One of the core concepts of Eberron is that player characters are remarkable. The original Eberron Campaign Setting emphasized that most NPCs used NPC classes—warrior, magewright, adept—rather than player classes such as fighter or wizard. In 5E we’ve emphasized that spells of up to 3rd level are common in the Five Nations, but those of 4th or 5th level are remarkable and higher level effects are legendary.
This often leads to the mistaken assumption that Eberron is a “low-level setting”—that there are no real challenges for characters of 10th level and above. That was never the intent. The people of the Five Nations are typically low level magewrights and commoners. City guards in Sharn are low level warriors. But when we designed the setting, we didn’t expect your high level characters to be fighting city guards in Sharn! A comparison here would be The Hobbit. When Smaug comes to Laketown, the Master of Laketown isn’t a mighty champion who can fight him. All the soldiers of Laketown are helpless against the dragon. Their only chance lies with a hero who can beat the odds and do the impossible. And in Eberron, that’s you. The Lord Mayor of Sharn isn’t SUPPOSED to be able to beat you in a fight; he’s the Master of Laketown, and his power isn’t ABOUT being good at fighting. If you’re a high-level character, maybe you can defeat all the guards in Daggerwatch Garrison. But you’re not supposed to be fighting the guards, you’re supposed to be the one who DEFENDS the city when the Tarrasque shows up and no one else can stop it.
So first, people often judge Eberron based on the fact that its cities aren’t full of high level NPCs. A second reason it’s often cast as a “low-level setting” is that in Eberron, gods don’t walk the world. Which is true… but Eberron has Overlords, the archfiends who dominated the world at the dawn of time. In their original presentation in the 3.5 rules, Overlords have divine rank; they aren’t gods, but they have the same POWER as gods in other settings. As defined in Rising From The Last War, the avatar of a partially released Overlord might have a CR of 28 (with the side bonus of being immortal, which means that unless you do it properly defeating them will only incapacitate them for about a day). A fully unbound Overlord can reshape reality over the space of an entire nation; one plausible theory for the cause of the Mourning is that it’s the side effect of an Overlord’s release, and that the Mourning is just an aura that surrounds them… that if they decide to start moving, they would leave a trail of utter devastation.
So Eberron has EVIL entities that have the power of the gods of other settings… But should the Overlords be released, there’s no GOOD forces of equal power that can face them. One might ask why, given this, the people of Eberron BELIEVE in gods. The point is that the people of Eberron don’t expect the Sovereigns or the Silver Flame to manifest in the world; they expect them to guide and empower the mortals who face them. The Sovereigns defeated the Overlords in the dawn of time and then ascended to maintain reality. The Silver Flame is the prison that binds the Overlords. These are vital tasks worthy of respect and worship. And again, should an Overlord be released, people don’t expect DOL ARRAH to appear to fight it; they expect a mortal champion to face it, guided and empowered by Sovereigns and Flame, which is exactly what Tira Miron did when she battled Bel Shalor. Which brings us back to the fact that there are MALEVOLENT forces with godlike power… and if they rise, it’s up to YOU to be the Tira Miron of this age.
This ties to an important point I’ve called out before: Eberron is always one bad day away from an apocalypse. There are dozens of overlords straining against their bonds. There are thousands of lesser fiends in the world; most are trapped in places like the Demon Wastes, but those allied with the Lords of Dust could be walking the streets of Sharn right now, waiting for the moment to strike. The daelkyr and their minions crawl beneath our feet, while the quori study our dreams. Perhaps tomorrow there will be a new wave of lycanthropy. Perhaps the Lord of Blades will lead a force of restored warforged colossi against Korth. Perhaps the ancient vampires of the Qabalrin will arise from their forgotten tombs. These things don’t happen every day, which is why the civilization of the Five Nations still exists. But they could happen any day, and that’s why the world needs heroes. Most of the time, Laketown is perfectly stable and safe… but when the dragon shows up, the common people need a champion. As a player character you are supposed to be remarkable, because there ARE powerful malevolent forces and you may be the only ones who can deal with them.
Mighty and Malevolent
To start with, I want to do a quick round-up of some of the high-level forces that can be found in Eberron.
This is a big one. There was a time when Eberron was entirely dominated by fiends. The Overlords were bound along with their most powerful followers. But some of their lesser minions escaped the Flame (thing of tiny fish slipping through a net) and others have managed to escape as bonds have weakened. The common point we’ve raised is that most fiends have no interest in ruling over mortals. They are immortal beings of transcendent power and ruling mortals is basically babysitting deeply annoying children… And also risks starting a fight with the neighbors (Argonnessen). So they don’t try to RULE humanity. But they are out there. They can appear at any time that it actually serves the goals of the Lords of Dust. And they can appear at other times—perhaps summoned by a foolish wizard, or just a random fiend following their own agenda.
While we’ve always said that rakshasa are the most numerous native fiends, ANY fiend—devil, demon, otherwise—could be spawned by Khyber. The difference between a native demon and native devil is largely the point that they are embodiments of malevolent concepts—that demons reflect chaotic ideas while devils are more orderly. Any fiend tied to Rak Tulkhesh will be an embodiment of WAR and bloodshed; any fiend tied to Sul Khatesh will embody secrets and the malevolent power of magic. These native fiends don’t have the same vast hierarchy as the immortals of the planes, because they are the Lords of Dust; their kingdoms FELL a hundred thousand years ago, and they are the handful who escaped its destruction; they want to restore the Age of Demons so they can go BACK to the way reality is supposed to be. But you can still play out immortal vendettas between servants of different Overlords. But again, the main point is that native fiends largely embody the idea of pure evil, usually seen through the lens of one of the Overlords.
Now, fiends can be a powerful force, but you might say “I can’t just have a Nalfeshnee randomly walking around Sharn.” And that makes sense; we don’t SEE fiends often in the world. But never forget that the rules are a foundation for us to build on. Consider a few ways you could use fiends.
- Possession. There are more fiends around us than we know, because they are possessing mortal hosts. On the simple level, this might just be an explanation for someone acting in an evil manner. Moving on, you could say that a victim of possession has some of the powers of the possessing spirit (such as its innate spellcasting). Moving even further, you could say that SOME possessing fiends can actually fully transform a host when they choose too. So you don’t see a nalfeshnee in the world, but when you attack the corrupt judge he can BECOME a full nalfeshnee… until you kill him, at which point his body reverts to the battered form of the dead mortal. This is especially strong if allies of the adventurers can be involuntarily possessed, meaning adventurers need to try to find a way to exorcise them, not simply kill them.
- Disguised Immortals. We assert that there are disguised dragons and rakshasa around, using ancient magic to hide from mortal eyes. This same principle can be added to any fiend. Again, the rules are a foundation: but nothing is STOPPING you from saying that this particular erinyes can assume a perfect mortal disguise. One example of a way to do this without completely just saying “all fiends are shapeshifters!” is to introduce the idea of amulets created through blood sacrifice that let the fiend assume the form of the mortal sacrificed. That erinyes can’t just assume the form of ANY mortal; they can assume form of one particular mortal, and only while they wear the amulet… abut it also shields them from most divinations, showing them to be that mortal.
- Artificial Fiends. Perhaps House Vadalis and Jorasco, working together, create a horrific monster with the power of a goristro—a beast they can’t control that breaks free and starts a terrible rampage. Perhaps Cannith creates a steel marilith. These could be vessels for actual fiends, driven by an immortal consciousness—or they could be entirely artificial creatures that have the STATISTICS of fiends but don’t have their minds or motivations.
Native fiends are the pure embodiment of evil and of mortal fears. They are most common in the Demon Wastes and similar places. But they are in the world. The more powerful adventurers become, the more chance they have of drawing the attention of these beings or over stumbling into their plans. So, there’s a host of potentially powerful beings for you to deal with.
Existing aberrations have their own roles in the world. A cult devoted to Belashyrra could be led by a beholder, while aberrations scheme in the depths of the Thunder Sea. But the general concept of aberrations is that they are things that should not be. And aberrations can appear anywhere. Yes, the daelkyr have armies of existing aberrations. But they can also CREATE aberrations, as can Mordain the Fleshweaver… and others might be created spontaneously by the energies of Xoriat. Do you want to have an Aboleth in the sewers of Fairhaven, but you can’t think of an explanation? It could have been created by the daelkyr Kyrzin, fused from the ooze of the sewers and given foul life. The main thing is that if I did this, I’d describe it in a different way from a standard aboleth, describing it as being translucent and formed from the same mucous that surrounds it, just fused into a solid form. Likewise, the slaadi may be natives of Kythri, but there’s nothing stopping Dyrrn the Corruptor from creating a creature with the same STAT BLOCK as a red slaad that simply doesn’t look anything like a red slaad and pursues the daelkyr’s agenda. Again, stat blocks are a foundation. There’s no reason a creature with the stat block of a red slaad has to be red or a slaad! It could be a slimy green humanoid covered with tiny tentacles, that infects its victims by embedding one of those tentacles within them. This has the added bonus of confounding players who have memorized the Monster Manual and are baffled by this “Green Corruptor” — even though YOU know you just converted a red slaad.
This same principle holds true for creatures that AREN’T aberrations. You could have a daelkyr create a creature that has the same basic stats as a goristro and change its type from “fiend” to “aberration.” Nothing’s stopping the daelkyr from creating ANYTHING. Dyrrn could create aberrant unicorns… I’d just change their appearance to fit the daelkyr aesthetic (it’s not a horn projecting out, it’s that their spine extends out through their brain…).
There’s any number of high-CR undead creatures that can pose challenges to high level adventurers. At a quick glance there’s vampires, mummy lords, liches, dracoliches, demi-liches, death knights; I discuss how such things might appear in Eberron in this article. Such forces COULD be tied to the Lady Illmarrow and the Order of the Emerald Claw, but they can just as easily be entirely unique. An ancient Qabalrin vampire may have come to Sharn and started creating a network of vampire minions (and for a high level games, those “minions” could be CR 13+ vampires, with the Qabalrin elder being something far more powerful I’d create for the campaign). A death knight could have been formed by its own tragic backstory. A dracolich bound to Katashka could be expanding its reach. One of the advantages of undead is that common people can become undead. So the adventurers could have spent their low levels fighting a group of criminals, and then in their teens discover that the guildmaster they thought they’d killed has returned as a vampire, and both she and her minions are now far more powerful than they were in life.
The common people aren’t that tough. But first of all, that leaves room for UNCOMMON people — people like the player characters. The Lord of Blades. Mordain the Fleshweaver. They were low level characters once—and like the player characters, they have potential beyond that of the common folk. We say that there’s not a lot of powerful BENEVOLENT NPCs, because that’s your job as PCs. But there can easily be NPCs with however much power the story requires; the point is simply to emphasize that they ARE remarkable. If you want Merrix d’Cannith to have the abilities of a 20th level artificer in your story, give him the abilities of a 20th level artificer. But make sure to call out how astonishing that is. And if it were me I’d add details that really make that point. Maybe he’s actually transforming himself into a construct (in the style of the old renegade mastermaker). Maybe he’s embedded an ancient docent into his forehead. He can BE ridiculously powerful, it’s just good to call out that this isn’t typical—that he’s just as remarkable as you are.
But even if you aren’t dealing with individual characters that have the abilities of player characters, you can also deal with “common people”—magewrights, adepts—who able to CREATE things that can pose a threat to high level PCs. Because NPCs don’t use the same rules as PCs, they may be using rituals that require multiple casters, that take years to complete, etc—but that still lets them do things no wizard can do. Artificers can create constructs with tremendous power: just look at the warforged titans and colossi! As I’ve suggested above, maybe Vadalis could create living weapons with the power of fiends… only to find that they can’t actually CONTROL them. It may be that mortals created the Mourning! You could say that an artificer has created a suit of armor that gives its wearer great power, as long as there’s a good reason adventurers won’t take it when the villain is defeated (because it taps into your spine and kills the wearer within three days).
When you’re searching for high level threats, a simple option is to leave the world behind and to travel to the planes. Exploring Eberron provides details about the thirteen planes, and all of them have options for high level play. Engage in dangerous wagers with an efreeti in Fernia. Fight alongside the Legion of Freedom in Shavarath. Try to free your city after it’s been claimed by Mabar, before it can be fully consumed by the Endless Night. Go to Daanvi to try to break someone out of the Inescapable Prison, or try to learn the location of Illmarrow’s phylactery by reading Minara’s diary in the Library of Dolurrh. Overall the denizens of the planes have little interest in Eberron, but YOU might have something to accomplish in the realms beyond.
And So On…
This is just a starting point. I haven’t discussed the dragons, the Dreaming Dark, the Heirs of Dhakaan, or artifacts —all of which could drive higher level adventures and serve as dangerous foes. The critical point is that just because the majority of the population are low level doesn’t mean that Eberron lacks high level threats; it means that the people need YOU to face these, because the city guard CAN’T solve the problem on their own. I want to reiterate that the rules are a foundation and that you can change them to fit your story; just because a fiend doesn’t have disguise self doesn’t prevent you from GIVING it disguise self, and nothing stops you from using the statistics of a marilith but making it an aberration.
With Great Power…
One point that’s been raised is the idea that as characters grow in power they may outgrow the things that make the setting unique. Once they’re fighting fiends and liches, once they can do things that are beyond everyday magic, doesn’t that just make it like any other setting? Once they’re fighting Overlords, how is it not just about fighting gods? Maybe your characters began as plucky orphans in Callestan dealing with Daask and the Boromar Clan and you don’t WANT to clash with dragon and vampires. There’s a few ways to deal with this.
Never Grow Up
If you want a campaign where the city guard is ALWAYS a threat, don’t advance your characters to higher levels. Decide what the maximum level for the campaign will be and use milestone advancement. It’s good to allow characters to advance in SOME way so there’s a sense of progression and so players don’t get bored, but there’s lots of ways to handle that. If you want to boost them mechanically, grant characters feats instead of class levels. This gives them new options and capabilities but doesn’t improve their hit points or give them access to spells beyond the reach of everyday magic. Instead of rare magic items, let them earn favors from powerful people; when you ARE arrested by the city guard, that favor the Captain owes you might be more useful than a +1 sword! Give characters new territory, new titles, and new responsibility — all of these can add to the sense of story progression even if you never (or only rarely) gain a level. As I mentioned in the previous article, I was in a campaign where the adventurers were professional ratcatchers. We started at 3rd level and stayed 3rd level the entire campaign. We made connections and we earned improvements for our business (Sewer maps! A superior toxin kit!) but we never gained levels; we were never going to go from being ratslayers to being dragonslayers, and we knew it.
Level Up The Opposition
So you want to level up, you want to keep fighting the Boromar Clan, and you don’t want them to become irrelevant because of your newly magnified power. No worries: have them evolve with you. This doesn’t have to mean that Boromar standard enforcers are all 7th level rogues. But first of all, Boromar might have a team of exceptional enforcers—their OWN party of adventurers, if you will (they might even hire them from the Deathsgate Adventurer’s Guild!). Or perhaps they have a transformative event that creates worthy high-level foes. They become lycanthropes. Saiden becomes a vampire and transforms his lieutenants. They make a bargain with an Overlord and are possessed by fiends. So they continue to be a threat, but they are a very DIFFERENT threat; as you have become more powerful, THEY have become more powerful, in a way that feels natural within the story. Meanwhile, all of you are more powerful that the common folk around you. You are exceptional, but your enemies are exceptional as well.
My common approach is to change the focus of a campaign as the adventurers both gain power but also gain recognition and connections across the world. In the last article I wrote about a campaign in which a PC wanted to overthrow Kaius, take over Karrnath, and then have to defeat Lady Illmarrow. Here’s the “Series Overview” I put together for that.
- Prologue (1-4). Adventurers are on an airship to Stormreach. They have to foil a skyjacking, but despite their success the ship passes through a manifest zone into Lamannia and crashes. The adventurers must work together both to help the other survivors and find a way to escape Lamannia. This brings the characters together, as only that have the skills required to succeed.
- Adventurers (5-10). Having made it to Stormreach, each character has a few hooks to explore – but they need allies and they don’t know anyone except the other players. Some of these challenges are local intrigues (drawing them into the schemes of the Storm Lords and the Kraken), others are action (one character wants to find the crown of the last emperor of Dhakaan). Along the way they become powerful both in skills and in connections. The key piece is that the Karrn PC needs to win the loyalty of the Blades of Karrn, who will serve as their core force in their campaign against Kaius.
- Rebels (11-15). We shift to Karrnath. To achieve the characters goal not just of killing Kaius but of claiming the crown, the action must shift to a much higher level. It doesn’t MATTER that the adventurers could easily kill dozens of Karrnathi soldiers, because that won’t win them the loyalty of the common people. They need to negotiate with warlords, inspire commoners, use the allies they made in Stormreach, make dangerous bargains with Dragonmarked houses and accept unwise help from Lady Illmarrow. They need to identify and eliminate Kaius’ hidden weapons. When they fight they aren’t fighting common soldiers, they are fighting Kaius’ CHAMPIONS—bone knights, Rekkenmark paragons, strange things created during the Last War. They will finally face Kaius, but that will be the end of a long road of diplomacy and investigation.
- Rulers (16-20). Somehow Kaius was preventing Illmarrow from exerting control over the Karrnathi undead. with his downfall Illmarrow turns Karrnath’s legions of undead against the living. She cares nothing for who rules Karrnath; she just wants massive casualties to fuel her rituals. Karrnathi undead might not be a threat to the high-level PCs, but they can’t personally destroy tens of thousands of them; they don’t have TIME, and the death count grows with every hour. They need to direct the forces they’ve amassed and allies they’ve made as effectively as possible to slow down the undead apocalypse while they find the real answer. They need to face Illmarrow’s champions at the sites that are crucial to her ritual—and these champions are mummy lords, death knights, and liches. They must find Illmarrow’s phylactery—which is so well hidden even she doesn’t know where it is—and destroy it. They must face HER and defeat her. But it could be that even in defeat her ritual works, and they must finally go to Dolurrh itself to either destroy Illmarrow for once and for all… or perhaps to find a way to guide her own to a positive path as the new Queen of the Dead. And even after all that, they must restore order to Karrnath—dealing with the aftermath of the undead attack and dealing with the very real that that one or more of the Five Nations will take advantage of Karrnath’s weakness, especially if the players haven’t won the support of the other Wynarn monarchs before killing their kinsman.
That’s was a very long example. But the point is that the players started by doing traditional adventures, dealing with local gangs and intrigues. As they reached a degree of power that made those local thugs irrelevant they shifted both to leading groups of weaker characters and to fighting champions of equal power. And in the end they were dealing with threats that could destroy nations and bargaining with extraplanar forces. It was the same basic idea with my Q’barra campaigns. In the beginning the characters were fighting bandits and exploring tombs. By they end they would be clashing with the half-fiend dragon Rhashaak and ultimately the Overlord Masvirik, and their actions would determine the fate of the Cold Sun Federation and New Galifar. It’s not simply that the characters gained greater POWER—it’s that they also gained greater responsibility, directing allies and making decisions that could affect thousands of people instead of just fighting a tougher monster.
Again, you don’t have to advance to this epic scale! You COULD spend the whole campaign in Sharn, with the Boromar clan becoming infested by demons. You could never go beyond 3rd level. But you could also choose to entwine your characters WITH the fate of Khorvaire—to have them broker a lasting peace or ignite the next war, to have them solve the mystery of the Mourning or perhaps make it worse.
This is a huge topic that I COULD write about for days, and I’m going to rein it in here. I will be posting a final follow-up with a few specific high level adventure ideas next week on Patreon (for Inner Circle and Threshold) patrons, along with establishing the time for the next Threshold adventure! Thanks to my Patrons for making these articles possible!