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.

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.

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?

 

Worldbuilding 101: Taverns

There’s a lot of exciting things in the World of Keith. Phoenix: Dawn Command is now available on Amazon. The price is the same as getting it at your FLGS or from our website, so if your FLGS carries it that’s your best option. However, if you can’t get it locally, Amazon provides a way to avoid the high shipping costs that have been a problem in the past. I’m writing new Phoenix material right now, so you’ll see more of that in the months ahead!

But on to today’s topic. A few weeks back, someone said It’s easy to make Eberron feel like Eberron in the big cities. How do I do the same when visiting a tavern, or hamlet?” 

I addressed the main question in this Dragonmark article, but taverns are an interesting topic and I wanted to take the subject beyond Eberron.

A tavern can serve many functions in a campaign. Traditionally, it’s a place for adventurers to meet mysterious strangers in order to acquire quests. But there are many other ways to use an inn. In Casablanca, Rick’s Cafe is a neutral ground where people from all walks of life mingle; “Everybody comes to Rick’s.” While also in Casablanca, The Blue Parrot is where you go if you want to make a deal with underworld boss Ferrari. Consider…

  • GOODS AND SERVICES. Are you looking for a pilot? You’ll find the best in the cantina in Mos Eisley. Smugglers, traveling merchants, mercenaries, spies… Anyone without a legitimate storefront may sell their services in their favorite watering hole. And the choice of tavern tells you a little something about that person.
  • ONE NIGHT STAND. Your adventure may be taking you to Mordor, but a night at the Prancing Pony can add color and complications to the journey. It’s easy to gloss over travel, taking the “red line on the map” approach. But a night in an interesting inn can be a memorable scene. How do you spend the evening? Do you hide in your room? Sing an old Brelish song with the captains in the corner? Gamble with those mercenaries? When the tinker offers to sell you a lucky charm, do you take it or do you tell them to get lost?
  • DEN OF THIEVES. A tavern can be a home base for a particular group of people. It could be neutral ground: if you want to negotiate with the Boromar Clan, have a drink in Callestan. Or it may be that you’re taking your life in your hands when you go inside, and you’d better be prepared to fight your way out. The party’s rogue may have a bar where she meets fences or negotiates with higher-ups in the guild. In my last CCD20 adventure, the party is pursuing a war criminal who’s holed up in an inn in Graywall; can they dig him out without angering the locals? Cottonmouth’s club in Luke Cage is a good example of this.
  • HOME FROM HOME. A tavern can be a great base of operations for a group of adventurers, especially if they are freelance agents. This could be a location that develops organically over time, or it could be something you work into the initial backstory. It could be a family business associated with one of the player characters, perhaps operated by a parent or sibling. It could be owned by a friend, perhaps a soldier who fought alongside the adventurers during the war but retired from the adventuring life due to injuries. It might be simple business; the innkeeper provides the adventurers with free room and board in exchange for them dealing with any troubles that arise in the bar while they’re around. It could even be that the inn belongs to one of the PCs… consider Kote in The Kingkiller Chronicles. Having a set base of operations can help the players feel a stronger sense of attachment to the world, and you can work with them to develop details about the inn. What’s their favorite meal? What’s an interesting detail about the server? What’s the most unusual feature about their character’s room? And of course, once the players are attached to the location, it becomes a thing that can be threatened to generate dramatic tension…

SETTING UP SHOP

So you’ve some ideas of what to do with your tavern… now you need to describe it. Start by considering the following elements.

PURPOSE. Typically, the general purpose of a tavern is to provide a comfortable place for people to gather over food and drink; if it’s an inn, add lodging to the lineup. Does your establishment have any other purpose? Is it a casino? A brothel? A recruiting center for mercenaries? Is it operated by a church or other organization, and how does that affect decor and services?

CLIENTELE. Does this establishment serve the general population, or does it serve a more specialized niche? While this could be something like mercenaries or criminals, it could just as easily cater to fans of a particular sport, people who work at a nearby business (a quarry, a mill, a shipyard), or members of a particular faith. This decision can help you envision what sort of people might be around on a typical afternoon. If it serves a particular niche, do they welcome outsiders or drive them away? Will the hrazhak fans teach you the sport, or give you the cold shoulder? If you’re planning to use the place more than once, come up with names and descriptions for three regulars people can usually expect to find here.

STAFF. Who runs this place? Is the innkeeper or bartender the owner, or are these separate? Is there live music? Is there a single weary barmaid? A host of goblin servants? Bound spirits that handle domestic tasks? How does the bartender maintain order… a shotgun or wand behind the bar? A scary bouncer? The general love of the clientele?

DISTINCTIVE FEATURES. What makes this inn stand out? Why is it in this particular location in the first place? Who founded it? Is the bartender a former celebrity of some sort? Is there something remarkable about the structure? Is there something that serves a particular purpose… a fighting ring? A stage for performances? What about food and drink? In Eberron, there are Zil waterhouses that only serve water flavored with prestidigitation… what does this place serve, and why?

LOCATION. Why is there a tavern here? In a big city it might be one of a dozen, but if it’s out in the wilds it’s a valid question. Is it on a major trade road? Does it cater to pilgrims on their way to a nearby shrine? Is it the last outpost of civilization on the edge of a mystic wasteland?

Here’s a few examples to consider…

  • The Labyrinth. Located in the monstrous city of Graywall, the Labyrinth is built into an old quarry. A vast awning keeps rain from flooding the quarry, and customers descend a spiral ramp to get down to the common room. A medusa manages the bar, and the statues scattered around are a warning to those who might cause trouble. Goblins and gnolls surround the central firepit, cheering for the harpy performing mesmerizing torch songs. The rooms for rent are part of a vast network of caves that stretch below the quarry.
  • The Quill. Known as a refuge for authors and wizards alike, The Quill is named for the writing implement of a legendary mage, which is ensconced above the bar. The Quill serves the students and faculty of the nearby college of magic, and this is reflected in its fixtures; the rooms are lit by continual flames, and there are a number of unseen servants that perform menial tasks. Most of the servers are students themselves, while the bartender is a retired alumni who prefers mixology to magic. Nonetheless, it’s an excellent place to hear gossip or trade for rare components. Brave mages can compete in the creative cantrip competition that occurs every week.
  • The Crooked Tree. This inn is on the only road that runs through the deep forest. It’s built around the trunk of a gnarled tree, and while she lets the innkeeper handle business, the owner is the ancient dryad bound to this tree. It could be that most customers are mortals who use the main road, or it could be that the inn primarily caters to the fey that lurk in the shadows of the wood; if this is the case, you might have to pay for a drink with a secret, or pay for your room with a promise; gold is worth nothing beneath the Crooked Tree.

These details are great for building random scenes. Even if you’re just using the inn as a one night stand, is there an event going on when the players arrive? Is it a competition a player could take part in? Give that bard a chance to do what they do best! Or if it’s on a trade road or pilgrimage route, will a caravan roll up while the player characters are dining, and will it bring trouble?

Should a fight break out, these details can also add a lot of flavor. In games like d20, combat can sometimes feel very clinical… I rolled an 18 and did six points of damage. OK, but what did you DO? Think about bar fights in any movie. Are you hitting someone with a barstool? Tossing them through the window, or back into a rack of bottles? What I like to do in this sort of situation is to provide the players with a 3×5 card with a list of notable things in the bar… A Roaring Fire; A Barstool; A Plate Glass Window; A Chandelier; A Barmaid With A Tray Of Drinks. If the player can explain how they are using one of these elements as useful part of their action, they gain a benefit. In This is a core principle of Phoenix: Dawn Command, but it’s something you can use in any system; for many players this sort of prompt really helps them visualize the environment and get more creative with their actions. In Phoenix, using an environmental element lets you draw a card. In d20, a good use of a prop could provide advantage to a roll… or in the case of the Roaring Fire, shoving someone into the fire might add a little fire damage to the attack instead of advantage to the roll. Using an element doesn’t remove the element from the environment – the fire doesn’t go out, and people can still do things with it – but the advantage only goes to the first person to make use of an element.

PASSING THE TIME

So: the adventurers stops in the Chattering Skull en route to the Mournland. It’s a Karrnathi bar, and the animated skull of the original owner rests on the bar. They’re there for the night. As GM, what can you do to make it interesting?

  • Games. How do the locals pass the time? If you feel so inclined, you could take a pause to actually play a game you feel resembles something people might play in the region. If you prefer to keep things short, you can use a few quick rolls to resolve the outcome. A bluffing game would be a test of Deception and Insight. A game like darts could be a series of opposed attack rolls; the person who makes the three best ranged attacks wins. Armwrestling? Sounds like a Strength/Athletics check. Drinking contest? Constitution/Endurance. With any of these, don’t rely entirely on the die roll; describe the game, and give a player a bonus for an entertaining description. Typically, the amount of money normal people would wager won’t be significant for PCs, but it can still be a good story and help PCs connect with the locals.
  • Entertainment. Is there entertainment at the tavern? A traveling bard could share local news or a stories of the region… either of which could potentially be useful if the actual adventure takes place nearby. if one of the players is an entertainer, they could be asked to fill this role themselves. Or there could be a competition, whether musical or magical!
  • Stranger Danger. You’re enjoying your dinner when a group of loud, arrogant Emerald Claw soldiers show up and start throwing their weight around. They aren’t here for a fight, and technically they aren’t breaking any laws. Are you going to be the one to engage in violence, potentially bringing harm to the innkeeper? If not, this can be a fun opportunity to interact with people who are usually villains in a non-violent context.
  • Mysterious Opportunity. A traveling peddler offers a good luck charm or an ancient map. A stranger approaches and says something that’s clearly a code phrase, and hastily backs away when the PCs don’t know the right response. A smuggler offers rare goods at a low price – the PCs don’t need the goods now, but do they want to miss the opportunity? A fight breaks out between two strangers at the next table… will the PCs interfere? A stranger – secretly a spy – suddenly collapses from poison. Will the PCs get involved? And there’s always the possibility for romance…
  • Ask The Players. A simple answer is to ask your players what happens. They’re spending an evening in a tavern… what do they think should happen? This gives the players an easy opportunity to shape the story… whether to introduce a new plot thread or simply to describe their armwrestling victory.

BUT WHAT ABOUT EBERRON? 

The original question was about taverns in Eberron. The first issue is definitely location; looking at the examples above, The Labyrinth is in Droaam; The Quill is near Arcanix; and The Crooked Tree is in Thelanis, though you could drop it in a manifest zone. Everything that I’ve said up to this point applies, but you want to answer specific questions tied to Eberron. How does magic apply? What impact has the war had? Is there a warforged bouncer? Did the bartender lose his arm during an Aundairian bombardment? Is there a way to involve a magical beast – the hearth is in a gorgon’s skull, or there’s a giant owl who’s taken up residence there? If there’s shifters in the region, are people arguing about the shifter sport hrazhak? Perhaps the bartender is a changeling, who has different faces for different moods… Max is always up for conversation, but when you see Mildred at the bar, just order your drink and don’t ask questions?

And as long as we’re talking about taverns in Eberron, we have to discuss the GOLD DRAGON INN. While Ghallanda licenses inns of all sorts, the Gold Dragon is their primary franchise operation. Just like in our world, the whole point of the Gold Dragon is that people know exactly what to expect when they go into one. So play that up. Add your own details about what defines a Gold Dragon Inn, and make sure to highlight that every time the players stop at one. Here’s a few I’m literally making up right now.

  • The Gold Dragon Inn has a mascot, Goldie the Dragon. Every GDI has a mural inside of Goldie wrapped around the inn, looking down at you with a wink and a grin. Some inns have a Goldie costume – which involves three halflings – that they bring out on special occasions.
  • The Gold Dragon Inn always has a greeter, typically a halfling barmaid who says something along the following lines. “Welcome to the Gold Dragon Inn, where our guests are our greatest treasure! Would you like a tankard of our Copper Egg ale?”

Basically, any time the players are wandering around and happen to stop for the night, what do you know, it’s a Gold Dragon Inn! With the exact same greeter speech! And friendly, helpful staff who are happy to provide you with useful information about the region! The place is amazingly clean, as the staff uses a minor dragonmark focus item that ties to the Mark of Hospitality, using a prestidigitation effect to wipe away dirt and grime with the wave of a wand. And then, once people have gotten used to it, have them end up in a bad part of Karrnath where there’s no Gold Dragon Inn. The tavern they end up in is grimy and there’s holes in the roof from Thranish air raids (“Never had the gold to fix ’em,” the owner says. “Don’t worry, I moved the bed out from under.”). The owner lost a forearm in one of those raids but has a skeletal prosthetic. He’s probably not going to kill you in your sleep. Probably.

JT: Are there any major inns or taverns that operate without Ghallanda’s backing, or as open competition to the House’s industry?

SD: Dragonmarked’ makes it seem like other establishments certainly exist, but if they’re not at least sponsored by the Hosteler’s Guild, they’re regarded in the Five Nations as second-rate or questionable. If an exception existed that posed a serious threat to Ghallanda interests in an area, unsavory repercussions might occur.

I’m including SpoonDragon’s answer because it hits the nail on the head. The Dragonmarked Houses dominate their fields, and have established and maintained that dominance over the course of centuries. But that doesn’t mean every inn is a Gold Dragon Inn. You have three classes of business, as established in Dragonmarked: businesses directly run by the house; businesses bound to the house, which are essentially franchises like the Gold Dragon Inn; and licensed business, which pay a percentage and agree to meet the industry standards established by the house in exchange for being able to use the house seal. MOST inns and taverns are licensed. The critical thing is that this isn’t just a scam run by the houses. They DO establish and enforce industry standards, a role that is usually handled by the government in our world. A tavern has to pay Ghallanda for the license, but it ALSO has to meet the house standards for hygiene and health, and that’s the real VALUE of the license: potential customers know they can trust it. That shabby Karrnathi inn described above COULDN’T be a licensed business, because it doesn’t meet the standards. So a really successful and well-established business – like The Oaks in Sharn – could run without a license, trusting in its established reputation. But it’s sort of like posting a sign on your door saying “We’ve never had a health inspection.”

Generally the houses won’t act against lone businesses that choose to operate outside their scope. However, if someone truly poses a serious threat to their market dominance, they will take steps to deal with it… starting with negotiation, then negative propaganda, then more severe methods. A Ghallanda Black Dog (from Dragonmarked) can poison food or drink just by looking at it; this is a handy person to have in your back pocket when you want to give a rival restaurant a reputation for food poisoning.

I have always wondered about Gold Dragon Inns, starting with the price point. Are we talking Super 8, or Hamton, or Hilton, or Fairmont, or what? How big is the common room (in terms of area or number of patrons)? Is there both a tavern and a restaurant? What sort of food is served? How many rooms? How many of those rooms cater to small creatures like gnomes and halflings? Are there any other services provided? What sort of security is present – for valuables, or common areas, or private rooms?

This was cut for space from Dragonmarked, but addresses this a bit…

Two Ghallanda-licensed taverns in Sharn may have nothing in common beyond the house seal. But the Hostelers Guild maintains a number of bound businesses with outposts across Khorvaire. These strive for uniformity, and a traveler knows exactly what he can expect when he goes to a Gold Dragon Inn. 

          The Gold Dragon Inn. A home away from home for the frequent traveler, the Gold Dragon Inn provides reliable (if not exceptional) services at reasonable rates. Every Gold Dragon Inn possesses a heavy safe secured with arcane lock, and a soundproofed back room that can be rented for private events or important negotiations. House Ghallanda works with House Thuranni and House Phiarlan, and a Gold Dragon Inn will always have some sort of guild-licensed entertainer on hand.

            The Drum and Lyre. These taverns specialize in spicy Talentan cuisine, and serve as venues for music and dance. Three nights of the week are reserved for halflings performing traditional Talentan works; three nights are filled by performers from House Phiarlan or House Thuranni; and one night is held for amateurs and independents, which can be an opportunity for PC bards to hone their skills and make a little silver. Occasionally musical performances are set aside for athletic events, including sporting matches between miniature clawfeet and other Talentan beasts.   

As I’ve said before, the Dragonmarked Houses essentially set the industry standards, which is to say the prices in the rule book. So if you look on page 158 pf the 5E Player’s Handbook, the Gold Dragon Inn generally would be considered Modest accommodations (5 SP/night) while the best suite in a GDI would be Comfortable (8 SP/night). I generally think of the GDI as having a simple tavern attached, but some might have a full restaurant (perhaps a Drum & Lyre!). The size and number of the rooms will be based on the expected clientele; a GDI in Zilargo will have lots of rooms for small guests, while one in Breland will be predominantly designed with medium guests in mind. A GDI could have six rooms or a hundred rooms, based on the logical ability of the region to support it and the needs of your story.

Now, as noted above, the GDI is not the only sort of inn Ghallanda runs. It’s a known quantity, but many Ghallanda heirs prefer to run their own unique licensed business. The house itself runs a number of more luxurious inns, such as the Twilight Palace in Graywall; these would be in the Wealthy to Aristocratic class of lodging, and include services provided by other Dragonmarked houses – a Sivis message station in the hotel, an Orien courier on call, etc.

HOW ABOUT PHOENIX?

I can’t create new material for Eberron, but I can create anything I want for my new RPG Phoenix: Dawn Command. I think this post has gone on long enough, but I’ll do a follow-up next week that highlights the role of the tavern in Phoenix, with a few different locations you could use in your campaign.

Dragonmarks: Magicians

It’s busy as always here. Renegade Games just announced the Scott Pilgrim game I’ve been working on, and I just got back from a trip to LA where I did some things with Maze Arcana, Saving Throw, and Geek & Sundry. I don’t have time for a big article, but an interesting question came up during the week and wanted to explore it.

Before I start I want to take a moment to address the limitations of this format. Eberron is the intellectual property of Wizards of the Coast, and at the moment, only WotC can create new material for Eberron. What I can do – both here and on Manifest Zone – is to clarify the material that does exist, as well as talk about how I use it and interpret it. But I can’t create entirely new material. So for example: I’d really like to write more about the planes, but I can’t precisely because so little has been written about them – and it’s a logical subject for an official sourcebook or series of official articles at some point in the future. This is why I’m planning to post more Phoenix material here in the future. I can’t create new material for the Shadow Marches, but I can create material for the Fens in Phoenix… and give some tips as to how you could adapt that to the Shadow Marches. So keep an eye out for that. And in the meantime, the best thing you can do for Eberron is to continue to voice your interest and support – to be sure that WotC knows there is ongoing interest in new material!

This question came up in a discussion earlier this week, and it pushes a lot of my buttons, so…

I’ve always felt the sorcerer is a strange class. They don’t “understand magic,” but they can read scrolls, use wands, and have Spellcraft and Knowledge: Arcana in their skill list. Theoretically you could have a sorcerer with Charisma 18 and Intelligence 3, who can barely read but can still use scrolls… Finally, specifically for Eberron, do they immediately control their power or do they have the same problem as aberrant dragonmarks, where they could accidentally harm friends or family? And aren’t they persecuted as “Hidden Aberrants?”

The first issue here is how you view classes. Are classes a construct that exists in the world exactly as they exist in the rules? Does every member of a class have access to all the choices within that class? Or are they simply mechanical tools that allow us as GMs and players to model the characters we want to play? Does every sorcerer in the world recognize “I am a sorcerer?” Or is that a term we use to identify anyone using this rule set, but not something they would recognize?

To me, what’s important is to start with an idea of who a character is and what their role is in the world. Then I will apply a class and break it down from there. Each class has a core, basic mechanical principle; the sorcerer’s is I cast arcane magic from a very limited list of spells, but with greater flexibility in casting than a wizard. The wizard has to memorize spells in advance, but has the ability to use any spell they can acquire; the sorcerer is limited to a very specific set of spells. Bear in mind that arcane magic is an ambient force that exists in the world of Eberron. The power is there, and it can be manipulated by tools, by formulas, by innate talent. A sorcerer interacts with this power in a fundamentally different way than a wizard – but within that framework (spontaneous arcane casting) there’s room for a lot of different concepts and stories.

  • Harry ir’Potter. There are people in Eberron who simply have a natural potential to channel the ambient arcane power in the world, but it’s a gift that they’ll never manifest unless they learn to harness is. Arcanix seeks out these sorcerers. By studying the principles of magic and engaging in a focused curriculum, they learn to produce specific magical effects. This character possesses both Spellcraft and Knowledge: Arcana, reflecting their disciplined study of magic. Their spells have no particular relation to one another, because they have chosen exactly what spells they want to cast as part of their studies; they understand their talent and its limitations. These characters are called sorcerers at Arcanix, though many wizards refer to them as “living wands”, mocking their inability to master a spell from a spell book.
  • Touched By Fire. Irilask is a tiefling conceived in a manifest zone tied to Fernia. She is a living conduit to Fernia, and she has developed the ability to channel its eternal flames. All her spells have to do with fire; as DM, I may allow her to cosmetically shift some spells to reflect this, so maybe her ghost armor is made of solidified flames. She could know Spellcraft or Knowledge: Arcana, but it’s up to the player; her spells aren’t tied to arcane study and there’s no reason she needs to have these skills.
  • Dragonmarked Savant. Haskal d’Lyrandar is a dragonmarked scion with the Mark of Storms. While he only possesses the Least Mark of Storms, he has connected to the mark in a deeper way that most heirs ever do. His mark is a lens through which he focuses arcane power related to winds and lightning; he levitate on a cushion of wind, or strike his foes with lightning or shocking grasp. Again, these are powers most heirs can never develop (and more destructive than the typical mark powers); the point is that the mark helps him understand and focus arcane power. Like Irilask, he doesn’t need to understand how magic works, because the mark is the tool that allows him to use it. He could study Spellcraft, but he doesn’t have to.
  • Deadly Aberrant. Tesha possesses an aberrant mark with power not seen in centuries. Like Haskal, she has a base mark (Inflict Wounds)… but like Haskal, I’m using the sorcerer class to represent the unusually powerful and versatile nature of her mark, which does far more than simply granting a single spell-like ability once in a day. Just as in the stories, Tesha’s abilities manifested when she was young and were never under control, and she killed her family before she knew what she was doing. Even now, these powers frighten her… and yet, they continue to grow stronger (as she gains new spells). If Tesha was a PC, I might provide her with a mechanical benefit (say, +1 to save DCs) in exchange for the downside that as GM, I can trigger her abilities without her permission. Meanwhile, she knows absolutely nothing about Spellcraft or Knowledge: Arcana; she doesn’t understand her powers or CHOOSE to make them grow stronger, they simply do.

These are just a few concepts off the top of my head. A sorcerer could be someone twisted by the power of the Mourning. They could be the beneficiary of some sort of fey boon, or the result of mysterious magebreeding experiments. A sorcerer could have a connection to one of the Progenitor dragons, something I explored in a Dragon article back in the day. Of all these examples, Harry Potter is the only one who would think of himself as a “sorcerer” – it’s simply that *I* will use the class to mechanically represent the concepts I’ve come up with. Most likely an expert in the arcane will use the term “sorcerer” to identify “spontaneous arcane caster”, and HE might call Tesha or Irilask sorcerers, but THEY don’t identify that way.

Let’s revisit a few specific points…

They don’t “understand magic,” but they can read scrolls, use wands, and have Spellcraft and Knowledge: Arcana in their skill list.

First of all: a sorcerer doesn’t have to understand magic. That doesn’t mean they don’t. Looking to the examples I gave above, Harry Potter DEFINITELY understands magic and based on his concept he should have Spellcraft and Knowledge: Arcana. Haskal and Irilask don’t have to understand magic, but they could if you wanted to take the character in that direction – in which case they should take the skills reflecting it. Tesha definitely doesn’t understand magic and her powers have nothing to do with Spellcraft or Knowledge… so I wouldn’t give her the skills. The fact that they are on the skill list is a tool we can choose to use; but if it doesn’t make sense with the concept, don’t give them those skills.

The second question does follow, though: Tesha could be an illiterate peasant. So how is it that she can use a scroll?

The question you have to ask here is what is a scroll? Being literate doesn’t allow you to use it; a normal person can’t read a scroll and produce a magical effect. A scroll isn’t written in any sort of normal language, hence the existence of the read magic spell. Instead, a scroll is about sigils and symbols that contain pure arcane magic… and once you activate the scroll, the magic is GONE. So again, it’s not simply about words; a scroll is a spell that’s been frozen midcast and bound to paper. In my opinion, the ability of a sorcerer to use a scroll doesn’t represent them literally reading it the way you might read a book; it represents them connecting with the magic, feeling the locked progress, and having the power to unlock it and release the power inside. The same principle holds true for a wand. A wand doesn’t have a button; you have to understand how arcane magic works. A wizard may have a disciplined, technical approach to using a wand. In the case of Tesha, whether she’s using a wand or a scroll, she doesn’t understand what she’s doing in a scientific way. She just holds the scroll and she can feel the power within it, see the pattern in her mind… and she somehow knows that if she completes that unfinished pattern, makes that connection, the power bound to the page will be unleashed.

Because they approach it technically, a wizard can look at a scroll and copy the concept into their spell book. They look at the frozen spell and say “I get it – I understand the principle here and I think I can replicate that.” The sorcerer can’t do that, but they can still unleash the frozen spell.

Finally, specifically for Eberron, do they immediately control their power or do they have the same problem as aberrant dragonmarks, where they could accidentally harm friends or family? And aren’t they persecuted as “Hidden Aberrants?”

As outlined above, this entirely depends on the story of your sorcerer. Harry ir’Potter will never manifest magic if he doesn’t get training. Irilask is in some ways like an aberrant, having the ability to spontaneously produce fire, but the fact that it IS entirely under her control and has no negative consequences is what makes her NOT an aberrant. Meanwhile, Tesha IS an aberrant, and her sorcerer levels are simply a reflection of her aberrant power; and it’s part of her story that these powers are dangerous, and thus she WILL be persecuted.

Bear in mind that people with PC class levels are rare in Eberron, and add to that the idea that there is no one set of rules governing how a sorcerer’s abilities manifest. Even with aberrant dragon marks, it’s STORY that says that they are dangerous to the bearer and those around them. Mechanically nothing says an aberrant mark can trigger on its own; it’s a choice we ENCOURAGE because it’s part of the flavor of the setting, and that STORY is why aberrants are feared.

I almost always have low level NPCs call their spells by other names, until some bookish wizard gets a chance to correct them. 

At my table, the spell the sorcerer casts may not BE the same “spell” that the wizard uses. In the examples above, the way Irilask casts her fireball will be quite different to what Harry would do, let alone a wizard. These spells have to have the same limitations laid out in the rules: verbal components, somatic components, etc. And someone can use Spellcraft to recognize a spell from these things. But that doesn’t mean that there is one single incantation that is the only way to cast a fireball, and that Irilask has somehow spontaneously stumbled onto it thanks to her connection to Fernia. Irilask has to have SOMETHING that matches the limitations of a verbal component; but in her case, that could be a strange sort of throat-singing that helps her focus her power, while Harry DOES use the same incantation an Arcanix wizard would use. Spellcraft is about recognizing patterns of magic as much as specific words.

This ties to my idea that Aereni arcane magic presents very differently from Aundair’s path. At my table the idea is that the Aereni use a definitive lexicon of magical incantations, and that as an Aereni wizard you not only learn the 82 words for fire and the proper conjugation, you also learn to enunciate them with the exact pronunciation the elf who first scribed the spell… while Aundair’s Path is that each wizard works from a basic toolset but personalizes it. So four wizards from Arcanix are all using the same fundamental incantation for their fireball, but they are emphasizing different syllables, and they’ve added or dropped a few words to find out what works best for them. Their gestures are similarly unique. Think of it as the magical equivalent of music. The Aereni are a classical symphony orchestra, where each piece has to work just so; Arcanix teaches jazz, and every time you cast a spell the casting might be slightly different, as you adjust to the feelings of the moment. Which is why an Aereni spends a century learning the same foundation a human can master in a decade. It’s not that the elf is stupid; it’s that their wizardry is literally more ARCANE, and human wizardry is more “figure out what works and run with it.” I think the Aereni are appalled by human wizards and amazed that they somehow produce magic with their clumsy, kluge-y methods. Meanwhile, those same methods are why human wizards are coming up with things that the elves have never tried in twenty thousand years of working spells… because their approach to magic encourages creativity.

With planes like Lamannia and Thelanis, is it possible that “sorcerer druids” would appear in the Eldeen Reaches and similar places, essentially treating primal magic like normal sorcerers would arcane?

I have no object to the concept of a spontaneous primal caster. The point of the sorcerer vs the wizard is that arcane energy exists in the world waiting to be manipulated, and the two classes represent two different ways of manipulating that energy. Primal magic is also a force that exists in the world, and I am entirely open to the idea that there are different ways to manipulate that. With that said, I seen Thelanis as more tied to arcane magic than to primal magic… back to my previous posts on Thelanis, I don’t see there being anything natural about Thelanis. A dryad is a fey creature, not an elemental. She’s not a natural entity; she’s about the magic we imagine could be part of the world. So it’s more that I see there being Greensingers with levels in Sorcerer and Bard, who supplement their primal magic with arcane illusion and enchantment, than I see Thelanis producing primal sorcerers. Lamannia is a stronger possibility, but personally, I’d see a primal sorcerer as someone who has simply developed an innate connection to Eberron itself. On some level I could see this in the Rothfuss style of someone who knows “the name of the wind” – they don’t know any of the standard druidic rituals or tradition, but they have found a way to directly interact with primal forces.

How do you conceptualize progress as a wizard (i.e. levelling up) versus society’s progress in arcane magic as a whole in a world where magic is a scientific discipline?

Good question. Check out this post if you haven’t. The main issue is that arcane magic IS fundamentally different from our science and technology. It behaves in a scientific fashion: it is reliable, repeatable, predictable. However, it is something that incorporates a living component in a way that’s not easily defined. A 5th level wizard may be more intelligent than a higher level wizard, and could have a better understanding of magical theory (Spellcraft) than that wizard. They can read a 7th level spell and understand the concept, but they can’t cast it. Further, even the higher level wizard has to memorize that spell and then they can only cast it once before they need to prepare it again. Which means that it’s not simple science like a software engineer coding a piece of software or a scientist making a calculation. The wizard is a direct living component of this effect. The basic idea of arcane magic is that there is ambient energy in the world that can be channeled to alter reality. But beyond understanding theory, I believe that this requires significant willpower and takes a certain toll on the mind of the user. Note that a wizard’s Will Saving Throw goes up as they increase in level. In memorizing a spell, a wizard is balancing forces, weighing energy, both making mental calculations and potentially performing sub-rituals that are triggered when the final spell is released. But the short form is that a lower level wizard literally cannot cast that higher level spell. Something about their brain simply isn’t capable of serving as a channel or focus for the power that’s being unleashed. And that right there is something scientists in our world don’t generally have to deal with.

So first of all: It is certainly the case that if you go to Arcanix, they have a library of spells that almost no one can cast. They’ve had high-level wizards (like Mordain) in the past. And there are a few 12th level wizards floating around Aundair over the course of the war. They know this power exists, but most people simply cannot perform these spells. And you can be sure that they’re researching ways to make that possible.

WITH ALL OF THAT SAID: A fundamental pillar of Eberron is that player characters are exceptional. This is reflected by action points, by the fact that they use player character classes, and by the fact that they can both quickly advance in level and attain levels far beyond the masses. So if a wizard is a scientist, your PC IS Tesla or Einstein. The fact that YOUR wizard can create new spells doesn’t mean that EVERY wizard in the world can do it so easily; your character may make arcane breakthroughs people have been struggling with for centuries.

A 20th level wizard living in the present is going to be able to call down meteor swarms just as a 20th level wizard living in pre-Galifar Khorvaire 1,500 years earlier would be. The GM could restrict the spell list for the earlier wizard but does that still leaves us with phenomenally powerful spells available in the present (and also probably upsets the player of the ancient high level wizard)?

There’s a few ways to look at this. In the case of non-human civilizations, that’s correct. Giants, dragons and Aereni were all throwing around meteor swarms long ago. With HUMAN civilization, there’s room to play with this. Some day I’d like to do a deeper look at the evolution of arcane magic, and to identify the breakthroughs and legendary wizards who made them. But here’s the simple answer I came up with using 3.5 rules to consider how magic might have evolved in Galifar: Components. In 3.5 there are meta magic feats – Still Spell, Silent Spell – that let you cast a spell without verbal or somatic components… by increasing the slot of the spell by one level. This means it is POSSIBLE to perform those effects without gestures or incantations. In MY Eberron, those gestures and incantations didn’t appear out of the blue: they were painstakingly developed over centuries of research. The fact that proper gestures help to efficiently channel arcane energy was a revelation, and then generations of human wizards worked to refine those gestures. Likewise with incantations. So go back a thousand years and a wizard would be casting many of the same spells, but he’d be doing it without somatic or verbal components, and the spell slot would be two higher. So back in the day, Magic Missile was a third level spell. When your future wizard pops back, flinging magic missiles around like they’re nothing, it’s AMAZING to past wizard… even though he recognizes the principles you’re using. Meanwhile, in the present day, we’ve become so dependent on incantations and gestures that most wizards can’t even imagine casting a spell without them without special training (metamagic feats)… just as now we have matches and lighters, most people don’t know how make a fire without them.

How do NpC adepts fit into the mix, especially in 3.5 when they get familiars? If they are a healer, does their magical companion strike anyone as out of the ordinary?

First of all: just as I’ve outlined with sorcerers, the adept is a tool you can use to represent a certain type of character. Just because it has a particular spell on its spell list or skill in its skill list doesn’t mean that EVERY adept has access to that spell in the context of the world. And looking to familiars, note that per the SRD, they may call a familiar; it doesn’t automatically appear if they never call it. So, for example, most Jorasco healers are adepts. Some revere Arawai or Boldrei, while others are agnostic and draw their healing power through the lens of their dragonmark. A Jorasco adept whose power is justified as coming from his mark will simply never take spells like Burning Hands or Wall of Fire; those spells are on the adept spell list, but they don’t make logical sense for THIS adept.

So within the world, adepts are healers, both secular and religious. They are found in all of the major faiths as a step between the mundane priest and the full cleric; they are able to touch the divine, but not with the full power of a cleric, just as the magewright understands the principles of magic but not so well as the wizard. They can also be found in places like the Elder as a simple village healer… though I also created the Gleaner to serve this role.

As for familiars, there are wizards and sorcerers in the world. Familiars exist. And hey, in 3.5 gnomes can talk to animals… not to mention Vadalis magebreeding. Familiars may draw attention, but it’s not like people will freak out about them; it’s a recognized magical talent.

Would 4E/5E rituals be the natural culmination of the process of greater spell acessibility at the cost of more complex spell components? It seems to me that rituals almost all but eliminate the caster themselves as a living component.

I’ve written about rituals before. The basic CONCEPT of rituals is a far better match for Eberron’s vision of a magical economy than Vancian magic. It’s hard to imagine a magewright making a living making arcane locks if he can only make two per day; what’s he do for the rest of the day? This is what led to Dragonmark Focus Items in 3.5 – the point that while a Sivis Gnome can cast Whispering Wind once per day with his mark alone, what is economically important is that it lets him use a Speaking Stone and communicate more frequently. In addition, the idea has always been that Eberron dragonshards are the “fuel” of the magical economy. If you consider 4E’s residuum to be crushed and refined Eberron dragonshards (something I discussed in the Q’barra Dragon backdrops, IIRC) then that works. The magewright can cast arcane lock as often as he wishes during a day, provided he has the time (15 minutes per ritual) and a sufficient supply of dragonshards,  and he marks up the costs to make his profit.

So: the basic principle of rituals is very good for Eberron. However, what I HATE about 4E rituals is the idea that it’s all about just essentially reading them off a book. Because Magewrights and Eberron are about the idea that performing a particular ritual or set if rituals is a JOB – that you have an arcane locksmith who knows knock and arcane lock, an augur who can perform divinations, a lamplighter who makes continual flames… not that these guys could pass books around and suddenly trade jobs. So what I do in 4E is to say that Magewright is a feat allowing the individual to perform three rituals without a ritual book. So PCs with the Ritual Caster feature are prodigies who are so talented that they can just look at a book and perform the ritual on the spot; but most people in the world spend years studying a book and mastering the ritual. They don’t need the book to perform the ritual, but they also can’t just spot-read a different ritual.

Having said all of that, how do rituals eliminate the caster as a component? The ritual can’t cast itself. It’s a pattern that produces an effect… but you still need the ritual caster to perform that ritual, channel and focus the energy, and make it happen. Even dragon mark focus items require a character with a dragonmark to operate them.

Tied to “Greater Spell Accessibility”, in my 4E Eberron I also restricted a significant number of rituals to the dragonmarked… essentially having rituals take on the role of the Dragonmark focus items in 3.5, but with the idea that the Arcane Congress is always looking for ways to replicate these effects with rituals anyone can learn. This is discussed in far more detail in this post.

How have you used sorcerers and magic in YOUR games?

Manifest Zone: The Last War

The second episode of the Manifest Zone podcast is up! The subject is the Last War. As the podcast is a stream of consciousness discussion, I’m going to do a follow-up post after each episode… think of it as my commentary track.

The Last War is a critical part of the story of Eberron. By default, an Eberron campaign begins in the year 998 YK. YK means “Year of the Kingdom” — specifically, the Kingdom of Galifar, which brought together the disparate nations of Khorvaire almost a thousand years ago. Galifar was prosperous and generally peaceful for centuries. However, when King Jarot ir’Wynarn died in 894 YK, his heirs refused to follow the standard practice of sucession. The five provinces of Galifar — Aundair, Breland, Cyre, Karrnath and Thrane — split apart, forming what are now known as the Five Nations. A century of war followed as each heir attempted to rebuild Galifar under their rule. The war finally came to an end following the Mourning, a mystical cataclysm that completely destroyed the nation of Cyre, transforming it into the warped region known as the Mournland. No one knows the cause of the Mourning. Was it a weapon, and if so, are its creators developing a second one? Was it the result of using too much war magic, in which case continued conflict could result in further destruction? The Mourning occurred in 994 YK, and within two years the war formally ended with the Treaty of Thronehold in 998 YK. But no one WON the war, and few people are happy with its outcome. The mystery of the Mourning is holding further conflict at bay, but sooner or later that mystery will be solved… and most believe that when it is, war will be inevitable. Some rulers are actively pursuing the cause of peace, while others are already preparing for the next battle.

The Last War serves a number of important functions. First and foremost, it shatters the established order and creates an era that is filled with conflict and uncertainty. Thanks to the war, we see a number of critical developments:

  • New Nations. Darguun, Valenar, Q’barra and Droaam were all born from the conflict, as new forces seized land once claimed by Galifar. The Eldeen Reaches expanded into Aundair, while the Mror Holds and Zilargo asserted their independence. Some of these shifts were more dramatic than others; for Zilargo it’s virtually a semantic change, while Darguun and Valenar represent violent upheavals of the previous order.
  • Balance of Power. As a single market, Galifar had the power to dictate terms to the Dragonmarked Houses – something it did with the Korth Edicts, which established that dragonmarked house can’t hold land, titles, or maintain military forces (with exceptions made for House Deneith). Now the nations need the houses more than the houses need any one nation. If the houses do decide to violate the Korth Edicts, who would have the power to enforce them?
  • Innovation. The Last War drove innovation, and within the last century there have been many critical developments. First there were warforged titans, and this led to fully sentient warforged. The eternal wand is a critical advance in the science of wands, being both more accessible and reusable; the next step could be a wand that anyone can use. The airship was developed during the war, which is a critical point: air travel is still very new in Khorvaire! These are a few major examples, but in my opinion this is representative of a broader range of advances, as both houses and nations struggled gain an edge in the conflict.
  • Opportunity for Adventure. The Mournland is the world’s largest dungeon, and it’s sitting right in the middle of the continent. Cyre was the richest of the Five Nations, and all its treasures are lost in a twisted wasteland filled with monsters. If you prefer espionage, the Five Nations are all vying for power and position as they prepare for whatever happens next. This can even extend to straight pulp adventure. You’re searching for the Orb of Dol Azur in Xen’drik? Well, so’s the Order of the Emerald Claw… and if they get ahold of it, you can be sure they’ll use its power against Breland in the Next War!

Beyond this, the Last War is a source of infinite character hooks. The war ended two years ago. The typical soldier in the last war was a first level warrior (that’s an NPC class from 3.5 – a crappy version of the fighter – if you don’t know the term). As even a first level PC classed character, you are more talented than the typical soldier. So, if you’re a fighter… did you fight in the war? If so, were you a mercenary, or did you fight for one of the nations… and if so, which one? Are you still loyal to your nation, or are you disillusioned by what you’ve been through? And if you didn’t fight in the war even though you clearly had the skills to do so, why didn’t you fight?

This is something you can develop as deeply as you wish. For some people, this is a way to really add depth to a character. What happened to you during the war? What were your greatest victories, and what did you lose? Were you a war hero, or were you just a grunt in the trenches? Did you spend any time in a POW camp, and if so, what did you endure? How about your family – how did the war affect them? If your character is religious, how did the war and the Mourning affect your faith – was it a solace to you in difficult times, or has it forced you to question your faith?

This can easily form the foundation for a story that unites an entire party of adventurers. One of my go-to ways to start a campaign is to establish that the players were all part of a unit of soldiers during the last war. With that in mind, I’ll ask each character to figure out how their concept fits within that mold. You want to play a warforged fighter? Easy, you were made for the war. You’re playing a warlord? Congratulations, you’re the captain of the unit. Wizard? OK, you were the arcane support. My standard nation of choice is Cyre, because while no one won the war, Cyre definitely lost it. As a Cyran soldier, you have no homeland; you’ve lost everything; and yet, you still have a particular set of skills. Why WOULDN’T you become an adventurer? It’s essentially Mal and Zoe from Firefly. And like Firefly, what I like to do with this set up is to actually set the first adventure (or two) during the war: so we get to see your group working together as a unit, and we get to see some of the things they went through. You’ve got to hold an undersupplied post against an advancing army of Karrnathi undead. It’s a fight that can’t be won, and in the process you’ll have to make difficult decisions, and you’ll deal with a Karrnathi commander who you will surely come to hate. Once we resolve that, we’re going to talk through the next two years: how you moved from being soldiers to adventurers. But you’ve got a foundation to work with. You’re not strangers brought together by an old man at a bar. You’re comrades in arms. You’ve faced the undead together. And when that Karrnathi bastard shows up again working for the Emerald Claw, you’ve got a real reason to take him down.

In the episode of Manifest Zone, we talk about how war can leave fairly intense scars. You don’t have to dig that deeply if you don’t want to. You can establish that your fighter fought for Breland and leave it at that. You may not want to burden your character with a crisis of faith or PTSD. You could very well ask how it benefits YOU to damage your character, or to hand the GM tools to make your life difficult. For me, it’s not about given the GM “things to use against you”, because as the GM I’m not your enemy. At my table, what we are trying to do is to build a story together… and for that story to be as dramatic and compelling as possible. These sorts of scars give your character depth. They give you trauma that you can overcome, and they give you things to fight FOR beyond simply getting a better magical sword. Just looking at, for example, The Force Awakens: Finn is a former conscript who’s fled war and ultimately works up the courage to fight the people he once fought for – even though this pits him against people he once served with. Rey is an orphan who’s avoided the conflict and lived as a scavenger. And Poe is the soldier who believes in his cause. In Firefly, Mal is an officer who was deeply devoted to his cause, only to have that faith crushed in defeat; but it’s still there, underneath his mercenary cynicism. Having flaws gives your character depth. In 5E D&D, these elements can be worked into Backgrounds; at some point I may post something that explores backgrounds particularly well suited to Eberron.

So: the Last War is a source of upheaval and change that creates opportunity for adventure and adventurers. It provides a wealth of hooks for character development. It can also provide a host of possibilities for adventures. Setting aside the Mournland, you can have to deal with mystical weapons gone terribly wrong, from a rampaging titan to a secret program that sought to create magebred supersoldiers. You can have “dungeons” anywhere, because rather than having to rely on ancient ruins you can have NEW ruins created during the war. You can track down war criminals or delve into espionage. Whether you care about a country or are just looking for opportunities, the shadow of the Last War creates many possibilities.

THE SHAPE OF THE WAR

With all that said, many people want a better sense of the actual nature of the war. Was it more like World War I, with grueling trench warfare and soldiers being ground up on a relatively static front line? Was it a time of constant change, with cities being seized and lost? Was it like modern warfare, with air strikes and similar attacks inflicting damage far beyond the front lines?

The sourcebook The Forge of War provides the canon answer to these things and is your best source for in-depth information, since I don’t have time (or permission) to write a sourcebook on the Last War. With that said, I didn’t work on The Forge of War and it is the canon source I have the most issues with. It doesn’t delve as deeply into the concept of innovation as I’d like, and doesn’t explore the question of what new weapons and tools were developed in the war. It ignores many other canon sources; one of the most infamous examples is its statement that Thrane lacked any decent archery support, when archery is a devotional practice of the Church of the Silver Flame and should be one of the greatest strengths of Thrane. With that said, FoW provides a POSSIBLE overview of the course of the war.

As for my answer: The Last War was all of these things. It lasted for a century, and that wasn’t a century of constant, unending total war. It had its slow periods, with soldiers glaring at one another across the static front lines. And these were punctuated by periods of intense conflict, of shifting alliances and changing borders. And while it was largely concentrated on the fronts, there certainly were magical attacks that pushed beyond the front to cause indiscriminate damage further back. Often this would be triggered by a new magical development. When Karrnath first incorporated undead into its armies; when Cyre fielded the first warforged titans; when Aundair pioneered new long-range war magic. One issue to me is that I feel that we haven’t established the primary weapons used in the warThe magic items and spells that PCs use are geared towards squad-level combat with small groups of powerful individuals, because that’s what PCs are. But a fireball that inflicts 6d6 damage over a thirty foot radius is both overkill and too small an area to have much impact on a group of a thousand first level warriors. So what spells did war mages rely on? Do you take the principle of cloudkill to make a larger-scale gas attack… and if so, did someone invent the equivalent of a gas mask? One advantage of this approach — the idea that most spells used in the war were lower damage but larger area — means that faced with such things, PCs get to shine on the battlefield. A 6d6 fireball may be a grave threat to a third level PC. But if the magical bombardment inflicts 1d6 fire damage over a hundred foot radius, it’s still a serious threat to the common soldiers – but the PCs can miraculously survive a few blasts, which is after all how we want this movie to go.

The basic principle of Eberron is that it’s a world in which arcane magic has been used to solve the problems we’ve solved with technology. So if you look to the common tools of modern warfare — mines, tanks, artillery — I feel all of these should have their parallels in Eberron, but based on arcane principles. The warforged titan is one answer to the tank; I could imagine a variation on the apparatus of Kwalish as another. In my novels, we see a variation of mines (based on the principle of a glyph of warding) and artillery — specifically the siege staff. Following the idea that a wand is a form of mystical sidearm and that the staff is physically larger and more powerful, a siege staff is a staff made from a tree trunk — thus capable of holding even more energy and projecting it farther. Neither of these things were ever given mechanics, but it’s the sort of thing I’d like to see addressed some day.

Tied to this, in a previous post Zeno asks: It is said that Titan Warforged was created for war. That sometime devils has been released on opponents. I wonder why 1st level commoners should be thrown in a war like that. A single titan Worforged could kill a whole army.

It’s true: the typical soldier in Eberron has no chance against a warforged titan. Just as common soldiers in our world have trouble when faced with tanks, chemical weapons, or incendiary bombs. It sucks to be a typical soldier when you have to charge up a hill against an entrenched machine gun. War has never been fair, and it’s not fair here.

With that said: the typical person in Eberron is a first level commoner, but the typical soldier would be a first level warrior; a veteran might be second level. Small difference, but a difference nonetheless. Nonetheless, a second level warrior wouldn’t stand a chance against a warforged titan. Why would they be thrown into that war? Because that’s all they had to work with… and because it’s what also forms the bulk of the opposing forces. Infantry is the best tool to hold ground. Meanwhile, the warforged titan is a specialized and very expensive piece of military equipment that serves a specific role on the battlefield. Think of the warforged titan as a tank. If you’ve got a squad of soldiers armed with machetes or even standard smallarms, they simply aren’t equipped to deal with a tank. If they try, they’ll get killed. The same thing is true of a squad of warriors facing a warforged titan. In both cases, what you won’t see is the soldiers charging in and trying to hack the overpowering enemy apart with machetes. Instead, you’re going to have the following questions:

  • Do we have access to equipment that allows us to overcome this threat? Do we have an arcane specialist with a wand or staff with a spell that can defeat this? Do we have a siege staff? Can we summon a planar ally? Essentially, do we have anti-tank weaponry in our unit? You see this in City of Towers, where the unit is faced with a military airship and requires a specialist to bring it down.
  • If not, can we take advantage of the terrain? Can we lure it into swampy terrain where it will sink? Is there a minefield? Can we get it onto a bridge and collapse the bridge?

If the answer to these things is no, then they won’t engage it. They’d retreat and regroup. So IN THEORY a warforged titan could kill a whole army; in practice, the army would disengage.

On top of this, consider that military command would be tracking these things. Units with warforged titans, the capability to summon planar allies, and the like are exceptional; that’s exactly the sorts of units that would be tracked. So when that titan shows up and you have nothing to handle it, you get out of there and hope that command already has forces en route with anti-titan capabilities.

So yes: the warforged titan can slaughter a squad of typical soldiers, as can a summoned fiend or any number of other threats. Which means once the titan exists, people immediately began finding ways to deal with it — just as people in our world invented anti-tank weaponry. And this is great for House Cannith, which sells you the weapons, and then sells you the thing you need to counter the latest weapon, and then sells you the thing you need to counter the counter, and so on.

Could we get a brief overview of each of the Five Nations’ general tactics in the Last War?

Certainly. If they were a party of adventurers, Karrnath was the fighter. Aundair was the wizard. Thrane was the paladin. Breland was the rogue. And Cyre was the bard. This is a gross simplification – not addressing Breland’s industrial capacity or Cyre’s wealth – but it’s a good place to start as a mental image.

With that said, this could be the subject of a sourcebook. I’d refer you to Forge of War, but I don’t think they actually got this correct. So first of all: Galifar was a united kingdom, but its resources were spread throughout the five provinces. This is generally reflected in the culture of that province. So for example, Karrnath was the seat of Galifar’s military and the home of Rekkenmark, its premier military academy. Soldiers from across Galifar trained at Rekkenmark, and when the war began most returned to fight for their own nations. Likewise, wizards from all countries trained at the Arcane Congress in Aundair. So all sides benefitted from these resources initially. But the people of that province were the most committed to the concept embodied by those institutions; had the MOST people trained at those institutions; and held onto the institutions themselves and their resources as the war continued. So at the start of the war, every nation had spies trained by the King’s Citadel. But Breland had the most of them, and had the facilities, records, and resources of the Citadel itself. With that in mind…

Karrnath was the seat of Rekkenmark and the Royal Army. Karrnath has always had a harsh, martial culture. In general, they had the most disciplined and best-trained soldiers, and had exceptional heavy infantry and cavalry. I’ve always felt that they had decent war magic, though obviously inferior to Aundair and extremely focused (primarily evocation). Karrnath was further distinguished as the war went on by the use of undead in battle. So in Karrnath you have stoicism, discipline, and general martial excellence… with a side dish of undead.

Aundair was the seat of Arcanix and the Arcane Congress, and has always had the edge in arcane magic. It is the smallest of the Five Nations, and has always relied on magic to make up for that. So Aundair would have the best mystical artillery, both using things like siege staffs and in terms of having the most actual wizards on the battlefield. They lacked the industrial capacity of Breland or House Cannith, but were always the leaders in arcane innovation… so to make a modern analogy, they didn’t have the MOST missiles and bombs, but they had the BEST missiles and bombs, and were the most likely to surprise you with something you hadn’t seen before.

Breland was the industrial heart of Galifar, and further was the seat of the King’s Citadel… which includes the intelligence agency of Galifar. So from the start they had the greatest numbers of spies, assassins, and other covert operatives. This was further enhanced by a strong relationship with Zilargo and House Deneith. So intelligence was always a strength of Breland. Beyond that, they had numbers and resources, and what they lacked in discipline they often made up for in spirit and charisma; so your rank and file soldiers weren’t as exceptional as you’d get in Karrnath, but they’d be more likely to have truly inspiring leaders, and to break the rules of war to try something new. I still think the rogue is a good analogy: Not as good in a straight up fight, but clever and unpredictable, and very dangerous if they can catch you off guard.

Thrane was the seat of Flamekeep and the heart of the Silver Flame. This shouldn’t be underestimated. While the Silver Flame is revered across Galifar, Thrane was its heart, and Flamekeep is where paladins and clerics would received their training. And this is critical, because the Silver Flame is a martial faith. The Silver Flame is about being prepared to defend the innocent from supernatural evil. Archery is a devotional practice, and every Thrane villager trains with the bow. Beyond that, the Silver Flame maintained its own army of Templars. The Lycanthropic Purge was the biggest example of templars at war, but on a smaller scale the templars were constantly hunting down and eliminating supernatural threats. Karrnath was the seat of the army; but the Thranes had if anything more soldiers who’d actually SEEN BATTLE, even if they hadn’t been fighting other humans. This also meant they had more hands-on experience supplying and supporting their forces than most nations.

In summary, Thrane’s greatest strengths were peasant militias, exceptional archers, morale enhanced by a shared creed, an experienced and disciplined force in the Templars, and beyond that, the greatest ability to bring divine magic to the battlefield. PC class characters are exceptional, but to the degree that there were clerics and paladins on the battlefield, Thrane had the lion’s share of them… and just as Aundair was most likely to produce a dramatic new arcane technique, Thrane was most likely to suddenly summon plaanr allies or otherwise turn the tide through use of divine magic.

Which leaves Cyre. Cyre was known as the center of art and culture, and in some way it wasn’t the best at anything… but at the same time, it also had a little bit of everything. Hence the bard — jack of all trades, not tied to any one path. Cyre also had the fact that according the the laws of Galifar, they were in the right — so back to the bard, strong morale. Finally, Cyre’s greatest asset was holding the wealth of the kingdom… which in turn meant that they could field the most mercenaries and draw the greatest amount of support from the Dragonmarked Houses. And it certainly didn’t hurt that House Cannith was based in Cyre. So Aundair had the BEST arcane magic; Cyre had considerably more of what could be bought from House Cannith. Cyran forces involved a lot of mercenaries (Deneith, Valenar, Darguul) and more warforged than any other nation… and like Breland, what leaders lacked in discipline and experience, they would attempt to make up for with charisma. As we all know, the heavy use of mercenaries had some pretty disastrous consequences down the line… but there you are.

That’s all I have time for now, but I will continue to answer questions over the course of the week. Let me know how you’ve used the Last War in your campaign and what you’d like to know about it! And check out the latest episode of Manifest Zone!

FOLLOW UP QUESTIONS

I seem to recall that Aundair took Arcanix from Thrane. If so, did they possess the arcane advantage they were known for at the beginning of the war? And if so, where did it come from?

This is from The Forge of War and is one of those the elements I strongly disapprove of. With that said, here’s my answer. The Arcane Congress has always been part of Aundair. It was founded by Aundair herself if the early days of Galifar, and respect for magic and education have both been engrained into the Aundairian character in a way no Thrane can understand. Arcanix — the greatest university and the seat of the Arcane Congress – is a floating citadel. It is also a mystical stronghold; Aundair’s greatest military asset its its arcane prowess, and Arcanix is, if you will, its Death Star. And like the Death Star, it’s mobile. It’s a floating institution, and when they seized a particularly desired stretch of land from Thrane and laid claim to it in the war, they moved Arcanix to that region. So it is true, Aundair took what is now Arcanix from Thrane during the war… but it wasn’t Arcanix when they took it.

You’ve established that the Keeper of Secrets is bound at Arcanix’s location. Would you say that she is tied to the town, the mobile fortress, or both?

As a GM, I’d definitely say she’s bound to the location. From a story perspective, this helps justify new developments at Arcanix tied to the presence of Sul Khatesh. I’d probably say that Hektula is manipulating Aundair and that shifting the location of Arcanix is part of the puzzle that will eventually free the Keeper of Secrets. But it could also simply be that Minister Adar learned of the location of Sul Khatesh on his own and has a team of sages seeking to tap into her knowledge and power… and we all know that will go well.

Why did the Five Nations refuse to recognize Droaam in the Treaty of Thronehold, when they recognized Darguun and Valenar? 

On the surface, it’s easy to see all these things as being equals. Darguun and Droaam are both nations of monsters, right? Kind of. First there’s the issue of timing. Valenar rose over forty years before the end of the war; Darguun almost thirty years before the Treaty. Both fielded large armies during the course of the war. Both represented recognized civilizations. Essentially, both had proven that they weren’t going anywhere, and they had sufficient military forces that it was vital to get them to the table in the interests of establishing a general peace.

By contrast, at the time of the treaty Droaam had been around for a decade. It was an assembly of creatures whose cultures were largely unknown in the east; no one had really considered the idea that harpies or medusas we in any way civilized. And while Droaam brokered mercenaries through House Tharashk, it never fielded a true army during the war. It’s the closest thing Eberron has to a terrorist state. It’s something the people of the east didn’t believe would last and something they don’t WANT to last. They settled with Darguun and Valenar because they had to. Droaam wasn’t seen as a civilization deserving of respect or as such a significant threat that it needed to be placated. My novel The Queen of Stone explores the ongoing relationship between the Thronehold nations and some of these issues.

When suggesting your players to be war comrades, did you ever had problems in finding a place for druids and barbarians?

It’s generally an approach I’d use when I’ve got a group of players who don’t have character ideas they’re dead-set on — so it’s something where the players would build characters with the war story in mind, and I’d challenge THEM to figure out how the character fits.

Primal characters don’t have a strong role in any of the Five Nations, so it’s not an easy match. The first and most important question is whether they are driven by the mechanics of the class, or by its specific role in the setting. Do they want to be a barbarian because they want to be a savage outsider, or because they like the mechanical abilities of the barbarian class? If they want to be an outsider — a druid from one of the Eldeen Sects or a barbarian from the Demon Wastes — they need to think of what could cause a character with that background to serve with your nation. They could be a mercenary. In the case of a druid, they might not actually be part of the army; they could simply be a mysterious ally who’s chosen to help the squad. If your soldiers are Brelish, the druid could be one of the Shadows of the Forest who’s chosen to help against their enemies. In the case of the barbarian, I’ll note that among the Dhakaani, the barbarian class represents a martial art that involves a cultivated state of battle fury; they aren’t savages, they are specialized warriors. Your PC barbarian could follow this same path — having the abilities of a barbarian but not the flavor. Worst case scenario, say that the barbarian and druid don’t join the party until after the war… and if you do initial adventures set during the war, it’s a great time to have these players put on red shirts and play the warriors or experts who likely won’t make it through the adventure… and their tragic deaths can help bond the rest of the squad.

But the point of doing that “squad scenario” is to say “Make a character who would be in this squad.” If your players won’t be happy with that limitation, I wouldn’t follow this path.

About Karrnath: do you think people there had already a different relationship with undead and/or death? Were they more ready to accept undead soldiers than others?

Absolutely. It’s not always been presented clearly, but Karrnath and the Lhazaar Principalities have always been the stronghold of the Blood of Vol. The faith was well-anchored in Karrnath long before the war, and in Seeker communities you’d already have undead performing basic labor; they’d just never been harnessed and organized for war, and the Odakyr Rites (which produce the distinctive Karrnathi Undead) hadn’t been developed. In part this is tied to the idea that Karrnath is the harshest of the Five Nations in terms of environment, and its people were generally more receptive to the bleak outlook of the Blood of Vol. It’s not like the Silver Flame and Thrane; the number of Seekers is small enough that Kaius could choose to use them as scapegoats in the present day. But the faith has always been around in Karrnath and thus its people had more casual contact with undead than any of the other Five Nations.

Would a Karrnathi Silver Flame or Sovereign cleric, or maybe even a bard be DIFFERENT in his approach to the topic?

Mechanically or philosophically? Mechanically, no. If you want a different approach to undead, make a Blood of Vol cleric. Philosophically they’ve be more used to having them in mundane roles and thus less likely to see ALL UNDEAD AS ABOMINATIONS then their counterparts in other nations. The focus of the Silver Flame is protecting the innocent from supernatural evil; a templar raised in Karrnath knows that the skeleton working in the fields in that Seeker community ISN’T suddenly going to turn on the villagers. With that said, the Silver Flame has never had a strong foothold in Karrnath, precisely because its culture leans more towards the bleak pragmatism of the Blood of Vol; in my opinion, Seekers have always outnumbered the followers of the Flame in Karrnath.

Five Nations says Thrane was the nation Breland feared the most… I thought Breland was much stronger than all.

If Breland was “stronger than all” the war wouldn’t have lasted a century. Breland had more people and stronger industry. But Aundair had better magic and Karrnath had better soldiers. As for Thrane, I didn’t write Five Nations so I can’t tell you what they were thinking. But let’s look at a few key factors.

  • Thrane and Breland share a significant border.
  • Along with Karrnath, Thrane has the most militant culture among the Five Nations. Its people stand ready to fight supernatual evil… but that still means that they are combat ready and prepared to make sacrifices for their faith. Again, in my mind the peasant militias are one of Thrane’s greatest assets.
  • Tied to this, I feel Thrane had a morale advantage over the other nations because its people are united by common belief, and by a faith that taught them to be ready to fight and to make sacrifices to protect the innocent.
  • Thrane has the greatest access to divine magic on the battlefield. Unlike arcane magic, divine magic isn’t a science. As a result, it’s more mysterious, and mystery isn’t something you want in an enemy.
  • Most of all: Thrane abandoned the monarchy to become a theocracy. That was undoubtedly terrifying to the leaders of all of the Five Nations — especially to Breland, where the monarchy is on thin ice.

Was Talenta pulled into the Last War at all, or was their relative distance and the influence of Ghallanda and Jorasco enough to spare them from most of the fighting?

The Talenta Plains are a large undeveloped stretch of relatively barren land; it’s got little that anyone actually WANTS, and virtually no cities or fortresses that could be claimed as strategic assets. The tribes have never assembled into what the Five Nations would consider an army. Thus they primarily are a path that Karrnath and Cyre passed through while fighting each other. If I was developing a full history of the war, I could certainly come up with some interesting events involving the Plains: interactions with the Q’barran colonists; interactions with Karrnathi forces planning a surprise offensive against the heart of Cyre; general interactions with supply lines, or the time Cyre decided to establish a fort there. But generally actions in the war would have involved raids, mercenary service (uncommon but possible), or defensive actions.

Forge of War indicates that of all the nations, only Karrnath didn’t ally with one of the other five at any point during the war. Do you agree with this?

It’s not my idea, to be sure. With that said, the Karrnathi character includes both deep confidence in the superiority of their own martial skills — a conviction that they are the greatest power in Khorvaire — and a bitter stoicism, they’ll have to kill us before we back down and even then our bones will rise and fight until they are ground to dust. So it seems unlikely to me that they wouldn’t have at least negotiated with Aundair regarding joint operations against Cyre, or the like (and I feel this has even been discussed in some other source), but I’m willing to accept the idea that Karrnath never engaged in a full if-the-war-ends-we-share-power alliance — that they always believed that they would either win the war and rule Galifar on their terms, or fight to the bitter, bitter end. This still can be seen in the present day, where many of the warlords consider Kaius’s strong support of peace initiatives to be a betrayal, a belief that drives many Emerald Claw recruits.

How common were sending stones and other Sivis communications equipment on the battlefield?

We’ve established that communications in Eberron are more akin to telegraph that to radio or phone. It wasn’t a modern battlefield where squads come be in direct real-time communication with one another. With that said, Sivis communication was a vital tool for long-term coordination. Speaking Stones are BIG and expensive; you’re talking about a wagon, and something Sivis wouldn’t want to put at risk in active battle. So you’d have such a thing with a major army, but not a unit. I can imagine a smaller focus device allowing a Sivis heir to send a message to or receive a message from the nearest speaking stone, but how I’d see it would be something requiring a ritual – maybe ten minutes, maybe more, along with expenditure of ground dragonshards – to activate, and likely that ritual has to be active to receive messages. So an heir could send an emergency message to the nearest stone if he had ten minutes to do it; but receiving messages is something he’d do at a specific time – check messages at noon – and not something that could be done in the midst of active combat. Of course, if you’re in a HUGE hurry, sending is an option – but there’s very few heirs who can do that.

So it was a vital tool for coordinating strategies and getting updates, but not real-time communication and not something the smallest units would have. With that said, I think you’d also see the Five Nations exploring other options – experimenting with Kalashtar psions, Aundair developing an alternate method of arcane communication, Vadalis messenger birds – but Sivis would be the gold standard.

Someone mentioned Karrnath doing necromantic experiments on living prisoners? That seems…beyond the pale for a salvageable nation state, to me. I don’t want to go that dark with Karrnath, but I’m curious about your take on that? 

That someone was me. It’s part of the plot for an adventure I wrote for the ChariD20 event; the PCs are former Cyran prisoners of war who were used as fodder in necromantic experiments. A critical point here is that the adventure is about hunting the camp commander down in Droaam, because he’s a war criminal who’s fled the Five Nations. It’s not that Karrnath as a whole encouraged or engaged in such behavior; it’s that there’s ONE GUY (and his soldiers) who did so, and if he remained in Karrnath, KAIUS would have had him tried for war crimes. This ties to the difference between the Blood of Vol – a faith that uses necromancy, but generally as a positive tool that serves the needs of a community – and the Order of the Emerald Claw, which is about over-the-top pulp villainy and routinely engages in horrific actions. This commander is a pulp villain: a scenery-chewing mad necromancer that we all agree is a deplorable human and deserves to be brought to justice (whatever that ends up meaning).

So it’s not about KARRNATH being that dark. This is an example of what the Order of the Emerald Claw is capable of, and it’s WHY the Order of the Emerald Claw is considered a terrorist organization; again, if the villain here remained in Karrnath, he’d have been brought to justice for his crimes.

My player is under the impression that Karrnath was not doing as well as they had, toward the end of the war, and may have started experimenting on people out of a bit of desperation. My impression was that… they were still in a strong position when the war ended, other than the famines.

Karrnath has always been struggling due to famine and plagues. They turned to use of undead in the first place as a way to offset this. However, Kaius chose to break ties with the Blood of Vol and limit the use of necromancy towards the end of the war, as opposed to embracing desperate measures. The main issue is that at full strength one would have expected Karrnath to steamroll Cyre; instead, because of their troubles, it’s been more even. But it’s still a force to be reckoned with, and many warlords are angry at Kaius for pursuing peace because they believe Karrnath is still strong enough for war. As a side note, in my Eberron Kaius blames the famines and plagues on the Blood of Vol, giving him a populist platform to strengthen his position; thus Karrnathi Seekers are dealing with prejudice and anger, which is further exacerbated by the actions of the Order of the Emerald Claw.

Dragonmarks: Rural Eberron

I’m working on a lot of projects right now. Over the next few months I’m going to be putting most of my energy into Phoenix: Dawn Command. Part of the point of developing a new setting and system is that I’m free to develop it in a way I can’t currently develop Eberron. However, my intention is to include conversion notes and to develop ideas that could fit into Eberron or another world, so you can get the most out of whatever I’m doing.

I’m also part of a new Eberron podcast called Manifest Zone. We recently sent out a call for questions. Many of the questions we received are too narrow or specific for what we want to do with the podcast… but they’re still some great questions that I wanted to address. Here’s on that stood out for me.

It’s easy to make Eberron feel like Eberron in the big cities. How do I do the same when visiting a tavern, or hamlet?

It’s an excellent question. I’m going to start with the general topic of rural Eberron, and deal with taverns in a second post – because I actually have a surprising amount to say about taverns. But starting with the general issue: What makes a farm in Breland different from one in the Dalelands of the Forgotten Realms? What is it that makes that small Aundairian village different from a generic Tolkien scene? As a gamemaster, what can you do to draw people into the setting? Well, let’s look at a few of the pillars of the setting.

Magic is a part of everyday life.

Remember: Eberron isn’t about high magic and the works of epic wizards. It’s about wide magic – the widespread use of low-level magic to solve problems that we’ve solved with technology. Everyone needs light. Farmers might not people able to afford everbright lanterns in every room, but I’d still imagine a farm would have at least two. Of course, rural magic depends on where you are. In Karrnath, a Seeker community will have skeletons performing menial tasks. In Aundair, a farm might have a floating disk that serves some of the same purposes as a tractor. In the Eldeen, you might have gleaners – the druidic equivalent of magewrights, with farmers knowing a simple druidic ritual or two to help with the crop. And consider that even one level of magewright gives access to the magecraft spell, which provides a +5 to Craft checks. From the ECS:

Every magewright worthy of the name knows the magecraft spell (see page 113). Truly expert coopers recite the magecraft  spell over their barrels, the best blacksmiths chant it as they hammer hot iron, and the finest potters cast it while they spin their clay. 

Magewrights aren’t limited to the big city; it’s an NPC class for a reason. So again, in describing a blacksmith, mention the magical gestures he makes over his forge and the sigils engraved in the anvil (designed to effectively channel the magecraft effect).

Beyond this, communities will be built around useful magical resources. Any thriving community will have a central well enchanted with a purify water effect. One of the most useful spells is a cantrip: prestidigitation. With this spell you can clean, heat, cool, flavor. Given that these principles exist, it’s easy to envision minor magic items that do just one of these things… and now you have mystical refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, microwaves, washing machines, and more. In a small town people may not own personal magic items, but a large farm may still have an ice room. We’ve mentioned before that Aundairian villages often have cleansing stones, a central fountain-like structure where you can bring laundry to have it instantly cleaned.

Even where people aren’t using magic themselves, consider manifest zones. Sharn exists because it’s built on a manifest zone that makes the towers possible. Dreadhold is built on a manifest zone that strengthens its stone, while it’s the zones to Irian that make the Undying Court possible in Aerenal. Manifest zones are natural resources, and where there are manifest zones with beneficial effects people will take advantage of them. A manifest zone to Fernia could be unnaturally temperate, or it could be that within the stone, basalt grows unusually warm – so the people in the zone heat their houses and foods with these stones. Use your imagination: what could be a beneficial manifestation of a particular plane, and how would people harness it?

Finally, consider the ambient impact of the greater magical economy. Mention the airship this passes overhead; perhaps the old farmer hates the damn things (remember that airships haven’t been around that long!). Perhaps a House Orien representative is in town negotiating a new lightning rail that’s going to pass through the area.

If it’s in D&D, there’s a place for it in Eberron.

Khorvaire isn’t our world. It’s a world where ogres and griffons and medusas are part of nature, and that’s before you get into the possibilities of magebreeding (Cows that produce chocolate milk? Hens that lay hardboiled eggs?). That Aundairian ranch might be breeding dragonhawks instead of horses. When you pass by a field in Breland you might see an ogre pulling a plow on his own. His name’s Bargh; he was a mercenary with Tharashk during the war, and liked the area so much he just stayed behind afterwards and was taken in by the local farm. Which leads to…

Consider the impact of the war.

We’re two years out from a devastating century of war, which involved a wide range of magical weapons. You could have the equivalent of a magical minefield – a stretch of land that’s been abandoned because of explosive wards still scattered across the countryside. You could come to a place where a bridge is being rebuilt and you have to take ferries across; the Brelish ferryman curses the damn Cyrans, and complains about how they ruined his town and now Boranel is buying them dinner. You might find craters from powerful war magics, ruins that have never been rebuilt, a hamlet that was once a prosperous town before the war took most of its population… or another town that’s home to a large refugee population, and tensions are high.

Consider Religion. 

In a village in Thrane, you might find the townsfolk practicing archery on the green while a cantor sings praises to Tira. Next door in Breland you may have a village that has no priest, but everyone believes the oldest farmer is blessed by Arawai, and he speaks on her behalf at village gatherings. Shrines to Sovereigns can take many forms. Daca sits on a pillar in Sharn, but you could just as easily find a pillar saint in a small town.The central square in a Karrnathi hamlet contains a bloodstained stone basin, used for the ritual sharing of blood. In western Breland you might find a cairn made from shards of shattered statues; this dates back to a time when the Znir gnolls lived in the region, but the locals have continued to add stones to it.

Presumably, small villages are less diverse than great cities like Sharn, but how much so? Do non-humans tend to have their own communities in rural areas, or are they integrated with the majority human population?

I believe that most communities are integrated in the Five Nations. It varies by nation – Humans make up 70% of the population in Thrane, while they are less than half of the populace of Breland. Tied to this, through the Dragonmarked Houses every common race has a critical role in the economy that helps their position in society. There’s surely racisim in Khorvaire, and you can play that up from any angle you like; but it’s still the case that I’m used to having halflings running the inn the hospital, and gnomes sending messages. And this has been true for a thousand years. Dwarves built the towers of Sharn. So in my opinion, while racism is definitely out there, in the Five Nations nationalism is stronger. If I’m from Breland, I care more about the fact that you’re Brelish than that you’re a dwarf; that piece of things will come second.

So for the most part, I believe you see diversity in communities. In Breland, if there’s ten families in a village, you can expect at least two of them to be dwarves or gnomes. With that said, you’re likely to see SOME concentration simply because it’s necessary to sustain a community. Which is to say, if each village was a perfect microcosm you’d have one gnome family, one dwarf family, one halfling family… and what happens when the children are looking for mates? So I suspect you have village A that’s blended dwarves and humans, village B that’s gnomes and humans, etc… but people aren’t going to freak out if a halfling moves in. Probably.

You certainly could have entire villages of a particular race, but I don’t think it’s the norm.

Are there any significant numbers of warforged outside of the cities, e.g. the village with the warforged named Smith who was welcomed because the former village smith died in the War?

I’d expect warforged to congregate in the cities. Lacking clear direction and purpose and owning no property, it’s easier for them to make a start around others of their kind. And warforged are both new and created as weapons of war – so it’s far more logical to see prejudice against warforged than against the races that have been part of your civilization for centuries. With that said, I think you see warforged in small communities where they have attachments to people who live there. When the soldier came home to his farm after the war, his warforged companion came with him and works on the farm. In the local tavern, a warforged remains as the bouncer. And I think an entire village of warforged – a gift of land from a noble grateful for their service – is an intriguing story idea. As for your smith (and I played a warforged artificer named Smith for a while), some villages would welcome him and others might drive him away; again, prejudice against warforged is more common than any of the demihumans.

Could a kalashar thrive in a hamet where she is the only psion for miles, or would she feel the need to conceal her talents? Similar question for changelings?

I think a kalashtar could do just fine. It’s easy for kalashtar to disguise themselves as humans if they want, but I also don’t think we’ve established fear of psionics as a big thing in the Five Nations; most people would just assume it’s some sort of mind magic. Changelings are another question and one I’ll address at more length at some places. Breland is fairly accepting of changelings and they may live openly. In other places you’ll oftn see changelings concealing their true nature; bear in mind, the reason they are called “changelings” dates from people having children with a disguised shapeshifter, and when the child is born a changeling, believing that their actual baby has been stolen away. And you also have small communities that are entirely changelings – though you won’t know it passing through. So it depends on the place: changelings will often hide, but a trusted changling whose family has been part of the community for a while may just live out in the open.

These are just a few ideas. The possibilities are endless, especially when you get into the different nations and their own unique elements, but that’s all I have time for now. Feel free to share ways you’ve presented the flavor of the world below!

Dragonmarks: Tieflings

In a previous Dragonmark I wrote about my general approach to adding exotic races to Eberron. Since then there’s been a fair amount of interest in a race that already has a vaguely defined role in canon Eberron: The Tiefling. While tieflings have come up in canon sources — the Venomous Demesne is mentioned in the 4E sourcebooks — as always, this is what I’d do in my personal campaign and it may contradict canon material.

The basic concept of the tiefling is a humanoid touched by infernal powers. Some interpretations present the concept of an empire whose lords bargained with dark forces; in others, tieflings are loners without a clear culture or path. As always, my goal in adding a new race is to find out what the players are looking for. If I have a player asking to be a tiefling, do they want to be part of an ancient tradition of warlocks? Would they rather play a loner who feels cursed by their infernal blood? Here’s two different approaches, each of which provides a very different story for a player to build on.

THE VENOMOUS DEMESNE

The Sarlonan nation of Ohr Kaluun was infamous for delving into dark magics. In the depths of their war labyrinths, the mage-lords of Ohr Kaluun forged pacts with infernal spirits and tapped into the powers of the planes. Over generations this twisted the blood of the nobles, producing the first tieflings. This corruption didn’t go unnoticed. Khaleshite crusaders fought bitterly against Ohr Kaluun, and fear of the demonic taint of Ohr Kaluun spreading across Sarlona was a cornerstone of the civil strife that resulted in the Sundering. The civilization of Ohr Kaluun was wiped out during the Sundering, but a small force of nobles and their retainers escaped across the sea. These refugees created a hidden enclave on the west coast of Khorvaire. Over the course of centuries, they regained a portion of their pride and power. They inspired fear in the savage creatures that lived around them, and their realm became known as the Venomous Demesne. The tiefling lords were largely content in their isolation until the Daughters of Sora Kell rose to power in the region and sought to unify the wilds into the nation of Droaam. Sora Teraza herself came to the Venomous Demesne, bypassing the mystical concealment as if it didn’t exist. She spoke to the Council of Four, and none know what she said. But in the days that followed, the noble lines sent representatives to the Great Crag and joined in the grand experiment of Droaam.

The Venomous Demesne is a tiefling community and culture. It is a small hidden city, whose population includes both humans and tieflings… though many of the humans have minor signs of infernal heritage, even if they don’t have the full racial mechanics. The Demense is ruled by an alliance of four tiefling families, and the members of these families are powerful casters delving into many paths of magic: there are warlocks, clerics, and wizards of all schools. Their powers are vast, but grounded in dark bargains made in the past. To most outsiders, their traditions seem arbitrary and cruel. The price of magic is often paid for in pain and blood. Duels are an important part of their culture – never to the death, as they are still too few in number to squander noble blood so casually, but always with a painful cost for the loser.

If you are a full-blooded tiefling of the Venomous Demense, you are a scion of a noble line – a line that made bargains with malefic powers in the past. Your people have long been extremely insular, shunning all contact with the outside world. Now that they are expanding into Droaam, some are interested in knowing more about Khorvaire and the opportunities it presents. Consider the following options…

  • Your noble house is the weakest of the four lines. You are searching for allies or powers that will allow your house to gain dominance over the Venomous Demesne.
  • You are a lesser heir of your house and will never achieve status in the Demesne. You are seeking personal power that will let you take control of your house. You’re especially interested in the Mourning; it reminds you of stories you’ve heard about the magics of Ohr Kaluun, and you wonder if you could unlock and master its powers.
  • You have discovered a terrible secret about your ancestors and the bargains that they made… a pact that is about to come due. It may be that the cost affects you personally; that it could destroy your house; or that it is a threat to Eberron itself. Perhaps an Overlord is due to be released, or a planar incursion will occur if you can’t stop it. The Council of Four won’t listen to you – so you’re on your own.
  • You have been exiled from the Demesne. This could be because of a duel you lost, a crime you committed, or a crime you WOULDN’T commit. Perhaps you were ordered to participate in a pact that would damn your soul, or to murder someone you cared about. You can never return: what destiny can you find in the outer world?

You are from a hidden city of dark wonders, and the Five Nations seem hopelessly primitive and savage to you. Where is the blood wine? Where is the music of the spheres? Imagine you’re an alien from an advanced civilization, forced to deal with savages.

PLANETOUCHED TIEFLINGS

The tieflings of the Venomous Demesne were mystically engineered. Their ancestors chose to become tieflings by binding dark powers to their blood. But those same dark powers can leak into the world uncalled for. During coterminous periods, planar influences can shape an unborn child; this is especially true in a manifest zone. In this way, a Tiefling can be born into a human family. This occurs most frequently in the Demon Wastes, and among the Carrion Tribes Tieflings are seen as blessed, often rising to positions of power in a tribe. Within the Five Nations such births are more often viewed with fear and concern. This is often justified. A planetouched Tiefling isn’t the result of a bargain or pact. They are touched by planar power, and this shapes them in both body and mind.

When making a planetouched tiefling, the first question is which plane you’re tied to and how that manifests physically and mentally.

  • Fernia is an obvious choice, as its residents include devils and demons and many Tiefling racial abilities are tied to fire. A Fernian tiefling fits the classic appearance. Skin could be fiery red or orange, and warm to the touch. Eyes could be glowing embers, and when the tiefling grows angry the ambient temperature could rise. A Fernian tiefling would be fiery and passionate, with an innate love for seeing things destroyed by flame.
  • Shavarath is also a good choice, as it is home to the majority of fiends that resemble tieflings. A tiefling tied to Shavararath might have horns of steel, and their skin could seem to be made of leather or iron, though this would be a cosmetic effect only. A fiend of Shavarath could keep the standard flame-based powers, but would have a martial nature and strong instinct for aggression, conquest, or bloodshed.
  • Risia also works as the counterpoint to Fernia. A Risian tiefling would have pale white or silvery skin and hair. Their horns might actually be made of ice, staying frozen even in the warmest temperatures, and they might draw heat from their surroundings. A Risian tiefling should have resistance to cold instead of fire, and their Hellish Rebuke would inflict cold damage. Emotionally, Risian tieflings tend to be cold and distant, rarely showing emotion or compassion.
  • Mabar is home to succubi, and a Mabaran tiefling takes after these fiends. A Mabaran tiefling replaces fire resistance with resistance to necrotic damage, and replaces Hellish Rebuke with Arms of Hadar. Mabaran tieflings are often extremely attractive; some have natural skin tones, while others have unnaturally dark skin. Mabaran tieflings are predators by nature and often sociopaths or narcissists.
  • Sakah are tieflings of the Demon Wastes who are touched by the power of the rakshasa. Instead of the horns and tail of the typical tiefling they have feline traits – cat’s eyes, fangs, skin with tiger-stripe patterns, often in unnatural colors. Sakah can use the exact same racial traits as the traditional tiefling, though with the DM’s permission you can exchange Hellish Rebuke (at 3rd level) for the ability to use Alter Self once per day. Sakah are inherently deceptive and manipulative; like the Mabaran tieflings, they are almost exclusively sociopath who have difficulty empathizing with humans.

A critical point here: you aren’t simply touched by the plane, you are touched by its fiendish influences. The fiends of Fernia don’t simply represent fire: Fernian demons reflect the chaotic, terrifying destructive power of fire, while Fernia devils embody the use of fire as a tool for destruction and torment. A genasi is an individual tied to neutral elemental forces: as a tiefling, you are a malevolent embodiment of the planar concept. If you’re a tiefling from Shavarath, you’ve innately got a strong bond to the Mockery – you might want to follow the path of Dol Arrah, but it will definitely be a struggle as your instincts push you towards treachery and cruelty.

Unlike the tieflings of the Venomous Demesne, planetouched tieflings aren’t a true-breeding race; they have no communities or culture. Were you abandoned by your parents who considered you a freakish mutation? Did they instead embrace you and try to help you find a place in the world? Are you a bitter lone wolf, or someone who has fought to find acceptance in public society? Were you born in the Demon Wastes and considered to be blessed… and if so, why did you ever leave? Most of all, do you consider the touch of the plane a curse or a blessing?

PUBLIC REACTION

So the question that comes up most often is how do people in (place) react to tieflings? People in Thrane must hate them, because they’re like demons, right?

Well, sort of. The point I’ve made before is that WE look at the tiefling and see a demon: but the demons the people of Eberron know best are rakshasa, so “horns and red skin” doesn’t automatically mean “evil.” Consider the vast number of monstrous humanoids that exist in the world: if you live in Sharn you’ve encountered harpies, gargoyles, ogres, goblins, shifters, changlings, warforged, and potentially even medusa just doing everyday stuff in town. There’s a creature with living snakes for hair, and while people are definitely UNCOMFORTABLE around medusas, they are still a part of the world.

So the first question is: does the person in question actually know what a tiefling is? By default, tieflings are extremely rare. The tieflings of the Venomous Demesne have always been in hiding. Planetouched tieflings are most common in the Demon Wastes and rarely ever leave it. If you don’t know that a tiefling is connected to fiendish powers, then they are just a person with strange skin and horns. My point in the previous article wasn’t that anyone could mistake a tiefling for a minotaur, but rather that to the casual observer there’s nothing more inherently threatening about a tiefling than there is about a minotaur; both are horned humanoids, and frankly the tiefling is closer to being human. So by default a tiefling won’t produce a reaction of “BURN IT! IT’S A DEMON!” because it’s not the right sort of demon. It’s just some sort of monster, and there are lots of monsters in the world.

With that said, if you WANT the story of persecution and fear, it’s a trivial thing to say that people do know what tieflings are and why they should fear them. Looking to my explanation for planetouched tieflings, I suggested that this is a thing that happens when the destructive planes are coterminous. In this case, as rare as they are, it could be understood that tieflings care the touch of evil – that there is a fiendish taint in their blood, and that most are dangerous and destructive. In this case, I’d look at the treatment of the aberrant dragonmarked as a guideline. Like a tiefling, an aberrant didn’t choose to be cursed – but they possess a dangerous power, and superstition states that they are inclined to be evil. People may not call a priest when a tiefling shows up, but they could certainly treat the tiefling – and any who associate with them – with fear and suspicion, and want nothing to do with them. Followers of the Silver Flame or Dol Arrah could assert that through no fault of their own, the tiefling is inherently inclined to be evil; it might not be a matter of shoot-on-site, but a templar could easily be looking for an excuse to take the twisted thing down.

Now, if this is the path you use, the critical thing would be that if you have BOTH planetouched tieflings and the Venomous Demesne, people will assume the tiefling from the demense is planetouched. Because again, the Demesne has always been hidden and planetouched tieflings aren’t true-breeding; so the idea of a city of tieflings is definitely beyond anyone’s imagining.

RELLEKOR

In a previous post, I mentioned the idea that the village of Rellekor in Thrane has had a large Tiefling community for centuries. How does this tie into these two models? Recall that the Church of the Silver Flame is founded on principles of compassion. It seeks to protect the innocent from supernatural evil. A tiefling has the potential to be a supernatural threat, but it can also be innocent; a tiefling can even become a champion of the Flame.

With this in mind, Rellekor was established as a haven for planetouched tieflings. When Thrane families give birth to a tiefling (due to planar influences), they will usually turn the child over to the church, who will in turn deliver it to Rellekor. Thus, the population of Rellekor is made up of planetouched tieflings with ties to many different planes. It’s not a prison; it’s a place where tieflings can be with their own kind without dealing with the fear of others. Priests of the Flame seek to help tieflings come to terms with their planetouched nature and any gifts or powers associated with it, and help them find a path to the light… while Templars stand ready to deal with those who prove dangerous or irredeemably sociopathic. Note that most of these priests and templars are themselves tieflings.

People of Thrane thus have some concept of tieflings, but bear in mind that part of the point of Rellekor is to keep tieflings from mingling with the general population. The basic attitude is thus that tieflings are dangerous, much like people with aberrant dragonmarks.

If you want to play a tiefling devoted to the Silver Flame, it makes sense that you would have been raised and trained in Rellekor. Otherwise, it can be an interesting location to visit. There are a number of tiefling sages and priests with great wisdom in this place, and it’s also a center for study of the planes tied to the tieflings; if you need insight into Mabar, speak to the Mabarn tiefling monks of Rellekor.

I’m going to leave things there, but hopefully that’s given you some ideas if you’re looking to bring tieflings into your campaign!

 

Podcasts, Livestreams and Conventions

If you’re interested in Eberron, Phoenix: Dawn Command, or my opinions on random TV shows, here’s a few things you might want to watch or listen to.

For around the last twenty years, I’ve had a weekly phone call with friend and fellow game designer Andrew Looney. Sometimes we talk about game design or our latest projects; other times we talk about the shows we’re watching or stories we’re reading. We call this The Download, and in 2015 Andy suggested we make it a podcast. I’m not sure if it’s interesting for anyone but us, but if you’re curious what two game designers talk about, check it out.

But that’s not my only podcast. If you’re interested in the Eberron Campaign Setting you should definitely check out Manifest Zone. This is a podcast about Eberron, and each month Kristian Serrano, Wayne Chang, Scott W and I will be discussing a particular aspect of the setting and how it’s relevant to both players and gamemasters.

And as long as I’m talking about podcasts, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Going Last podcast, where I’ve been an occasional guest and co-host.

If visuals are more your thing, I wanted to draw attention to Maze Arcana and Saving Throw, two livestreams tied to RPGs I love. Maze Arcana is a D&D 5E livestream featuring the fabulous Satine Phoenix, GM Ruty Rutenberg, and others. I’ve worked with Satine for the years on the ChariD20 charity RPG events, and I’ve enjoyed consulting with her and Ruty on the story behind Maze Arcana. Meanwhile, Saving Throw is the only place where you can see Phoenix: Dawn Command in action – including a session run by me in season one! Honorable mention here goes to RoleOut, an Eberron livestream from Oz Mills.

Last but not least, if you’re in the Memphis area I’m the gaming guest of honor at MidSouthCon this weekend, and it’s a chance to play or discuss Eberron, Phoenix: Dawn Command, Illimat and more. I hope to see some of you there!

Catching Up and the Eldeen Reaches

It’s been over a month since my last post: where have I been?

There’s been quite a few things that kept me off the internet. At Twogether we’ve been hard at work getting Illimat to press. Gloom In Space just came out, and I’ve been working on another game you’ll be seeing later in the year: Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Card Game. Beyond this, I’ve been dealing with family issues and helping organize gaming on the JoCo Cruise. And to top it all off, I have the flu.

So: I’ve been busy. And I’m going to continue to be busy for the forseeable future. I’m a Guest of Honor at MidSouthCon later this month; I’m working on a new new game, just recorded an episode of a new podcast, and I’m still planning a range of support for Phoenix: Dawn Command in the next few months.

However, I don’t want to let too much time go by without addressing Eberron questions, so let’s get back to it.

Would people from Varna and other eastern settlements in the Eldeen Reaches reconsider going back under Aundairian sovereignty if the Ashbound and the Children of Winter increase attacks against those “civilized” lands and the Wardens are reluctant or unable to protect them? 

As with most things in Eberron, it’s certainly possible if it’s a story you want to explore. It’s especially plausible in Varna, as House Vadalis maintains strong ties to Aundair and would be happy to see Varna return to Aundair.

The critical thing to understand is that the split between Aundair and the Eldeen wasn’t a spur of the moment decision during the Last War. The bandits were the excuse but not the root cause. Instead, it was the culmination of events that had been brewing for a thousand years. The Wardens of the Wood predate Galifar, and always had ties to the people of the Reaches. Galifar united the Five Nations by conquest. His daughter Aundair was set over the northeast, and she sought to instill her values in the people of the region: her love of education, civilization, and arcane magic. But the further you get from Fairhaven, the more people hold to the old ways. When the Eldeen Reaches seceded from Aundairan, they weren’t suddenly allying with mysterious druids they knew nothing about; they were throwing off centuries of oppression and returning to their ancestral roots.

Varna is an exception. It has always been the seat of House Vadalis. It’s the largest city in the Reaches, a center of industry, and it has the strongest ties to Aundair. It’s the logical place for a pro-Aundairian movement to arise.

With that said: the critical question is why the Wardens wouldn’t take action if the Children of Winter and the Ashbound became increasingly aggressive. Small raids may be overlooked, but large-scale action should draw a response from Oalian and the Wardens; that’s what the Wardens are for. One option is that they simply can’t defend the Reaches — that the Ashbound or Children of Winter have had a sudden surge in numbers and power, perhaps drawing members away from the Wardens. If this is the campaign plan, I’d want to explore WHY the sect in question has suddenly gained such power. What’s behind the surge? Why do they feel expanded aggression is necessary? Alternately, it could be that the Wardens are unwilling to interfere… but again, why is this? If innocents are being hurt, why won’t the Wardens take action? If it were me, the answer to these questions would be a critical part of the story of the campaign.

Are there still any operating shrines to or faithful of the Silver Flame in the Eldeen Reaches since the time of the purge?

Excellent question, and one that hasn’t been explored as deeply as it probably should have been. The Silver Flame gained a foothold in the region when the templars fought the lycanthropic plague. This is an example of a time when the Wardens couldn’t defend the region against a threat, and many placed their faith in the force that saved them. With that said, it’s important to emphasis that this is the stronghold of the so-called “Pure Flame.” These are people who first encountered the Flame as a tool of war. It’s this splinter of the faith that has produced people like Cardinal Dariznu. Charity and compassion aren’t key components of the Flame you’ll find here, and a friar from Thrane may find little common ground with a templar from the Reaches.

I guess those faithful are mistrusted by the local shifters…

That goes both ways. Followers of the Pure Flame generally consider shifters to be tainted by lycanthropy… essentially, that they are werewolves-in-waiting, who could at any time fall prey to the corruption in their blood. And it was the followers of the Pure Flame that instigated the worst of the atrocities in the inquisition that followed the Lycanthropic Purge — driven by an understandable hunger for vengeance on the force that nearly destroyed them. So yeah, local shifters will generally dislike followers of the Flame.

Are purified shifters seen as traitors by others?

I don’t think “traitor” is the right word, but it’s something that would be incredibly rare. The primary faith of the Flame in the region is the Pure Flame, and per the Pure Flame shifters are cursed. So a Shifter follower of the Pure Flame would be someone who in all likelihood distrusts their own kind; it’s sort of like a half-fiend embracing the faith, likely believing that it can help them overcome the evil in their lineage.

With that said, the core beliefs of the Silver Flame aren’t prejudiced against shifters, and a shifter cleric from Flamekeep wouldn’t feel this way; however, most locals don’t know the difference, as the Pure Flame is the only form of the Silver Flame they’ve encountered.

Could a surge in the other sects be perhaps the outcome of a ploy by queen Aurala?

I wouldn’t see that as happening directly, but indirectly, certainly. The Ashbound are deeply opposed to the abuse (or for that matter, the use) of arcane magic. Imagine that Aurala makes a gift of mystical tools to villages in the Reaches – a kindly peace offering. Cleansing stones, everburning lamps, some new system of wards, or especially something that affects the natural order – something that blocks disease, affects the fertility of the region, etc – could push the Children of Winter or Ashbound to aggression removing this unnatural thing. Thus Aurala is doing something generous and the sects blocking it are seen as heartless and cruel. Of course, if you want to keep it interesting, it could be that Aurala’s magic WILL disrupt natural patterns; there’s no reason the Ashbound can’t actually be RIGHT with their concerns.

 

Or a rogue dragon trying to shape the prophecy by weakening the Wardens or furthering chaos in the Reaches?

Seems more like something that would be tied to the Lords of Dust, and the Lords of Dust would have a more logical basis for having an entrenched network of agents in the region that could help manipulate events.

If it was a Gatekeeper that awakened Oalian (if it was), why did he found a new sect of druid faith?

Why do new religions evolve, or existing religions change? Tira Miron was a paladin of Dol Arrah, and she became the Voice of the Silver Flame. Oalian is a unique individual. He’s bound to the natural world in a way the druid who awakened him never could be. He has a unique perspective and centuries of experience – and in that time, he created the sect he believed the region needed.

How has having Droaam as a new neighbor and influenced the Reaches?

Before she joined her sisters as a ruler of Droaam, Sora Maenya was the Terror of the Towering Woods. She’s not a new threat, and the Towering Woods have never been safe. That’s why the Wardens of the Wood exist: to protect outsiders from the wood, and to protect the wood from outsiders. They’ve clashed with the Znir Pact and the Wind Howlers long, long before Droaam ever existed. If anything, hostilities between the Reaches and Droaam have probably DROPPED since Droaam became a nation as the Daughters have tighter control over forces that would have otherwise engaged in random raids and skirmishes.

Did the Greensingers arise from other druidic sects like the case with Oalian founding the Wardens? 

Essentially. The druidic traditions in the Reaches can be ultimately traced back to the Gatekeepers. But like Oalian, the inhabitants of the Reaches — shifters, human settlers, others — learned these traditions after the Xoriat incursion, and weren’t as focused on the Gatekeeper mission. Imagine that a member of the Chamber founds an order of wizards and teaches them arcane magic to use to find a demon. They do, and the members of the circle devote their lives, and those of their descendants, to maintaining the seals. But along the way, a member of the circle teaches some of their magic to someone else – an outsider who hasn’t sworn to maintain the seals, or a child who leaves their family instead of embracing their duty. This person goes north and teaches the magic they’ve learned to someone else. At this point, this third generation wizard knows only the basic principles of the magic and almost none of the history behind it; but they have enough to build upon, to make their own discoveries and create their own traditions.

This is what you have in the Reaches. The basic techniques of druidic magic can be traced back to the Gatekeepers, but we’re talking about thousands of years — more than enough time for new traditions to evolve and arise. The Greensingers are just such a case, shaped when druidic initiates encountered envoys of Thelanis, or found their way into the Faerie Court themselves.

And do you see the majority of the Greensingers as being more loyal to their fey patrons or to the people of the Reaches, considering that they act as intermediaries between the two?

I see the Greensingers as being an intensely individualistic sect, far more so than any of the others. They’re tied to different patrons and inspired by different things. Some of them may be deeply devoted to serving as intermediaries or guides; others may solely be concerned with the agendas of their fey patrons.

What could change if the Wardens decide that Ashbounds are right and arcane magic is driving the world to apocalypse? Could the druid together do something? Would they try something extreme like a war to house cannith, attempting to kill everybody with the mark of making?

Do they have the resources to do anything like that? It’s really up to you as a GM. In my opinion, the Wardens of the Wood are a small force; while they may have access to significant primal power in the Towering Woods, like the Undying Court, that power is concentrated in a specific geographic location; they simply don’t have the capability of threatening House Cannith across the Five Nations. Which is part of the basic premise of Eberron: if they DID decide House Cannith was a threat, they’d need to find some champions – IE PCs – to do something about it. Note that even at the height of their power, the Gatekeepers couldn’t face the Daelkyr on their own; it was the alliance of Gatekeepers and Dhakaani that overcame the incursion.

With that said, if you wanted to use this as something the PCs need to prevent as opposed to enact, there’s any number of plots I could image. Perhaps they work with the Children of Winter and come up with a plague that specifically targets the dragonmarked, killing them or simply sterilizing them. This isn’t an instant effect, but it’s something that is spreading rapidly; can the PCs find a cure before it’s too late? What consequences will losing a big chunk of the dragonmarked have on the world?

Perhaps they enact a massive ritual that separates Eberron from Siberys and completely disrupts arcane magic – which would have widespread ramifications, such as the collapse of Sharn and crashing of airships. The initial ritual might only last for a day – but can the PCs find an answer before a follow-up ritual makes it permanent?

And the real question I’d ask is What if they’re right? What if it IS pushing Eberron closer to the apocalypse? If you reverse this ritual, will it trigger a new and more widespread Mourning?

I explored this concept in greater depth in an Eye on Eberron article in Dragon 418. Here’s an excerpt.

The doctrine of the Children of Winter states that Siberys is the source of arcane and divine magic; Eberron the mother of primal and natural things; and Khyber is the font of aberrations and fiends. The first signs of Eberron’s fury would be a wave of natural disasters. Thousands die as floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes shake the world. Once she is fully awake, Eberron asserts her preeminence over her creation, banishing the influence of Khyber and Siberys alike. The Lords of Dust are forced into the depths with other fiends, while the dragons of Argonnessen are wiped out. The magical energies wielded by both wizards and priests are cast back to the Ring of Siberys, and arcane and divine magic fails utterly. The towers of Sharn collapse under their own weight. Airships fall from the sky. Amid this chaos, awakened plants tear down the foundations of cities, newborn primal predators hunt survivors, and plagues ravage the land.

            The loss of magic is the key event of this disaster, but it doesn’t make the world a mundane place. Dragons are hard hit because arcane magic flows through their blood—but there are many natural creatures that have innate supernatural abilities. The ogre still has his strength, and the blink dog can still slip through space. Primal magic is stronger than ever, and the youngsters in the ruined cities will grow up to be barbarians and wardens. But beyond that, only a handful of people can still use arcane and divine magic . . . including the player characters. One of the underlying themes of Eberron is that the PCs are the most important people of the age, and here is where that precept is made manifest. Player character clerics and paladins are the last connection to the divine in a world cut off from the heavens. The PC sorcerer still holds a spark of Siberys in his blood, while the artificer is one of the only people who can harness the residual energy that remains. The characters have powers that no one else can wield. Will they search for a way to restore the old order, or will they use their abilities for personal gain? Will the wizard try to create rituals that anyone can use, or use his powers to carve out a kingdom?

Maybe it’s a too off topic question, but if the plan of the Ashbound was to kill or sterilize every Cannith… what would change in Eberron? How would it be an Eberron without House Cannith?

It’s off topic, but I’ll allow it. Personally, I don’t think the removal of House Cannith alone is a logical goal for the Ashbound. Among other things, House Vadalis and House Jorasco are more obvious offenders when it comes to “twisting the natural order of things” and Vadalis is based in Varna, right on the doorstep of the Ashbound. Beyond that, removing House Cannith WOULDN’T have a dramatic immediate effect on things, because most of what Cannith does can be replicated by independent artificers, alchemists, wizards and blacksmiths; what Cannith does is a) innovate and b) industrialize. Inventions like the warforged – something that can only be created by Cannith – are rare; mostly, they produce everything from potions to mundane tools, and creation forges and schemas allow them to produce these things more efficiently and in larger quantities than other folks. Remove House Cannith and what you’ll get is prices of common items going up, shortages occurring, and quality starting to vary dramatically; right now Cannith defines the “industry standard”.

We’ve always said that Eberron is “widespread magic” as opposed to “high magic”. It’s the industrial aspect of Cannith that allows it to be widespread, producing mundane items like everburning torches and the like. Remove Cannith and those things will still be produced – just by a hundred independents, resulting in that range of quality and availability. It wouldn’t be as dramatic as eliminating arcane magic entirely.

Do you have questions about the Eldeen Reaches? Post them below!