the power to save them. Where the Vulkoori is a primitive, for the Umbragen Khorvaire is itself a primitive backwater.
  • The Sulatar aren’t as primitive as the Vulkoori, but neither are they as powerful or malevolent as the Umbragen. They can easily be found as the guardians of giant relics or ruins, and they know secrets about the past that have been forgotten by the others.

What would you like to know about the Drow of Eberron?

How would each of the citizens of the Five Nations see a Drow?

The inhabitants of Stormreach are familiar with Drow, and there are a handful of Drow and half-Drow that have been assimilated into the general population. As a result, people in Sharn and to a lesser extent other Brelish port cities will be somewhat familiar with them; even if they’ve never seen one, they’ve possibly heard stories.

Beyond that, I don’t particularly think the reaction is going to vary by nation; a Drow would be equally unusual anywhere in Khorvaire. With that said, Eberron is a world in which people deal with a wide variety of races (Elves, dwarves, gnomes, halflings, and even goblins) casually and are aware that they could bump into a lizardfolk or a gnoll; as unusual as a Drow is, it’s hardly the strangest thing you might see on the street. What I think the most likely reaction would be is the assumption that the Drow is some sort of one-off mutation of a normal elf. Consider the origin of planetouched Tieflings I’ve discussed earlier – perhaps this is what happens to an elf conceived when Mabar is coterminous? Or perhaps they were exposed to the Mourning? Or they’re part of a Vadalis magebreeding experiment? So: a curiosity to be sure, and not immediately seen as representative of a foreign culture. But I think less threatening than a hobgoblin or dragonborn — so more intriguing than shocking. But as always, go with what best fits your story.

Why did you decide to make Eberron Drow focus on scorpion icons instead of the classic spider icons?

The basic principle is that the traditional Drow association with spiders is tied to a specific culture and to Lolth, a fiend not present by default in the cosmology of Eberron. Vulkoor provides an iconic focus for those who wish it. Beyond this, it does speak to a different culture. The spider is defined by its web, and Lolth’s Drow are subtle and treacherous; the Drow of Vulkoor are more direct predators. It also fits their tribal and often nomadic nature, as the mother scorpion carries her young on her back.

With that said: Personally, I’ve never particularly liked a solitary focus on Vulkoor. My first opportunity to deal with the Drow in depth came when I wrote my novel The Shattered Land. Here I introduced the Qaltiar as a culture who respect the Scorpion, but also revere other primal animistic spirits: the Shifting Panther (displacer beast), the Tlixin Bird, and a host of other totems… and the Sulatar, a Drow culture that has nothing to do with arachnids.  So you it’s up to you whether you run with purely scorpion-focused Vulkoori, or the broader primal Qaltiar.

Where is it in canon that you speak of the Umbragen?

The Umbragen are mentioned in almost all canon sources that deal with Drow. They’re covered in most detail in Dragon 330, which included a detailed look at their culture and racial feats. However, they’re also described on page 52 of Secrets of Xen’drik, page 124 of City of Stormreach, and page 198 of the 4E Eberron Campaign Guide. To be clear, while I’ve said that they are the closest analogue to the Drow of other settings – being a culturally “evil” civilization that lives underground – they are a unique culture and due to their bond to the Umbra, not entirely Drow.

I’m a bit surprised, however, when you say that “for the Umbragen Khorvaire is itself a primitive backwater.” Could you please expend your thoughts about what, according to you, make the Umbragen so superior?

I may have chosen my words poorly, but it’s a difficult concept to distill. There are two things that distinctly distinguish the Umbragen from the civilization of the Five Nations. The Umbragen are less industrial than the Five Nations, to be certain. However, they are distinctly more magical. In my opinion, the typical Umbragen – regardless of whether they’re a soldier, a mystic researcher, a mushroom farmer or a smith – is likely to have at least one level of warlock or soulknife. Half of their government – the Vault of Shadows – is dedicated to mystical research for the benefit of their civilization. Combine this with the fact that they live in the shadow of the Qabalrin, an elvish civilization whose mystic advances matched those of the giants of Xen’drik. So they are used to a far greater degree of casual magic in the world, and the idea that the farmer over there is literally just a farmer – that he can’t conjure a blade of shadows or kill an enemy with a thought – makes him seem pathetic. Add to this the fact that the Umbragen have been at war with Khyber for as long as they can remember: a constant struggle with the terrors of the deep. So again, to them Khorvaire feels soft and weak. They whine about their losses in the Last War? They clearly know nothing of loss or struggle.

Again: taken as a whole, the Five Nations are more advanced as a civilization. The Umbragen have nothing on par with the systems of transit, communication or mass production that are part of daily life in the Five Nations. But the Umbragen are also from a smaller civilization and thus an Umbragen visitor wouldn’t immediately appreciate those things; and besides, if you need to communicate with someone far away, just speak to an Umbral sage who can send a message through the shadows.

With that said, something like Sharn should still be impressive to an Umbragen; the question is whether they’d acknowledge that. The Umbragen also tend to be aggressive and predatory, so a general attitude of “Your civilization is weaker than mine” is good for instilling fear in possible rivals.

How do the different elves view the Xen’Drik Drow and Umbragen and vice versa?

Both sides retain the most basic knowledge of the origins of their people — that they were bitter enemies in the ancient war. The elves of Khorvaire know the Drow as evil servants of the giants, while the Drow know the elves as the rebels whose foolish pride led to the destruction of Xen’drik. With that said, that conflict occurred more than twenty thousand years ago, before the modern civilizations of either elves or Drow existed. The Drow are all isolationists and know next to nothing about the modern elves, and the elves are only aware of the Vulkoori, who they consider to be the savage remnants of their ancient foes. So if a Drow came to Aerenal today, they’d be seen more as a curiosity than a bitter enemy.

With that said, the Tairnadal are deeply concerned with the history of their patron ancestors. Many of those ancestors were champions in the uprising against the giants — meaning that they fought the Drow. Such a Tairnadal might be quite excited to have an opportunity to fight one of these ancient foes.

It’s worth noting that the Qaltiar — a Vulkoori subculture — are Drow who themselves rebelled against the giants. They may still blame the elves for starting the apocalypse that destroyed Xen’drik, but they would be less hostile than others.

Are there any undying Drow or Umbragen? COULD there be? 
Are there any? None that we’ve established in canon. Could there be? Sure. Becoming Deathless has nothing to do with being an elf; it requires specific rituals and access to enormous amounts of positive energy, drawn both directly through Irian manifest zones and indirectly through the reverence of descendants. So it’s unlikely that there are any Deathless Drow in Xen’drik, because they don’t have the manifest zones or knowledge of the rituals (which took thousands of years of work in Aerenal to perfect). But if you wanted some renegade Drow (perhaps some of the original progenitors of the Qaltiar) to have joined the Aereni in the exodus, sure, there could be Deathless Drow.

Manifest Zone: Dragonmarks

The latest episode of the Manifest Zone podcast deals with Dragonmarks and the Dragonmarked Houses. I want to follow up with a quick overview of the topics discussed and provide an opportunity to deal with questions you may have after listening to the episode. I don’t want to retread too much old material, so if you know nothing about the marks, you may want to check out these previous posts on The Dragonmarked Houses and Aberrant Marks.

Dragonmarks are sigils that appear on the skin, reflecting a magical talent possessed by the bearer of the mark. There are thirteen “true” dragonmarks. These are called true marks because they have a consistent appearance, range of abilities and progression; if you have the Least Mark of Making, it’s not going to suddenly mutate into the Lesser Mark of Finding. In addition, the true marks are tied to specific races and bloodlines. They only appear on people with some connection to a dragonmarked bloodline, and someone with a dragonmark can pass that mark to a child.

Per the original 3.5 rules, a dragonmark provides a few concrete mechanical benefits.

  • It allows use of a specific spell like ability (chosen from a short list) a number of times per day.
  • It provides a bonus to a specific skill (so the Mark of Detection provides a +2 to Spot checks, the Mark of Making provides a +2 to Craft checks, etc).
  • It allows the bearer to use dragonshard focus items tied to their mark. From an economic perspective this is the most important aspect. The fact that a gnome with the Least Mark of Scribing can use whispering wind once per day is a cool party trick. The fact that he can operate a speaking stone is what gives the houses their power.

These are the basic abilities of the mark. They are tied to bloodlines. Over the course of centuries, the bloodlines that carried specific marks joined together to form houses, and ultimately those houses came together to form the organization known as The Twelve. So a critical point here is that all of the dragonmarked houses include multiple bloodlines, and over the course of generations new lines have evolved within the houses. So the fact that you have the Mark of Making doesn’t mean you’re directly related to every Cannith heir; it means you’re tied to one of the Cannith lines.

The next important thing to understand is that Eberron treats magic as a science. Which means that you can’t just create something just because you want to, any more that we can create a teleporter today. The fact that it takes a Lyrandar heir to pilot an airship isn’t some sort of scheme on the part of Lyrandar; it’s simply that no one’s been able to mass produce a wheel that unmarked people can use. You can certainly add one in if you want an airship an unmarked pilot can fly – but understand that within the canon assumptions of the setting, that’s a remarkable treasure that can’t be easily reproduced.

So: Each dragonmarked house has a monopoly on a particular magical service because they are the only force that can provide that service. If you want to get a message across the continent in an hour, House Sivis is your only option. In addition to these core services, each house maintains the guilds that dominate the mundane aspects of their specialty. These guilds are a source of training and resources, and most businesses in this field will be licensed by the guild so they can get access to these things. A licensed business shares profits with the guild and must also meet the standards set by the guild. If you’re a tavern licensed by Ghallanda, you have to abide by their standards on sanitation and pricing. As a result, a license – represented by the house seal on a sign – has real value to potential customers as an assurance of the quality of the service. So licensing isn’t just a power play by the houses; the common people trust the quality of guild services, and an unlicensed business will have to earn the trust of its potential clients.

All of which is to say that the houses have real, concrete power in the world. Their heirs can provide services no one else can, and they are the cornerstones of Khorvaire’s economy.

As a player character with a dragonmark, there’s a few things to consider.

  • What is your relationship with the house that carries your mark? Are you a proud scion of your house, working to advance its power and influence in the world? On the other end of the spectrum, are you an excoriate banished from your house for some terrible transgression, or a foundling whose mark has only just manifested… and if the latter, are you excited about your good fortune?
  • The houses have power and influence… these days, dragonmarked heirs could assert that their houses are more powerful than the broken nations of Galifar. Do you embrace that and act like royalty? Or are you more down to earth? Are you proud of your heritage or do you have issues with house leadership?
  • The mark is more than just a spell-like ability. The idea behind the mark giving you a skill bonus is that the mark gives you supernatural insight into the area of expertise. As an heir with the Mark of Making, you understand how things fit together, reflected by your talent for crafting. With the Mark of Scribing, languages make sense to you and you can see the meaning in strange script when others cannot. This is likewise the idea behind your ability to use dragonshard focus item. It’s not that the object just lights up when you touch it; it’s that the object connects to and amplifies an aspect of your mark. It allows you to focus the mark to accomplish something special.

The latest episode of Manifest Zone talks about ways to use the houses as a player or as a gamemaster, and I won’t retread that. But here’s a few questions that have come up.

One thing is missing both here and in the podcast: do you exclude the possibility of using one of the houses as an essentially good/philanthropic organization?

As presented in canon sources, the houses are not essentially philanthropic organizations. They are businesses whose first and foremost purpose is to increase the wealth and power of their founding families. For more than a thousand years they have taken actions necessary to maintain and enforce their monopolies over their fields. Jorasco doesn’t have free clinics that perform charitable healing, something we’ve mentioned the Silver Flame and priests of Boldrei sometimes maintaining.

So: I do exclude the possibility of using one of the houses as essentially a good and philanthropic organization. That’s not their fundamental purpose or nature. If they were inherently good we’d see more charitable works, we’d see more sharing of power within their field. We have multiple examples of Dragonmarked heirs leaving their houses because they want to pursue purely altruistic actions.

With that said: Just because a house isn’t essentially good or philanthropic doesn’t mean that individual people within it can’t be both philanthropic and good. An influential Cannith heir could be working to help warforged within the framework of the house. A particular Jorasco heir could be pioneering new techniques to reduce the costs of healing for all… even though the house may never offer its services for free. Any number of houses could be working on things they feel will make the world a better place. As an agent of the house, a PC could be working with such a patron who has noble goals. Or even if those goals are less noble, they could still involve fighting forces that are unquestionably evil. The houses may not be essentially good, but neither are they essentially evil. They are businesses that have done what has been necessary to survive and thrive over the course of centuries. They are driven by self-interest… and there will certainly be times when that self-interest can serve a greater good.

The Dragonmarked Houses each have their own version of the Test of Siberys specific to the effects and role of their mark and house. The method seems pretty clear for some, such as the Mark of Sentinel/Storm/Shadow/Passage, while it seems odd that there would be a life-threatening reproducible test for Scribing, Making, or Hospitality. Would you mind expanding on the possible methods used in these Tests of Siberys?

This is a topic covered in this previous blog post, but I’ll repost the critical piece here.

In 3.5, every dragonmark provides a bonus to one skill. The Mark of Finding gives you a +2 bonus to Search. The Mark of Making provides you with a +2 bonus to Craft checks. These are powers of the mark! Whether you use the spell-like abilities of 3.5 or the rituals of 4E, there’s no telling what the first power a marked individual will develop will be. So you can’t force a Cannith heir to repair a warforged and hope that he’ll turn up with repair light damage; even if he manifests the mark, it might give him mending. But you can rely on the fact that he will be better at Craft, or that the Tharashk heir will be better at Search. So that’s what you base your test on. Stress doesn’t have to mean a life-or-death situation; it can easily be derived from the threat of social humiliation or professional ruin. So, you’re put in a room with a tool box with only half the tools you need and told to fix something. It’s a nearly impossible task. Can you push your Craft skill to levels you didn’t know you possessed? Even if you can’t, will the stress of trying unlock the crafting talent within you? Likewise for Finding: It’s ultimately a test of the Search skill. And it’s THE test of the Search skill. You have one shot to have your best hunt ever, and if you fail, you shame your family. You don’t have to develop the Mark to succeed, but it would sure make it easier!

Bear in mind that this means it is possible to succeed at the Test without actually developing the mark. While this would be a disappointment to the heir, it’s still an important demonstration of the core skills of the house. So again, think of a way to test the skill. Make it difficult and consider the immense social pressure placed upon the heir. Come up with any way possible to add to the stress of the situation. But it doesn’t have to literally be life or death.

Keith mentioned that the standard houses began the War of the Mark partially to suppress the “source of power” coming from aberrant marks. What economic threat did the aberrant marks pose to the houses? I get that there must have been a popular fear of the real danger posed by aberrant marks, but if that’s the inciting factor in the War of the Mark why was the main opposition towards Aberrants coming from the Twelve? Why not a religion (Silver Flame, in the vein of the lycanthropic purge, perhaps) or the secular monarchy?

In dealing with the War of the Mark, it’s important to understand the world in which it took place. The War of the Mark happened fifteen hundred years before the present day. That’s five hundred years before Galifar and almost eight hundred years before the Church of the Silver Flame was established. It was a world with no lightning rail and no speaking stone network. There was no common code of laws uniting the nations. Humanity’s understanding of arcane magic was far more limited and no one had spells such as sending. The followers of the Sovereign Host had no army, and the nations didn’t perceive the aberrants as a threat that required the mobilization of an army.

What people know about the War of the Mark today is based on centuries of House propaganda. Even calling it a “war” is disingenuous, conjuring images of armies of aberrants wielding dark powers facing off against house armies in dramatic battles. In truth, most of the aberrants were noncombatants and the “war” was an organized and ongoing purge as opposed to an actual conflict. Halas Tarkanan and his peers could singlehandedly cause massive destruction, and they had small units of skilled warriors who did engage with house forces – but these were the exception, and conflict was always more guerilla war than anything else. There’s more details about this in this previous blog post.

The War of the Mark was preceded by a dramatic rise in the number of aberrant marks in the world, and those marks were considerably more powerful than those seen in the world today. So the marks were known and those who bore them were known to be dangerous, and knights of Dol Arrah or local soldiers might deal with a specific problem when it arose. But the idea of them presenting a serious large-scale threat was a new concept. And it was a concept pushed by the houses at the time. Why? Largely as a means for the houses themselves to consolidate their power. This is addressed in Dragonmarked on pages 56-57: “The War of the Mark transformed the dragonmarked houses into their modern form. It solidified the early influence of House Cannith and House Deneith, both of which brought significant military force to bear in the struggle.” … and…  “However, scholars claim that the so-called war was largely fought to secure the power and prominence of the true dragonmarked bloodlines and to eliminate a possible source of competition.” 

Note the word possible in that second quote. Essentially, the aberrants were a convenient foe for the houses to rally against… and the fact that they could position it as “good marks versus bad marks” helped their branding. But it was as much about uniting the houses themselves as anything else, and the result of this was the Twelve and the house structure we see today.

Usually, in canonical sources, characters are simply named as Soandso d’House, rather than Soandso Surname d’House. Is there some pattern to this usage? 

It varies by house and is discussed in more detail in Dragonmarked; notably, Sivis heirs always use line name, and Tharashk heirs typically use their clan name instead of the house name. The general idea is that Soandso Surname d’House is the character’s full name and would be used in formal occasions within the house, where people understand the significance of it… while when dealing with the common folk they drop the surname because the house name is the one people know and respond to. So Lady Elaydren IS Eladyren Vown d’Cannith, but she generally goes by Elaydren d’Cannith outside the house.

Also, the d’ can be used with the surname or house name. Thus you have Tharashk triumvir Varic d’Velderan.

What was, in unified Galifar, the relationship between the House of Shadow and the Citadel?

It’s the same sort of relationship you see in our world today between a national army and a private security force like Blackwater. Consider the following…

  • The Entertainers’ Guild is the foundation of Phiarlan’s reputation and its primary face in the world. This is a legitimate business, and most of the people working for it have no connection with the Serpentine Table.
  • Looking to the Serpentine Table: the Citadel is an arm of the government. It serves the needs of the crown and isn’t available for hire. The Serpentine Table primarily serves the needs of wealthy private citizens, who are primarily engaged in acts of espionage targeting other private citizens.
  • On the other hand, just as the US government might employ private security forces for particular situations, there could be times when someone within the Citadel might engage the services of the Serpentine Table. Perhaps they’re investigating corruption in the Citadel itself. Perhaps they are taking action against a noble family or foreign government and want deniability. Perhaps they have reason to believe Phiarlan has vital sources for their particular task that they don’t have.

So, what’s the relationship? Use them when they are useful. Stomp on any agents you catch with their fingers in one of your cookie jars.

An issue here is that many people have the sense that entertainment is simply a cover for Phiarlan, and nothing could be farther from the truth. Here’s a quote from one of my early Dragonshard articles:

The first and most important thing to know about House Phiarlan is that most of the people of Khorvaire have no idea that the house is engaged in espionage work. The role of entertainer is not simply a cover. It is a tradition that dates back tens of thousands of years, and for many members of the houses, it is the only trade that they follow. Certainly, rumors state that the elves are spies and assassins, but to most people this is an urban legend. Where would the virtuoso soprano find the time to be a spy? She’s known across Khorvaire for her talents — do you really think she sneaks out and kills people during the intermission? And if you walk into a Phiarlan enclave and ask to hire a spy, the coordinator will advise you to hire a Tharashk inquisitive. Phiarlan does possess one of the finest intelligence networks in Khorvaire, rivaled only by the Trust of Zilargo, but these services are available only to guildmasters and nobles, which are forces Phiarlan recognizes as players in the great game of politics and power.

What would be a good way to show a Siberys Mark at lower levels?

It’s an odd question. The defining aspect of a Siberys Mark is that there ARE no low levels: it grants an extremely powerful ability – on par with a 7th-9th level spell. It does so without warning, manifesting suddenly on someone who’s had no mark prior. Granting a low level character the ability to produce a ninth level spell effect is surely going to throw off the balance of your game… and if they DON’T possess that degree of power, they don’t actually have a Siberys Mark. So my main question is the story you’re actually trying to tell here. I’m going to assume that it’s “I want a PC who is marked for greatness and has an important role to play within the house, but I want to start that story at an early level.”

Given that, there’s a few things you could do. We’ve said of Erandis Vol’s apex mark that she never managed to fully control in her mortal life. Now, her mortal life was quite short after she developed the mark, but nonetheless, there is precedent for someone developing a powerful mark and not being able to immediately control its power. So, a few things you could do.

  • The character physically has the mark, but has no power at all.
  • The character has the mark and can’t control it, but you the GM can occasionally spontaneously have the full power of the Mark manifest. Since you decide when it happens, you control how it affects the balance of the game.
  • The character physically has the mark, and you use it to justify the class powers that she possesses. If she has the Mark of Healing, you can make her a Life Cleric and say that she doesn’t pray at all – that all her powers are simply manifestations of the power of her mark, which she’s slowly unlocking. This gives her a far wider range of powers than a Siberys mark normally provides… but so what? In my opinion it’s an interesting character concept and I don’t care if it doesn’t line up with the typical ability of the Mark; perhaps the character is more in tune with the mark than other Siberys heirs have been. The Mark of Storm could produce something like a sorcerer or druid. The Mark of Shadow might produce a rogue with some illusion ability.

If you’d suggest that the answer would be to flavor other features of the character (spells or powers or feats or skills or whatever) as coming from the dragonmark, how would you (roleplay-wise) differentiate that from a character with a less-powerful mark but which features similar character-building choices?

I would probably limit some of the mechanical choices of the character, potentially compensating for that with a bonus. So the life cleric whose powers come from the Mark of Healing shouldn’t be able to cast Flame Strike or any spell that can’t in some way be logically defined as coming from the Mark; but I might compensate with a bonus to caster level or something similar. Meanwhile, the actual cleric who happens to have the Lesser Mark of Healing has no such restrictions… and furthermore, THAT cleric is actually a cleric and connected to a divine power source, and has something in common with other clerics who share their faith. To get more specific I’d really have to know exactly which mark we’re discussing, because each one would be different. Looking at the sorcerer with the Mark of Storm, I’d likewise limit spell choices to things related to wind, weather, and storm… though I’d also be willing (and I’ve done this in a campaign) to reflavor spells to fit with the mark, so letting them have a ball lightning spell that’s essentially a fireball dealing lightning damage. From a roleplaying perspective, I’d emphasize to the player that they feel a connection to a primal force and that their abilities come from it; that they don’t fully understand it and don’t entirely feel in control, that they know there’s greater power still untouched and they don’t know if it could all come boiling out sometime.

Another example would be an artificer with the Mark of Making. A normal artificer starting off with the Least Mark of Making is a typical trained artificer. Their mark gives them insight into artificing, and the player could cosmetically describe it enhancing the character’s actions, but they are fully trained at the job. By contrast, if I had a “latent Siberys” artificer I’d emphasize that he doesn’t understand the science of what he’s doing at all; he experiences it in a primal way and his mark makes the things he’s trying to do happen. He can’t explain it and he doesn’t really understand it; he can just DO it.

What is the in-setting role that a Siberys heir, regardless of character level, plays in a House? Are they the only ones that can use certain powerful Shard Focus Items, or is it just that they have access to some of the most powerful spell effects available to a House?

What works best with the story you want to tell? We’ve never defined a shard item that can only be used by a Siberys heir, but if you want the Siberys-marked PC to have a vital role in the house you could absolutely say that there’s a important focus item that can only be used by Siberys Heirs – and that can’t be used by the PC until she fully masters her mark. As it stands, it’s largely ornamental – a symbol of the house’s power. Spells of 7th-9th level are not normally available in the general public, and a power like True Creation could be tremendously useful if Cannith needs to get a rare resource instantly. On the other hand, Storm of Vengeance doesn’t serve a useful economic function for Lyrandar – but dang, isn’t it impressive that she can do that?

So like many things, it’s a matter of doing what works best for your story. If you just want them to be a symbol, that’s easy. If you want them to be integral, create something that only they can use.

And further; if Siberys marks requiring high levels of experience isn’t intrinsic to them, why would a House allow a Siberys Heir to be an adventurer?

We’re dealing with multiple layers of hypothetical here, because you’re having to change the existing rules to have an unskilled character with a Siberys mark. However, assuming that you’re letting a low-level character have a Siberys mark and you’ve come up with a way to represent it: I don’t think they’d just say “Go out there! Have fun! Kill a goblin or something.” But why could they be encouraged to be an adventurer?

  • All dragonmarks have relevance in the Prophecy. Siberys dragonmarks are incredibly rare and can almost always be assumes to have significant prophetic relevance. There are those in the houses who study such things, and in your campaign such an individual could hold power within the house and have declared that the marked character has to be an adventurer – because it is tied to their prophetic destiny (the details of which may not be shared with the character). Bear in mind that such a scholar could easily be a disguised agent of the Chamber or the Lords of Dust.
  • One of the main values of such a character is as a symbol of the house. Therefore, if the adventures the character is being sent on in some way serve a greater good or at the least reflect well upon the house, they could again demand the character become an adventurer. And again, this could be a case where it’s less important that the thing happen – it’s possible the House could accomplish the task more easily with elite forces – but because they want to build the PC up as a public face.
  • Once the character is skilled, part of their value to the house is as “You’re one of the most powerful agents we have” and then we get into being sent on missions that are important to the house.

Dragonmark Houses are powerful. The Twelve have a foothold on Khorvaire but who is against them? Who’s the enemy of the Twelve? It seems like they have no overall threat against them other than each other and other businesses. Do they have an enemy or is it a House by House basis? Is anyone trying to end the Houses and if so, why?

It is part of the intentional design of the setting that the houses don’t have true economic rivals in 998 YK. It’s an exploration of the theme of monopolistic power and the balance of rising economic power versus an ailing traditional monarchy. As it stands, the houses have a true monopoly on many important services and they’ve had a thousand years to solidify their reputation. We don’t have to like the idea – don’t – but it was the intention of the setting.

By and large, the enemies of the houses are found on a house to house basis. Consider the following.

  • House Conflicts. Phiarlan and Thuranni. Tharashk and Deneith. Cannith and Cannith. A number of the houses have longstanding rivalries, and you can always introduce new ones.
  • Internal Rivalries. Setting aside dramatic schism as you have in Cannith, individual heirs can have feuds. These could be tied to business – a Cannith artificer wanting to steal or spoil a rival’s work – or driven by passion or other exterior factors.
  • Exterior Foes. Many houses have specific enemies. The Ashbound hate House Vadalis. While they are largely isolated from it, the Children of Winter certainly despise the concept of House Jorasco. The Lord of Blades hates Cannith. We’ve presented situations where the Lords of Dust and the Dreaming Dark are manipulating specific enclaves or heirs.
  • Progress. Magic is a science. At the moment, the houses have monopolies on many important services. But all across Khorvaire people are searching for better ways to solve those problems. The Arcane Congress is definitely working on ways to replicate or evolve beyond the methods used by the houses, and right now a Zil binder could be inventing an airship anyone can pilot. The houses will certainly fight to maintain their dominance – but if you want, you can certainly present a dramatic advance that threatens the position of one or more houses.

As for the houses as a whole, there’s two organizations that could fit the bill.

  • The Aurum is a cabal of powerful and wealthy people, specifically to give these people the power to deal with their dragonmarked rivals. Not every Aurum Concordian has it in for the houses, but many of them would like to see the Twelve broken.
  • House Tarkanan can be a rival if you want it to be. Under the leadership of Thora Tavin it’s mainly an underworld organization that seeks to provide a haven for the aberrants and to build power. The Son of Khyber has grander schemes, and when the time is right he may lead the house to take vengeance on the Twelve.

About House Kundarak: I read recently your article on Dreadhold, the Kundarak prison… I was surprised of having so many 10-13 level pngs working there. At that level you are almost a legend in Eberron and you accept to live in a sad desert island?

Dreadhold isn’t a “sad desert island.” It is one of the most important enclaves of House Kundarak, second only to Korunda Gate. It holds some of the most infamous and dangerous prisoners in history, from the false Keeper Melysse Miron to an immortal incarnation of death. As the article says, “it is more than just a prison: it is a stronghold of House Kundarak, and many treasures are hidden in its deep vaults.” Later it’s noted: “Kundarak conducts most of its of its secret research at Dreadhold, and there may be up to twenty additional artificers, wizards, or magewrights working on secret projects on behalf of the house.”

So: Lord Warden Zaxon d’Kundarak is a legend – and it is for that reason that he is entrusted with the awesome responsibility of overseeing Dreadhold. Beyond this, a reason you have one of the finest wizards in Eberron in Dreadhold – along with Warden Darunthar, an excellent artificer – is in part to maintain the defenses and to be able to personally handle any threats; and in part again because Dreadhold is a center for Kundarak’s mystical research. And much of Kundarak’s mystical research is about crafting improved wards and vaults — all of which can be immediately put into effect in Dreadhold.

Dragonmarks: Changelings

Long ago there was a woman named Jes, and she had a hundred children. Her rivals conspired against her, and swore to kill her hundred children. These enemies numbered in the thousands and wielded dark magic, and the Children would never prevail against them. Jes begged the Sovereigns for help, but their only answer was the wind and rain. She sought the aid of the Silver Flame, but its keepers would not hear her. In the depths of her despair, a lonely traveler took her hand. ‘I will protect your children if they follow my path. Let them wander the world. None will know them. They will have no kingdom but the road, and no enemy will find them. They may be shunned by all the world, but they will never be destroyed.’ Jes agreed, and the traveler gave her his cloak. When she draped it over her children, their old faces melted away, and they could be whoever they wanted to be. And so it is until this day. Though the Children are shunned by all, the gift of the traveler protects them still, so long as they follow his path.

The changeling tribes refuse to let their stories be bound by the written word. The Taleshapers maintain that writing down a story traps it in a single shape; like a changeling, a story should be free to choose the face that suits the moment and the audience. This makes it difficult to pin down changeling history. Morgrave’s Handon Dal believes that this apocryphal tale suggests that the changelings were born in the Sarlonan nation of Ohr Kaluun, a realm known for its bitter feuds and mystical eugenics; skulks and tieflings are also believed to have emerged from Kaluunan rituals. Dal asserts that “Jes” was likely a clan matriarch in Ohr Kaluun, who sought aid from Pyrine and Khalesh, whose religions form the foundations of the modern Sovereign Host and Silver Flame, before resorting to changeling transformation as a way for her clan to survive a forced exodus.

Whatever the truth of this tale, it is the foundation for the tribal traditions. Each of the tribes traces its roots back to a group of the Hundred, and ‘The Children’ remains a common term for the changelings as a whole. The Taleshapers say that the Children scattered so that they couldn’t be caught in one place and destroyed. Following the precepts of the tale, they say that they will never raise a kingdom, but that it is their place to be forever unknown, to survive in the face of fear and scorn. Their shapeshifting is a divine gift given to them to preserve them against their enemies, and they are entirely justified in using it to fool the single-skins and take what they need to survive.

I didn’t write the changeling chapter of Races of Eberron. I don’t object to the ideas presented in it, but I’ve always had other thoughts. Eberron content is still restricted and I can’t present a version of changelings for 5E or a truly in-depth racial guide. But I wanted to share a few thoughts about how I use changelings at my table.

In my Eberron, there are three primary changeling cultures in Khorvaire.

  • Foundlings are changelings raised by other species. This could be due to interspecies romance, or the child could be orphaned or descended from an outcast… or part of a family of foundlings. Foundlings have no knowledge of changeling cultural traditions, and rarely have contact with changelings outside their own families. Foundlings develop a wide variety of philosophies, including those described in Races of Eberron. Some foundlings hide from their true nature, adopting a single face and never changing. Some are sociopaths who prey on those around them, stealing the faces of those they kill. There’s no predicting the beliefs of a foundling, and they can be found anywhere.  
  • Stable changelings live in changeling communities that are recognized and known to the people around them. They are often comfortable wearing the skins they were born in, feeling no need to hide their changeling nature. In the Five Nations, Breland is the only nation with stable changeling communities (notable Dragoneyes in Sharn); other stable communities include Lost in Droaam (from Dungeon #193) and the Gray Tide principality in Lhazaar. Stable communities were founded by tribal changelings, so some traditions overlap; however, many have been abandoned as the members of the community don’t feel threatened.
  • Tribal changelings cling to traditions stretching back to their origins in Sarlona; they refer to themselves as ‘The Children’. Their culture is defined by the hostility and distrust of outsiders; they hide their communities and their true identities from others, revealing just enough to keep strangers from seeking more. They live in the shadows of the other races, using their wits and their gifts to survive. Most tribal changelings spend their lives in motion, traveling from place to place and never staying long enough to draw unwanted attention. They are seen as tricksters and tinkers, and this reputation is often deserved; tribal changelings don’t consider it a crime to deceive single-skins. The tribes are based in Thrane, Aundair, and Karrnath, but wandering tribals can be found across Khorvaire.

The relationship between changelings and doppelgangers is in the hands of the gamemaster. “Doppelganger” could simply be a term used to describe a changeling sociopath who uses their powers in a predatory fashion. Alternately, doppelgangers could be a parallel species possessing greater telepathic and shapeshifting abilities; they may consider themselves the true heirs of Ohr Kaluun, asserting that changeling bloodlines are the result of interbreeding with other species. Meanwhile, tribal changelings assert the opposite; doppelgangers aren’t the predecessors of the changeling race, rather they are a cursed offshoot of it.  

In the past I never had an opportunity or reason to develop changelings further. Races of Eberron is the canon resource on changelings and it didn’t come up in other projects, until I wrote the article on Lost for Dungeon. However, when 5E started up a friend of mine launched an Eberron campaign and I decided to play a changeling rogue I called Tel, though the name the party knew her by was Max. I decided that Max was a tribal changeling, and so I worked a little more on their culture.

For me, one of the pillars of tribal culture is the idea of Personas: distinct identities that serve a personal and cultural role. I wrote the following as part of my character write-up for Max.

While Max can wear any face that she wants, such a disguise has no depth. A disguise she makes up for a task is a newborn, with no voice or history of its own. These personas have their own history and personality. Each one is a real person, with friends, enemies, and goals of their own. One way to think about it is that each persona is a story … and that while Max is wearing the persona, it’s her duty to further that story. Tel is true neutral. Max is neutral good; it’s important to her to help people, and she wants to make the world a better place. Bronson is a criminal who has survived a hundred streetfights and has a reputation as a ruthless torturer. He’s going to want to see profit in a venture, and won’t hesitate to kill or cause pain. Bronson also doesn’t speak Elvish, even though Tel does; she’d have to shift to another persona to do that.

Personas are tools. They have established identities that can be useful to the changelings who use them; in this example, Bronson has connections in the Boromar Clan established before my character was born, and the persona provides Max with access to those contacts. But it’s also a way for the changeling to focus their thoughts and talents. Personas are more than just faces. Mastering a persona is like learning to think in another language. It’s about being that person. Max is soft hearted and dislikes violence; Bronson is a ruthless killer. So when she knows violence is around the corner, Max will give way to Bronson and let him handle the fight. Likewise, Max knows people and is good at friendly manipulation; she’s the persona Tel uses when she plans to rely on Deception and Insight. While Bronson specializes in Intimidation. From a mechanical perspective, Max the rogue has the rogue’s specialization in different skills. From a story perspective, that specialization reflects her personas. So the raw character has specialties in Intimidation and Insight; but if I’m going to use Intimidation, I’ll switch to Bronson, because that’s his specialty. 

Every changeling can assume any number of faces. As noted above, these are newborns with no history, no fixed behavior; you might use them once and forget about them. Each changeling creates their own personas, creating one or more people they want to be. But they can also inherit personas from other members of their tribe. This involves training, with a living master of the persona teaching the youth how to be that persona. Many personas are unique, with only one member of the tribe being allowed to use the persona at any time; this prevents someone from doing something with the persona that could spoil it for others. However, there are also personas shared by the tribe. These are generally travelers – merchants, bards, tinkers, mercenaries – people no one knows exceptionally well, so it’s easy for different changelings to play the part without getting tripped up by recent events.

Again, to be clear: Not every face a changeling assumes is a persona. A tribal changeling can impersonate a guard for a momentary advantage and then throw the face away, or wear a particular guise for a party. Personas are a deeper part of the culture.

A second concept for tribal changelings is the ideas of skin cant. This is the concept that tribes employ cosmetic details – tattoos, birthmarks, scars, patterns of freckles – that have specific meaning to other members of their tribe. A particular facial scar (which could be added to any guise) might tell other members of the tribe I need help or everything I’m saying is a lie. It’s a simple way for a changeling to share information that also allows members of a tribe of identify one another even if they are wearing unknown faces.

LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT MY CHARACTER: TEL & MAX

So, now you’ve seen my ideas for tribal changelings… here’s an example of how I put these into action. At the start of the campaign, I developed four distinct personas for Tel. Here’s my notes on each one.

  • Max (female Karrnathi human) is Tel’s first face, the first persona she created on her own. She’s a freelance inquisitive (licensed by Tharashk). This fits, as she is extremely inquisitive by nature. If she sees someone in distress, she’ll ask what’s wrong… and if she can easily help, she will. She likes to make friends and help people when she can do it without personal cost. As a result of this, she has a lot of friends in a lot of places both people she’s done favors for, and people who she owes favors to. While she is an inquisitive, Max’s specialty is people. She’s as much a con artist as she is a detective, though she tries to use these talents to help rather than hurt. She has the changeling knack for seeing beyond the surface and an exceptional talent for sincerity and disguise. Max generally refers to herself as “Max” even when she’s using temporary faces simply because the things she’s doing are Max things; Tel is about helping the tribe, and if she’s just helping her friends, it’s Max doing it. As a Karrn who grew up near the Ironroots, she speaks (and curses in) fluent Dwarvish; she understands Elvish and Goblin but doesn’t speak either well. She’s prepared to fight, but doesn’t enjoy it, especially if it comes to killing; she prefers to leave bloodletting to Bronson and Meriwether.

 

  • Bronson Droranath (male Brelish dwarf) is a freelancer with the Boromar Clan… sometimes a fixer, sometimes a legbreaker, but he’s best known as an interrogater. He has a reputation in the Clan as someone who specializes in causing pain – not the deadliest dwarf in Dura, but if you get into a fight with him, he’ll leave a scar. Bronson has endured a great deal of pain, both physical and emotional, and he enjoys sharing it with others. He believes that the world is a cesspool and feels no remorse for his actions. Technically, he believes in the Sovereigns, but he also believes that they are cruel bastards. He despises Dassk and has a few enemies among the monsters. Tel inherited Bronson from her mother, Galiandrya. He’s been active in Sharn for seventy years, with long leaves of absence; once Garrow rose to power, Gal didn’t use him often. Bronson was the primary tool Gal used to teach Tel the intricacies of shapechanging. While he’s very familiar to her, Tel doesn’t like Bronson much, and she’s actually a little afraid of him… but there are certain jobs he’s good at and many of her useful Sharn contacts will only deal with him. He speaks Common and Dwarvish.

 

  • Rael Hess D’Medani (male Brelish Khoravar) is a foundling, a dragonmarked heir who had to earn his way back into his house after his grandparents were excoriated. He was taken in by the Hesses, who have always been noted for eccentricity; Rael lives up to that reputation. He’s a brilliant inquisitive, but has little patience for working within house protocols, and he’s never bound himself to the Guild. He shows up when he wants and disappears just as quickly. He’s helped the Sharn Watch, and worked with the King’s Guard during the war; as he had a distant connection with his house, he could provide direct assistance without the house taking sides. As such, he has a few distant acquaintances in the Guard and Watch who might call on his talents. Rael knows many trivial details, and can pontificate for hours on how a particular clue relates to a story. With that said, he’s astonishingly perceptive and intuitive. Rael is an heirloom persona created by Tel’s uncle Hol, who was a brilliant inquisitive in his own right. Hol groomed Tel to assume Rael, and this is the source of her inquisitive talents; Max still sees Rael as a wise mentor. Hol was eventually murdered; Rael still hopes to solve that case. Rael was sponsored by Uther Hess d’Medani, who knows his true nature but considers Rael a friend; Uther has also been a good friend to Max. While Rael doesn’t actually have a dragonmark, he often uses his mark as a form of meditation. He speaks all the languages Tel knows.

 

  • Meriwether (female Lhazaar elf) is a Phiarlan excoriate; technically she was Thuranni, but she left the house before the Shadow Schism. Before she was cut off from the house, she was a member of the Serpentine Table and a professional killer. Max saved Meriwether when the assassin was on the run, shortly after Max had begun wandering the world. Meriwether took in the changeling girl and taught her many things, honing her natural instincts for stealth, teaching her to spot a threat, and showing her how to use a rapier and blow and the trick to striking a lethal blow. Eventually, Meriwether died (a story that will need to be told at some point), and Max chose to continue her memory. Max knows a great deal about Meriwether and can get by fairly well even when dealing with her acquaintances (and she had very few friends). However, she certainly doesn’t know EVERYTHING about Meriwether. There also exists the possibility that Meriwether herself planned for Max to carry on in her name… that there’s some long game at work, and that Max could have suppressed memories or magic tattoos that won’t reveal themselves until the time is right. In connection with this: Meriwether was a storyteller as well as an assassin. She often told Max stories of the Valeus Tairn, who preserve the spirits of their ancestors by emulating their deeds. Following Tairnadal tradition, Max has kept a silk scarf of Meriwether’s and pulls it up to cover her lower face when she’s on a “Meri mission.” Is she actually preserving Meri’s spirit? Who knows. Meri wants her to become an assassin; Rael wants her to be an inquisitive.

So Max is entirely Tel’s creation. Bronson and Rael are inherited personas. And Meriwether is a real person who played an influential role in Tel’s life, who she adopted as a persona after the real Meriwether died. At the table, I’d switch between personas as best suited the current scenario. In addition to that, each persona provided different hooks the GM could play with. Did Meriwether have plans for Tel/Max? Could an old rival of Bronson’s show up with a grudge?

In addition to all this, there was one more twist. This campaign was a follow-up to a previous Eberron campaign that had lasted for years. In that campaign, the changeling Garrow – introduced in Shadows of the Last War as an agent of the Emerald Claw – ended up overthrowing Kaius and ruling Karrnath on behalf of Erandis Vol, until finally being brought down by the player characters. This new campaign was set a decade after the original, and I wrote up the following as part of Max’s background.

Max’s true name is Teliandyri, painted in blue and gold. She is a changeling of the true lineage of the Dawn Wanderers, a tribe of the Children based in Karrnath and the Lhazaar Principalities. Long ago, the Dawn Wanderers integrated the faith of the Blood of Vol into their beliefs, maintaining that the lesson of the Traveler is that every changeling has the potential to become the Traveler. The first Wanderer to present this faith spoke with the voice of Garrow, and Garrow has remained in her line as a champion of both Blood and Children. This proud tradition came to an end when Max’s mother Galiandyra (Gal) assumed the role of Garrow. GarrowGal betrayed her people and her faith for the promise of power, joining Erandis Vol’s corrupt Order of the Emerald Claw and ultimately seizing power in Karrnath. GarrowGal was defeated by Queen Bellandra ir’Wynarn, and her death sparked a backlash against both Children and Seekers.

Max comes from a proud line. Her ancestors created heroes, stories, and priests. Her people have always provided leadership and inspiration for the Dawn Wanderers, and the same things are expected of her. Garrow is hers by right of blood. But Galiandyra’s actions have cast a shadow on her blood, both in the eyes of the tribe and Tel herself. She has vowed to wander until she finds a way to redeem Garrow and undo the harm her mother has done to both Seekers and Children.

She left Karrnath when she was twelve — young for a wanderer, but changelings mature more quickly than humans. She has spent the last eight years roaming the Five Nations, drawing on the faces she has inherited and making names of her own. Max is her favorite face; she’s curious and always searching for mysteries. She has friends, enemies, and contacts in many places, and has many safe havens… but nothing she’d call a home. There is always a place for her among the Dawn Wanderers, but neither she nor they will rest until she has resolved her vow.

So Max also had a fifth Persona: Garrow. But the idea was that she’d never use Garrow until she had an opportunity to redeem him. And, of course, while they were playing different characters, all the other players in the group had been in that game where Garrow was a recurring villain… and I was looking forward to bringing him back and playing out that story.

As it turned out, the campaign didn’t last as long as the one before; people moved and life interfered. But I’ve always liked Max’s story.

Let me know what you’ve done with changelings in your campaign! Meanwhile, here’s a few questions that have come up.

A rogue has a wide variety of skills that can easily be adapted to several personas, what about ideas for some of the other classes?

Personas can be tied to skills – as the example of Max, where Bronson was used for Intimidation and Rael was the expert in Perception. But personas can also be about different approaches to the same thing. A changeling fighter could have a one persona for each of the three faces of war – a monster-hunting champion sworn to spread the light of Dol Arrah, a stoic soldier who fought for Breland during the Last War, and a ruthless mercenary who will use any dirty trick to achieve victory (and who has ties to House Deneith). As a player, it’s the question of whether this situation calls for a hero, a stoic, or a pragmatist – and each of these personas further has different connections in the world that could play a role in an adventure.

Beyond this, personas can have roles within the tribe or community that go beyond skills. The same changeling fighter could have a persona that’s a martial champion of the tribe, a hero who defends them from their enemies. Like Max and Garrow, it’s not a question of when it’s useful for the PC to assume this role; it’s a question of when they are prepared to live up to it and have the skills necessary to take on that mantle. For Max, becoming Garrow was a long term goal.

The same principle could apply to any class. A changeling wizard could have different personas for different schools of magic; if he primarily memorizes illusion spells, he’ll use his sly illusionist persona, while he uses a fiery dwarf when focusing on evocation. Or he might have an elderly sage for scholarly work and lore, along with a young battle mage persona who handles combat.

Like the Valeus Tairn, do you think changelings have a certain standard of reputation a persona needs to gain before they’d pass it on or is it more abstract along the lines of this persona still has a story to tell?

There’s a few issues to consider…

  • Does this persona have a strong enough identity that it can be passed on? Can you teach someone else to be this person?
  • Does this persona have any value to the tribe? Is there a REASON to keep this persona alive? Bronson provides valuable underworld connections in Sharn and as a dwarf, we could keep him going for another century.
  • In some cases a persona is essentially an office. Garrow is a spiritual leader within the Dawn Wanderers, and for Tel to assume the role is like becoming the Dalai Lama; she wouldn’t become Garrow until she can both redeem the identity and until she believes she can live up to the duties of being Garrow.

Looking to Garrow specifically, with the Tairnadal they keep the spirit of their heroes alive; here the point is that the changeling who takes on the persona of a hero has to be prepared to actually be that hero.

Would it be safe to say that most major “political” roles in a stable settlement may have personas attached? For example, you don’t go to Grey Tide healer, you go to Vim. There might be two or three changelings who could be Vim at any given time, but the healer is Vim. 

It would vary from community to community. And unlike Tairnadal, inherited personas don’t have to be legendary figures. In one village, the healer develops a persona for his healing work – Vim, a kindly, knowledgable man who puts patients at ease. As this is a persona, he can set it aside when he goes home to his family; Vim is the healer. People react well to Vim, and his apprentices learn the persona, so that way everyone who deals with “Vim” has that same sense of confidence and comfort (even though they know they may not be dealing with the original Vim). Over time Vim becomes the job, outliving the originator.

If there’s a major plague or something, would it be odd to see all three of these in the Vim persona at the same time?

Well, the apprentices have the skills whether they’re Vim or not, so they could heal without being Vim. On the other hand, they’ll be at their best when they’re Vim, because that persona is entirely focused on being the best healer. In a stable community, I think you could see this – three Vims at once – because the persona isn’t a deception; again, it’s basically an office and a focusing tool. It would certainly be rare among tribal changelings, where it’s generally important to maintain the illusion that the personas are real people.

So when they need leadership, they find Prince Kel, when they need healing, they find Vim, though these both may be assumed by a changeling named Rhett who makes his living as a farmer. More or less correct?

Close. Rhett may have been a farmer as a child. But being Vim requires significant training, and having mastered the form it’s unlikely those skills would be wasted on farming; if Rhett doesn’t serve as Vim full time, he’s probably apprentice to the primary Vim. Skill doesn’t come with the shape; rather, the shape serves both as a mnemonic focus for the changeling and as an identifying factor to those coming for service. Max’s mother taught her to be Bronson, and that work included learning to fight and to intimidate. Hol taught her the art of detection, and Rael was the focus for those skills. Rhett would be taught to be Vim, learning the art of medicine at the same time that he learns the mannerisms and features of the old healer.

And looking again to Max, she possesses all her skills in all her forms. The idea is simply that she is most comfortable using the skills in the persona associated with them. When she’s Bronson, she thinks like Bronson, ruthless and cruel; this is the best match for close combat. But she can still use a rapier as Rael without mechanical penalty. So going back to Rhett, assuming Vim’s form doesn’t make him a healer; training makes him a healer. It’s just that his training in medicine went hand in hand with being Vim, and people know to look for Vim when they need healing – trusting that someone who’s learned to mimic his form has also learned his skills.

How do you deal with Changling characters who have met and spent time with humanoids with wings, or who can breath underwater, like Aarikocra or Tritons?

Per the Eberron Campaign Setting book, the Changeling ability mimics Disguise Self, which specifically DOES NOT provide the abilities of the assumed form; this is in contrast to Alter Self, which does allow the user to create functional wings. Per the ECS, a changeling can LOOK like a Triton or an Aarikocra, but they can’t breathe water or fly.

How do the wandering tribals wander? Do they do so as individuals or as communities? If as communities, how do they travel without being immediately spotted?

Generally, individually or in small groups. A small group would have a nondescript wagon designed so it can easily be converted to appear to fill a number of different roles; it could be a merchant wagon, a coach of tourists, an entertainer and their entourage, and so on. this would be customized based on the region, the relevant personas they have with ties to the area, and what they plan to do in the area. If they have something to sell, they’re merchants. If they’re flush with cash, they’re tourists. If they’ve got a bard, they’re entertainers. And bear in mind, the changeling entertainer could have a legitimate Phiarlan license and be ready to put on a show. Beyond this, they are generally traveling through regions they know. So they know village X is strongly religious but has no priest and always responds well to a traveling preacher, while town Y has a soft spot for soldiers.

Beyond this, you also have individual tribals who remain stationary for periods in larger communities. They serve as anchors, passing messages between groups of wanderers, helping to gather resources, and filling wanderers in on local news or important changes in the community (along with things like “Jal was publicly killed while using his Old Barmy identity, so Barmy is dead in this region.”). When the anchor gets tired of the post, they can trade places with a wanderer familiar with the anchor persona. Typically, an anchor is someone who sees a fair amount without drawing a lot of attention or having too much responsibility – beggars, barmaids, etc – but some anchors hold more significant positions. For example, a changeling with healing skills may serve as a healer in a small village. That village is a central hub for the migration patterns of wanderers of that tribe, and they all know that the village is a safe place for an injured member of the tribe to go for healing and recovery without having to worry about being exposed and drawing hostility.

However, with personae which are deliberately passed from one changeling to another (at last the question!), are magical or psionic means ever used to transfer actual memories from one to the next?

It’s possible. Part of this depends on your view of the relationship between changelings and doppelgangers. Traditional doppegangers are fully telepathic and can detect thoughts at will. You could assert that changelings and doppelgangers are different species, or you could say that they are the same species; that the telepathic talent is something that exists in the race but must be honed; and thus, that doppelgangers have mastered this particular gift but that all changelings possess it on some level. When I first created the setting, my idea was that they WERE the same species and that there would be a “monster class” (this was just after Savage Species had been released) allowing a PC changeling to hone those doppelganger abilities. The racial skill bonuses of a changeling – Insight, Intimidation, and Bluff – are based on the idea that all changelings have some innate, instinctive telepathy, even if it’s not consciously controlled. One of the things I always liked about this is the idea that changelings essentially judge people by their thoughts/body language more than by their appearance.

If you embrace this idea, you can say that there are some tribes that have harnessed this ability and use telepathy in this manner. However, even if you don’t go this far, you could also say that a changeling persona teacher does develop a strong psychic bond with their student – that while this isn’t mechanically represented by a general telepathic ability, for story purposes it is possible for them to telepathically share memories through a process of meditation (a sort of mind meld).

As a side note, back in 3E I wrote the setting-neutral Complete Guide To Doppelgangers for Goodman Games. In that, doppelganger communites do have living “memory wells” where they can essentially download memories so that other doppelgangers in their community can catch up on the latest memories for a particular persona.

When a changeling has multiple strong personae, is the root identity always in total control? Do personae ever “fight” for dominance? Or slip out suddenly? Say Max is performing normal duties, when she spots one of Bronson’s arch-enemies. Could Bronson suddenly take over? Or would that only happen in a changeling who is somehow mentally damaged?

There’s some fine lines to define here. First of all, as *I* run them, the core personality is always in control of which personas are assumed. When Tel is being Max, the only personas involved are Tel and Max, and Bronson can’t suddenly jump in and take over. If a fight breaks out, it’s a question as to whether Tel WANTS to shift to Bronson.

Now, when Tel is Bronson, she is entirely in control in the sense that Tel’s desires and long-term goals drive Bronson’s actions. He’s not going to suddenly murder her friends. But she is embracing Bronson’s feelings and instincts, and letting those guide her response to a situation. So I describe Tel as being “afraid of Bronson” because she’s more likely to be ruthless or cruel when she’s Bronson. But she’s never ENTIRELY out of control, and she can always switch out of Bronson. Part of this means that if you have three changelings who have the Vim persona, they are still shaped by their own unique motives – they aren’t the EXACT SAME PERSON when they are Vim. But Vim will be a lens that filters that core personality.

Now, you could certainly present a mentally unstable changeling whose personas have fully taken on their own lives, but that’s not the standard.

GM Tips: Player Buy-In

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to take part in Geek & Sundry’s GM Tips with Satine Phoenix, and my episode was just released today.

Since the episode includes a link to this website, some of you might have followed it and be saying “Who is this guy, anyway?” So I’m going to give the brief Keith rundown, and then I want to review the concepts Satine and I discuss in the episode.

So: I’m Keith Baker. I’ve been a professional game designer for over twenty years, and in that time I’ve worked on tabletop RPGs, board and card games, MMORPG computer games, and LARPs. I’ve written six novels. Most people who’ve heard of me know me as the creator of Eberron, one of the official settings for Dungeons & Dragons. Others are more familiar with my card game Gloom, which uses transparent cards and encourages you to take control of a family and tell a story about their tragic demise. More recently, I’ve founded my own company Twogether Studios and we’ve just released a new RPG, Phoenix: Dawn Command… a fantasy RPG where death is how your character grows stronger. If you’re interested in acquiring Phoenix, you can get it from the Twogether website or from Amazon.

Whether I’m working with RPGs, MMORPGs, or storytelling games such as Gloom, what I most enjoy is the collaborative experience of roleplaying. As the gamemaster I assemble the pieces of the story, but I love the fact that I don’t know how it’s going to end. In 2009 I traveled the world and ran a particular Eberron adventure with fifty-six different groups of gamers… and every time people came up with something I’d never seen before. So that’s a critical part of my approach to GMing: working with the players to create a story that we all enjoy. Phoenix adds another twist: because death isn’t the end of the story, the odds and the stakes can be far higher than in the typical RPG session. I can drop the wing into a village where there’s a zombie outbreak and say you have two hours to contain this: after that, it will have spread too far to be contained, and we’ll lose this region. The odds may be stacked against them, and to contain the infection they’ll have to find ways to beat the odds. It may take heroic sacrifice, with one or more Phoenixes giving their lives to help the rest succeed. They may decide they have to destroy the village to save the region. And it is entirely possible that they may fail, in which case they will have to live with the consequences once they are reborn… and that real possibility of failure makes any victory that much sweeter.

Which brings us to Player Buy-In, the topic of the GM Tips episode. How do you encourage players to invest in the game, to see their characters and the world as more than just stats and numbers?

First of all, if I’m preparing a long-term campaign around a particular concept, I’m going to start by discussing that concept with the players. I may want to do a spy campaign filled with intrigue and diplomacy, but if all the players want pulp adventure and action we’re going to have a problem. If you have a concrete idea – a war story, investigating Lovecraftian horrors, a mystery-oriented gritty crime saga – see what the players think and what they’d like to see in such a campaign. If you don’t have a concrete idea, talk to the players and see what interests them. Is there a particular theme or time period that interests them? A particular arc that sounds interesting? This can also tie to choice of setting or system. Phoenix is an action-oriented war story with elements of horror and investigation… does that sound fun?

Once we agree on the basic concept, my next step is to work with the players on characters. With some campaigns, I’ll get the players to develop the connections between their characters in advance. Generally this is about asking questions. Perhaps they all served together in a war… what role did their character play in the unit? What’s the worst thing character X saw in the war? How did Character Y save their life? Who was the beloved comrade they lost? Or perhaps they’ll all thieves in the same guild. Why did they turn to a life of crime? What was their biggest haul… and how did they lose the money?

While I like having parties of characters with a solid backstory going into a campaign, you can also find ways to tie disparate characters together through the action. This is the approach Phoenix takes. During character creation each player determines their own backstory. Who were they in their first life? How did they die? What are they fighting for now – because they couldn’t return as a Phoenix unless they had something worth fighting for? What are they still afraid of? The story of the setting then places them together into a wing facing horrific dangers, and as I said above, failure is an option; they all have their own reasons for fighting, but they’ll have to work together to succeed.

Looking to a more traditional campaign, there’s the Eberron campaign I discuss in the episode. Here each player made their own character, and I had each of them come up with a reason that character would be going to the frontier city of Stormreach. What are they running from? What do they hope to achieve? The game begins with them on an airship heading across the Thunder Sea. There’s a little time in the common area for them to get to know each other, as strangers on a ship might. Then the ship gets hijacked. The PCs don’t have any attachment to one another… but they’re the only people on the ship with the skills to deal with the hijackers, and there’s nowhere else to go. So they have a reason to work together. Presumably they will succeed… but by the time they get control of the ship, it’s already off course. It hits an airborne manifest zone and the elemental ring goes out.

Now the ship is crashing. None of the players have the skills required to repair an airship; they have a minute to figure out how to survive a crash. And they likely will – but it won’t be pretty. They find themselves marooned in an unknown location, injured, and saddled with other survivors who don’t have their skills… but who still may have vital knowledge or talents that could help them survive. They soon realize they aren’t even on Eberron anymore; the event that caused the ship to crash has marooned them on another plane of existence. Ultimately they can determine that they have six days to find a way back to Eberron before the planar alignment shifts and they’re stuck in Lamannia for years. The next two adventures take place in Lamannia, as they search for the things they need to survive and to find a way home. Again, the characters don’t know each other: but they have an organic reason to work together, because there’s a common goal that none of them want to walk away from. Ultimately they do find a way back to Stormreach. Now they’re finally where they wanted to go, where each of them has something they want to accomplish. But Stormreach is a dangerous place, and all their goals are more than they can accomplish alone. And you know, what about working with those people who got them through Lamannia? Rather than forcing friendship on the PCs from the start, this sort of scenario is a way to build a bond through the action of the game.

It’s possible your players aren’t comfortable coming up with this sort of story. They want to play a dwarf fighter; they don’t really have any ideas beyond that. In this case, you could present them with possible ideas – in the process helping them get a clearer idea of the setting. Here’s an example of a character questionnaire for a warforged soldier in a campaign in which the PCs were soldiers who spent time in a Karrnathi prison camp.

Another issue is that some players may be afraid to develop a background that gives them connections to the world because “The GM will use this against me” — or that they don’t want to have any sort of background element that implies failure. It’s important to make clear that this isn’t a competition. If they don’t want you to “use things against them” you shouldn’t do it; you’re trying to build an experience you’re all going to enjoy. But talk to them about stories or movies they enjoy and their favorite characters. Compelling characters generally aren’t perfect paragons with no connections to the world around them. They’re people who overcome past failings, who fight to protect the things they care about, who learn from mistakes. In the questionnaire above, I don’t give the players the option of having pulled off a perfect escape: someone got left behind, and it’s up to them to decide who. Because that failure gives the story weight. Their character isn’t perfect. The story is real, and bad things can happen… which makes the triumphs they have in the future more meaningful. I may offer them a set of three characters who were left behind, as in the example above, but once they’ve made that choice I’ll ask them to help me add details about that lost friend. What was your favorite joke Rascal told you? The more the player personalizes this NPC, the more it becomes their story, and the more meaningful it will be for them if they have a chance to save Rascal in the future.

I’m going to wrap up with that. But to me, the main point is to work with your players. Building the story together is the best way to ensure that you all care about it. As GM, it’s your job to craft the foundation and providing the driving force of the story. But the more chances you give the players to invest in the story, the more impact it will have and the more investment you’ll have in the long term.

So: what techniques do YOU use to enhance player buy-in?