Gameplay: Adding Drama to the Divine

“Knowledge has made you powerful, but there’s still so much you don’t know. Do you remember what you heard that night when the sorcerer tossed your parts in the fire? You heard a voice call out from the flames, do you remember? Should I tell you what the voice said? Should I tell you the name of the one who spoke?”

-Kinvara to Varys, Game of Thrones episode 6.5

So I’ve been watching the TV adaptation of Game of Thrones and if there’s one thing I like, it’s the presentation of the servants of the Lord of Light. Kinvara and Melisandre feel powerful and enigmatic. Even when she makes mistakes, Melisandre is driven by her mission and clearly has an interesting story yet to be revealed (on the show). And yet, watching the show, one thought occurred to me…  Clerics don’t feel this cool. Back when I started playing D&D, cleric was the class no one wanted to play; everyone else does cool stuff, and then the cleric fixes them up so they can do more cool stuff. The cleric felt like a box of band-aids, not a mysterious and dangerous vessel for cosmic forces.

There’s a lot of reasons for this. One of the things that drives these scenes is that they’re filled with mystery. WHAT exactly does Kinvara know? HOW does she know it? IS the Lord of Light what she says it is… or is she serving a darker power, knowingly or unwittingly? But that’s not how things work in most editions of D&D. Instead, the cleric is an armored spellcaster who heals and casts support spells, while the wizard is a glass canon with powerful offensive magic. Mechanically their magic serves different purposes – but aside from a few twists in how you select and memorize spells, it performs the same. Divine magic is just as reliable and predictable as arcane magic. Which is important if you’re playing a wargame and want to ensure that every character is balanced. But it doesn’t do a great job of modeling the theoretical differences between arcane and divine. A wizard approaches magic in a rational way. They learn formulas and rituals that allow them to manipulate magical energy. A wizard is like a scientist. By contrast, a cleric is a person who asks the universe to do something for them… and it does. Which raises all sorts of questions.

  • Can a cleric use divine magic to do something that’s against the principles of their faith? If so, why?
  • If the cleric’s deity will perform miracles on their behalf, why will they only do it two times a day (or whatever)? Why do they withhold the GOOD magic until the cleric goes up in level?
  • If the cleric is truly in need, shouldn’t their deity just, y’know, help them out?
  • If the deity has awesome power and can alter reality, why don’t they just smite bad things on their own, before the cleric even gets to them?

There’s lots of ways to deal with these questions. The simplest is to say that deities may maintain reality as we know it, but they can only directly affect things on a small scale through the medium of divine casters. There’s lots of possible explanations for this…

  • Cosmic Entities. The deity is so cosmic and vast that humans are like fleas to it; the cleric serves as a lens that allows the deity to focus on a specific situation.
  • Bound by Duty. The gods are occupied maintaining reality as we know it and if they stopped what they were doing to mess with things directly there would be consequences – Atlas can’t just stop holding up the sky. Perhaps, like the Silver Flame of Eberron, the deities are holding primordial fiends or aberrations at bay, and if they turn their power away from the struggle the world could be destroyed.
  • Bound by Rules. There is a strict balance of power between deities that prevents them from interfering in mortal affairs. Perhaps there was a cosmic conflict in the past that almost destroyed reality, and the gods agreed to abide by terms of a truce – should one intervene, all the others could as well. Or perhaps there’s a literal barrier erected that shields the mortal world from direct divine action. Whatever the nature, this divine armistice allows for mortal agents of the deities to act on their behalf. If you like the idea of gods that have stats, that you could find in the planes and potentially even beat up, this is the path to take. Because the gods COULD directly act on the world and many might WANT to directly act on the world, but there are cosmic rules that are preventing them from doing it – and so they need divine characters.
  • Abstract Entities. The gods don’t literally exist. They are concepts in the collective unconscious, and people’s belief in them generates power. So they can’t act on their own because they have no actual volition or consciousness; but the intense faith of a divine caster allows them to draw on this power. If you’re an atheist in Eberron, this is what you believe.

The point of these examples is to have divine powers that exist but that can’t directly intervene and that need mortals to work their will. They have vast knowledge and can channel power through their mortal vessels. As for the limitations of level, you can easily say that channeling divine power is dangerous for mortals, and that the amount of power a caster can safely channel grows with experience. It’s not that a god can’t grant a low-level cleric a powerful spell, it’s that casting that powerful spell would kill the cleric.

Note that none of these ideas prevent a deity from affecting the world in a PASSIVE way. In Eberron, followers of the Sovereign Host say that the Sovereigns are omnipresent – that every time a smith holds a hammer Onatar is there with them, and every time a soldier draws a sword Dol Dorn is there. But Dol Dorn doesn’t DECIDE the outcome of the battle; he just guides the soldiers, if they listen to his voice. This is part of the idea of the god “maintaining reality” – that things we take for granted ARE the result of divine actions.

Now: all of these ideas play off the foundation of gods that don’t directly incarnate or intervene – deities that can only affect the world through their clerics. This is how prefer to use them… but I’ll add a section about active gods to the end of this post.

So: what follows is a jumble of ideas for making divine character feel different from other spellcasters. Bear in mind: these are about making the story more interesting, not about maintaining perfect mechanical balance. I wouldn’t impose any of these on a player without discussing them first; ideally I’d have the player decide things like divine origin.

DIVINE ORIGIN

How common is divine magic in your world? Is it miraculous, or is it mundane? In our world, we don’t expect priests to perform miracles; the purpose of a priest is to provide spiritual guidance. In Eberron, most priests aren’t clerics; they’re experts trained in Diplomacy, Medicine, Insight, History – people who have practical skills for helping and guiding a community, but who can’t make light by snapping their fingers. The same is true in Game of Thrones – we don’t see priests throwing magic around left and right, which means that when one DOES perform magic they feel mysterious and powerful. Why can THIS person perform miracles? What are their full capabilities? In such a world, the question arises: how does the character perform divine magic? Is it something they studied and harnessed, or is it a gift? Consider the following ideas.

  • Faith Alone. The character has never had direct contact with the deity, but their faith is so absolute and deep that it allows them to connect with the divine power. This is the default concept in Eberron. It’s a good path if you want to use divine magic exactly as written, because there’s no outside power granting it; ultimately it’s all about the caster and their indomitable faith. They can do whatever they want with their magic, even if it violates the precepts of their religion, as long as they BELIEVE they are doing the right thing.
  • Divine Gift. The character had some form of direct contact with the deity – whether in an incarnate form or divine vision – in which the deity granted the character the ability to channel divine power. So the deity isn’t personally granting or sanctioning each individual spell the character uses; but the character’s ability to cast spells is a divine gift and proof of their role as an agent of the deity. Like faith, this is an easy way to allow the character to use magic even if a specific action doesn’t directly support their faith. If they go way out of line the deity could rescind the gift… but again, the gods don’t sanction each and every spell as they’re cast.
  • Patron Spirit. The divine caster is attended by a lesser intermediary of the deity. This being – angel, demon, saint, call it what you will – can’t directly interact with the physical world, but it can advise the caster and empowers them to cast spells. What’s nice about this is that it’s a way to give the player a direct connection to the divine, something they can talk to — without making the deity feel small. Aureon is busy monitoring the entire world, but his angel Caskelon is your personal spiritual guide. In the case of a Patron Spirit, you have a number of additional questions to ask. Can the character communicate with the spirit just as if talking to a person? Or is it that the character feels the presence of the spirit and knows it will respond to their prayers, but can’t speak with it directly unless using magic like commune? The idea here is that the Patron Spirit DOES personally perform the divine magic the caster calls upon (albeit acting through the vessel of the caster) – which means that it may refuse to perform spells that don’t support the goals of the faith, and that it could potentially take actions uninvited… more on this later.
  • Eyes of the Divine. Another option is that the character is literally a focus within the world for the attention of the deity. The deity uses the caster as both eyes and hands. To make this feel grander than the patron spirit, I’d clarify that the deity is simultaneously connected to all their divine casters and that the PC rarely has their full attention… and that when they do, it’s a transcendental experience. This is a good path if the player wants to have clear guidance as to what they should be doing; the god is literally looking over their shoulder and will judge their actions. In this path you can definitely have spells rejected if they don’t serve the divine purpose – or empowered or cast unexpectedly when it does serve the divine purpose. The goal of this path is to make divine magic absolutely different from arcane. The cleric isn’t casting a spell from a book; they are a vessel for a vast alien entity who is using them to enact its will on reality.

DIVINE PURPOSE AND COMMUNICATION

If you want to make divine characters feel distinctly different from other characters, emphasize that they have a purpose. As a divine caster, you didn’t just learn magic; you were given magic to help you accomplish the goals of your deity in the world.This purpose can easily be tied to the main story of a campaign; If the campaign is about defeating the Dark Lord, great: cleric, your deity has given you a vision, and it’s your job to make sure this group of adventurers defeats the Dark Lord. This isn’t just “I live in the world, so I might as well save it” – you’ve personally been given this assignment by the universe.

However, not every campaign has a goal that fits the sphere of a deity. Perhaps you’re just dungeon crawling for gold. Perhaps you’re playing a one-shot. But as a GM, you can still play with the idea that divine characters have a purpose… and that this can be updated at any time. At any point, you could hit a paladin or cleric with a new goal. For example…

  • Is your war cleric on a dungeon crawl? You have a vision of the tormented souls of soldiers bound to their bones and unable to find rest. Which is to say, there’s undead in this dungeon – but as a war cleric, it’s your duty to lay these warriors to rest.
  • Oath of Vengeance paladin who’s found the remains of a caravan struck by bandits? It’s your duty to hunt down the brigands and punish them for what they’ve done.
  • Life cleric passing through a village? Perhaps you know that you need to help the crying child on the corner. Or you can feel a darkness rising that is going to threaten this village… you don’t know what it is, but you need to protect these people.

In many cases, these might be things the players would choose to do anyway. The point is that the divine character has clear purpose: this is what you should do. With that said, a second question is how is this information provided? If your divine origin gives you a direct connection to your spirit or deity, you could have a booming voice in your mind giving you instructions. A patron spirit could be an entertaining partner – not unlike a familiar – who you can converse with an ask for casual advice. On the other hand, divine visions could be very abstract and open to interpretation. Arriving in the village, for a moment the cleric sees the crying child covered in blood. Does this mean you must save this child from a coming threat or you should kill this evil child? This sort of abstract vision can be very interesting from a roleplaying perspective. When you walk into the bar, for a moment you see a golden crown floating above the head of the innkeeper. Is he the forgotten heir of a noble line? Is he a tyrant in his tiny domestic kingdom? Should you do what he says? Note that this is exactly what happens with the Red Priests in Game of Thrones – they see visions in the flames, but these visions aren’t explicitly spelled out and we’ve already seen instances where the priest misinterprets the vision with terrible results.

If I was using this sort of communication, I’d probably let a divine character make a Religion check to get some hints about the vision, because part of the point of religious lore would be knowing about past visions, the meanings of specific icons in your faith, etc. With that said, in that innkeeper-crown scenario, I wouldn’t just respond to a good die roll by saying “It means he’s a secret heir to the throne” – I’d say “There are a number of accounts where servants of the Light have written about seeing a crown above the head of the true heir to the Golden Throne; Helekan the Wise said that the Light runs through the blood of the true kings, and described a crown almost exactly like this one.”

So again, you could just have a booming voice tell the paladin what to do… but it can be a more interesting story if visions are mysterious and have to be interpreted.

UNPREDICTABLE MAGIC, CAUSE AND EFFECT

Arcane magic is a science. It make sense that it only works when called upon and that its effects are predictable. Divine magic is a gift, not something a caster can ever entirely master or control. Again, if you’re primarily concerned about balance and strategic reliability, you probably want to keep things as they are. But if you WANT divine characters to feel different, here’s a few things to consider.

  • A divine caster normally selects their spells from their class list. However, as divine magic is a gift you could choose to start the day off by replacing one or two spells on the character’s list with specific spells – essentially, these are what your deity wants you to have today. If these spells are going to be especially useful in the adventure, there’s no need for further modification. If not, you might empower the spells – when you cast this spell, it’s as if you used a higher-level spell slot – as a way of saying this is the power your deity wants you to use. It’s a simple way to push the idea that as a divine caster you don’t have full and rational control of your powers – while also compensating for that either with a slight boost in power or assured utility.
  • Likewise, it’s a relatively simple matter to empower spells used in direct service of a divine purpose or cause… and to minimize the effects of spells that don’t support that cause. This is something I’d avoid unless you have an absolute understanding with the player, and that they are prepared for the idea that their magic may not always perform at peak efficiency – but it is a concrete way to differentiate between a cleric and wizard. This could extend to a cleric being unable to heal or bless a party member whose actions are strongly opposed to principles of the faith. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that party members have to follow a cleric’s faith to receive healing… but a cleric of a god of Law might find that their deity won’t give aid to the chaotic evil rogue who’s always stealing from innocent villagers. With that in mind…
  • You could allow sacrifices, oaths and vows to have a direct impact on divine magic, or simply on the actions of the faithful. Perhaps that rogue can receive healing provided she swears not to steal from the innocent for the next three days. Perhaps the paladin can his smite empowered if he swears to give this bandit’s treasure to the local temple. The question is what consequences there are for swearing an oath and then breaking it.
  • Another possibility – tied to the idea that a divine caster is the deity’s tool in the mortal world – is that divine magic may trigger spontaneously when it serves the deity’s purposes. Someone who blasphemes against a cleric’s god might find themselves struck by sacred flame – even though the cleric didn’t cast it. A paladin hoarding their lay on hands pool could find some of that energy diverted to heal a sickly innocent. As a DM you don’t want to overuse this or take too much control away from a player… but it can be a way to clearly remind a caster of their deity’s will.
  • A less intrusive form of this is to have a divine character occasionally gain insights tied to their deity’s sphere. This is sort of like divine communication, but it doesn’t have to have a purpose attached to it. A favored soul of the goddess of Love might simply know when two people are in love. When the cleric of the Death God meets an old man, you might say By the way, he’s going to die tomorrow. Ideally, this is like the Kinvara quote that starts off this article: the PC suddenly has a piece of knowledge that they couldn’t possibly have. But again, the point here would be to say that they don’t know why they’ve been given this knowledge, and they can’t ask for clarification; they just suddenly know a thing.
  • A final twist on spontaneous divine magic would be death curses. Perhaps when a divine caster dies, the deity might take vengeance on the killer. The simplest way to implement this is to trigger one of the caster’s uncast spells; if the caster is out of spells, then their power is spent and there is no curse. Alternately, you could make a death curse a more abstract thing – but something that could linger until the deity is appeased. While this would occasionally help out divine PCs, it’s more likely that it would be something PCs would have to worry about when they end up fighting divine casters; it might be a reason that you want to subdue an enemy cleric instead of killing them, so as not to incur the wrath of their god.

Like I said: I wouldn’t institute any of these ideas unless you’ve discussed them with your players and everyone’s on board. But these are a few ways to make the divine feel a little more unpredictable. If you’ve got questions or ideas, add them in the comments below!

BUT WHAT ABOUT DIVINE INTERVENTION?

What I’ve suggested above is really focused on settings in which a deity can only affect the world through the medium of a divine caster. But what about settings where the gods DO manifest in the world, realms where you can meet – or  fight – a deity?

I generally don’t like these for the same reason I don’t like having powerful benevolent NPCs in the world. If the godess of justice can manifest in the world and take direct action, why doesn’t she? By making the paladin her hand in the world, you give a player character a vital role in the story; if she can show up and personally solve a problem, the paladin is suddenly the rookie cop who only gets to be special when the boss takes a day off.

Likewise, once you start getting into the idea that deities can arbitrarily affect the world – whether by smiting bad guys or giving advantage to their servants – you run into the question of so why aren’t they doing it all the time? If the paladin is serving their cause, why don’t they automatically heal him? By saying that the caster is the hand of the deity, and the magic they possess is the extent of the deity’s ability to alter reality in their vicinity, you clearly establish what is and isn’t possible… even if you decide to say that their magic could be empowered or could trigger spontaneously. This is what I like about the idea of saying that if the enemy cleric has cast all of her spells, you don’t have to worry about a death curse… because her deity has no power left to affect the area.

With that said, you could certainly say that the gods have the ability to manifest in the world and have the power to personally change events, but choose not to. Perhaps they are trying to teach or elevate mortals. Giving clerics divine magic is like an alien giving fire to a neanderthal. They are providing a tool, and offering guidance, and occasionally they may even show up in person… but they want mortals to solve their own problems, even if that means that they may suffer or die in the process.

The main thing is that in many myths where gods walk the Earth, the gods end up being the main characters of the story… and that’s a situation I always want to avoid.

A key point to all of this: My goal here is not to make divine characters more powerful than other characters – it is to BALANCE certain benefits with greater responsibility and unpredictability. You don’t always get to choose the spells you want – but your deity may give you the spell you need, or empower the gift they want you to use. They will have expectations of you that the simple fighter doesn’t have to worry about.

Anyhow, that’s all I have time for. Here’s a list of my upcoming events, including DragonCon – I hope to see some of you there! Share your thoughts and twists on divine magic below.

Upcoming Events

The Illimat Road Tour continues!

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 30th: WELL PLAYED in ASHEVILLE, NC

Well Played is a fantastic game cafe in Asheville, North Carolina. Jenn and I will be there from 7 PM to 10 PM teaching Illimat, and we’ll have Action Cats and Scott Pilgrim there as well. Plus, they make a surprisingly good grilled mac’n’cheese sandwich!

THURSDAY, AUGUST 31st: THE ROOK & PAWN in ATHENS, GA

On Thursday, the Illimat tour continues at The Rook & Pawn. We’ll be there from 6 PM – 9 PM! I haven’t been to The Rook & Pawn yet so I can’t give food recommendations, but I’m looking forward to checking it out.

SEPTEMBER 1st – SEPTEMBER 3rd: DRAGONCON, ATLANTA, GA

Friday through Sunday I’m a guest at DragonCon in Atlanta. You can find me at the following events, and if you’re going to DragonCon you can get more details about them in the DragonCon app!

  • RAISING THE STAKES, Friday 5:30 PM. 
  • ALL ABOUT DRAGONS, Friday 7 PM
  • KEITH BAKER: WORLDS & GAMES, Saturday 11:30 AM
  • WORLD BUILDING 101, Saturday 2:30 PM
  • MONSTER ECOLOGY, Sunday 2:30 PM
  • MAD SCIENTIST GAME MASTERY, Sunday 4:00 PM
  • GAMING LIKE ROCKSTARS, Sunday 7 PM
  • THE GAMING CAFE, Sunday 8:30 PM

SEPTEMBER 7th: MYSTERY BREWING PUBLIC HOUSE in HILLSBOROUGH, NC

Join Jenn and I for beer and Illimat at the awesome Mystery Brewing!

I’ll post more events next week! If you have questions, post them below.

Game of Thrones Bingo: The Finale

It’s the season finale of Game of Thrones, and that means it’s time for one final round of bingo. A few reminders…

  • words words words” means someone says that phrase – so someone has to say “Mother of Dragons”.
  • person/person means that those two characters have some sort of interesting interaction. Since we know there’s a big meet-up this episode, will the Hound and the Mountain have a moment? Will Davos and Bronn share some snark?

I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m crossing my fingers and HOPING it’s going to be a bad day for Littlefinger… and wondering if the episode may end with something happening to the Wall.

In any case, here’s the bingo cards – enjoy!

GoT Bingo Cards 7-7

GenCon 2017 & Cassette Tape Challenge!

I’m currently in an ’84 Vanagon heading across North Dakota on my way to GenCon! I’ll be on the road for the next six weeks, visiting conventions and game cafes and demoing my latest games! I’m posting my Gen Con schedule below and I’ll let you know about my upcoming stops soon, but I do have a challenge for anyone going to GenCon. This old van I’m in has one way to play music: an old tape player. But as I live in the twenty-first century, I have no cassette tapes. If you’re coming to GenCon, have a cassette tape you can live without, and want to make the next six weeks more interesting for Jenn and I, give me a tape at one of my events!

Anyhow: Here’s where I’ll be at GenCon!

THURSDAY, AUGUST 17

Due to slow travel and poor weather, I’ll be arriving to GenCon Thursday afternoon, and will only be at one event… but it’s a good one!

5 pm – 8 pm: LEVEL UP – Art Inspired By Gaming Reception

Thursday night Twogether Studios is teaming up with the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art as part of a month-long exhibition of art inspired by and from games of all sorts. Come to Cathead Press to learn to play Illimat and to enjoy some fantastic art! I’ll be there the whole time, but feel free to drop in any time over the course of the event.

 

FRIDAY, AUGUST 18

10 am – Noon: SPPLCG DEMOS (Renegade Games Booth)

You can find me at the Renegade Games booth, giving demos of Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Card Game and talking about the game!

Noon – 1 PM: SIGNING AT THE ONI BOOTH

At noon, I’ll head over to the Oni Press booth. They will have twenty copies of the convention-exclusive Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Card Game that they’re planning to sell at this event (It’s going to be in very short supply). So if you want a copy and want me to sign it, show up early!

In the afternoon I’ll be playing games at a charity event organized by Worldbuilders. My table is already sold out, but there may be other tables still open!

4 PM – 5 PM: TABLETOP DESIGN – Make Fancy  Dumb Stuff!

Are you thinking about making a game that uses weird & unique materials but there is a voice in your head telling you to do something easier & simpler? Or even real people saying its way too complex or impractical? Stick with paper and plastic? Come hear from industry professionals who followed different paths and how those choices affected their games and sanity. Panelists include Jon Ritter of Lay Waste Games, WETA Workshop, and Jennifer Ellis of Twogether Studios!

 

SATURDAY, August 19th

NOON – 3 PM: SPPLCG DEMOS (Renegade Games Booth)

You can find me at the Renegade Games booth, giving demos of Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Card Game and talking about the game!

3 PM – 4 PM: ILLIMAT – SOCIETY OF LUMINARIES SECRET MEETING

Are a Society of Luminaries member or considering membership? Do you like card games & secret societies? Lively discussion about the game Illimat as well as special surprises for members & friends!

5 PM – 6:00 PM: KEITH’S TRADITIONAL HOTEL HANGOUT

Every year at Gen Con I spend an hour in the lobby of the Hyatt, talking with everyone who stops by about whatever people want to talk about. Do you have questions about Eberron? Illimat? Gloom? The exciting life of a game designer? Then drop by and chat! This is entirely informal: show up whenever you like and stay for as long as you want. Maybe I’ll stay past six. Maybe I won’t. You never know.

That’s all for now, but watch this space – I may add more events on the fly!

Dragonmarks 8-11-17: Xoriat

I’m on the road for the next few weeks. I’ll be continuing to write on the road, and I have lots of things planned – including more Phoenix support. But… I’m part of a monthly Eberron podcast called Manifest Zone. Our most recent episode focused on Xoriat and the Daelkyr, and this question came out of that… and it crept into my mind like a worm that wouldn’t leave until I wrote down the answer.

In the spirit of “If it has stats we can kill it,” what would an adventure to Xoriat look like? While “you cannot comprehend the nature of it” is good for illustrating the whirling madness of it all, it’s hard to work with as a setting.

I can’t answer this in detail until it’s legal for me to create a planar handbook, but I can at least share some basic thoughts. This is based on the original design and 3.5 lore; 4E did some odd things to try to merge Eberron with core cosmology and ignoring that.

To begin with: The Far Realm can be a useful source of inspiration, because it’s a very alien realm that produces aberrations and madness. But bear in mind that Xoriat is not the Far Realm. It’s not beyond reality. It is one of the thirteen planes that define reality; it is part of the planar orrery, and it touches and influences Eberron and all its inhabitants. It is defined by being alien and unknowable, a source of madness and inspiration. But it is still part of the underlying machinery of reality.

So with THAT in mind, consider the role it plays. Kythri is the churning chaos – which means that Xoriat isn’t about chaos. Instead, I see Xoriat as being a parallel to Dal Quor. I think you have islands of stability — regions that have coalesced around particularly powerful spirits, much as il-Lashtavar creates a central core in Dal Quor. These islands are surrounded by a sea of shifting reality – not entirely chaotic, but inexorably changing.

The islands are relatively stable. It’s on these islands that the Daelkyr have their domains, and where the mortal inhabitants – like the Illithids – have cities and communities. These regions aren’t chaotic;  they are alien. Consider an island where everything — buildings, food, the air — is alive. Perhaps you tell time by the shifting gravity; if you’re walking on the ceiling, that means it’s midday, while by evening you’ll be back on the floor. Apply Escher logic. Consider that many aberrations don’t need traditional food or water to survive; instead, a farmer may tend a field of misery. However strange these places are, you can come to understand them and learn their ways.

Out in the sea of madness, you can find almost anything. But here the key is to differentiate it from Dal Quor and its shifting dreams. Dreams generally have an internal logic; you may be giving a musical recital in your underwear, but the musical recital is something that actually happened in your past and being in your underwear is about some sort of issue you’re dealing with. The fringes of Xoriat don’t have any internal logic and aren’t drawn from your memories. They might be things you never imagined — or they could be revelatory insights that could either drive you made or change the way you look at reality. Consider the following…

  • A house built from hate. What does incarnated hate look like? You’ll have to decide, but the PCs innately know that’s what it is. Mirrors reflect the things you hate. Books in the house chronicle hateful deeds and people. And the longer you stay in it, the more you begin to hate the people around you… or yourself.
  • An endless void of empty white space. There is no end to this bleak solitude, and you know that this is what mortal existence is. To proceed, you must simply act out your travel, just as you pretend that the events of your life actually mean something. Eventually, if you convince yourself, you’ll find yourself in the world you’ve imagined.
  • A lush orchard. The trees grow secrets, and secrets buzz around in the air like tiny birds. Some of them may be your secrets, or those of your enemies. Others may be secrets of strangers, or secrets about the nature of reality. Think carefully before you listen to their songs.
  • Your home – the ooze-creche you were grown in when Kyrzin first made you. What, you thought you were adventurers? No, you’re cerebral oozes created by Kyrzin and loosed upon the world in ages past. You crawl into the minds of mortals and consume them, assuming their identities for as long as it’s useful, then moving to a new host. You’ve been a Dhakaani champion. You ate the mind of Malleon the Reaver. And then each of you consumed one of these adventurers. You compelled them to come together, knowing that they would finally be able to return you to your home, to the pools of primal slime where you were made. At last you can abandon this singular existence and return to the unifying ichor. So dive into the pool and let it all go. Or what? Can you truly continue as you did in the past, knowing that this person you think you are is simply a collection of residual memories and that you’re a thought-eating ooze with who knows how many alien instincts programmed into you?  To be clear: In all likelihood this is a delusion, not actual fact. But if you’re in a room full of oozes and you have clear memories of BEING an ooze and suddenly remember other lives – how do you KNOW if it’s true or not?

The trick here is to consider that these are things that could drive you mad. In the garden of secrets, any secret you listen to should have the capacity to deeply shake what you thought to be true… something that could literally break a lesser person. Can you handle the truth? While this could be secrets of people, it could also be universal truths. As a wizard, one of these secrets might show you a way to cast all spells as if you’d used a higher level spell slot – with the absolute knowledge that you are going to die in thirty years, and each time you cast a spell in this way you are cutting a year off your life. Again, a lesser wizard might be driven mad either by the revelation that magic is slowly killing us or that the time of your death is set or simply by the science involved. Perhaps your PC isn’t troubled by that… but are you going to use this magic? Conversely, you might have to deal with physical changes. Passing through a portal might cause your gender or race to flip, or shift the minds of the PCs into the bodies of the PCs sitting to their right. Touching something might cause a strange fungus to start spreading on your arm, slowly and inexorably. You know is consuming you and feeding off your memories, and that most everyone in your life are themselves hollow fungus slaves. What will you do?

Aside from this, you could have currents of madness that simply run through the entire realm. If a rage-storm hits, people who fail will saves might be driving into a murderous frenzy. Streams of sorrow flow through the air, and one drop can render you catatonic. Watch out!

You’ve mentioned in the past that there are things more powerful than the Daelkyr in Xoriat. How do you envision these entities? Like primordial Lovecraftian beings? Or like Thelanis´ Archfeys, but with alien agendas and rivalries?

These entities are the geography of Xoriat. They are vast and alien, and even the daelkyr are like fleas to them. We know they exist because the islands of stability are the side effect of their presence, reality shaped by the gravity of their spirits. If the Daelkyr are like the Kalaraq Quori – mighty masterminds with armies of followers – these beings are like il-Lashtavar. Too vast for us to interact with, but we know them by their impact on the plane.

With that said, I expect there are other entities that are on the same power level and cosmic scale as the Daelkyr who simply have no interest in physically traveling to other worlds. Like most planar immortals, these would represent some aspect of their plane. So looking to my example of maddening secrets, you could easily have something like the Cthaeh from Wise Man’s Fear – a static entity who is a repository of maddening knowledge, who has no agenda but who could be both extremely valuable and tremendously dangerous for anyone who encounters it.

A second question is: how is Mordain the Fleshweaver different from the Daelkyr? Why you should choose him as an enemy instead of a Daelkyr?

It’s a good question. I’ve written a number of articles about Mordain; here’s one that’s online. The thing about Mordain is that he operates on a smaller scale on every level. He’s essentially a mad scientist. He’s not trying to topple civilizations or transform the world; he’s engaging in interesting local experiments. Here’s one example of something he might do. He is one of the most powerful wizards on Khorvaire, but he’s still mortal – not an immortal incarnation that drives people insane by looking at them. His projects are generally going to show results in the short term, while the Daelkyr may set things in motion that won’t fully develop for thousands of years. He has a small army of creatures he’s made, but not the legions of aberrations that the Daelkyr have at their disposal.

Beyond this: I generally wouldn’t use Mordain as an enemy. He doesn’t leave his tower and has little interest in the world beyond using it as a test ground for his creations. I use him as an enigmatic third party – someone who could be an ally or a threat depending on how an experiment plays out. Is there a player who wants a character of a strange race? Maybe they were created by Mordain. Is there a disease that can’t be cured? Maybe Mordain can cure it – assuming he didn’t create it! An alliance with Mordain could give the Daughters of Sora Kell access to powerful living weapons – can you disrupt the alliance? You’ve found a rare magical resource that Mordain undoubtedly wants – what would you want from him in exchange?

Conversely, the Daelkyr have plans that have been in motion for millennia. They have vast armies at their disposal. They have hidden cults and can create new ones on the spur of the moment. We’ve suggested that they may have created the Dragonmarks – which means that it’s something that’s been unfolding for over two thousand years. Their actions could be small-scale – a cult causing trouble in a small town – or they could threaten entire civilizations.

Would the inhabitants of Xoriat are mindless undead and constructs as an affront, since their madness can’t touch them?

Here’s the thing: calling Xoriat “The Realm of Madness” reflects a biased mortal view. I don’t think the DAELKYR consider themselves to be lords of “Madness”. They might call Xoriat “the Realm of Revelations.” It is a fact that exposure to Xoriat typically drives mortals mad – but that’s because WE CAN’T HANDLE IT, not because that’s its purpose. Kyrzin is the Prince of Slime, not the Lord of Schizophrenia. The fact that his attention temporarily drives you mad and that you’ll go completely insane if you try to read his thoughts is incidental to him, a sign of your small mind as opposed to his right to drive you mad. I think Belashyrra would be more annoyed by the fact that a skeleton has no eyes than the fact that it doesn’t go insane.

Related to this: The wizard spell confusion is an enchantment with the sole purpose of disrupting a creature’s ability to think. Meanwhile, a Daelkyr has the ability to cause confusion at will. But in my opinion that’s NOT a “I will disrupt your thoughts now” ability: it’s literally that if the Daelkyr focuses its full attention on you, it breaks your brain. Your mind can’t handle the Daelkyr’s presence. So if the Daelkyr encounters a thinking creature who’s immune to mind-altering effects, I think it’s more likely to find it a novelty than to be outraged.

That’s all I have time for at the moment, but hopefully it gives you some ideas to work with. It’s not chaos, and it’s not a dream; it is madness. This can carry lies or revelations. It is a place where there is no concept of the impossible. And it is a place that you should not go.

Dragonmarks: Orcs and the Ghaash’kala

Last week I wrote about Goblins, Orcs, and the Dhakaani. It turns out that there’s a lot to say about goblins, and the post has grown to an unwieldy size. So for the ease of future generations I’ve decided to separate the orc material into a standalone post. As as long as we’re talking about orcs, I want to takes some time to delve into the Ghaash’kala, a topic that’s received little attention in the main sourcebooks.

As I said in the previous post, my goal in Eberron is always to explore what makes each PC race unique. In what way are orcs not just humans with green (or grey) skin and fangs? How are they different from goblins and other “savage humanoids”? Let’s take a look.

ORCS

While they aren’t as directly animalistic as shifters, I see orcs as a very primal race. They’re extremely passionate and emotional; this can manifest as aggression or rage, but it’s just as strong when it comes to loyalty, affection and faith. They believe in things intensely. This led to them being the first druids on Khorvaire and having one of the oldest sects of the Silver Flame – the Ghaash’kala guardians of the Demon Wastes. But they’re also highly individualistic… leaning more towards chaos than law. They are very effective in small tribes or family groups, where they all know each other and are working together… but they aren’t good with faceless authority, blind obedience, or being part of a huge infrastructure. This is one of the main reasons the orcs never dominated Khorvaire. They are barbarians by nature. They have no innate desire to build vast cities or organize huge armies; the small tribe is what they are comfortable with. This led to their being pushed into the fringes of Khorvaire by the Dhakaani goblins, and that’s where this linger to this day. If the goblins are like ants or wasps, orcs are like wolves: fierce, loyal to their pack, but not inclined to form into a massive legion of wolves and conquer the world.

In playing an orc – whether as a player or DM – I’d emphasize this primal and passionate nature. They feel emotions strongly, and are quick to anger but equally quick to celebrate. They believe things deeply, and can be very spiritual. As an orc, you’re loyal to your pack – whether that’s your family or your adventuring companions – and quick to distrust massive, faceless forces and invisible authority. This may seem at odds with the idea of strong faith, but they’re equally distrustful of monolithic organized religions. The Ghaash’kala are one of the oldest sects of the Silver Flame, but they operate in small clans and have never formed the sort of political hierarchy that you see in the Church of the Silver Flame. So as an orc, follow your heart; explore your faith; be true to your friends and suspicious of those who would tell you what to do.

Half-orcs blend the traits of orc and human, and it’s up to you to decide which manifest most strongly in your personality. Do you have the quick emotion and deep faith of your orcish ancestor? Or has this been tempered by your human side? Half-orcs are celebrated in much of the Shadow Marches, where they are thought to possess the best qualities of both races. However, the people of the Five Nations don’t generally share this view… and for that matter, most of the people of the Five Nations assume that orcs are brutish.

If the orcs are so chaotic & don’t make big cities, how do we have Zarash’ak and House Tharashk?   

Because of humanity. There are two primary cultures in the Shadow Marches. The tribes are the older culture and continue to live as their ancestors did thousands of years ago. The clans embraced humanity – and over the generations, they adopted many human customs. House Tharashk is an unprecedented alliance between clans, and one that would never survive if not for the humans and half-orcs that balance the chaotic tendencies of their orcish kin. Tharashk orcs have grown up in this blended culture. While they are used to it, it’s still in their nature to question authority, and most Tharashk orcs are ultimately more loyal to their close kin and enclave than to the overall institution – but that’s enough to keep the house intact. Zarash’ak is the largest city the Marches have ever seen, built by House Tharashk when success demanded it; the orcs had no desire to build such things in the past.

Orcs make up the Gatekeepers and the Ghaash’kala. So are they fundamentally good creatures? 

Not at all. Yes, the Ghaash’kala and Gatekeepers are two forces that have protected Eberron for thousands of years. But for every orc in the Ghaash’kala, there’s at least two in the Carrion Tribes of the Demon Wastes. For every Gatekeeper, there’s an orc tied to a cult of the Dragon Below. One reason the Daelkyr didn’t create an orcish equivalent of the Dolgaunts and Dolgrims was because many orcs were quick to embrace their cause; they didn’t need to make an orc slave race. So orcs are passionate in their beliefs, but that includes belief in the Overlords just as easily as loyalty to the Silver Flame.

Have you ever imagined a bardic tradition for orcs?

So a critical thing to bear in mind here is that most people in the world don’t use PC classes. In Eberron, most priests are experts or adepts, NOT clerics. The same applies here. Do orcs have traditions of music and dance? Absolutely! They’re passionate, creative and emotional. I can imagine a tradition of ecstatic song and dance, where listeners are exhorted to let go and give themselves to the music; and I can imagine a tradition of song that is more mournful – similar to Portuguese fado – that is about exhorting the listener to feel the pain or anger of the song. And I’d expect specific musical traditions tied to both the Gatekeepers and the Cults of the Dragon Below. As I call out below, the Dhakaani goblins don’t enjoy art for arts sake; their songs educate you about the past, their dancing is a form of combat drill. For the orcs, art is something to experience and enjoy.

But with that said, most entertainers wouldn’t be bardsA bard isn’t just an entertainer. They are arcane spellcasters and highly skilled loremasters. If all you’re looking for is entertainment, all you need is an expert trained in Performance and perhaps Insight and Persuasion. Among the Dhakaani the dirge singers are deeply integrated into their civilization, serving not simply as entertainers but also as healers, diplomats, and spiritual guides. We have not presented a similar critical role for bards in either the Ghaash’kala or Shadow Marches. With that said, do they exist? Sure. Here’s three ideas.

  • Memories. Much of the secret lore of the Gatekeepers has never been committed to writing; it is the task of a Memory to preserve this knowledge, remembering all things that both their modern comrades and future generations will need to know. Memories typically lead public services in Gatekeeper communities, and this is where inspiration comes in; they are master orators who can exhort the people to remember the importance of their cause. So a higher level druid might be the leader of a Gatekeeper sect, but the Memory may be the one who conveys his message to the people. In looking to the wider word, Memories could be sent out beyond the Marches both the confirm that their knowledge is still accurate (for example, checking the locations of Khyber seals to ensure they are still intact) and to update their knowledge base, investigating mysteries and learning new things. Memories generally know spells related to nature (Animal Friendship, Speak With Animals, Animal Messenger), healing spells, and spells that will help them uncover secrets, and they are usually well versed in knowledge-based skills (Arcana, History).
  • Passions. The Cults of the Dragon Below have always had a strong presence in the Shadow Marches. Many cults don’t have traditional priests or clerics; instead, they have Passions, ecstatic speakers who fan the flames of emotion (and often madness) in their communities. At their best, Passions are spiritual guides and mediators; at their worst they are demagogues and firebrands, inflaming dangerous emotions. As such they rarely have skills like History or Arcana; instead they are well-versed in Insight, Intimidation and Persuasion. Their spells likewise tie to emotion, manipulation and madness. Vicious Mockery, Charm Person, Hideous Laughter, and Suggestion are all solid choices for Passions. If you’re playing an edition where bards have a Bardic Knowledge ability, for a Passion this would reflect literal mad insights; they haven’t studied a topic, but they just declare what they believe – and strangely, that’s often the truth. There’s no organization among Passions; they general spring up spontaneously. Generally there’s only one per community. A Passion PC might have developed a passion for travel; they might be following a mad vision, having an idea of a grand quest that might or might not have any basis in reality; or they could even have been driven from their community for causing trouble, and it’s up to the PC to decide if they’re remorseful adn seek redemption, or if they’re out to sow more chaos.
  • Bridge. In the Shadow Marches, half-orcs are called jhorgun’taal, “the bridge of two bloods.” Some exceptional half-orcs embrace this role. They travel from community to community, carrying local news and helping to bind those communities together. They are entertainers and mediators, seeking to spread cheer and resolve feuds. They typically know the ways of both Gatekeepers and the Cults, and seek to bring out the best in followers of both paths. A Bridge bard would be a helpful guide and advisor to strangers coming to the Marches for the first time. It would be unusual for a Bridge to leave the Marches, but one could be driven by sheer curiosity or a desire to help a wider community.

THE GHAASH’KALA

Everyone knows about the Gatekeepers, the orc druids who fought the Daelkyr. But there’s another group of orc champions who’ve been fighting evil for far longer, and whose vigil has never waned: The Ghaash’kala of the Demon Wastes.

I created the Ghaash’kala in the original ECS. The only canon source that’s expanded on them is the Player’s Guide to Eberron. This is one of those cases where I don’t agree with what was written there – it’s not bad, it’s just not my vision. So to be clear, what you’re about to read contradicts canon and is literally what I do in my Eberron. A few years ago a friend of my ran a 5E Eberron campaign and I played a Ghaash’kala paladin, so I put more thought into the Ghost Guardians, and what follows is the result of that.

HISTORY

In the dawn of time the world belonged to the fiends. The Binding Flame was born from a desperate act of sacrifice. The Overlords cannot be destroyed, merely held at bay; their power yearns to break free from the Flame that binds them, and their servants prey upon those who have inherited the world. The Flame is fueled by courage, and it is only through the vigilance and sacrifice of champions that the light remains strong enough to hold the darkness at bay.

The prisons of the Overlords are scattered across the world, but their power is strongest in the Demon Wastes. Here lies the ruins of Ashtakala, the greatest city of the Age of Demons. Though the Overlords are bound, their power corrupts nature and weak minds. The Wastes are filled with horrors, both mortal and immortal. Left unchecked, these terrors would spread to the south and bathe Khorvaire in blood. But ancient magic and geography have established a barrier: the mountain range known as the Labyrinth. This barrier can’t stop the powerful rakshasa from leaving the Wastes, but it serves as a funnel for the lesser horrors. Bloodthirsty barbarians, minor fiends, twisted creatures… all flow through the Labyrinth seeking release. One force guards the gates of the Labyrinth and protects the innocents to the south: The Ghost Guardians, the Ghaash’kala, sworn to serve the Binding Flame from birth to death and beyond. The life of a Ghost Guardian is one of endless strife. It is a mirror to the Flame itself: it is a battle than can never be truly won, but through sacrifice they can continue to contain the evil and protect the innocent from harm.

The Ghaash’kala have no written records and don’t know exactly how long their ancestors have fought against the darkness. It’s clear that couatl trained and equipped the first Ghaash’kala; it may not have been during the Age of Demons itself, but it was long before humanity came to Khorvaire. As such, the Ghaash’kala may be the first humanoids to channel the power of the Silver Flame… or as they call it, Kalok Shash, the Binding Flame.

STRUCTURE

There are four Ghaash’kala clans spread across the Labyrinth. As far as they are concerned, the world is divided into two sides: the living and the fel (a word that could be translated both as “unliving” or “unnatural”; it is a term that encompasses both undead, fiends and life that has been corrupted). They have no interest in politics or commerce; should the Overlords rise, they will care nothing for trivialities of mortal nations. The Ghaash’kala place most people into the category of “The weak innocents we are protecting,” but they will accept members of any race into their ranks. They feel disdain for anyone strong enough to fight who ignores the greater duty, especially mercenaries who squander their gifts without any conviction whatsoever.

The Kalok Shash is a simple faith, and the Ghaash’kala don’t waste time on the elaborate rituals or titles of the Church of the Silver Flame. There are only a few recognized positions among the faithful.

  • A korta (“Speaker”) is someone who hears the Voice of the Flame more clearly than others. The korta serve as spiritual guides, diplomats and healers, using their connection to the Flame to guide and advise others. A korta’sha is a divine spellcaster. The korta’sha are always on the front lines, leading war parties and battling demonic influences.
  • A kala (“Guardian”) is a warrior who fights in service to the Flame; this includes the bulk of the Ghaash’kala population. A kala’sha is a divine warrior – typically a paladin.
  • A drok (“Hand”) is a non-combatant, either because of infirmity or because of a vital non-combat skill needed to support the fight.

There are no equivalent ranks to bishop, priest, cardinal, or any of that. The Ghaash’kala are few enough in number that the korta and kala are distinguished by their deeds. Everyone knows that the korta’sha Hurok is the greatest of the Speakers; he doesn’t need some special title to indicate that. The Ghaash’kala are also considerably more blase about divine spellcasters than most human cultures. To the Ghaash’kala, these individuals are weapons. A korta’sha isn’t necessarily holier than a non-casting korta… but she has a purpose and a duty. She is a tank, and a tank belongs on the battlefield. While Ghaash’kala despise mercenary soldiers, they are truly baffled by the idea of divine spellcasters who do not use their powers to directly fight evil.

Now: how have the Ghaash’kala survived in the Demon Wastes for tens of thousands of years? Where do they get the supplies they need, from steel for their weapons to the food and water they need to survive? What are their shelters like?

To start with the last: Each of the four clans has a stronghold carved deep into the rock of the Labyrinth, each drawing on the powers of a manifest zone. These were created by dragons and couatl in the first age, and are imbued with powerful magic; it is these fortifications that have served as a final refuge in even the hardest times. Likewise, the Ghaash’kala possess tools and weapons that have been handed down for generations. The Ghaash’kala consider these relics to be sacred gifts, and they might as well be; the most potent of them were crafted by the beings who first kindled the Flame itself. Of course, an artifact is not something to be used lightly; sometimes generations pass before someone successfully bonds with a relic. Some say that Tira Miron’s blade Kloijner came from the Wastes, that the couatl guided her north to claim the weapon she needed to face Bel Shalor. If one of your players is a champion of the Flame, perhaps there is an artifact waiting for them in the vaults of the Ghaash’kala.

Such tools certainly help explain the survival of the Ghaash’kala. But there are only a few such artifacts. The Maruk stronghold has a well that never runs dry, a variation of the Alchemy Jug. But they still need food and any number of basic supplies that can’t be found in this poisoned land. But the very thing that makes the Wastes so dangerous also provides opportunity. The Demon Wastes are peppered with passages to Khyber… not simply the physical underworld, but a host of demiplanes and demonic realms. Fiends emerge from these paths to prey on the weak… and the Ghaash’kala venture into them to find what they need. The Maruk hunt balewolves in the Abyssal Forests of Khar, and wield weapons taken from the corpses of the demon foot soldiers of the Ironlands. These strange realms are alien and deadly, but over the many centuries the Ghaash’kala have learned their secrets. As a result, the Ghaash’kala have resources that can’t be found anywhere in Khorvaire. Their weapons are forged from unknown materials, and they brew salves and unguents that would make Jorasco weep. So the idea is that the Ghaal’dar are essentially barbarians living in an apocalyptic landscape – but by mastering that environment, making the most of the resources available to them, and preserving and using ancient relics, they have found what they need to hold the line in their never-ending war.

KALOK SHASH: THE BINDING FLAME

Overall, the faith of the Binding Flame is harsh, simple and compassionate. It is the duty of the strong to protect the weak. It is the duty of the living to fight the fel… whether with the sword, or in the case of the drok by caring for the warriors and producing more warriors. Harsh sacrifice is often necessary, but the loss of any innocent life is a tragedy. With that said, there is a concrete line over which innocence is lost. One of the constant threats faced by the Ghaash’kala are the Carrion Tribe barbarians, mortals who serve the Overlords. The Ghaash’kala call a mortal who chooses to serve evil a fel’gha – “Vile Soul.” They do not waste time or tears on the fel’gha; there are too many threats to the world to worry about redeeming the corrupt. A Ghaash’kala would cast any human who chooses to prey on other humans in this category, and typically one deals with fel’gha with the sword. This can be a difficult challenge for a kala’sha who travels in the south, where many humans seek to take advantage of one another. A greedy innkeeper most likely isn’t a true fel’gha deserving of death… but the Ghaash’kala are disgusted that anyone would seek to harm others for profit.

While they may give it a different name, the Ghaash’kala channel the power of the Silver Flame. They may shout different invocations, but the visible manifestations of their magic are identical to those of an exorcist of the Silver Flame or a silver pyromancer. A paladin from Thrane and a korta’sha who observe each other in battle recognize that they wield the same forces. With that said, if you’re planning to use the Ghaash’kala in a campaign involving divine characters tied to the Flame, it’s an excellent opportunity to shift around spell lists. Perhaps the Ghaash’kala know ways to use the Flame that humans have never discovered… while Tira’s followers have discovered more subtle rituals that the Korta’sha have never imagined. The simplest way to handle this is to give the Ghaash’kala spells found in a new supplement or sourcebook – so you aren’t taking away core spells from a player, but rather providing an interesting path for learning new spells. Rather than having new options magically appear over night, it’s more interesting to make a cleric study with a korta’sha to learn that new spell or channel divinity option. And perhaps they have something to teach in return.

But wait: earlier, I said the korta hear the Voice of the Flame. Isn’t Tira Miron the Voice of the Flame? She is… for the Church of the Silver Flame. A Voice is the anchor of a manifestation of the faith. Tira is the Voice of Flamekeep. But the Ghaash’kala have their own Voice, just as the people of Khalesh did in Sarlona. One can assume that the Voice of Kalok Shash was an orc from long ago, but if so their name has been lost; they are simply known as Korta’Shash. If you use my idea of learning new divine spells by training with the Ghaash’kala, it could be that this isn’t just about learning a new incantation or gesture as it would be for a wizard… but rather realizing that there is more than one Voice of the Flame, and learning how to hear the Voice of Kalok Shash.

USING THE GHAASH’KALA

Here’s a few ideas about ways to bring the Ghaash’kala into your campaign.

  • If your adventurers need to go to the Demon Wastes – perhaps to explore the Lair of the Keeper? Or on a secret mission to Ashtalaka? – they will have to deal with the Ghaash’kala to get through the Labyrinth. The Guardians won’t stop people from going in, but will warn that no one tainted by the influences of the Wastes will be allowed to leave – are you sure this trip is worth it?
  • An adventurer with ties to the Silver Flame may be guided to the Labyrinth. There is an artifact in the Maruk stronghold that they must claim… but can they prove their worthiness to the guardians?
  • The players stumble onto a rakshasa plot to weaken the wards of the Labyrinth. The PCs must work with the Ghaash’kala to stop it – but will distrust or treachery doom this effort and unleash a horde of Carrion barbarians into Aundair?
  • A Ghaash’kala paladin arrives in the PC’s community. She’s tracking an escaped possessing fiend, and will do whatever she must to destroy it. Can the PCs help capture the fiend with minimal collateral damage?

Beyond this, the Ghaash’kala can be an entertaining background for a PC. Have you been sent in pursuit of a particular agenda – Stopping the rise of an overlord? Reclaiming Kloijner? Protecting one of the other PCs, even though neither you nor they know why this is important? Are you pursuing escaped demons or the opposing the Lords of Dust? Were you exiled for a crime (and did you actually commit it)? Or are you an ambassador, sent to learn the ways of the soft southerners and protect them? As someone who played a Ghaash’kala paladin, it can be fun to play a character who is truly a warrior in the cause of light… and yet, completely unfamiliar with the ways of civilization. While most Ghaash’kala are orcs, they accept members of any races. My paladin was a half-orc; his human father was a paladin who had returned Kloijner to the Wastes, and now the blade was guiding my character on a new quest in the south.

Is there a physical manifestation somewhere in the Wastes where the Voice of the Flame can be found, similar to Tira Miron?

You may be confusing Tira Miron – the Voice of the Flame – with Jaela Daran, the Keeper of the Flame. There’s no physical location where Tira Miron can be found. Flamekeep is the site of Tira’s sacrifice and the seat of Jaela’s power, but Tira isn’t physically; anyone who follows this branch of the faith can hear Tira no matter where they are.

The Ghaash’kala have no equivalent of the Keeper of the Flame. Every clan likely has a korta they consider to be closest to the Flame, but that’s based on their actions as opposed to being a special mystical connection; there’s no equivalent to the power boost Jaela gets in Flamekeep.

With that said: there is no canon explanation of what it takes to become a Voice of the Flame. It would certainly be reasonable to say that a mortal can become a Voice of the Flame when they voluntarily bind an Overlord – that in the process, their spirit merges with the Flame, but WITHOUT the usual process of going through Dolurrh, which means that they retain more of their individuality and consciousness. In which case, the Voice of Kalok Shash could have a story similar to Tira. Perhaps long ago a Ghaash’kala champion sacrificed themselves to bind Rak Tulkhesh. Somewhere in the Demon Wastes lies the point where this sacrifice took place; and like Flamekeep, this could be a place of power. Essentially, the Ghaash’kala don’t have a Keeper and don’t know where this point of sacrifice is, because it’s somewhere in the incredibly hostile Wastes. But if they could find it and somehow secure it, perhaps they COULD have a Keeper in the future.

Does the leaders of the Church of the Silver Flame know about the Ghaash’kala? If so, what does the relationship between those in the groups that know of each other look like?

Yes and no. There are a number of scattered sects that worship the Silver Flame. The Ghaash’kala and the Shulassakar are two prominent ones, but there are others. These are often called “Serpent Cults.” So the Church knows about the Ghaash’kala and has studied them. Whether an individual knows would be about a Religion check. It’s not COMMON knowledge, but neither is it entirely unknown. The Ghaash’kala have little interest in the outside world, because they have a war to fight.

So: in the campaign in which I played my Ghaash’kala paladin, there was a cleric of the Silver Flame from Flamekeep (technically a clone of Jaela, long story) and a Silver Pyromancer. I’d had a vision that guided me from the Wastes to protect the Jaela-clone. In their eyes, I was a barbarian – clearly serving the interests of the Silver Flame, but still a savage. In my opinion, they were soft folk who likewise had the right idea but had never fought on the front lines of the eternal war; lucky for them that I was there to protect them. So initially we didn’t UNDERSTAND each other – but we still respected one another as serving the same overall cause.

But here’s the thing. You COULD say that the Ghaash’kala and Church work closely together, that Flamekeep recognizes the importance of what the Ghaash’kala are doing and supports them. But is that a fun story? In my opinion it’s more interesting for YOUR STORY if there’s been fairly little contact between the two and each largely dismisses the other… which means that YOUR ADVENTURERS – whether they are from Thrane or the Wastes – will be the ones who ESTABLISH understanding and alliances. Let your players take an active role in establishing (or destroying the chances of) an alliance – because this is exactly the sort of thing that lets the PCs make a difference within the world.

That’s all I have time to write, but if you have questions or thoughts about the orcs or the Ghaash’kala, share them below!

Dragonmarks: Goblins

I don’t believe I’ve written about goblins in depth on this site. If you want to catch up on previous information, you might want to review my Dragonshard about the Dhakaani or this Dhakaani Strike Force. I’ve also written about the Kech Ghaalrac in Dragon 413.

In many settings, goblins and orcs are presented as genetically evil — malicious by nature, enemies the players can always feel good about fighting. From the start, we wanted to take a different approach to goblins and orcs in Eberron. I liked the idea that these creatures were fundamentally inhuman, and had a cultural history that often them set at odds with humanity, but that they were no more innately evil than dwarves or elves. This led to the idea that these were the primary aboriginal races of Khorvaire. The goblins once had an advanced civilization that dominated the continent: The Empire of Dhakaan. Conflict with the Daelkyr destroyed this civilization long before humanity came to the continent. When humans arrived the goblins had fallen into a savage state (and were far fewer in number than they had been at their height). Some goblins were enslaved by humans, a practice that continued until Galifar abolished it a thousand years ago; their descendants integrated into the population, and these are the city goblins you find in most major cities. Others goblins were driven into undesirable lands, and these were the ancestors of the current goblin population of Darguun and Droaam. So, goblins aren’t evil, but from a cultural standpoint they have every right to dislike the humans who took their lands and enslaved their ancestors. Even Sharn is built on the foundations of a great Dhakaani city.

So: this gave a sound role for goblins and orcs in the setting. But what are they like? What makes them different from humanity and from other monstrous races? How are they truly alien races, as opposed to just being humans with fangs and unusual skin colors?

GOBLINS

So what separates goblins from humans and orcs? One of the critical things to understand is that goblins themselves are split into three very distinct categories.

City goblins are descended from slaves. They have lived among the people of the Five Nations for as long as those nations have existed. All too often they are poor, and many feel driven to crime. City goblins have adopted many human customs and many have little knowledge of or attachment to their history.

The Ghaal’dar are the descendants of those goblins who fought the human settlers and were driven into inhospitable lands. While they are less barbaric than the tribal orcs, they are less sophisticated than the people of the Five Nations and are often thought of as warlike and savage; they are noted as practicing slavery. Looking at the Ghaal’dar, humans have a hard time believing that the goblins once had an advanced society that created tools House Cannith can’t replicate today. And they are right to be dubious. The Ghaal’dar are not the goblins of old. The Empire of Dhakaan fought the Daelkyr, and with the help of the Gatekeepers they banished these Lords of Madness to Khyber. But this war had deep and lingering consequences… consequences so severe that one can question if the Daelkyr are the ones who actually won the war. Even though the Daelkyr were banished, over the course of the long war they had sown seeds of madness and corruption among their enemies, and over time those seeds began to grow. The Empire had been stable for thousands of years… but within the course of generations, Dhakaan fell into civil war. Cults, coups, and madness tore apart their advanced civilization. Within centuries, the empire had collapsed. Soon its advanced traditions were lost. The Ghaal’dar don’t know how to smelt and refine adamantine alloys. They don’t possess the martial disciplines or techniques used by their ancestors. The strong dominate the weak, while under Dhakaan all worked together. There are still exceptional people among the Ghaal’dar – people like Lhesh Haruuc, who founded Darguun. But they are very different from the goblins who once dominated the continent.  Which brings us to…

The Heirs of Dhakaan, commonly just called the Dhakaani. Following the defeat of the Daelkyr, a number of Dhakaani leaders saw the signs of spreading madness. They constructed deep vaults and retreated from the world, taking their best and brightest with them. In doing this, they avoided the subtle curses that afflicted the rest of the goblins. For thousands of years they have honed their skills, and now they have returned. Currently they are split into Kech factions. They have no Emperor and this has kept them from uniting. Their numbers are limited, as each Kech carefully controlled population to deal with limited resources. But their martial discipline is rivaled only by the Tairnadal. Their smiths produce arms and armor superior to the work of House Cannith. Dhakaani champions are a match for any hero on Khorvaire. And they aren’t happy to see these soft creatures living in their ancestral lands. The Dhakaani are few in number and still divided… but they are a force to be reckoned with, and a way to surprise players who think of goblins as savages.

Common Traits

City goblins, the Ghaal’dar, and the Dhakaani have dramatic cultural differences. But they are all goblins, and share basic traits that concretely differentiate them from humans, elves, and other races. Goblins possess darkvision, and are quite comfortable dwelling underground. While they aren’t the only race to do so, it’s still a thing to bear in mind. Goblins don’t fear night or shadows the way many creatures do. On a primal, instinctual level night is a time when humans are vulnerable; for a goblin, it is a time when they are strong, as their darkvision gives them an advantage over their enemies. They don’t need light as humans do, which means that their buildings will have fewer windows and that they have no need for casual lighting. This is a small thing, but it’s part of remembering that they aren’t just humans with orange skin. They are a different species that has evolved under different circumstances and who have different instincts and brain chemistry than humans do. Here’s a few more things I consider to be basic goblin traits.

  • Goblins are innately lawful. They don’t have anything like an insect hive mind, but they naturally gravitate to hierarchical societies, establishing a social order and holding to it. Where orcs question authority, goblins are quick to establish structure and like being part of a greater whole. Note that I am using “lawful” to describe instincts – this doesn’t mean they feel any compulsion to obey human laws. Poor city goblins often turn to crime – but they will quickly form gangs and establish an order amongst themselves. The Ghaal’dar aren’t anywhere near as organized as the Dhakaani, but they still hold to a clear hierarchy and system of punishments for those who step out of line. And like the Tairnadal, the Dhakaani are essentially a martial society, with every aspect of life being tied to duty to the Empire.
  • Tied to this is the idea that goblins are inherently rational. Goblins are deeply pragmatic and faith is an alien concept to them. The Dhakaani never had clerics; they don’t believe in forces they cannot see influencing reality.This was called out from the start in the 3.5 Eberron Campaign Setting book, which said the Dhakaani don’t have clerics; their spiritual leaders are the bards who inspire the people with tales of the great deeds of the past. Note that these bards inspire the Dhakaani with tales of things that actually happened – they don’t see the appeal of fiction in any form. Again, this is a deep divide between the orcs and goblins. Orcs are passionate and imaginative; goblins are rational and practical. This is why the goblins NEEDED the orcish Gatekeepers in the fight against the Daelkyr. It wasn’t that the goblins didn’t bother to have their own druids; it’s that they fundamentally couldn’t grasp the sort of faith required to follow the divine and primal paths. While this is generally true of all goblins, it is especially strong among the DhakaaniWe’ve noted that AFTER the Empire fell, some goblins DID turn to a faith similar to the Host and Six; I believe you also saw a spectrum of Dragon Below cults. All of these things are symptoms of the “madness” planted by the Daelkyr… something that undermined this core aspect of goblin character. So you COULD find a cleric among the Ghaal’dar, even if they are far more rare than among other civilizations. But you should never see them among the Dhakaani, who resisted this corruption and maintained the traditions of their people.

So: regardless of culture, a goblin inherently prefers structure to disorder. You like having a clearly established leader and a clearly defined course of action. You are rational and pragmatic, always looking for an efficient solution to the problem at hand and rarely romanticizing things or engaging in wild speculation. Goblins aren’t emotionless Vulcans, by any means. But they aren’t as passionate as orcs: they are practical, always looking to cut the Gordian knot and solve problems as opposed to speculating about them.

Eusocial Creatures

So the first step in differentiating goblins and orcs was the idea of orcs as passionate and chaotic, with goblins being practical and more lawful. But there’s another thing that distinguishes goblins: multiple subspecies. There are at least three goblin subspecies – goblins, hobgoblins, and bugbears. There could easily be others that were around in the age of Dhakaan and have died out on the surface, goblin subtypes humans have never seen. To me, this is a fascinating aspect of goblins that’s rarely explored in any depth. It reminds me of eusocial species like ants, bees, and naked mole rats – and in such species, the different subspecies all serve a particular role within their society and work together. In most settings this isn’t true of goblins; instead, it’s usually a case of might makes right, with the stronger goblin species oppressing the weaker. But as called out in the ECS and this Dragonshard: 

 Among the Ghaal’dar and the Marguul, the strong rule the weak. Leadership is founded on fear, and the weaker races hate the stronger tyrants. Among the Dhakaani goblinoids, this is not the case. Each species has a role to serve in society, and each embraces this role. The hobgoblins rule not through force of arms but because the goblins and bugbears respect their ability to maintain structure and discipline. The strength of the bugbears is turned against the enemies of the clan. 

With Dhakaan, I wanted to emphasize the species worked together, each using their particular strengths for the benefit of the whole. The bugbears bring strength and courage. The goblins have cunning and finesse. And the hobgoblins are the most rational and disciplined, the most naturally oriented to build, to organize. In my opinion, it was the loss of this eusocial bond that truly destroyed the Empire – a subtle corruption that caused the sub-species to stop seeing themselves as one. But it’s something that is preserved in the Heirs of Dhakaan – a natural instinct to work towards the common good.

Which is not to say that the Dhakaani lack individuality or self-determination. They aren’t ants; every Dhakaani goblin is a sentient being with free will and their own dreams. A goblin has their general role in society mapped out, but they could still end up as a common laborer, an artificer, or one of the Sharaat’khesh. In one of my favorite Eberron campaigns, one of the PCs was a male Dhakaani hobgoblin who wanted to be a bard, a traditionally female role. Individual goblins may lack the eusocial instincts that drive the Dhakaani as a whole. But it’s still a critical note for the Empire as a whole. It is a place where racial caste roles are deeply engrained, and where people are respected for filling those roles. The goblins are the laborers, but they are appreciated for performing this vital function – not oppressed and forced into it.

GOBLIN HEROES

One question that’s been raised is how goblins can be used as allies or heroes in a campaign. To begin with, the Dhakaani are certainly heroes in their own eyes. They are champions who have returned from a self-imposed exile to find their homeland in the hands of aliens and their people reduced to savagery. The Dhakaani struggle to recover their lost artifacts and figure out how to restore their civilization is an inspiring one, and only “evil” if you’re one of those wretched aliens now holding their lands. So one way to use the Dhakaani as heroes is to play Dhakaani. One of the one-shot adventures I sometimes run at conventions puts players in the roles of a Kech Volaar strike force working to recover a lost artifact. Alternately, you can play an entire party tied to the Ghaal’dar, working for Lhesh Haruuc; as troubleshooters for the Lhesh, you can be trying to maintain order and ensure the survival of Darguun as a nation – something that requires dealing with the Valenar, the Marguul, the Dhakaani and, of course humanity.

In a broader sense, an obvious answer is to look to Don Basingthwaite’s trilogy of novels that deal with Darguun. You can easily set the (human) players in a position where they have to decide what faction to support in Darguun. Should they support the Ghaal’dar? Or can they work with someone like Tuura Dhakaan to choose a Dhakaani emperor who will serve as a stabilizing force in the region and ultimately prove a stronger and more valuable ally for the Five Nations than the unstable Ghaal’dar? Convincing the Dhakaani to respect the Five Nations instead of planning to drive these aliens from their homeland would be a challenge, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

Looking at goblin player characters in a party that’s primarily non-goblinoid:

  • City goblins have largely adopted the cultures of the regions they live in. My Dreaming Dark novels mention a goblin serving voluntarily in the Cyran army, who’s for all intents and purposes Cyran. City goblins do have to deal with a certain amount of suspicion and prejudice, but that can be an interesting thing to struggle with. The majority of city goblins live in poverty – is that true of your family, or are you prosperous? Are you trying to help your family, or are you a loner?
  • Ghaal’dar aren’t as unified as the Dhakaani. As a Ghaal’dar goblin you could be an emissary of Lhesh Haruuc doing the will of the Lhesh. You could be a child of Haruuc seeking adventures that will prove your worth to succeed him when he dies. You could be a mercenary, just seeking to make your fortune in the world. Or you could have been driven from Darguun by a feud; perhaps you are gathering allies and strength so you can go back and avenge your slain kin.
  • Dhakaani are slightly odd as loners, but not impossible. Tuura Dhakaan of the Kech Volaar is more curious about this new world than many of her peers, and she may have sent you out into the world in order to gather information about it, and to learn about these alien invaders (humans). Should they be destroyed, or is co-existence a possibility? You could be on a quest to reclaim lost relics, either for your Kech or for some personal reason. Or you could be an exile banished from your Kech – was the exile justified, or is there a possibility of redemption and return?

Another possibility for goblin PCs is to be tied to the Khesh’dar, the spies and assassins of Dhakaan. In this case you might choose a different background that’s your cover story – and it’s up to you and the DM to decide what your real mission is, and when you’ll decide to share your true identity with the party.

THE DHAKAANI

So: let’s talk specifically about the Dhakaani. Here I speak both of the civilization that spread to dominate Khorvaire and the modern goblins who have preserved its traditions. Again, in my opinion there is a fundamental psychological difference between the Dhakaani and the Ghaal’dar; it’s not just that the Ghaal’dar weren’t raised in Dhakaani society, but also that their ancestors were subtly influenced by Xoriat and lack the eusocial bond and innate discipline of the Dhakaani goblins. But: What are the core elements of Dhakaan? Why was the Empire so successful?

If orcs can be seen as easily embracing the primal and divine, the Dhakaani are a fundamentally martial culture. War is in their blood. Some sages have theorized that the goblins are a magebred race, that their subspecies are the result of some long-forgotten force — A dragon? The Overlord Rak Tulkhesh? — crafting a warrior species. This is reflected by their natural instinct to hierarchy and discipline, but also by a racial genius for the arts of war. All of the Dhakaani can follow any martial path, but each subspecies has its specialties. Hobgoblins are exceptional fighters and warlords. The goblin Sharrat’khesh and Tarkha’hhesh are gifted rangers and rogues. Bugbears often serve as scouts, but the iconic Dhakaani bugbear is the barbarian. But the Dhakaani barbarian isn’t a primal savage; rather, their “rage” is a carefully cultivated state of ecstatic frenzy.

Honor and Duty, Atcha and Muut

Much like the Tairnadal, this martial mindset bleeds into all aspects of Dhakaani life. The Empire is always in a state of battle-readiness; if it’s not actively expanding, it’s preparing for the next inevitable conflict. The Heirs of Dhakaan have been in seclusion for thousands of years, but they have never lowered their guard or ceased their training. This also reflects the direction of Dhakaan society. As called out by Don Bassingthwaite, Dhaakani culture revolves around the concepts of muut and atcha. Muut is essentially about the honor of the Empire, and can be roughly translated as duty; atcha is personal honor. The most common form of thanks is ta muut, essentially “You do your duty.” Meanwhile Paatcha! is an offer of honor, typically an exhortation of a commander to his troops – this is your chance to gain honor! The key is that the Dhakaani are always considering these concepts: how you are fulfilling your duty to the Empire, and how your actions reflect on you. The key here – and a statement that’s often misunderstood – is that the Dhakaani idea of honor on the battlefield is very different from human concepts. I’ve said before that Dhakaani “don’t care about honor on the battlefield.” What I mean by that is that Dhakaani have no compunctions about killing a helpless foe, about killing civilians if it’s strategically logical, about ambushing an enemy, and similar actions that we generally consider dishonorable. The Dhakaani are concerned with victory. Honor comes from following the orders of your commander, from standing your ground against any odds, from displaying both skill and discipline. Do what you have pledged to do, and do it well. So Dhakaani take personal honor far more seriously than most human soldiers – but it’s important to understand what “honor” means to them.

An Evil Society? 

People have asked if the Dhaakani were an evil society. In my opinion, if you mapped them to an alignment it would be lawful neutral: highly structured and disciplined, but neither exceptionally cruel, corrupt, or altruistic. Note that the two primary Dhakaani leaders mentioned so far are Ruus Dhakaan, the lawful neutral leader of the Kech Shaarat; and Tuura Dhakaan, the neutral leader of the Kech Volaar. Dhakaani society is neither cruel nor kind: it is efficient and expedient. It is a society driven by constant war, and warfare is carried out in the most efficient and effective manner possible. They’d generally avoid targeting civilian populations not because it’s the morally correct thing to do, but because destroying them is a waste of resources that could be used in the future. Their leaders do what is best for the empire, which often means doing what is best for the people. But if it was for some reason necessary to wipe out an innocent village for the good of the Empire, they’d do it without hesitation… but they’d do it for the good of the Empire, not for personal gain. Again, corruption is extremely rare among the Dhakaani (though it can certainly be found among the Marguul and Ghaal’dar). Pursue muut above all and then your atcha. So the Dhakaani may often oppose player characters – but that doesn’t make them evil.

A secondary aspect is the role of slavery in the Empire. The Ghaal’dar and Marguul practice slavery, but in my opinion it was relatively rare in Dhakaan. The eusocial bond and racial caste system are the foundation of the Empire. Every goblin has a clearly defined role and embraces that role. Members of other species have no sense of muut and atcha. They are difficult to control, will always seek to rebel, and have no clear role in the first place. In some ways the Dhakaani can be seen as ants: they spread as efficiently as possible, and they don’t seek to compel other insects to work as slaves in their anthills; they simply kill rivals or drive them away. So it was with the Dhakaani. They spread to dominate the best lands in Khorvaire, and they drove their enemies into the lands they didn’t want. This isn’t to say that slavery was unknown, but it’s a rare practice that comes into play when a specific slave has a skill the Dhakaani need – a translator, a wizard, etc – as opposed to a major institution within the society.

Magic and Metallurgy

There are many things humans take for granted that the Dhakaani have never developed. But the Dhakaani are the finest armorers and weaponsmiths in the known world, superior even to House Cannith and the Tairnadal. They have mastered metallurgy and learned to produce and work with alloys that other races haven’t even discovered. Adamantine is a Dhakaani specialty; Cannith has learned to work with this metal, but it is costly and difficult, and they don’t understand it as the Dhakaani do.

This leads to the question of magic. The Dhakaani never developed the traditions of the wizard or sorcerer, and as noted above, they don’t have divine classes. Their primary sources of magic were bards and artificers. However, it’s important to recognize that these classes were NOT identical to Cannith artificers or Phiarlan bards. These core classes existed, but they would have had their own unique subclasses and specific spell lists. They may have developed paths that aren’t seen today, and may never have done things that we commonly associated with the classes. Specifically…

Dhakaani artificers are primarily armorers, weaponsmiths, and combat engineers. They don’t use constructs but excel at combat fortifications and siege warfare. Among hobgoblins this is primarily a male tradition, but exceptional goblins of both genders can follow this path.

Bards are the duur’kala, “dirge singers.” This path is almost exclusively followed by female hobgoblins. The duur’kala fill the roles that clerics do in many other societies; they are healers, diplomats, and spiritual leaders. They inspire the troops in battle. They heal the injured – note that in 5E, bards are nearly as gifted healers as clerics, and their spell list includes both raise dead and resurrection. They’re also vital to communication and coordination; note that the bardic spell list includes sending, clairvoyance, and various forms of teleportation. Powers of suggestion and charm are vital when mediating disputes and maintaining order within the Emopire, and equally useful for negotiating with enemies. So we generally depict the bard as an entertainer or vagabond. Within the Dhakaani, the duur’kala are leaders and healers with critical roles both on and off the battlefield. There’s nothing frivolous or light-hearted about them.

The critical point here is that lacking the paths of wizard or sorcerer, the Dhakaani rarely used magic as a direct weapon in combat. They relied more on the skill of well-equipped soldiers than on fireballs or cloudkill. The duur’kala heal and strengthen soldiers, but magic isn’t the primary weapon. It’s simply a branch of arcane science the Dhakaani never explored. But they’re interested in it now. They realize that the arcane magic wielded by the people of the Five Nations is an extremely effective weapon. The Kech Volaar are at the forefront of experimenting with this, and goblins are learning the arts of wizardry – and this is a place where you may find Volaar kidnapping human wizards to try to learn their secrets. But it’s still a new program, not one they’ve fully explored.

Known and Unknown

A critical thing about the Heirs of Dhakaan is that they’ve been in isolation for thousands of years. We haven’t gone into great depth about their achievements to begin with, and it’s entirely possible that a particular clan has developed something new over the course of centuries. Consider the following possibilities…

  • We’ve presented the Kech clans as being relatively small – having controlled their populations and remained within a single region. However, you could decide that a particular Kech spread and expanded and has a vast underground territory… that what’s been seen is just the tip of the iceberg, and that they already have armies on par with any of the Five Nations.
  • In a campaign I ran, I introduced a Kech clan that worked with necromancy. They bound the spirits of warriors into spheres, and could channel this power in devastating magical blasts. These spirit orbs could only be controlled and used by a duur’kala, and if the bard died, her sphere would explode – potentially taking out her killers. This did present a particular Kech with a form of powerful offensive magic – but that magic was still controlled by bards.
  • Tied to this… if you want to introduce firearms into Eberron, a very logical approach would be to give them to a particular Dhakaani Kech. This fits with the Dhakaani martial approach – again, more emphasis on developing weapons than magic. This could be a way to have a small Kech have a dramatic impact on Khorvaire… and it would be up to you how the other nations responded to the introduction of these weapons.

In Dragon 413 I introduced the Kech Ghaalrac, a Dhakaani force that has continually fought the Daelkyr since the incursion. These goblins have blended Gatekeeper horrid magebreeding, Daelkyr symbionts, and Dhakaani industry to create a wide range of innovations. So feel free to explore such things.

GENERAL QUESTIONS

Lots of good questions. Let’s get to them.

Would it fit the Dhakaani Empire if I used the Roman Empire as inspiration for their society, architeture, martial tactics and weapons and armours?

Nothing in Eberron is intended to directly map to our world, and Dhakaan is no exception. There’s certainly some base similarities to Rome – military discipline, widespread empire – and some similarities to feudal Japan or ancient India. And critically, Rome is a HUMAN civilization; Dhakaan is fundamentally an ALIEN civilization, shaped by things like the presence of the multiple goblin species. A few points of sharp dissimilarity to Rome:

  • The most critical element is the racial caste system, which in turn underlies the concept of muut. Everyone knows they are a part of the greater whole, and there is a natural instinct that encourages them to work together – something humans (and even the Ghaal’dar) lack.
  • Tied to this, a core practice of the Roman Empire was to assimilate other cultures – to spread their cultures and traditions to their conquered people. The Dhakaani have no interest in this – if you’re not a goblin, you can’t have muut – and they general drove their enemies from their lands, or simply eradicate them.
  • The Dhakaani Dragonshard calls out that the Dhakaani used infantry, cavalry, and archers. The hobgoblins favored speed and precision over strength and chain weapons (flails, spiked chains) are common. It also notes “A Dhakaani army is both tightly structured and surprisingly flexible. The military is based around small units of infantry that can quickly adapt tactics and formations to evolving combat conditions.” So a Dhakaani force can act in a large formation, but then suddenly split into many smaller units.
  • Looking to architecture: As I’ve called out earlier, the Dhakaani don’t need windows for light, and a Dhakaani fortress would only have slits for archers and visibility. In many cases their fortresses and cities are at least partially underground or carved into mountains.
  • Looking to armor, I see Dhakaani armor as being considerably more sophisticated than Roman armor, as well as being made from finer materials. Part of the point is that Dhakaani armor is better that what the Five Nations uses: more flexible, better coverage, lighter. Even their run-of-the-mill armor would still be considered masterwork. Again, this is an area where the Dhakaani are MORE advanced than the Five Nations.

As a side note, in the past we’ve suggested Dhakaan as a place to introduce martial traditions that don’t have a clear place in the Five Nations, including the Samurai, Kensai and Ninja classes.

I know during the Dhakaani Empire they fought a huge battle against the Daelkyr, with the assistance of the Gatekeepers saved Eberron. But who were the main enemies of the Dhakaani empire before that?

The Dhakaani fought every other major intelligent race on Khorvaire at some point. There was a time when orcs were spread across Khorvaire; the goblins DROVE them into places like the Shadow Marches, and the same may well be true of gnolls and other species. They fought the Tairnadal elves and the Dragonborn of Ka’rhashan, and may have clashed with the dwarven civilization that was also destroyed by the Daelkyr (the predecessors of the Mror). Beyond that, you have all the threats that linger today. The Lords of Dust were just as active then, and you had undead, lycanthropes, and the threat of other planar incursions.

Can you go into a little bit of the relationship between Lhesh Haruuc and the Dhakaani? If I remember correctly from the novels, they sort of grudgingly respect his position, but don’t really see Darguun as a proper goblin nation. 

As always, it’s worth noting that the novels – like this blog – are not canon. Both are possible interpretations, but you can always go in a different direction in your own campaign. So with that said, here’s my opinion.

The ancestors of the modern Heirs of Dhakaan went into isolation because they believed a curse was destroying their civilization. Thousands of years later they have returned… and discover that it’s exactly what happened. There are these alien creatures living in their ancestral lands, and the modern “goblins” are savages with no muut. Lhesh Haruuc shows that there is still a spark of Dhakaani spirit left in these corrupted creatures, but overall the Ghaal’dar – and even moreso, the Marguul – are a deeply disturbing display of how far their people have fallen. The critical question is whether it is possible to salvage anything, whether these modern goblins can be integrated into a new empire… or whether, in fact, the first step in restoring Dhaakan should be purging these disgusting remnants. I believe that this is a matter on which the Kech leaders differ; offhand I’d say that Tuura prefers integration and education, while Ruus advocates wiping them out. Part of the question you need to answer here is how many soldiers do the Heirs of Dhakaan have? How deep are their vaults, and how many Kech forces are out there? COULD they choose to wipe out the Ghaal’dar, or do they need their numbers?

So, in my opinion the relationship between Dhakaani & Haruuc varies by Khesh – and Haruuc himself is likely very on the fence as to whether these goblins are allies or enemies. Even in the best case, Tuura would want to reestablish Dhakaani society, and it’s worth noting that the Ghaal’dar have more freedom and individuality than the Dhakaani. In causing that eusocial bond to atrophy, the Daelkyr introduced an element of chaos in that strongly lawful goblin psyche – and the modern goblins may find they don’t want to be Dhakaani.

Are dirge-singers incorporated into the current Dhakanni military as a learned specialty serving specific tactical needs or more as a rank denoting authority in certain fields? Or something else entirely?

Something else entirely and somewhere in between. Dirge Singer isn’t a rank on its own, and you surely had different categories and ranks of duur’kala within the Empire; I would expect that some duur’kala focused specifically on healing, while others dealt more with diplomacy, lore, etc. So a low-ranking duur’kala specializing in healing might accompany a unit of soldiers in a support capacity – while a high-ranking diplomat/loremaster might assume control of a military unit for purposes of a particular mission. If you look to the Dragonshard, the fiction essentially depicts a duur’kala who is leading a unit of soldiers to reclaim a relic, because she’s their lore expert – but when it comes to battle, the military commander would take over.

The Dhakaani dominated the centre of Khorvaire, roughly corresponding with the modern Five Nations, but did they ever have a maritime culture?

In my opinion, their maritime culture was largely limited to river and coastal travel. As you suggest, the presence of Shaarat suggests that they did value rivers, which is logical for a widespread society. We’ve never discussed goblin incursions on Aerenal or suggested a goblin presence in Xen’drik. With that said, in my Bermuda-Triangle-influenced Lamannia adventure I have a massive Dhakaani galley lost en route to Xen’drik, but the idea is that it was a pioneering attempt and it didn’t go well.

If I wanted to use Koalinth (linked here) in name and spirit, how do you guys see them coming about? Were they bred to be aquatic hobgoblins, as the goblins and bugbears are said to be engineered for their roles? Or are they elite hobgoblins warriors using artifice to swim like fish and breathe and fight underwater?

Either one is an option. As it stands, the idea that the goblinoids were magebred is just that – an idea – and something that would have predated Dhakaan as opposed to being a part of it. So Rak Tulkhesh may have created them to be an army… and long after the Overlord was bound, the goblins developed a martial culture of their own. By this concept, the magebreeding idea is simply a justification for having this eusocial set of linked subraces… not a science possess by the Empire. So running with things as they ARE, it’s simpler to make the Koalinth specially trained goblins, working either with artifice tools. You could even say that they have been permanently modified – some sort of alchemical process – but that it’s not a true subrace.

With that said, I think it would be very interesting to say that magebreeding WAS a science the Dhakaani possessed and actively used. I’d be inclined to say that it was relatively rare – the work of specialists in a particular region of the Empire. But this would be an opportunity to use any of the other variant goblins – blues, norkers, varags, etc. A wacky twist would be to make these magebreeders responsible for the horrid animals found in the west. Currently the theory is that these were created by the Gatekeepers… but we’ve never really said how or why the Gatekeepers accomplished this, and if it’s something they can still do. It would be interesting to say that the horrid animals were the result of collaboration between the Gatekeepers and Dhakaani magebreeders during the Xoriat incursion – that the goblins created them, but gave them to the druids who were better able to control them.

So if I wanted to follow this, I’d introduce a new faction in modern day Eberron: The Kech Vorg’dar. Located on the western edge of the Five Nations – either on the edge of Breland or Aundair – this Kech was the heart of Dhakaani magebreeding and has both preserved the ancient techniques and improved upon them. They have a host of subraces, and other living weapons. How will they interact with the Wardens of the Wood, the Ashbound, and House Vadalis?

At one point, the PCs in my campaign were told that we were “honorable…for humans”. That raises my question: I’m guessing that “honor” in this case would be atcha – personal honor. We dealt honestly and respectfully with the dirgesingers and Tuura Dhakaan in particular, and returned a batch of Dhakaani treasures to the Kech Volaar. But would Dhakaani recognize any kind of “muut” among non-goblins?

I think you’re correct: humans could have atcha, but it would be hard for them to have muut. Muut is a reflection of the fact that in Dhakaan, every goblin HAS an established role and duty. It’s part of your blood and your instinct. You know what muut demands, or you should… whereas atcha is more about personal choice and action. Your actions helped the Empire, but you were acting based on personal integrity, not because of your established duty owed to the Empire. It’s possible that they would see a Brelish soldier doing his duty to Boranel as having a human form of muut, but essentially, they don’t see humans as having a society that has muut; humans are acting in a way that vaguely resembles a true society, but they are still basically disconnected savages with no real sense of the common good.

Without wizarding or sorcerous practices, were the otherworldly invaders a surprise to the Dhakaani? Were they aware of the planes/worlds?

The planes are an integral part of Eberron. The Dhakaani may not have had wizards, but they dealt with the effects of manifest zones and coterminous/remote periods. Note that Sharn is built on the foundations of a great Dhakaani city – meaning the Dhakaani chose to build their city in the manifest zone. In addition, both Arcana and Religion are bard skills; the Dhakaani might not believe in gods, but the Religion skill would still encompass knowledge of outsiders, undead, etc.

Did the Dhakaani have a concept of an afterlife, or was your honor in this life to you and the Empire what mattered?

Honor in this life is what matters, and it’s what ensures you are remembered in the future. You set an example that inspires others, and that lives on.

If they are not ants I guess there are some good or evil Dhakaani. So there are some moral discussion on what should be done or how to interact with other races.

Absolutely. The point is that all of those discussions would take for granted the basic assumption that the good of the Empire is paramount. Evil Dhakaani likely argue that all other species should be eradicated; good Dhakaani would press for enemies being allowed to flee and to settle in lands of no use to the Empire. As that’s what ended up being the more common practice, there’s certainly good Dhakaani out there. With that said, I’d maintain that most Dhakaani tend towards neutrality and also that corruption is not tolerated. One of the characteristics of an evil alignment is putting your desires ahead of the needs of others, and a Dhakaani caught pursuing their own agendas over the good of the Empire would be executed.

In general, I wonder what Dhakaani do when they don’t prepare for war.

Easy… prepare for war. Like the Tairnadal, this is the structure of their lives. If you’re a soldier, you hone your skills, drilling and engaging in tactical exercises and wargames. If you’re an artisan, you do the work that needs to be done, and then you work on honing and refining your skills. If you’re an armorer, spend any spare time you have working on ways to make even better armor.

Essentially, a critical part of “prepare for war” is to be the best you can be – so when they  have spare time, Dhakaani are almost always going to be practicing whatever it is they do so they can be better at it. A typical Dhakaani just perfects their talent, while an exceptional Dhakaani looks for new ways to innovate and improve upon the current techniques. And bear in mind that for the Dhakaani, that’s fun. As a bugbear barbarian, you love spending some downtime sparring with a comrade… even if you spent the day training, this is where you just fight for fun, proving your talent.

With that said, even for the Dhakaani there must be times when they relax, right? So what do they do? Here’s a few things.

  • Listen to the Duur’kala, who regale you with tales of past heroes and the glory of the Empire, reminding you WHY you work so hard every day.
  • Not all such entertainments would just be “listen to a bard.” There would likely be some that are acted (with a question being if there are professional Dhakaani actors, or if it’s simply an honor for a soldier to step up and take on the role of a hero). And I think you get more dramatic reenactments that double as war games.
  • Dance. I imagine that the Dhakaani have forms of dance that are similar to kata or the Maori haka – again, something that hones or expresses preparation for war, but nonetheless, it’s still a dance.

The main point – again, like the Tairnadal – is that for a Dhakaani, work isn’t a chore, it’s the focus of your life. You strike for muut and atcha. You gain muut by doing what you must do, and atcha by going above and beyond that. Engaging in activities that hone your skills IS entertainment. So essentially, Dhakaani look at Ghaal’dar or most humans and see them as incredibly slothful and unfocused, wasting the potential and with no sense of communal good.

How do the Dhakaani see love/sex/mate? 

I think Dhakaani feel love as others do, and there is certainly a duty to produce offspring and honor to be gained by guiding them on the proper path. With that said, family is less important than the Empire; when children reach an age that their aptitudes can be determines, I expect they are fostered in a school that focuses on those skills. So if you’re a goblin miner and your son has the potential to be one of the Shaarat’khesh, he goes to join the Khesh’dar and you may not see him again for years, or ever. Accepting that is muut. It’s also the case that within the Kech, reproduction would have to have been controlled to manage limited resources. We’ve established that goblinoids – especially goblins have a high rate of reproduction, and if the Kech are relatively small today that has to have been an intentional choice.

With that said, bear in mind that there’s an aspect here of the Dhakaani are not human. As humans, we are inherently alone. Love is in part about finding a companion, about building a family, and about ensuring its survival and prosperity. The point of the eusocial bond is that on a fundamental, biological and psychological level, Dhakaani goblins feel a bond to one another that humans don’t. Basically, they have a general love for each other that we don’t have as humans. The strength of the Empire is that it isn’t simply a political construct; its people work well together because they feel an inherent connection and loyalty to their comrades. So a Dhakaani goblinoid can certainly have a specific greater sense of love for a particular individual – but they have a broad real sense of connection to all the people of the Empire that we as humans don’t have with one another. And I’m saying that this was one of the critical things that was lost in the wake of the Daelkyr, and the loss of that connection that caused the Empire to collapse and led to civilizations like the Marguul and the Ghaal’dar. So again, this is a fundamental difference between the Heirs of Dhakaan and the Ghaal’dar.

Do the subraces reproduce among each other? How is that different for other goblins?

As far as I know, it’s never been established what happens if a bugbear mates with a goblin. I suspect that in Dhakaan it’s not an option, which is made easier by the fact that you spend most of your life surrounded by and interacting with members of your own subrace. Looking to love, again, I’m sure it exists and there may be tragic tales of the bugbear who loved a goblin, and you could certainly have that as a platonic relationship… but in terms of actual family, you must do what muut demands. With the other goblins, I doubt there are any absolute restrictions, but within a society like the Marguul I find it hard to image a bugbear consorting with a goblin. Family is definitely important among the Ghaal’dar, and for that reason it also seems likely that a hobgoblin bonding with a goblin would be at least somewhat scandalous.

Where was the heartland of the Empire? Was it a single palace under a singular Emperor, or were there multiple emperors ruling at once across the land?

We’ve never said where the Empire began; what works best for your story? We’ve implied that there was a single Emperor, but there were certainly regional leaders who served as the Imperial authority within an area.

I was hoping you could clear something up for me about “city goblins”. I’m not sure if it was written this way in canon, but my impression was always that only the Small goblinoids were incorporated into human society. Is this accurate, or do you see a lot of hobgoblin and bugbears that have grown up among humans as well?

You’re close. page 304 of the 3.5 ECS says:

During the initial human colonization of Khorvaire, Sarlonan invaders enslaved thousands of goblinoids. Today, goblinoids can be found in most of the major cities of Khorvaire. These goblinoids (mostly goblins, but some hobgoblins and bugbears) have been entirely assimilated into humanoid culture.

So that majority of the city goblin population are made up of actual goblins, but there are exceptions. It’s worth noting that “true” goblins have the highest birth rate and are already disposed towards common labor, so they were both the easiest to enslave and quickest to thrive in the years that followed… whereas the more aggressive bugbears and hobgoblins were more difficult to integrate and more likely to just be killed. But yes, there are city bugbears and hobgoblins, just not as many.

Do you think Darguun has any large scale dealings with Droam? Do you think their people or governments see each other as kindred spirits considering their histories?

In my novel The Queen of Stone, Darguun sends emissaries as part of the diplomatic mission to the Great Crag. No mention is made there or elsewhere that I’m aware of about any other significant dealings between the two nations. Darguun is already on thin ice regarding its own recognition as a nation, and a close alliance with a nation seen as something of a terrorist state wouldn’t help that. I’m sure that the Daughters have reached out to Haruuc with just such arguments – “We’re all outsiders, we should stand together” because Droaam needs allies. But what can Droaam offer Darguun – especially that would be worth endangering relations with Breland to gain? And as for being kindred spirits, they’re really not kindred spirits. Looking specifically to goblins, prior to the rise of the Daughters of Sora Kell most goblins in the region were oppressed by more powerful creatures – as they often are among the Ghaal’dar and Marguul. The fact that they have their own warlord in Droaam is a significant change that is thrilling for the goblins (and what makes them among the most loyal supporters of the Daughters) – and something that could actually cause trouble for the hobgoblin-dominated Ghaal’dar or bugbear-led Marguul if their goblin population is inspired to rebel. Essentially, yes, they are all “monsters” and deal with prejudice from humans – but culturally they don’t have a lot in common.

I wonder if dhaakaani would have been doomed against a free overlord or could have found another way to battle/imprison it.

Technically, the Dhakaani were doomed against the Daelkyr; it was the alliance with the Gatekeepers that enabled their defeat. So, if they fought an Overlord, it seems you’d end up with something similar. I could easily see a story based on the partial release of Rak Tulkhesh shaking the Empire thousands of years before the Daelkyr. Dhakaani skill might not be able to end the conflict, but this is where you could have a critical alliance with the Ghaash’kala of the Demon Wastes… champions of the Silver Flame who might leave the Labyrinth to bind the demon. Which brings us back to the difference we’ve established between orcs and goblins. The orcs are innately passionate and drawn to primal and divine paths; the goblins are innately pragmatic and drawn to martial paths. Goblin pragmatism and discipline allowed them to dominate Khorvaire; but Orc faith may have saved the world multiple times.

Just how secluded and hidden were the Kech clans? Thousands of years, operating entirely in secret, hidden from their fellow Dar, hidden from all the other underground races, yet never physically changing?

There’s a few different things to consider here.

  • The Dhakaani goblins already had a partially subterranean civilization; consider that the goblin ruins of Shaarat extend deep below Sharn. There were likely many goblins who already spent the vast majority of their lives underground. So that alone wouldn’t be enough to justify a physical change; goblins are already adapted to subterranean life.
  • We’ve never said they were hidden from all subterranean races. The Kech Ghaalrac are specifically called out as having been fighting a continuous war against the Dhakaani. Other Kech may have had to deal with other foes. They may even have had to fight corrupted Dhakaani in the last days of the Empire. However, these conflicts never extended to the surface.
  • So yes: The Dhakaani avoided all contact with the surface. Remember, their premise – which was correct – was that there was some form of psychic infection corrupting the goblins on the surface. They needed to avoid all contact with them until they could confirm that this curse was no longer a threat – something they were only sure of relatively recently.

Where did Ghaal’dar clan Bards come from if they weren’t somehow trained by the Kech Volaar?

Where do Brelish fighters come from if they aren’t trained in Karrnath? The Ghaal’dar are a unique culture that has evolved in the wake of Dhakaan. Their combat and bardic traditions might have hints of Dhakaan techniques that have lingered through generations, but they are not the same: a Ghaal’dar bard is NOT a duur’kala.  We’ve never particularly established that the Ghaal’dar HAVE a well-established bardic tradition; it might be that Ghaal’dar bards are basically self-taught mavericks. In 5E bards don’t have to know lore, so a Ghaal’dar bard could be more like the orcish Passion mentioned above.

How did the hidden clans come into the light? Did Haruuc know of the Dhakaani Kech clans before starting his rebellion? Did House Deneith have contact with them? Could a pre-969 Hobgoblin or Bugbear tribal chief hire a Khesh’Dar assassin or spy?

Haruuc knew nothing of the Kech when he started his rebellion. Full details of the Return have never been provided, and are something that would have to wait until there’s an ability to truly create new setting material, especially since each Kech has its own story and approach to contact. However, there’s a few basic things that have been established. The ECS notes Kech Volaar goblinoids often venture beyond Darguun in search of Dhakaani ruins, but they do not work as mercenaries. They rarely interact with other races except in the pursuit of a mission.

Beyond that…

  • The Khesh’dar were the first to return. They spent a few decades gathering information, confirming that it was safe to return, and establishing a basic intelligence network so the Kech weren’t returning blind. They might have sold their services to the locals, as working with modern goblins would be a good way to blend in and gain information, but they wouldn’t announce themselves as the Khesh’dar; they’d simply present themselves as talented mercenaries.
  • Before the Heirs of Dhakaan can decide how to deal with outsiders, they need an Emperor. As such their primary focus is dealing with each other – whether through conquest or diplomacy. The Kech Shaarat are assimilating others through combat, but these are calculated actions. The Kech Volaar are seeking to prove their right to rule by recovering artifacts. Every Kech should have a specific path it is following to assert its claim to the Imperial crown – or, barring that, have chosen another Kech to support.
  • The rise of Darguun has been specified as a trigger for the Return. One of the primary reasons for this is that it provides them with cover to act without drawing attention. Thanks to Darguun, there is a location where there’s a strong goblin presence. As Darguun is a Thronehold nation, Ghaal’dar have freedom to move throughout the Five Nations – and most citizens of the Five Nations don’t know enough about goblins to know the difference between Kech soldiers and Ghaal’dar. So a group of Kech Shaarat soldiers don’t walk around bragging about being Kech Shaarat. They pursue their objective quickly and efficiently, avoiding contact with outsiders whenever possible, and trust those outsiders won’t know that they aren’t just some sort of Ghaal’dar.
  • Tied to this: the basic premise that the Kech see everyone in Khorvaire as potential enemies. It’s POSSIBLE the Ghaal’dar can be salvaged, but it’s equally possible they’re corrupted abominations that will have to be wiped out. And if they are bad, humanity is worse. These things have stolen their lands and defiled their cities and tombs. So they aren’t walking up to House Deneith and saying “Hi! Do you want to hire us as mercenaries?” – unless they’re doing it specifically to infiltrate the House and learn its weaknesses. They aren’t here to make friends, and any contact with outsiders is going to be founded on the premise of Are you a threat, and if not, what is your value to our long term agenda?

So the main point of the Heirs of Dhakaan is that they are NOT known to the world at large. They are engaged in a shadow war with each other, and adventurers who interact with them are essentially pioneers on the edge of an exciting developing situation.  It’s up to you to decide whether the Dhakaani see a reason to interact with the PCs or will simply pursue their agenda as efficiently as possible. But this is about the fact that in Eberron, PCs are supposed to be the protagonists of the novel. When they run into the Kech Dhakaani, they are DISCOVERING something cool – there’s powerful ancient goblins, and they’re in conflict with other ancient goblins! – not just bumping into something that’s already well known.

What is ACTION CATS?

Twogether Studios has just launched the Kickstarter for our third game: ACTION CATS! It’s a simple card game about revealing the secret lives of cats. But what is Action Cats? Does the world really NEED another game about cats? Let me explain.

Last fall, an online discussion left Jenn & I brainstorming ideas for games about the wild and unlikely adventures of cats. It should have ended there, but something about the idea stayed with me and I decided to make it as a thing to share with friends. I love games that encourage storytelling; it’s my favorite aspect of Gloom. And when you look at a picture of a cat, it’s easy to imagine possibilities. Can they travel through time? Do they have a plan to take over the world? I asked friends to share pictures of their cats, and over the course of a few months I tinkered together a prototype. I didn’t expect it to go any further than that, but as we played it with friends, we just found that it was a lot of fun. Looking at an adorable picture of a cat makes bad times better, as does sharing stories and laughter with friends. So Jenn and I decided that we wanted to make this game… so here we are.

HOW DOES IT WORK? 

Action Cats is a simple game. Each card in the deck has a picture of a cat on one side. The other side of the card has two story prompts: the start of a sentence and the end of a sentence. One player is declared the Judge, and it goes something like this…

WHAT’S COOL ABOUT THIS? 

Action Cats is a simple design. You’ve played games like this before. But here are the things that drove me to make this one.

  • It’s compact. Each card in the deck includes two separate prompts and a cat on the back. While it’s only 160 cards, there’s over twenty-five thousand possible story combinations. 
  • It encourages and assists storytelling. Like Gloom, you can choose to play Action Cats with no elaboration. If you’re not feeling creative, you can simply read the text as it’s written on the cards. But Action Cats encourages you to use the prompts as a foundation and expand upon the story. The name of the cat may provide inspiration, and you can also build on the stories of the players who have gone before you. So even if you end up using the exact same combination of cards in two games, you may end up telling a different story with those cards. This cat was the first cat in space and it’s all your fault… but is that because you pushed the wrong button and launched the rocket while they were inside, or is it because you bought this cat their first telescope?
  • It’s quick, easy and family friendly. 
  • It’s got cats. Our original round of donors provided an amazing selection of cats. Every time a new cat comes up, it brings a smile to my face and ideas for stories. For the final game we’re asking every backer to share pictures of their own cats, and I have no doubt that we’ll end up with an inspiring and adorable selection. If your cat has a story to tell, you can send us your pictures… and maybe they’ll be the next Action Cat!

WHAT ABOUT YOUR OTHER KICKSTARTER? WHEN DO YOU EXPECT THIS TO BE RELEASED?

At the moment, Twogether Studios is completing Illimat, a game we kickstarted last November. We hoped to have Illimat out by now, but there have been a number of roadblocks – many tied to the fact that it’s being printed internationally (floods and mandated power use reduction in China!). However, Illimat is now in production, and for the moment our work is done; so as a company we need to get started on the next thing. We want to have Action Cats out before the end of 2017, and we believe that is a reasonable goal, for a few reasons…

  • We’re keeping it simple. No add-ons. Stretch goals that enhance the game without adding entirely new things to be created. Nothing involved but a box and cards.
  • We’re printing it domestically. We’ll be printing Action Cats in the US, which reduces risks and delivery time.
  • We’re almost done with the game. We’ve been playing the game for months. We’re expanding the original game, adding many new cards and cats – but we expect to get the game to the printer within weeks of the end of the campaign. All we need to finish it are pictures of your cats.

WHY BACK IT NOW?

With any Kickstarter, you have to address the question why back it now? Why should you join us at this point instead of waiting until it comes out? There’s a few good reasons to hop on the Kickstarter train…

  • Get (your cat) in the game! We’re building this game with 100% crowdsourced cats, and anyone who backs the game can submit pictures of their cats for consideration. As there’s only 160 cards in the game, not everyone’s cat will be included… but this is the chance to get your cat in the running.
  • Help us expand the game. We don’t know what the demand will be for this game. We’re starting with 160 cards. But if the campaign does well, we’ll add additional cards to the set. By backing now, you help us increase the size of the core set.

Action Cats is a simple game, but it’s fun and I can’t wait to share it with all of you! If you have questions ask away – otherwise, go to the Kickstarter page and check it out for yourself!

Eberron turns Thirteen!

I first began working on Eberron in 2002, but the Eberron Campaign Setting was released in June of 2004. So the setting has just turned thirteen, and anyone who knows Eberron will know that thirteen is a number with special significance. There are thirteen planes, thirteen moons, thirteen dragonmarks… although all too often, one of these thirteen is destroyed or lost. While here in the United States we’re still waiting for Eberron to be unlocked for 5E, a gaming community in Peru organized a month-long Eberron celebration in honor of its 13th anniversary. The tome pictured above is a cake produced for that celebration, and it is one of the most fantastic things I’ve ever seen.

While I couldn’t make it to Peru for the party, I did appear in video form, and I promised to answer a question chosen by the group. I’ll get to that at the end of this post, but before I do I wanted to take a moment to thank all of you who have kept Eberron alive for the past thirteen years. I hope that we will see Eberron officially revived for 5E, but until that time it means a great deal to me that there are still those of you out there who are enjoying the world. My favorite thing about RPGs is the ability to create new stories — and I love that you are out there creating Eberron stories of your own.

At this time, I still have no official news about support for Eberron. I’ll continue to answer questions on this site, but I cannot produce new material here. With this in mind, I am and will be continuing to produce new setting material for my own RPG, Phoenix: Dawn Command. Even if you don’t play Phoenix, my hope is that you may find this material to be useful in your Eberron campaign. The main article I’ve produced is about The Fens, and this follow-up article talks about how you can use the Fens in Eberron.

With that said, there are many people working to keep Eberron alive, and I wanted to call out some of these. I am part of the monthly Manifest Zone podcast; each month we explore a particular aspect of the setting. On Facebook I’m aware of the Eberron Enthusiasts and Sages of Eberron groups, and beyond that The Piazza is the primary Eberron forum I keep an eye on. If you’re into live play, Maze Arcana is a livestream working with Wizards of the Coast, and you can get more Eberron in Role Out.

That’s all I have time to say at the moment, but I’d love to hear more from all of you. What’s your favorite moment from your time with Eberron, or your favorite thing about Eberron itself? What do you want to see in the future?

Meanwhile, here’s the two questions from the party in Peru…

How would you organize a campaign around a party of Dragonmarked characters? What could possibly bring them to work together? 

One obvious answer is the thing that brings all the houses together: The Twelve. This organization serves as a sort of United Nations for the Dragonmarked Houses. It exists to mediate grievances and resolve disputes, but also to unite the houses to accomplish things they couldn’t do alone. The Kundarak vault system – which required the talents and marks of House Orien and House Cannith to create – is a prime example of such cooperation. So, a party of adventurers could easily be elite troubleshooters for the Twelve – nominated by each of their individual houses and dispatched by the Twelve to handle problems or investigate opportunities that matter to all of the houses. Just a few examples of things that could fall into this category…

  • Investigating ancient magic that might be something the houses can use or reverse-engineer, such as evidence of warforged and elemental binding in ancient Xen’drik.
  • Investigating or shutting down operations of House Tarkanan.
  • Investigating a house enclave that has mysteriously gone dark.
  • Recovering valuable treasure from house enclaves in the Mournland.
  • Helping house operations that are threatened – for example, dealing with the Poison Dusk forces threatening a House Tharashk mining operation in Q’barra.
  • Mediating a dispute between two houses.
  • Deal with a house experiment gone wrong – a rogue Cannith construct, Vadalis magebreeding mistake, plague unleashed by Jorasco – without revealing the true nature of the problem to the public.

… And that’s all literally off the top of my head. This provides the PCs with an immediate powerful patron that will always be ready with a new assignment. If you want to complicate things, each of the houses the players are personally tied to could have their own agendas, and players could be torn between their own beliefs, the common goals of the Twelve, and the desires of their house.

A completely different approach would be to focus on a party of adventurers who are all excoriates – the EX-Dragonmarks. This could be unjustified – making them the Dragonmarked equivalent of the A-Team – or they could actively opposed the agendas of the houses they are from. They’re united because they are all outsiders, and the question is whether they are trying to redeem themselves and get back into their houses… or whether they are on an ongoing mission to expose corrupt and illegal activities tied to the Houses, whether these reflect the house as a whole or are the work of a small group of corrupt barons.

There’s three ideas – hopefully that’s enough to get you started.

What is the reach of Zilargo? Does the Trust meddle in other nations if Zilargo’s interests are at stake? 

Absolutely! In my opinion the Trust is one of THE most efficient espionage agencies in Khorvaire. The Zil have always embraced intrigue and cunning over military power as their primary means for affecting change in the world… and with their natural talents for illusion gnomes can be very efficient spies. The Trust doesn’t have the same degree of power or coverage in the Five Nations that it has in Zilargo, but it’s still very efficient. Likewise, the Trust won’t be as blasé about assassination elsewhere as it can be in Zilargo, but it definitely employs assassination when it has to. One of the most dangerous characters in the Sharn: City of Towers sourcebook is Madra Sil Sarin, one of the Trust’s top assassins. Madra has rings of sustenance and invisibility, and communicates with her superiors via telepathic bonds. As a result, she is a ghost: she spends her life in silence and invisibility, moving unseen through the city while waiting for a telepathic call to action.

While agents like Madra are ready to take direct action when it’s called for. the Trust PREFERS to act indirectly. The Zil maxim is Five words can defeat a thousand swords — and the trick is saying the right five words to the proper people. Just as hacking is becoming an increasing concern in modern politics, Zilargo can manipulate things very effectively simply by revealing secrets in the proper place and time. Does Zilargo support the Brelish monarchy or not? Do they support Kaius of Karrnath, or do they want to see rival warlords bring him down? Do they support the theocracy of Thrane, or might they help the monarchy by revealing evidence of corruption within the church?

But to deal with the question: Yes, Zilargo definitely meddles with other nations if their interests are at stake. However, more often than not they will meddle by exposing secrets… doing so in a way that furthers their own agenda, but at the same time, it’s an action that’s hard to trace to Zil actors.

If you’re dealing with PCs who are Zil agents, the most common thing they will be called upon to do is to acquire information – as secrets are the primary weapons in the Zil arsenal.

Dragonmark: The Blood of Vol

With all the things I should be working on, I shouldn’t be doing another Dragonmark so soon. But this topic came up in online discussion and it’s one of those things I can’t resist talking about. The Blood of Vol is one of the most misunderstood aspects of Eberron… which is only fair, since it’s misunderstood by most of the people OF Eberron. So I figured I’d post my thoughts here so people can find them in the future. Bear in mind that everything I say here is based on MY vision of the Blood of Vol, and contradicts canon sources. 

Now as I said, the followers of the Blood of Vol – who call themselves Seekers, shorthand for Seekers of the Divinity Within – are misunderstood both by writers, players, and the majority of the people of Khorvaire. A few common beliefs: The followers of the Blood of Vol worship Erandis Vol. All Seekers revere or worship undead. All Seekers want to become undead. The Seekers are all evil. All Seekers support the Order of the Emerald Claw.

Before I address these points, let’s look at where the Blood of Vol comes from. The roots of the religion can be traced back to the early elves of Aerenal. Elven culture sought to preserve the souls of their greatest heroes, and the resulted in a cultural split. The Tairnadal believed heroes could live on through their ancestors. The Undying Court sought to preserve their heroes through reverence and positive energy. The line of Vol rejected this, saying that both of these paths relied on living elves supporting the dead. They sought an approach that would ensure that their heroes were self-sustaining or could take what they needed to survive. This resulted in the development of Mabaran necromancy and the creation of vampires, liches, and the like. Then the Mark of Death came along, and the Undying Court used this as the foundation for a brutal power grab. Per other sources, The Sibling Kings declared that the blood of Vol was to be completely destroyed, since even a drop could destroy all living things. It was believed that they successfully exterminated the line; the survival of Erandis Vol is a secret that lasts to this day. The allies of the line of Vol were allowed the option of either swearing fealty to the Undying Court or choosing exile.

Now: The religion we know as the Blood of Vol was not practiced by the line of Vol. The elves of the Bloodsail Principality (Eye on Eberron, Dragon 410) are more representative of their traditions. The Blood of Vol evolved from the interaction between elven exiles and humans who believed in the Sovereign Host, and it was something entirely new. The elves brought with them the story of heroes who sought to transcend death, and how they were wiped out by cruel beings who feared the power of their blood. This blended with the myths of the Sovereign Host and the basic question what just god would allow death and suffering? Instead of the Mark of Death, the faith of the Blood of Vol maintains that all of us have a spark of divinity within our blood… and that the jealous gods cursed us with mortality so that we would never be able to unlock that power and challenge them. So: We all have the divinity within, but the universe is against us and death is oblivion. All we can do is stand together, look after those we love, and hope that some day we can break the curse of mortality and bring about a new age.

Now let’s get back to those common misconceptions.

  • The followers of the Blood of Vol worship Erandis Vol. NOPE. The typical Seeker knows nothing about Elven history. If asked to explain who “Vol” is, most would say that Vol was the first Seeker to discover the Divinity Within; others might add that the Sovereigns wiped out Vol and their family, fearing this power. But the Seekers don’t worship any Vol. The idea that Erandis is a member of that founding family would impress Seekers, who would assume that she’s spent the last few thousand years finding a way to break the curse of Mortality and free everyone to unlock the Divinity Within… but Erandis keeps her true identity secret because she doesn’t want the Undying Court coming after her. So only her closest associates know her true identity. Most agents of the Order of the Emerald Claw only know her as “The Queen of Death,” a lich with vast power and wisdom.
  • All Seekers revere or worship undead. The Seekers see undeath as a tool. Undead such as skeletons and zombies are useful and a way to thumb your nose at the universe: You may have killed me, but you’ll have to grind my bones to dust before I stop helping my people. Seekers believe that their souls are destroyed after death, so there is nothing magical about the body; why not use it in a way that will help those who still live? In addition, throughout history the Blood of Vol has had champions who have become undead so that they can continue to teach or protect the living, or search for ways to break the curse of mortality or fight the Sovereigns themselves; essentially, undead saints. What makes these beings worthy of respect isn’t that they are undead: it’s what they do WITH their undeath. So a Seeker doesn’t inherently see a vampire as worthy of reverence; they understand that many vampires are selfish and only out for themselves. They understand that a ghoul may simply be a slavering beast. It’s simply that there are those who have become mummies or vampires or liches so that they can champion the faith, and those beings deserve reverence.
  • All Seekers want to become undead. Actually, most Seekers don’t want to become undead. While it’s a way to literally avoid death, it’s accepted that the Divinity Within is tied to your blood and your lifeforce; once you become undead, you lose that spark (not unlike the fact that Erandis Vol can’t use her dragonmark…). The undead champions are considered to be martyrs who have given up their own chance at divinity to help others. It’s a way to avoid death, but it’s a crappy half-life compared to what we could be.
  • The Seekers are all evil. The Followers of the Blood of Vol have a bleak outlook on the world. Many hate the Sovereigns and consider those who worship them to be dupes and idiots. And they are comfortable with undead and practice necromancy, things many people associate with evil. But Seekers can be any alignment. In short, being a Seeker means you believe in the Divinity within and that death is oblivion. Armed with that knowledge, do you seek personal power or do you try to protect the weak? Do you care only about yourself; your family and community; or all people, as you see every death as a tragedy? The universe is against us: Does that make you selfish, or does it fill you with compassion for those who suffer? Do you hate those who follow the Sovereigns, or do you pity them? The faith of the Blood of Vol is a foundation, and one that encourages compassion and community. It’s what YOU do with that foundation that determines your alignment.
  • All Seekers support the Order of the Emerald Claw. NOPE. Overlap between the faith and the EC is a Venn diagram. Some agents of the Emerald Claw are Seeker extremists who believe that the Queen of the Dead is an undead champion who will break the curse of mortality and show them the path to the Divinity Within. They don’t question her actions: whatever she tells them to do, she must have a reason. Others aren’t Seekers at all; some are simply Karrnathi patriots who believe she will lead their nation to greatness, or who simply seek vengeance on the rest of Khorvaire. And then there are some – like Erandis herself – who see the Emerald Claw as a tool, and don’t believe in Karrnath or the Divinity Within. Meanwhile, the typical Seeker doesn’t condone the terrorist actions of the Emerald Claw and hates the fact that the Emerald Claw paints all Seekers in a bad light.

If you want to do deep reading, here’s a few other options.

Now, let’s get to questions.

Are undead warriors an extreme solution in Karrnath or now undeads are used in common works? Do they have undead farmers?

“Karrnath” isn’t the same thing as the Blood of Vol. The Seekers are comfortable with undead and have always used mindless undead – standard skeletons and zombies – for manual labor. You can definitely find a Seeker farmstead with skeletons in the fields. But Seekers have always been a minority in Karrnath and most Karrns consider that sort of thing to be creepy. During the Last War, Kaius embraced the Blood of Vol during a time of crisis recognizing that their necromancers could help reinforce the armies of Karrnath with undead, and they did. However, many Karrns hated this practice, believing that it sullied the martial reputation of their nation; they didn’t need to turn to such dark magics. Towards the end of the war Regent Moranna broke ties with the Blood of Vol, and Kaius III has actually blamed the Seekers for some of Karrnath’s problems – perhaps it was their dark magics that sickened crops and caused famines in the first place! This is basically a populist move that helped Kaius reinforce his power base, giving his people someone to blame for their misfortunes. In keeping with this – and as a gesture of goodwill to the other Thronehold nations – Kaius largely sealed his undead forces in the catacombs below Atur or in Fort Bones. So there ARE undead still in service in Karrnath – as seen in my novel The Queen of Stone – but they are the exception rather than the rule, and undead haven’t been incorporated into all walks of life. But if you WANT to explore how undead could be incorporated into everyday life, you can do this in Seeker communities – and on a larger scale, in Atur or Fort Bones.

I thought the undead in the Karnath military were former patriotic elite soldiers?

There are two common classes of undead in military service. The rank and file undead soldiers are mindless skeletons and zombies – the sort that can be created by animate dead, which must be controlled by a capable leader. The sentient “Karrnathi Undead” were a later development created at Fort Bones using the Odakyr Rites. These produce skilled undead soldiers that can take personal initiative, but the rituals can only be performed in Mabaran manifest zones (notably Atur and Odakyr, AKA Fort Bones) and require the remains of elite Karrnathi soldiers… so to get an elite Karrnathi skeleton, you have to lose an elite living soldier. Note that Karrnathi undead are sentient but do NOT have memories of their former lives. The Fort Bones article in Dungeon 195 goes into more detail about what Karrnathi Undead are actually like.

How do Seekers see uncorporeal undead? Are they treated the same as zombies?

The undead most commonly encountered in Seeker communities are the mindless skeletons and zombies that can be created using the Animate Dead spell, a third level spell that falls in the scope of Eberron’s “Wide Magic.” Animate Greater Undead is an eighth level spell, far out of reach of most BoV clerics, so you just don’t see a lot of spectres and wraiths in the typical community the way you see skeletons. Beyond this, the attitude towards skeletons and zombies is that they are tools – they’re made with the remains of your friends, but they aren’t your friend. By contrast, a sentient incorporeal undead that has the memories of its former life, such as a ghost, falls into the category of “You’ve transcended death at the cost of your divine spark… now what are you going to do with your unlife?” There’s nothing inherently good or bad about a ghost. If that ghost chooses to help mortals, it’s an undead champion; if it’s a selfish being or a crazed killer, it’s a monster.

BoV is like two different religions. One talks of community, god within, and how to unlock it. I don’t really understand how undeads fit in that: are they experiments? Are they supposed to fight with other Gods? And who is Vol for them?

Largely answered above, but to be clear: Undeath is a tool that allows you to extend existence at the cost of your divine spark. Mindless undead are simply tools, nothing more. Sentient undead who follow the faith are supposed to help mortals, whether that’s by protecting them, teaching them, or potentially yes, finding a way to defeat the gods and break the curse of immortality to them. “Vol” is a mythical figure, possibly the first Seeker; “Erandis” isn’t a name most Seekers have ever heard. Some may know that “Vol” was an elf, a necomancer, or even part of an elven family of master necromancers. But what matters is that this Vol was the one to discover the Divinity Within.

Then there are the ones who know. Vol is an evil lich who cares nothing of humans. They believe that she can become a God. Why should they believe it so much to cast spells through that?

Most of Vol’s inner circle aren’t actually Seekers themselves; they are simply aping the faith of their Seeker followers as a way to gain their loyalty. Such individuals AREN’T divine casters; they’d be arcane casters, like Erandis herself. Those that are Seekers fall into the evil Seeker definition above: They are interested in their OWN personal power and don’t care about the greater good. But as for spellcasting, they don’t get their power from their belief in VOL; they get their power from their belief in their OWN divine sparks. For a divine-class Seeker, their power comes from within.

So the huge misunderstanding I was in is that the Blood of Vol is NOT, in your opinion, a creation of Erandis Vol. I admit this will miss me. I loved the idea of Erandis creating her own religion for transcending death or maybe creating her personal Undying Court. But if I understand you see Erandis taking control of a pre-existing religion that could even be right and twisting the believers at her own plans.

Like all things in Eberron, you should definitely do what makes sense to you! But you are correct about my idea. I like the fact that the religion is an entirely plausible faith that stands on its own and that has a logical basis for providing followers with divine power: that power comes from within them. I love the idea that in spite of the fact that the faith works, that Erandis herself doesn’t believe in it. I also like the idea that this faith has been around for thousands of years – something that’s tricky if Erandis is a visible, known figurehead, since Erandis is hunted by both Aerenal and Argonnessen and the idea of slapping a big “I AM HERE” target on her head is a little wacky. My premise is that the religion emerged long ago, the dragons and the Undying Court looked at it and said “Bad name, but it’s just a name” and that Erandis stepped in long after to take over.

Beyond this, I like it as a religion that has a plausible basis in the world. Person A believes in the Sovereigns, benevolent beings who define reality. Person B’s son dies, and she says “Why would your Sovereigns take my son from me? Why would your Arawai let us starve? Why would your Aureon let this king oppress us? If there are gods in the heavens, they care nothing for me. I will find my power within.” With that said, I also see it as the perfect atheist’s religion. SOME members of the faith believe the whole Sovereigns-are-evil concept, but others simple assert (as presented in Faiths of Eberron) that there are no gods – that all divine power comes from the Divinity Within, and clerics of other faiths are just deluded people slapping pageantry on what ultimately comes from inside them. Power is there to be taken, but that doesn’t mean gods exist.

By the way: am I right that in some canon seeker are said like to search for people to donate blood for rituals and/or for feeding vampires?

You are correct, though they don’t have to search. This is called the Sacrament of Blood, and it’s a communal activity practiced by any Seeker community: coming together and sharing their blood in a basin, which can then be transferred to barrels of preserving pine to be shared with vampires in need. While the feeding of vampires is a side benefit, symbolically it’s about affirming that the members of the community are one, and united in their divinity. It’s covered in detail on page 79 of Faiths of Eberron.

If the champions of the Blood of Vol become undead and continue to walk the earth, even by restricting this to the most valiant ones, after a few centuries of practice that’s bound to be quite a crowd. Are they super-extra-picky? Or is there another explanation?

This is exactly why I push back on the idea that “undeath is the path to divinity” – because it’s not THAT hard to become undead, really, and if that truly was the goal you should have a huge pile of vampires out in the world. Thus, my version of the faith gives a concrete reason why it’s NOT the primary goal. Aside from this: liches and mummies are the preferable form of long-term sentient undead, because they don’t require sustenance (well, the Undying Court maintains that they draw life force from the world around them and are slowly killing us all – but they don’t need blood like vampires do). So that’s the preferable choice for your undead champion… but they aren’t easy to create, and in some ages there’s no one around who CAN make one. Looking to vampires, the community sustains vampires using the Sacrament of Blood, but that’s a limited resource and thus yes, creating a new vampire is considered to be an important decision, not something done lightly.

With that said, why aren’t there more undead champions? Because of all the people who want to destroy them. The Deathguard of Aerenal, the Church of the Silver Flame, the paladins of Dol Arrah… there’s a lot of groups out there that are happy to hunt down vampires and their kin, and this is one reason Erandis Vol keeps a low profile. There is surely a codex in Atur of all the great champions who have been destroyed by misguided mortals.

A good follower of the Blood of Vol wants to preserve all life. This proves to be an uneasy goal to reach, as the very mechanics of the game tend to push players to kill their opponents without seconds thoughts more often than not. What creatures, would you think, the BoV faith may consider “impossible to save” (and so, fair game to kill if they act evil)?

Well, rather than saying they want to preserve all life, I’d say that they consider every death a loss. Every death is a tragedy, and a good follower of the BoV sympathizes will all who labor under the curse; in my opinion, BoV clerics are the MOST likely to help others with resurrection magic, because they don’t believe dying people have some pleasant future with the Sovereigns of Flame. But with that said, that doesn’t mean that every life must be saved or that they cannot kill. Every death is a tragedy, but first and foremost you have to protect your people. If a bandit tries to kill you – or if a paladin of Dol Arrah is going to destroy your undead champion – it’s OK to kill them. If you CAN take them alive, great. But if misguided people pose a clear and deadly threat to the faithful, shed a tear for them and do what you must do to protect those who are truly innocent. Basically, it’s never something you should do without a second thought – but it’s acceptable to kill someone who will kill you or your people if nothing is done.

Aberrations are definitely fair game. Strangely, undead are valid to destroy, because they’re dead. Constructs, oozes, etc – all good. Beyond that, many Seekers only see the divine spark as existing in “things that look like me”. TECHNICALLY any intelligent creature with blood has the Divinity within, but many Seekers only extend that to humanoids, and others limit even further to humans and demihumans. So if you try to protect all sentient things you’d a very noble Seeker… but many would just see the blackscale lizardfolk as a monster, not a brother-in-blood.

What would be the position of the Church toward the warforged, in your opinion?

A warforged is essentially like an undead. Pity them as they have no blood and can never attain true divinity, but if they choose to serve the faith, it’s a noble calling and they should be treated with respect. Now, the stranger case is the warforged Seeker who attains divine power; in the 5E game I’m running right now, one of the PCs is a warforged BoV paladin. Some Seekers will look at this and say that they must have a piece of the divine spark for this to occur. Others would assert that because they are acting as a champion of the faith, they are actually drawing on the divinity of the people they are protecting.

You mentioned that the Bloodsails are more representative of the first traditions of the line of Vol. Does it have something to do with the presence of “Lady Illmarrow”, a.k.a. Vol herself, among the Grim?

No – it’s because the Bloodsails are the direct descendants of the elves who served the line of Vol and fought alongside it against the dragons and the Undying Court. The Blood of Vol took their ideas and mixed them up with existing beliefs about the Sovereigns and such; the Bloodsails follow the more pragmatic approach that death sucks and undeath gives you power and immortality, without investing in the idea of the Divinity Within.

I assume that the Church’s leeway, so to say, from what would had been its first “orthodoxy”, *whereas their very Messiah is still alive among them*, is a side effect of the fact that the existence of the said Messiah must stay a secret laced in several layers of mystery. That’s not a configuration that facilitates control. Would that assumption be correct? Or does Lady Vol just not care at all about what the content of those religions becomes, if she can use the infrastructure as a network for her agenda?

First of all, you might be interesting in this RPG.Net thread on “What’s Erandis Vol been doing for 3,000 years?” But a catch here is that like the line of Vol itself, the Bloodsails don’t make a religion out of undeath; they consider it to be a science. Per Dragon 410, Bloodsail priests “shape their divine magic from the raw energy of Mabar.” They respect the line of Vol as essentially the greatest scientists who unlocked the secrets of Mabaran necromancy, but they respect them for their accomplishments as much as their blood. The Grim Lord Varonaen, who found a way to make the sunless isle bloom, is just as worthy of reverence as Lady Illmarrow. As for Erandis herself, this is essentially the society she grew up in. Her parents didn’t consider themselves to be gods. Now, they told her that SHE had the potential to achieve divinity, but that’s a unique thing and on top of that, she can’t touch that power. So she’s OK using the power she has as a member of the Grim to serve her agenda. Should she finally manage to unlock her TRUE power, well, that’s a question for the future.

You say that Vol doesn’t claim to be the head of the Blood of Vol since she doesn’t want the Undying Court pursuing her. She choose instead to be called the Queen of Death and being known as a wise and very powerful Lich. Isn’t that enough for the Undying Court? They hunt undead. There is a cult that openly cooperate with undead and a very powerful lich. Isn’t already a target? 

OK, there’s a whole lot of elements to unpack here.

  • Don’t overestimate the power of the Undying Court. They wield divine power in Aerenal. They can defend Aerenal from draconic attack… but we’ve specifically called out that they couldn’t retaliate against Argonnessen, because their power is limited to Aerenal. Beyond Aerenal, their power is limited to that of their divine agents – clerics and paladins – who are no more inherently powerful that clerics and paladins of any other religion, such as, say, the Blood of Vol. The elite agents of the Aereni Deathguard are good at what they do. But they’re not epic level. And beyond that, if they are acting in Khorvaire they are agents of a foreign power conducting military operations in another nation – which has all the potential issues of a nation in our world sending assassins to kill an enemy. So: The Deathguard is powerful, yes. But it’s not all-powerful.
  • In life, Erandis Vol wasn’t a powerful wizard. She was a young half-dragon, and she was killed by the forces of the Undying Court. Her mother secretly resurrected her as a lich, using all the power she and Erandis’ father (an epic-level green dragon) had at their disposal to shield their daughter from divination. So: The Undying Court doesn’t believe that anyone escaped the destruction of the line of Vol. They aren’t specifically LOOKING for Erandis, and even if they were, they wouldn’t be looking for a powerful lich wizard; she’s become a powerful lich wizard over the last few thousand years.
  • The faith of the Blood of Vol first appeared over a thousand years ago. You can be sure the Undying Court thoroughly checked it out and confirmed that the only connection to Vol was the name.
  • The Blood of Vol produces undead champions. This is a known thing. The Deathguard will destroy them when possible, which is why there’s not a lot of them. But as noted above, it’s not a trivial thing.
  • The Queen of Death is the leader of the modern Order of the Emerald Claw. She assumed leadership of it less than ten years ago. As far as Aerenal is concerned, she’s just one more undead champion, like many they’ve seen over the years. Something to deal with if there’s an opportunity, but not a reason to unleash everything at their disposal or risk war with Khorvaire. She possesses epic-level shielding against divination. Her followers don’t know her location or true identity. But the Deathguard is good at what they do, and if they dig deep enough, perhaps they CAN discover the identity of the Queen of Death: She’s Lady Illmarrow of Farlnen. She is a Grim Lord of the Bloodsail Principality, an enclave founded by elves who accepted exile following the Blood of Vol, and whose leaders are powerful undead. So: She’s a powerful lich wizard in a place with the largest number of lich wizards in Eberron. She has a legitimate identity and history in that place. And it’s a place that even the Deathguard would tread lightly… and technically, a place where the Undying Court gave these undead elves license to be.

So: all undead champions of the Blood of Vol could be considered targets of opportunity for the Aereni Deathguard – beings they’d destroy if there’s an easy chance. But as it stands, the Queen of Death has done nothing requiring greater action. If they knew she was Erandis, there stands the risk that they would unleash all power at their disposal to deal with her, regardless of the consequences to Khorvaire or Aerenal. But at the moment, she’s a Bloodsail lord allied with an extremist sect of a faith that’s been around for centuries. These are both things that have happened before and don’t require any extreme action.

Also: how many very powerful lich wizards can exist in Eberron? Can’t the prophetic Undying Court just… hem… GUESS?

There’s not a lot of them, to be sure. But the Bloodsail Principality may well have the largest number of them in one place in Eberron. And again, Erandis wasn’t a powerful wizard in life; she came by her lichdom in an unusual way, and mastered magic after the fact. So “powerful lich” doesn’t automatically equal “survivor of the line of Vol.”

Plus they had thousands of years for just finding a phylactery. Maybe for some reason connected to the prophecy they DON’T WANT to stop her?

It’s quite possible, though to me that would be a motivation for the Chamber to leave her alone. With that said, looking the the Undying Court, they haven’t been looking for a phylactery because they had no reason to believe that there was a surviving Vol lich. With that said, this brings up an interesting point. Erandis is a highly unusual lich. She didn’t choose to become a lich; it was done to her. Her mother was determined to do everything possible to protect her child. Usually, a lich regenerates next to their phylactery. In MY Eberron, Erandis regenerates in a random location unrelated to her phylactery, which is in turn shielded by epic defenses against divination. The upshot of this: Erandis herself doesn’t know where her phylactery is. In my Eberron, there have been times early in her existence when she has tried to destroy herself, but she can’t. Not something you have to do, but the point being that not even she knows where or what it is.

By rules vampires are ALWAYS evil. So: are they still the same person they where in life? If a paladin of Vol turns vampire changes his personality? Became a black guard? And how a living paladin of Vol react to these changes?

While alignment restrictions are looser in Eberron, one place where I maintain them is when alignment is enforced by magic. And it’s a good question to ask, because in my opinion the alignment change forced by lycanthropy DOES dramatically alter the victim’s personality. So I’m fine with the idea that vampires become evil… but at this point it’s vital for you to understand how define evil in Eberron, as laid out in this previous post. Evil doesn’t mean you suddenly start murdering children. It means you could start murdering children and not feel remorse. It reflects a lack of empathy and compassion for others, an ability to harm others without remorse. In the case of a vampire, I feel that this is driven by a few factors.

  • Aside from blood, a vampire is sustained by the negative energy of Mabar – an alien plane that consumes life. This is the source of a vampire’s hunger to consume both blood and life energy, and it does change the vampire increasingly over time.
  • Likewise, vampires are made to be predators. They are made to charm and deceive, to hunt and consume. The powers of the vampire come with inhuman instincts that erode their previous nature. They simply can’t feel compassion for others as they once did: they can approve of the concept intellectually, but they don’t FEEL it the way they did before. It’s the way that being a sociopath can be a chemical thing as opposed to learned behavior.

First off, this is why vampires AREN’T the preferred choice for undead champions. Mummies don’t have alignment alteration and don’t need to prey on others as vampires do; they aren’t predators by nature. Thus, the high priest Malevenor is a mummy, not a vampire. But with that said, in Eberron evil characters CAN do good. King Kaius is pushing for peace. You can have an evil paladin of the Silver Flame. So the paladin of the Blood of Vol doesn’t HAVE to become a blackguard when they become a vampire. They COULD – or in 5E terms, they could change their Oath to reflect their nature – but they don’t have to. A vampire champion could still devote his existence to protecting Seekers and seek do serve the greater good. But he’ll find it easier and easier to kill those who oppose him without feeling any remorse, to torture someone to get information when such an act would have seemed repugnant in his warmer days, and so on. Essentially, Eberron is a world in which an evil character can still be a hero – but he’ll find it easier to do bad things in pursuit of that noble cause.

Considering the views the BoV has on undeadhood, and the value of the living, does this also apply the the karnathi skeletons and zombies? You mentioned that while intelligent they do not recall their life before death. Going by their 3.5 stat block their int and wis are completely average but they have a Cha of 1. does this mean they have a complete lack of personality, simply emodying the stereotypical “good soldier” if so I’m curious how their “always evil” alignment plays out?

The principle of the Karrnathi undead is that they are intelligent but not in any way human. They all possess identical skills and by default cannot advance, which is to say that unlike warforged, they can’t learn. The most detailed canon description of the Karrnathi undead comes from Dungeon 195, which notes:

Fear, hunger, and exhaustion are alien to them… One of the few limitations of the undead derives from their utter lack of mercy or compassion. Left on its own, a Karrnathi skeleton will slaughter all opposing forces—soldiers, civilians, even children…  the Kind fears that the undead aren’t animated by the soul of Karrnath, but rather by an aspect of Mabar itself—that the combat styles of the undead might be those of the dark angels of Mabar. Over the years, he has felt a certain malevolence in his skeletal creations that he can’t explain, not to mention their love of slaughter. He has also considered the possibility that they are touched by the spirits of the Qabalrin ancestors of Lady Vol. 

Now: you can always make exceptions to these rules. By default, Karrnathi undead can’t advance. However, I’ve MADE Karrnathi undead with a higher level of skill and with a more distinct (even if still inhuman) personality. So you can certainly create such unique beings if you choose. But looking to the rank and file of the Karrnathi undead, they are intelligent but entirely inhuman. Where each warforged is an individual capable of learning, evolving, and feeling, Karrnathi undead are largely identical sociopaths. This is why I’ve said you couldn’t use them as farmers; they hunger for battle, and would eventually end up killing a stablehand. So when Kaius agreed to seal the bulk of his undead forces below Atur, in part this was a friendly gesture to the other nations… but surely there was an element of him being nervous about leaving the undead standing around when they have nothing to kill.

So who was Erandis in life? 

There’s no canon answer to this, and it’s really a question of what do you want the answer to be? For me, a true answer to this and to the other related questions would require a serious examination of the culture that surrounded the line of Vol. The Bloodsail Principality is an example of the culture that evolved from this, but we haven’t established if they shared most of the same culture and values as the Aereni, or if they were as different from the Aereni as the Tairnadal are. Without a clear understanding of that culture, it’s impossible to say what her life was like. But if you assume some general similarity to the Aereni there’s a few things you can extrapolate.

  • All the Elven cultures are tied to a respect for the great souls of the past, and developing ways to save the great souls of the future. Lineage and history are important, and you are expected to DO something with your life – whether that’s to emulate the deeds of your ancestors or to master (and potentially exceed) their accomplishments. Erandis would surely have grown up knowing that she represents the pinnacle of her family’s work, and that it was her duty to live up to their expectations. Essentially: a “normal childhood” for an elf on Aerenal means something entirely different than what we think of as a “normal childhood”, at it’s going to involve concentrated study in the history of your line and the arts they perfected.
  • Erandis was a half-dragon produced in a secret breeding project with the potential to alter the world. Her existence was probably a secret, so to the degree that elven children run around and play games, she wouldn’t have been running around with them. However, she was part of a breeding program, which to me suggests that she did have siblings; she was simply the only one to manifest the apex mark.
  • My thought is that the war began the day Erandis fully manifested her mark – nothing Vol could do could hide that from Argonnessen. So Erandis had her mark for a period of time, but it’s a form of the mark that had never existed before and she didn’t have time to unlock its power before she was killed.
  • Given all that: I’ve suggested that she was probably around a 6th level wizard when she died. Given the general power level of Eberron, that’s an amazing degree of skill to possess as an adolescent.

So: my PERSONAL belief at this moment (because it might completely change, should I do a more in-depth exploration of the Vol culture) is that Erandis grew up in isolation, surrounded by attendants, tutors, and her siblings. I expect that it was a highly competitive environment – almost Ender’s Game level – as the tutors sought both to determine if any of the subjects possessed the apex mark and to prepare them to use it if they did. So I think you were combining intense necromantic study and competition (again, producing an adolescent 6th level wizard) with trials similar to the Test of Siberys. With all that said, I think there would have been intense focus on the fact that these children were the legacy of the line of Vol and the next generation of elven heroes. They weren’t raised to be weapons; they were raised to be Vol’s answer to the Undying Court. They were raised to be the god-heroes of ages to come. We’ve also established that Erandis’s mother truly loved her. Now, we don’t know how much sentimentality they actually expressed, but I think Erandis knew her parents and knew that they loved her – and that this was part of her drive to succeed – to make them proud.

And then, alone among her siblings, she DOES succeed. She manifests the apex mark. But she dies before she can master it, and her entire culture is wiped out. So again, to me her story is one of maddening tragedy – of having come within inches of a glorious destiny and fulfilling the dreams of her line, only to fail and carry the physical mark of that failure on her skin, the mark she can never unlock.

As a side note: She didn’t get to play with all the girls and boys. But she was a necromantic prodigy and even before she manifested the apex mark she may have displayed unnatural potential. Which is to say that I think even as a child, many of her friends and some of her teachers were dead – she probably spent a lot of time talking with ghosts.

How does a mummy like Malevanor become a spellcasting cleric of the Blood of Vol? If faith is required to cast clerical spells and the tenets of the faith of the Blood of Vol state that such power comes from the Divinity Within and undead are effectively cut off from that, wouldn’t a priest who became undead lose faith in his ability to cast spells?

It’s an excellent point, and why Erandis and Demise are arcane casters, not divine. But there are two ways to justify undead wielding divine power in the BoV, depending on which seems more convenient for the story of your campaign.

The easy version is to say that yes: Malevanor has no divine spark to draw on, but instead he draws on the undeveloped divinity of the faithful he serves. Essentially, the shepherd draws power from his flock. The power still comes from the Divinity Within, but he’s drawing on YOUR Divinity, not his own.

The more convoluted path comes back to the Sacrament of Blood, mentioned earlier: the Seeker practice of communally donating blood for the benefit of undead champions. While this has obvious direct value for vampires, it’s possible that a mummy like Malevanor could also drink blood: it doesn’t provide him with sustenance, but he then draws on the divine spark of the blood in his system. What’s interesting about this is that it makes the blood of the faithful a valuable commodity to more than just vampires – and also means that if Malevanor was cut off from his supply, his divine power would dwindle.

All religions do charity work right? Would the blood of Vol care for a Vampire that was not connected to their religion? For example, someone is turned vampire against their will and is abandoned by their family/group/religion, and resists giving in to the urges of his/hers new instincts, would the seekers care about this person?

It would depend on the Seekers in question. A few observations:

  • Priests of the Blood of Vol are generally very familiar with undead. They understand the needs of vampires better than almost anyone. However, as mentioned above they don’t inherently equate “undead” with “worthy of reverence.” They know ghouls are a threat and excel at dealing with them. They know vampires can be allies or predators, and they’ll deal harshly with predatory vampires. So they could help, but they’re also well-versed in what it would take to simply destroy this rogue vampire.
  • As noted in the previous examples, the Sacrament of Blood is a precious resource. The BoV limits the number of blood-dependent undead it intentionally creates because it has a limited ability to support them. The blood it takes to support this vampire could go to a true champion of the faith.
  • Given that, the situation is no different than if the person in question was simply suffering from a mundane disease. Is the compassion of the priest or community sufficient to cause them to share their limited resources with a stranger? Or do they feel the need to put the needs of their own community first?

The upshot is that it would depend on the state of the community (can they afford to spare the blood?), the demeanor of the vampire (are they at least friendly towards the Seekers, or are they behaving in an actively hostile or predatory fashion?), and the alignment of the priest. An evil cleric would say that the foolish mistakes of outsiders aren’t their concern, and they might actually try to destroy the vampire just to keep it from becoming a threat. A neutral cleric would likely help but would demand something in return; the vampire needs to perform some positive service for the community, or to take time to listen to Seeker doctrine in the hopes they might choose to become a champion of the faith. And a good priest would try to help them because it’s the right thing to do, and because they appreciate the vampire’s desire not to become a predator – though again, they’d likely use this as an opportunity to try to draw the vampire into the faith.

What would the Apex Mark of Death look like?

It’s not something I’ve ever thought about, and not something I’m prepared to give a concrete answer to without further contemplation. But looking at the factors in my mind: It is a form of the Mark of Death – an evolution beyond Siberys, but NOT an entirely new type of Mark. Therefore, I would say that it would have a clear resemblance to the true dragonmarks in general and the Mark of Death specifically. As I mentioned previously, the marks can always be identified: the Siberys Mark has the “nucleus” image of the core mark in the heart of all the widespread lines.

Speaking entirely personally, my vision has always been that it covered her body, like a Siberys mark. So, how is it DIFFERENT from a Siberys mark? What clearly marks it as something grander? Well, my answer would be to say that it extends beyond her body – that she anchors the mark, but that its power reaches into the world. We’ve seen this sort of thing before with the aberrant mark of the Son of Khyber in the novel of the same name and the Living Dragonmark feat, illustrated below.

If you go with this idea, when she was alive and empowered the Mark could literally have surrounded her. It was asked if this would be painful: I don’t see why. Aberrant marks can be painful, but the true Dragonmark is a more harmonious thing. As such, this could be another element of tragedy for Erandis. When her mark fully manifested, it surrounded her. It could be that she could hear it, feel reality in new ways through it, but again… she couldn’t quite UNDERSTAND it or control it. Then she was killed, and NOW the mark is simply dead lines on withered flesh. She knows what it was and what it could be, and knows it is lost.

I suspect a lot of them haven’t thought about the potential problems getting rid of death on a COSMIC level would introduce because of that narrow idea of what constitutes “death”. Makes me suspect there’s room for the story of a struggle against well-intentioned but misguided Seekers who have a potentially functional plan for destroying death… not thinking about how horribly that would screw up the natural world.

That’s definitely a story you could explore. With that said, it’s pretty easy to see that removing the concept of death from our world without any other changes would cause all sorts of disasters. And it’s important to understand that a farmer who follows the Blood of Vol doesn’t want to be an immortal farmer. The principle of the Blood of Vol is that we are all caterpillars, clinging to the branch of a tree. Given enough time, we can undergo a chrysalis and become butterflies – at which point we leave the branch and experience the existence in a new way. When you fully unlock the Divinity Within, you won’t just be a person with magic powers; you will ascend to an entirely different level of existence. The core belief of the Blood of Vol is that mortality means that we end up dying as caterpillars… and that death is final and absolute, condemning our divine spark to dissolution in Dolurrh and oblivion.

So: the BoV doesn’t want a world of immortal caterpillars. They want to end suffering – to eliminate plague and famine – and they want everyone to have lives long enough that they can achieve their potential, unlocking their divinity and moving on to the next stage of existence. In their perfect world, people will be born and they will leave existence: but they leave existence because they move on to something better, not because they die and are extinguished.

A few thoughts tied to this:

  • It is POSSIBLE for people to unlock the Divinity Within and move on without breaking the who cycle for everyone. So selfish Seekers this is all they want to do: achieve personal ascension, with no concern for others. But there are surely BoV “saints” who ARE believed to have ascended and to exist in a higher form already; we just want to make that possible for everyone.
  • Tying to the point that most BoV followers consider the “Vol” in the Blood of Vol to be the original Seeker who discovered the Divinity Within: there’s no issue with this clashing with the true history of the line of Vol. Elves live a long time and thus HAVE more time to try to unlock the Divinity Within. Hearing the true history of the line of Vol, a Seeker would say “So, it’s a family of elves who was studying necromancy? Clearly, the Vol WE reference was a member of that family who discovered the Divinity Within as part of that work.” Essentially, they don’t know WHICH member of the family it was, but there’s nothing problematic about the idea that a long-lived Elven necromancer might have stumbled upon this secret and accomplished something the rest of his family didn’t follow up on.
  • Honestly, I think Seeker sages pity the elves. They have the right idea and they have such long lives they ought to be able to accomplish it. But looking to the Undying Court, they tie themselves to this world – when someone who unlocks the Divinity Within should ascend to something BETTER than this world.

So: You definitely could have fun with a story about Seekers who literally just remove death from a particular area. But for most Seekers it’s not about achieving immortality in this world; it’s about an end to suffering and having as much time as you need to unlock the DW and move on to the next level of existence.