Eberron is a world where you have the lightning rail, where warforged can be mass-produced, where the towers of Sharn scrape the sky. But it’s also a world where your character might be a knight in plate armor hitting things with a sword. So what does that look like? Does the world feel medieval, or is the aesthetic closer to World War I?
In creating Eberron, the design team made a conscious decision to keep the experience of the world grounded in D&D. This meant that people would still wear plate armor. They’d ride horses instead of motorcycles. They’d fight using swords and bows rather than using a version of firearms. So part of the point is that we didn’t want to make classic armor or weaponry obsolete. With the introduction of the wandslinger in fifth edition it’s possible to see how the world is moving in that direction—one of my favorite quotes from the Wayfinder’s Guide is the Aundairian exclaiming “Sovereigns above, Wyllis. We’re days away from the Eleventh Century and you’re still shooting people with pointed sticks?” So we are REACHING a point where the warlock wearing leather armor and carrying a wand is just as plausible a soldier as the fighter in plate with sword and shield. But for now it is still a world where armies clash with sword and spear.
With that said, the basic concept of Eberron is that it is a world in which magic has taken the place of the science we know. It’s a world that has trains, yes: but that train doesn’t use steam or gears, it’s a series of stagecoaches that ride a line of lightning. It’s NOT our world, and while the tools people use may have medieval names, that doesn’t mean they are medieval in form. I discussed this in a previous article dealing with crossbows, but it is equally important when thinking about armor. Heavy armor became obsolete in our world because crossbows and gunpowder weapons could easily penetrate it, and the protective value of the armor no longer offset its limitations on movement. But consider a few facts about armor in D&D…
- Heavy armor provides equal protection against all weapons. Plate armor provides significantly better protection than leather armor, regardless of whether your attacker is using a sword, a heavy crossbow, or even a modern firearm (if you use the rules provided in the DMG).
- Heavy armor is remarkably flexible. As long as you meet the Strength requirement, the only limitation it imposes is disadvantage on Stealth checks: it’s NOISY. But unlike previous editions, it doesn’t reduce your movement speed. And it doesn’t impose disadvantage on, say, Acrobatics or Sleight of Hand checks. That implies remarkable ease of movement. And, you can wear it all day without worrying about sores or other problems.
You can choose to look at these as the limitations of a casual rules system. But the alternative is to accept the idea that this isn’t medieval armor. It is “plate” armor, yes. It’s literally heavy and it requires a certain level of Strength to use it effectively. In terms of its materials and appearance, it’s not medieval. The same concept applies to other “medieval” things. Orien couriers use a form of horseshoes of speed that channel the power of their dragonmark (thus reducing the rarity) to give a mount greater speed and durability. So yes, people are riding horses instead of motorcycles, but that Orien courier can tear past you with blue light flashing from the hooves of the horse; less frequently you might even see a courier with horseshoes of a zephyr riding a horse across the surface of a river. It’s a MAGICAL world; don’t just think “No cars means it’s primitive”, highlight what they’ve developed instead. Mention the squad of Vadalis hippogriffs passing overhead, or the street performer weaving wonders out of illusion; it’s not medieval, it’s magical.
Magic is a part of life, and is very much a part of fashion. Glamerweave is a form of common magic item that imbues clothing with illusion. A sorcerer may wear a cloak that’s lined with a starry sky. A former soldier could have glowing sigils representing the medals bestowed upon them in their service etched into their armor. Consider also shiftweave, a common magic item that allows the wearer to shift between multiple outfits—so someone who can afford a common magic item can shift between their traveling outfit and a shimmering gown with a snap of their fingers. Exploring Eberron will also discuss cosmetic transmutation—the idea that you can go to a cosmetic illusionist and add magical details to your appearance. In Aundair in particular you can expect to see people with glowing eyes, metallic hair, or other cosmetic details that are obviously the product of magic.
Pulling back to armor and common appearance for a moment: Consider that Khorvaire is just two years out from decades of war. All genders served in the armies of the Five Nations. Combined together, you’ll see a trend toward practical clothing that allows freedom of movement. The closer you were to the front lines, the more you wanted to be ready for anything. Nobles might embrace fashions that restrict movement to make a statement—my fancy gown shows that I’m NOT going to fight, or that if I do it will be with magic, not muscle—but that would stand as an exception. Tied to this, armor has become a part of everyday life. Especially in the case of light armor, leather and even studded leather can be designed to be stylish and comfortable. Many former soldiers wear a modified form of their service armor. Think of it a little bit like gunslingers in westerns; carrying a pistol suggests you can handle yourself, but it’s not going to immediately raise alarm. The same is true of armor; heavy armor is definitely making a statement, but people won’t blink at someone causally wearing light armor.
So with that in mind, consider that the names of armors in D&D are arbitrary. A deeper system might explore the advantages and disadvantages of chainmail versus rigid armor; current D&D doesn’t. So consider chain shirt, scale mail, and breastplate:
- These are all “metal armor” for spells and effects that target metal armor.
- “Scale mail” is 20 lbs heavier and applies disadvantage to your Stealth Check, but provides better protection.
- A “breastplate” is the same weight as a “chain shirt” but provides the same protection as “scale mail” while not imposing disadvantage on Dexterity checks.
Mechanically, these are the factors that matter: weight, AC, disadvantage on Stealth, metal armor… and the fact that someone who examines you can recognize those things. Everything else is story. There’s no reason that you can’t say that the Doldarun dwarves produce exceptionally strong, light chainmail that has the same characteristics as a breastplate rather than being heavy armor. Essentially, there’s no reason that “breastplate” armor has to BE a breastplate—as long as someone looking at the wearer can recognize the qualities of their armor. This likewise applies to, say, “studded leather.” It doesn’t have to actually involve STUDS; it is leather armor reinforced with metal, but that could be strips, metal vambraces and shinguards, etc; what’s important is that someone can say “Oh, it’s reinforced leather armor, that’ll have the stats of studded.”
Putting all of this to practical purpose, let’s talk about the common uniforms of soldiers of the Five Nations. Consider that they all BEGAN as soldiers of the army of Galifar, so while nations would evolve their own styles over the course of the war, it’s reasonable that they’d have a common base style used for conscripts. I imagine leather armor as either a leather greatcoat or, as shown with Greykell in the image above, a leather tunic supplemented with gauntlets or vambraces and high boots or shinguards. Advancing to studded leather you’d add metal to the vambraces and shinguards, and studs or strips of metal to the leather. Moving to medium armor, you’d add a metal helmet and breastplate. The standard model would MECHANICALLY be “scale mail”—but it’s a metal cuirass that’s heavy enough (that extra weight) that it applies the Stealth penalty. The improved model —the “breastplate”—is the same basic design, but uses stronger alloys to produce a thinner, lighter model that doesn’t impose the Stealth penalty. Advancing to heavy armor, I’d still keep the same cuirass design, but add chain beneath it. Now, this is definitely where you’d start to see national variation; the Karrns have always been the finest armorers of the Five Nations and will make more use of heavy armor, both in their armies and among their nobles; this can be more stylized, and even aside from the infamous bone knights you can expect gothic styling or details tied to a family crest. Meanwhile, actual chainmail would be more common in the Mror Holds and the Lhazaar Principalities… and again, I could imagine a Mror champion with reinforced double-chain that is effectively plate armor, even though it’s described as heavy chainmail.
All of this has been a very long way to say a simple thing: Just because people in Eberron use tools WE think of as medieval doesn’t mean they are medieval. You can adjust the appearance of everything from a crossbow to plate armor to make it feel more modern in its design, and you shouldn’t feel limited by the NAME of a type of armor as long as you logically maintain its STATISTICS and that someone can recognize that—again, nothing wrong with a Mror champion having chainmail “plate” as long as people KNOW that they’re fighting someone with the capabilities of plate armor.
I don’t have time to get into the individual fashions of each of the Five Nations now, but if patrons are interested in the topic, bring it up on Patreon and I may address it in an IFAQ or as a poll topic. But here’s a very high-level overview:
- Aundair is the most magical of the Five Nations. They have the most significant number of wandslingers, and you’ll see more of a focus on the classic “musketeer”—lighter armor and wand. While mobility is key, Aundairians are definitely concerned with appearance and fashion, and are the most likely to use glamerweave or cosmetic transmutation to produce exotic effects. In general, Aundairians favor grace, mobility, and skill over heavy armor and brute strength.
- Breland has always been called out for its industrial capacity and pragmatic nature. I see them as holding to the standard leather-and-cuirass design. People like to have some touch of personal flair, but they aren’t going to be as exotic about it as Aundairians or Cyrans.
- Cyre falls between these two: not as dramatic as the Aundairians, but placing importance on personal style. In the past we’ve called out that Cyran fashions incorporate gloves and cloaks, with varying styles for the occasion—heavy cloak for traveling, short cloak for socializing, light long cloak with a glamerweave lining for the gala. Jewelry is likewise important for Cyrans—not necessarily holding great value, but as a form of personal expression. The fashion of “Mourningwear” is to maintain this style, but in black.
- Karrnath is both gothic and martial in its overall style. It’s common to wear some form of armor, and heavy armor is more commonly used both on and off of the battlefield. Armor and helmets are designed to intimidate; in contrast to Aundair, in Karrnath strength is emphasized. The flag of Karrnath is black and red, and both these colors are common in their fashions.
- Thrane is the most practical and least pretentious of the Five Nations. Templars may wear heavy armor, but the common peasant militias relies on light armor and bows. Light clothing is common, but subdued; cosmetic transmutation and glamerweave are rare. Followers of the Silver Flame will usually display a symbol of their faith, whether pendants, brooches, or painted designs.
That’s all I have time for today! Hopefully it’s been interesting. Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters for keeping this blog going, and to patron dglover for the question that inspired this post. The next major article—as chosen by the patrons—will be on the moons and the space race in Eberron, though there may be another short article before that. Add your thoughts on fashions in Eberron in the comments!