Dragonmarks: Common Magic, Part One

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything was released recently, and it includes a host of options for players and gamemasters. Over the next month I’ll explore how I’d incorporate some of these ideas and options into Eberron. Right now I want to tackle a subject that intersects only partially with XGtE: the question of how Eberron can coexist with the limited magic of default 5E D&D.

The first thing to bear in mind is that Eberron is not a high magic setting – it’s a wide magic setting. Eberron is built upon the premise that arcane magic behaves as a science and would thus become integrated into the world in a scientific manner. But one of the other basic principles of Eberron is that high-level characters are rare… and this ties to the magic that’s available. Here’s a few basic principles to consider.

  • In comparing Eberron to our world, we’ve always said that it’s closer to the late 19th century than to the present day. We have magical equivalents to the telegraph and the railroad and we’re just getting started with air travel. But we don’t have widespread equivalents to automobiles, telephones, or the like.
  • Wide magic generally includes effects that mimic spells of up to third level. Spell effects of up to fifth level – teleportation, raise dead, cloudkill – are known, but rare. Higher level effects are still “magical.”
  • Making a breakthrough in magic is exactly as difficult as making a breakthrough in science. Why hasn’t someone invented an airship anyone can fly? Because they haven’t figured out how to do it, just like WE haven’t figured out cold fusion or time travel.

Which brings us to two issues: magic items in the world and magic item creation. Under third and fourth edition, magic item creation and costs are very concrete and mechanical, and this lent itself to a vision of a world where you could go to a store and buy a +2 flametongue (and maybe ask the smith to customize the flames for you). Fifth edition initially didn’t have rules for creating magic items and ran with the idea that even a +1 weapon was a remarkable treasure. For some, this meant it was impossible to reconcile Eberron with the system. For me, it’s all about setting expectations: what is common magic? 

I mentioned earlier that “wide magic” involves spell effects between 0-3rd level. Just start at the bottom and look at what you can do with those effects. My favorite spell for this is prestidigitation. Using this cantrip, you can…

  • Light a mundane fire.
  • Instantly clean an object of limited size.
  • Instantly chill, warm, or flavor food.

If we accept that these are basic principles of magic – that we’ve figured out how to use magic to produce these effects using trivial (cantrip) amounts of magic – and you have the principles you need to create magical counterparts to the refrigerator (chill food), microwave (warm food), vacuum cleaner (clean room), lighter (firestarter) and washing machine (clean clothes). These things won’t look like our tools, and they won’t act like them. Instead of a vacuum cleaner, you might have a Sorcerer’s Apprentice broom that sweeps itself, of a fancier whisk broom that simply vaporizes dirt when you wave it over a floor. Such items won’t be cheap, but they also needn’t be ridiculously expensive; what you’re talking about is an object that only does a sliver of an effect of a cantrip.

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything presents a host of items with this level of power, which it calls common magic itemsClothes of Mending automatically mend themselves at the end of each day. The Ear Horn of Hearing negates the deafened condition while it’s in use. Some of these common items already exist in Eberron. The Instrument of Illusions is essentially the Thurimbar Rod, an illusion-based instrument developed in Zilargo; and the shapeshifting Cloak of Many Fashions is similar to Eberron’s shiftweave, if somewhat more versatile. As I mentioned in a previous article, something that’s often overlooked in Eberron is the idea of glamerweave – fabric infused with illusion. You could have a cloak with a lining of stars, or a blazer emblazoned with what appear to be actual flames.

The short form is that the common magic items of XGtE are a good model for things that could be common in Eberron – and something you can use as inspiration in creating other items or setting a scene. For me, the key is to look for principles demonstrated by a low level spell and consider how that could be harnessed as a tool. For example, the Sivis sending stone is based on the principle of the spell whispering wind, which delivers a short message to a specific distant location – more limited than sending, but lower level. When you do create a new item or effect, one thing to consider is that if it’s TOO useful, it might be something that’s only found as a dragonmark focus item, especially if the effect is clearly related to a dragonmark’s sphere. Whispering wind is a simple effect – but I still decided to limit it to Sivis, because from a story perspective it’s interesting to have the house have a near-monopoly on swift communication.

So common magic items could indeed be common. With that said, I think it’s reasonable for uncommon items to be uncommon — not something you see in every household, but things that CAN be manufactured and purchased. When you go to rare and legendary items, you can keep them rare and legendary. Perhaps they’re relics of fallen civilizations, or creations of advanced ones (such as the Chamber or the Lords of Dust). Perhaps they are one of a kind things created under special circumstances — during particular planar conjunctions, using unique Siberys shards, or even fashioned in other planes. Perhaps that Elven blade was forged by a member of the Undying Court and imbued with a fraction of her spirit. In short, there’s room for magic to be both commonplace and truly magical. That everburning torch is just a tool you can buy at any Cannith forgehold… but that Vorpal Sword is a legendary weapon spoken of in song and story. Meanwhile, magical weapons can have lesser magical effects – a self-sharpening sword, an axe that glows on command – things that are useful and magical, but don’t have to have the same impact as a bonus to attack and damage. I have many thoughts about wands, but I’ll delve into that in my next article.

In considering these things, XGtE also helps with its classification of magic items as major or minor in addition to the rarities. Minor uncommon items should be easier to acquire than major uncommon items. The short form is to think about what it means for a magic item to be something that can simply be purchased. If that thing is a reliable tool that exists in the world for anyone who has enough money to acquire it, how should it impact your story?

MAGIC ITEM CREATION

So we’ve established a general yardstick for what exists in the world. The next question is what can player characters create, and how can they create it? The first thing to point out here is that whatever system House Cannith uses to make wands isn’t going to be the same system a player character uses. While Eberron doesn’t have full-on manufacturing plants, the creation of magic items is an industry. Creation Forges are the most dramatic tools available to House Cannith, but they have a host of lesser ways to improve the process of production. They may literally have enchanted assembly lines — not automated, but still, facilities designed to efficiently produce a particular type of item and enhanced with various magical effects. They acquire rare components in mass quantities – which ties to another largely unrealized idea in Eberron, that dragonshards are a critical part of creating magic items and serve as the fuel of the magical economy. Cannith may have lesser focus items that channel the Mark of Making. And they certainly have secret techniques or patterns for making specific items as efficiently as possible (which is to say, schema).

Meanwhile, your wizard or artificer is literally a guy making a thing in a garage. Cannith can make a wand of fireballs faster and cheaper than you can. But the one you make is going to be entirely unique. And perhaps you can make something they’ve never figured out how to make – because you’re an innovator, not just working on the assembly line.

All of which is to say that this actually works well with the model of magic item creation presented in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything… making the creation of a magic item part of an adventure as opposed to simply a formula you fill out with gold and XP. You can’t replicate the process Cannith uses to make a wand of fireballs, because you don’t have their facilities, resources or specialized expertise. BUT, if you could get ahold of an elemental heart from Fernia, you could use that to create your wand! And what do you know, you’ve heard that you can acquire such a thing by hunting drakes in a Fernian manifest zone in the Blade Desert. If you can get that heart, a thousand GP worth of refined Eberron shards, and a good piece of darkwood you can carve into a wand – give it a few weeks and you can make it happen.

So I like the XGtE model; just bear in mind that what you are doing ISN’T the same thing House Cannith does when they are producing something. What you are creating will be unique – and again, for that reason and because PCs are remarkable, it may be that you can create something that Cannith cannot create.

In my next article I’ll write about magewrights and wand adepts. Until then, post your questions and thoughts below. Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters, who make these articles possible.

24 thoughts on “Dragonmarks: Common Magic, Part One

  1. I actually like that analogy; House Cannith is the industrial factory that can churn out hundreds of items a day, while the player artificer is a talented bloke in a garage with a toolbox.

    In a scene I wrote for a project I’m working on, I mentioned a clepsydra, or water clock. Combined with an orb of time and a little create/destroy water spellwork, you have an accurate clock that can track AM and PM hours.

  2. Great article, thank you! A question on the Sivis front: what role did they and/or any mangic devices play in the role of communication on the battlefields of the Last War? Were the armies of the Five Nations still reliant on runners and couriers, did they have ramshackle telegraph stations, or was there a radio-equivalent?

    Also, super excited for the wand adepts segment! My own Eberron jumps the industrial timeline a little bit and has damn near everyone be wand-capable (mostly because an old player of mine thought a detective noir game where the cops had swords was a little off-theme, and I somewhat agreed) but I’m looking forward to the canon answer.

    • A question on the Sivis front: what role did they and/or any magic devices play in the role of communication on the battlefields of the Last War?

      Generally speaking, communication was limited. We have mentioned the portable message stations, but these would be something the size of a stagecoach, still only able to engage in point-to-point communication with other message stations, and expensive enough that you’d only find them with large and important armies. As uncommon items, it’s reasonable to imagine that Sending Stones exist, but they only allow communication between two people and they can only be used once per day – so it would be possible for an advance force on an important mission to carry a set and send a single report back if there’s trouble, but these wouldn’t be standard issue to every unit and would only be used in emergencies. Following the principle of the message cantrip, it’s reasonable to have uncommon items allowing a small group of people to quietly message one another – but these would likely be limited to the 120 ft range of the message spell. So this could allow an elite strike force to coordinate actions, but not to coordinate with a distant commander.

      You could expand on this with some form of Sivis prototype focus item. I could imagine a very expensive focus item enhancing the abilities of an heir capable of casting sending that would allow them to do it more frequently – but this would presumably be something very rare and expensive, and perhaps draining on the user; otherwise it would have replaced the message stations.

      So in short: Communication is largely analogous to the telegraph, not the radio. Short messages can be sent from one station to another. If you don’t have access to a message station you have to find other solutions. And Sivis heirs played a vital role in the war when it came to allowing commanders to coordinate their actions.

      • So, I’d imagine this would mean that armies relied more on Orien and/or just fast runners even when they have access to message stations?

        Much like telegraph stations in command post that a courier would, sometimes literally, run message from the command post to troops in the field.

    • I’m looking forward to the canon answer.

      Bear in mind that these articles aren’t canon. I often contradict canon material from books I don’t use (Forge of War, I’m looking at you) and throw out ideas that I’m playing around with. So this is my opinion, but not actual canon.

  3. I love utilizing low level magic items. My recurring peddler traded fantastical magic items with an outlandish artificer flair. She has a dusting broom, but it only makes a room dirtier (using prestidigitation). My players just acquired a Droaamish compass, which is a severed troll hand that twitches and points north with know direction.

    What widespread minor magics existed before the Last War? Are there any facets the twelve capitalized on, or focus items that have fallen out of practice?

  4. This only occurred to me while looking at the Staff of Birdcalls, but what would you make of certain magic staffs’ habit of occasionally disappearing in a flash of thematically-appropriate magic? Would House Cannith consider that a bug that they’re trying to fix in their production lines, or a corporate failsafe to ensure people keep buying staffs?

  5. I give out tons of minor items & weapons/armor that are technically “magic” but just do something very minor. sometimes it’s a greataxe covered in coldfire or a smouldering moontouched sword… sometimes my players take a lot of interest in what was just some flavor & the “magic” doodad either becomes very useful or the players grow it with story 😀

    I also require byeshk/flametouched iron weapons & focus items+armor for save advantage to bypass the resistances on undead & daelkyr related creatures letting these technically magic items be useful sometimes rather than always in use or obvious trash becausea “magic” greatsword is better than a byeshk or flametouched iron longsword sometimes

  6. Part of why I enjoy Eberron so much is the setting gives a DM permission–nay, *encourages* him/her–to “mix it up” with regard to magic & magic items. Your comment about a “self-sharpening sword” brought to mind an idea: it’s the *scabbard* that’s magical, not the sword itself; sharpening any blade held within. This can be given more flavour: the sword & scabbard are made as a set and the “sharpness” effect only with when they’re together. Or maybe there’s a Scabbard of Sharpness out there that’s “flawed” somehow–it’ll work on any blade that fits…once attuned to said blade. Maybe the PCs can figure out a way to exploit that flaw & create more…

    Diving further down this rabbit-hole: there’s precedent [see below] for a special Deneith version; one that allows a marked bearer to use his/her Least Mark power(s) once more per day/long rest.

    [Excalibur’s scabbard was IIRC “…more valuable than the sword itself, for He who wears it will suffer no harm in battle.” (I’m paraphrasing.)]

  7. How much “common” magic did the Dhakaan empire have? Did they have the capacity to mass produce magic items? What about magic weapons?
    Thanks!

    • There’s a number factors to consider. The Dhakaani were a very austere culture focused on warfare. So they wouldn’t bother with fanciful luxury items; any sort of common magic item would have a practical (and probably martial) purpose. The next thing is to bear in mind that the spellcasters the Dhakaani had to work with were bards and artificers, which reflects the type of spell effects that could deal with. So they DIDN’T fling fireballs around on the battlefield. On the other hand, they likely had (and have) various forms of magical communication, as this is something bardic magic does well. I could see a set of rings that allow the wearers to use the message cantrip on any other ringbearer in range, allowing a strike force to coordinate its actions. I could see orbs that serve as focus items allowing duur’kala to use sending to one another… essentially taking the place of the Sivis message station, but only allowing communication between orb-equipped duur’kala, so your duur’kala is the key to communication and coordination.

      Looking to weapons, what we’ve emphasized before is that on the whole, the Dhakaani make better weapons that the Five Nations. In 3.5 terms, what you’d have is a ton of masterwork weapons. In addition, the Dhakaani are expert metallurgists and excel in the use of adamantine and other alloys – so you might see more weapons using special materials than magical weapons. However, they certainly produce magical weapons as well, and we’ve called out that they could produce artifacts… but these certainly wouldn’t be mass-produced.

      My gut is that they’d focus on individual artisans making a weapon, rather than Cannith mass production where one guy might just make hilts or pommels. But they had their own version of artificers focused on tools of war. So you’d certainly have specialized forges and techniques honed over the course of centuries enabling them to produce specific types of items more efficiently that a random PC.

  8. So, I’ve always imagined magewrights as blue collar tradesmen types with a dose of artist. Example, I had a guy making Everbright Lanterns one at a time, with a stock of about 10. Effectively just an everburning torch. But in his style, and craftwork. I imagine a seamstress apprenticing as a magewright, learning a little illusion magic, and making glamorweave garmets…
    Am I on the right track?

    • Certainly – both those examples make sense to me. With that said, you also have magewrights who work directly for a Dragonmarked house in one of those facilities I mentioned above. Such a magewright might not even produce finished items; you could easily have someone who’s entire job is preparing a particular type of component for a magic item (“I’m the newt-eye grinder at forgehold 57”). This comes back to the idea that when a player character creates a magic item, they’re doing it in a very different way from Cannith.

      So you can have that independent lamplighter (though they might still be licensed by Cannith) who’s making their own Everbright Lanterns and who adds a unique twist to each one; and you can also have a factory magewright who simply polishes and prepares the crystals that go into the standard Everbright Lanterns produced in the Forgehold, each of which is virtually identical. Your solo guy probably has to charge a bit more, but his lanterns might actually be better… at the least they could have unique elements (color of flame, shape of lantern, etc).

  9. Artificers are near and dear to my heart, and I’ve been unsatisfired (so far) with 5e approaches to the class. But even under 3.5, the rules for magic item creation made the process very time-consuming and expesnive (XP wise) for the artificer, even with their pool of creation XP at each level. I did have a case with my PC where an NPC requested the creation of a paricular expensive magic item, and he requested that the NPC supply a stack of cheap magic items from which he could extract the XP to make the big one. But I like the notion of questing for particular components or raw materials that could wholly or in part take the place of the XP requirement for a magic item. It would require a little more ingenuity and imagination on the part of CM and player, but it could be fun. The soekk components in 3.5 could be suggestive of the kind of resources one might need, as would the planes of Eberron might be suggestive (want to make armor or weapons? Seek out a manifest zone of the never-ending battle! etc.)

    Now for a question: Would it be logical that the Aerenali would have certain mass-production techniuqes handed down from their days as slaves to the giants? If the giants taught them magic, it was presumably so they could do menial tasks, and one of those might have been the manufacture of common magic items. If that’s the case, what would you say was the flavor of Aerenali common magic as compared to the Dhakaani common magic or the common magic of the %ive Nations?

    • Would it be logical that the Aereni would have certain mass-production techniques handed down from their days as slaves to the giants? What would you say was the flavor of Aereni common magic as compared to the Dhakaani common magic or the common magic of the Five Nations?

      I could certainly do a full article on daily life in Aerenal, and I don’t have time for that now. But a few key points.

      1. Modern Aereni magic is based on principles learned from studying, fighting, or working for the giants… but the Elves has spent millennia developing these principles and adapting them to their culture. I don’t see Aereni magic as being identical to the magic of the giants. 

      2. Tied to that, I don’t see the Aereni embracing mass production. They literally aren’t in a hurry and we’ve called out that they are far more concerned with perfection than with speed; to me this is all about the work of an individual artisan. This is one of the reasons that the Five Nations have advanced so quickly in comparison to Aerenal: because the Aereni aren’t trying to find better ways to do things. The Aereni wandmaker doesn’t WANT to find a way to make her wands in half the time; she knows what she’s doing and she’s happy to take the time to do it right. 

      3. Beyond all this, a critical thing here is that Aerenal literally has more widespread magic. In 3.5 we noted that many Aereni might have a level of wizard. In 5E this is made even easier: high elves (which most Aereni would be) know a free cantrip. So Aereni chefs will use prestidigitation to heat and flavor their food. Entertainers will work minor illusions into their performances. Artisans will often use mending as a matter of course. This might actually result in their being fewer common magic ITEMS because there’s simply more common MAGIC. If you’re going to be a chef, you’ll know prestidigitation; thus, you don’t need a firestone to heat food for you. 

      Now again: I could spend pages exploring what daily life in Aerenal would be like, and I don’t have that time. What I would say is that Aerenal surely DOES have common magic items on top of the more common use of magic. But tied to the second point above, these things will all be hand-crafted; there will be more thought and artistry. They will be made to last, and a particular magical tool may have been in a family for generations. You won’t go into a store and find a rack of identical everburning torches; each one will be perfect, and each in some way unique. All of which means they will also surely be more expensive… because again, the Aereni aren’t trying to do things quickly or cheaply. 

  10. These common items solve some major social problems with how I view a world filled with magic. At some point, people shouldn’t be surprised when my clothes clean themselves, just like I shouldn’t be surprised at truth spells at business meetings or small charm cantrips before an important conversation. I like how Xanathar’s helped bolster the prevalence that I’ve always wanted to see!

    What do you think a random commoner in a mid-size city would say at seeing this level of magic implemented?

    • What do you think a random commoner in a mid-size city would say at seeing this level of magic implemented?

      It depends where you are. In Aundair, many of these things would be commonplace even in smaller communities; we’ve spoken about villages having a central cleansing stone where you clean your clothes and the like. Elsewhere, it’s like I talked about in the recent Locks & Wards post. I don’t think a random commoner in a mid-sized city would have much to say, because most of these things seem normal. Rich people wear glamerweave. The streets are lit with continual flame. When you go into a Gold Dragon Inn, they’ll use a firestone to heat your food. In a small community people can’t afford / don’t need these fancy conveniences, and might roll their eyes at the noble in his glamerweave.

  11. Fantastic! A fascinating way to think about Eberron for any of the editions it has been around for. Thank you for taking the time to put all this down in a concise and accessible format!

    Would you say that what were called in 3.5 Wondrous Locations play any role in the ability of the Houses? Obviously there are Creation Forges, but does your “average” forgehold contain or is itself a magical structure/mechanism that either independently or in conjunction with those proprietary House techniques makes the production of magic items easier?

    Speaking of, how secret are some of those house techniques? If the PCs stole the wand making formula from Cannith could they theoretically use those methods or does everyone know them and they only show results when economies of scale start to come into effect?

    Regarding elemental binding, it was a fairly high level feats putting it far beyond the level of most magewrites. Would it be something lower level people could do with access to some of those proprietary techniques with the feat being something like figuring out how to hack something together yourself? So if a Cannith PC learned Bind Elemental they cannot just walk into Merrix office and tell him how the secret?

    Again, thank you so much for taking the time to do this!

    • Does your “average” forgehold contain or is itself a magical structure/mechanism that either independently or in conjunction with those proprietary House techniques makes the production of magic items easier?

      Absolutely. The Creation Forge is the most impressive form of this, but you definitely have lesser tools and facilities that improve or speed up production. Many of these would incorporate dragonshard focus items, so technique aside, they’d require an heir.

      Speaking of, how secret are some of those house techniques? If the PCs stole the wand making formula from Cannith could they theoretically use those methods or does everyone know them and they only show results when economies of scale start to come into effect?

      What do you want the answer to be? In my opinion, most of these “secrets” are simply techniques that have been honed over generations, in conjunction with the development of specialized tools and facilities. It’s not something that can be easily “stolen”, and again, a number of techniques could only be effectively used by dragonmarked heirs. Further, it may be that a particular technique requires the use of rare resources – you may know how Cannith does something, but part of how they do it is by using rare Khyber shards, and unless you can secure a supply of shards, the secret doesn’t help you. On the other hand, if you want to create a SPECIFIC secret that CAN be stolen – there’s a new technique for creating wands of wonder, and it’s hidden in this forgehold! – run that story.

      Regarding elemental binding…

      If you’re talking about Zilargo’s proprietary elemental binding techniques, have you read this post?

      http://keith-baker.com/bonus-dragonmark-zilargo-vs-house-cannith/

      • Thanks for posting that link; I hadn’t read that one before. It reminded me of a question I’d had” In the 3.5 sourcebooks, there’s the “Bind Elementals” feat. It’s accessible to artificers as one of their bonus feats, and there’s no listed requirements of being a gnome or having a Zil mentor. In your version of Eberron, is this a mistake, or simply another case of “PCs are exceptional beings and can do some things that even dragonmarked NPCs can’t”?

        • The latter. Just like a PC wizard making a wand is doing something different than the magewrights at the Cannith forgehold, a PC artificer making an elemental-bound object is doing something different than a Zil shipwright. And the fact that they have the potential to make an airship doesn’t mean that they understand how the Zil do things; they’ve just found their own path. And personally, until they’ve actually MADE an airship, I’d argue that they DON’T know how to make an airship; they simply have an idea as to how it could be done.

          All this comes back to the point that a single PC artificer making an individual airship that anyone could use isn’t a threat to the Zil, unless the PC starts running a ship-building business and is actually posing a real threat to their industry. So it’s not like taking this feat puts a price on a character’s head… unless they take active steps to disrupt the balance of power in the industry.

          • unless they take active steps to disrupt the balance of power in the industry….

            In which case they’d probably have folks not only from Zilargo, but also from Houses Lyrandar and Cannith knocking on their door in the wee small hours of the morning: “Mighty nice little airship factory you’ve got here, guvnor. Shame if something happened to ti…while you were in it. Elementals do get unbound SO easily, y’know”

  12. Xanathar’s guide is, in my opinion, a boon to Eberron GM’s. I’m looking forward to hearing the rest of your thoughts on it!

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