This month, my Patreon patrons asked for guidance on running high-level adventures in Eberron. In my next article, I’ll discuss plot hooks and villains you might use for such adventures. But first, I want to build a foundation with this article. Because there’s two primary challenges to building high level adventures in Eberron. The first is the concept that there aren’t a lot of high level NPCs in Eberron cities—how do you challenge player characters when they’re more powerful than the rest of the world? The second is that the best way to set up high level adventures is to plan ahead—to think about where your campaign will go at the higher levels before the adventurers get there.
PLAYER CHARACTERS ARE REMARKABLE
From the beginning, a central idea of Eberron was that player characters are remarkable. They’re the heroes of the movie, the protagonists of the novel… and especially in pulp adventures, such heroes are larger than life. Even at low levels, player characters are more capable than most people in the world. Just consider the Five Nations: we say that magic of 3rd level is part of everyday life, magic of 4-5th level is rare and remarkable, and magic of 6th level or above is legendary. So what does that mean for the 11th level wizard, who can cast 6th level spells? If adventurers are so much more powerful than the people around them, what can challenge them?
A common problem is the idea that if the player characters are the most powerful people in the room, what keeps them under control? This is reflected in many MMORPGs, where city guards are extremely powerful because it’s the only way to limit antisocial behavior; players have to believe that if I break the rules, my character will die. This idea is that a player may say if my PC is more powerful than the king, why aren’t I the king? If my wizard is higher level than the archmage of Arcanix, why don’t I take their place?
The all-powerful guards are necessary if players just want to be murder hoboes or knights of the Dinner Table — if they view the campaign as nothing more than an opportunity to kill anything that can give them XP and loot. And if those are your players, the rest of this article may not help you. But the fact is that D&D is a roleplaying game, not a wargame. When we play an RPG, we are creating a story. We’re making our own movie. And how do we want that movie to end? With that in mind, consider James Bond, Indiana Jones, and Aragorn from Lord of the Rings. All three of these would be the player characters in their respective stories. All three are badasses who can beat the odds and defeat legions of lesser foes. And yet they don’t rule their worlds. Looking at them one by one…
- James Bond is the best spy in MI6. But no Bond movie ends with him murdering the Queen and declaring himself King of England. In D&D terms, Bond is probably higher level than M. But he doesn’t want to be M. He’s a field agent, not an administrator. And critically, he’s driven by duty and his love of his country. He doesn’t WANT power or wealth; he is the hero of the story, and he wants to do his job and help his people. When he wins a victory, the next step isn’t TAKE OVER THE WORLD, it’s to wait for the next threat that only he can deal with.
- Indiana Jones is an adventurer who can overcome impossible odds. But he’s also a college professor… and at the end of the adventure, the government is going to take the Ark of the Covenant away and give it to the “Top Men in the Field.” Watching the movie, we all KNOW these “Top Men” are idiots and that Indy is far more capable than them. But he gives them the Ark and goes back to his college. Because again, he’s loyal to his country and he likes his job; he’d rather BE an adventuring professor than running some government think-tank. Adventurers are typically adventurers because they’d rather be adventurers than to have desk jobs, regardless of how much power or prestige comes from those positions.
- In Lord of the Rings, Legolas, Gimli, and Aragorn are the classic model of player characters—ridiculously powerful compared to the people around them. While the Rohirrim—veteran soldiers!—are dying in droves at Helm’s Deep, Gimli and Legolas are doing cool stunts and comparing the dozens of foes they’ve dispatched. But at the end of the battle, they don’t kill Theoden and take over the keep themselves; instead, they head off to the next adventure, seeking a challenge that only they can face. But wait! Aragorn DOES become king at the end! Quite true, but the key there is at the end… and more critically, that kingship was always a part of his story. He was always Isildur’s heir, the Last of the Dunedain, bearer of the Sword that was Broken. If Aragorn was a player character, he and the DM would have established this idea during session zero. It’s an evolving part of his story comes to a satisfying conclusion at the end of the story; he didn’t just seize a crown on a whim because he happened to be the most powerful character in the room at the time
My point is that if players care about the story, it doesn’t matter if the player characters are the most powerful people in the room or the kingdom. Perhaps they COULD slaughter the entire garrison of city guards… but why would they want to? The fact that there’s no one in the city that can challenge them isn’t an issue if their enemies aren’t the common people of the city. On the contrary, ideally the fact that the player characters are so much more powerful than the common people becomes almost a burden, because it means the common people need their protection—that with great power comes great responsibility. What we said when we were writing the original ECS was that if the Tarrasque attacks Sharn, it’s up to the player characters to do something about it, because no one else can. There’s no Elminster or Gandalf waiting in the wings. Jaela Daran would if she could, but she’ll lose her power when she leaves Flamekeep. The Great Druid is a tree. Mordain the Fleshweaver, Lady Illmarrow, the Lords of Dust… they might have the power, but they aren’t going to use it to help; more likely than not, it was one of them that brought the Tarrasque to Sharn. So your characters are the more powerful than anyone in Sharn? Then you’re the only people who can save it.
There’s two places where this doesn’t work. The first is if your players don’t want to be heroes. Perhaps they want to be true villains, or perhaps they just want to be sociopathic murder hobos. We’re the most powerful people in Sharn, who can stop us? It’s a simple fact that Eberron wasn’t designed to tell this story. Eberron was designed with the idea that adventurers would be the greatest heroes of the age, that if the Tarrasque attacks Sharn, only the PCs can stop it—not if the PCs attack Sharn, who will stop them?
There’s two answers to this. The first is that while Khorvaire doesn’t have many powerful HEROES, it has no shortage of powerful villains. Just because you decide to be a jerk doesn’t mean that the Dreaming Dark or Lady Illmarrow will be your buddies. Your villainous plans likely clash with their villainous plans. So you’re still going to have to deal with the bad guys. Second, the reason Eberron doesn’t have powerful NPC heroes is because we expect you to be those heroes. If you choose to be villains, the forces that oppose you will be the heroes of the age—the characters you COULD have been, but chose not to. The next Tira Miron, a new Harryn Stormblade, a Thorn of Breland. It will be up to the DM to create those heroes, because again, by default we want you to BE those heroes. But if you decide to be the greatest villains of the era — or just the bloodthirstiest murder hobos —the DM can fill that void with new champions.
The second place where power can be an issue is when you just don’t WANT your characters to be the most powerful people in the setting, good or evil. Perhaps you’re playing a campaign where your characters are ratcatchers in Sharn, and it makes no SENSE that you’d ever be able to fight the Tarrasque or battle Lady Illmarrow. The answer there is simple enough: don’t become that powerful. Yes, characters of 10th level and above are remarkable in Khorvaire; if that doesn’t make sense with your story, keep the characters below 10th level! Use milestone advancement instead of experience points. Focus on abstract rewards rather than the typical loot: the treasures you gain are social standing, business opportunities, and hey, the friends you make along the way. I was a player in just such a ratcatchers campaign, and we started at 3rd level and ended the campaign at 3rd level, because mechanical advancement wasn’t what the campaign was about. The rules are tools, and it’s always up to us to decide which to use and how to use them. if you don’t want to tell a story about the most powerful characters in Sharn, they never have to become the most powerful characters in Sharn.
Earlier I said that ideally part of what keeps powerful characters in check is that they like the story and want to be a part of it. James Bond doesn’t shoot the Queen because that’s not part of the story any of us want to see. What this means is that you need to have a story that the players want to be a part of, and their characters need to have clear roles in that story. So, let’s talk about that.
SCRIPTING THE SHOW: CAMPAIGN DESIGN
So you’re sitting down to run a new campaign for your friends. You could just dive into it blindly. They meet in a tavern, they learn about a ruin, they get some treasure, and you’ll figure out what happens next week when next week rolls around. And when you get to the higher levels, perhaps you realize that you’re running out of things that could randomly stumble across the adventurers’ path. If that’s you, no worries—I will have some suggestions for you in the next article. But it’s not how I approach a campaign. For me, developing a new campaign is very much like developing a TV show. Let me walk you through my steps.
The Writers’ Room: Session Zero
As the DM, I’m creating the bulk of the story, but it’s not MY story. My favorite thing about RPGs is collaboration—working with the players to create a story that we’ll all love. So using the TV analogy, the first thing I have to do is to pitch the idea to the players. I may want to run an espionage campaign. But if none of the players want to play an espionage campaign, that’s where you end up with James Bond shooting the Queen—because the player isn’t interested in this story and doesn’t care about how it ends. So the first thing I’m going to do is to find a group of players who want to play an espionage campaign. I’m going to get buy-in on other aspects of it. Would you rather be working for Breland or Aundair? I want this to be a high-stakes campaign where player characters can die… are you all OK with that? Your characters need to blend in, so I’m not going to allow exotics like tieflings, minotaurs, aarakocra—are you all ok with that?
This is basically the role of the group patrons presented in Rising From The Last War and Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. A group patron essentially establishes the genre of the story—establishing from the start that we’re all spies or we’re all working for Sora Kell. Once I have player buy-in on the basic story, I’ll generally get the players to talk through character ideas. In addition to ensuring that there’s a balanced party and that character ideas fit the story, this is also an opportunity to see if the players have interesting ideas that I can use. These could be fairly simple—things like the secrets in Eberron Confidential, which give a unique hook but don’t drive the entire story. On the other hand, sometimes a player will have a BIG idea. I ran a campaign in which a player said I want to be a paladin of the Blood of Vol. My idea is that my parents were Seekers who were condemned by Kaius and killed, and i was raised and trained by Lady Illmarrow. My goal is to overthrow Kaius III. However, if and when I succeed, I’ll realize that I’ve been deceived for my entire life: that Lady Illmarrow was deceiving me. Then I’ll have to try to reform the Order of the Emerald Claw and defeat Lady Illmarrow, while also having to deal with the chaos I’ve caused in Karrnath by killing Kaius.
Now: that’s a very deep story. Given a backstory like that, one option as DM is to say That’s really not going to fit with the campaign I have planned. We aren’t going to be going anywhere near Karrnath. Is there something else you’d enjoy? Another option is to explore middle ground. This adventure isn’t going to Karrnath, but what if you were a Glory paladin, your parents were revolutionaries who were killed, and you were raised by the Swords of Liberty and are determined to bring down King Boranel? The player gets a similar idea—I’m being duped into killing a king, which will cause chaos I need to fix—but it works with the story I have in mind. Another possibility is to say That’s outside the scope of this campaign, but I’m fine with the idea that you were trained by Illmarrow and that you are trying to recruit allies who could help you overthrow Kaius—that’s just something that you’d presumably do after this campaign is done. With all of these, the point is that I want the player to be excited about the character and their story. I want to know that james Bond won’t kill the Queen not because she’s too powerful and he couldn’t, but because he actually WANTS to protect the Queen.
So: the first step is the pitch. The second step is to see what kind of characters players are interested in. And from there, I’ll start to develop my show.
The Story of the Series
In session zero I established the genre of our story. I may have set out a group patron. I likely told the players WHERE the story was taking place—Callestan in Sharn, Hope in Q’barra, Threshold. I may have set out an overall story in the pitch: You’re spies working for the King’s Citadel, you’re exorcists of the Silver Flame, you’re professional adventurers with the Clifftop Adventurer’s Guild. But they don’t know what troubles lie ahead, what mysteries they’ll have to unravel, what enemy they’ll ultimately face. So I’m going to start by sketching that out. How and where is this story going to begin… and in my mind, how’s it going to end?
A critical point here is that I expect that my plan won’t entirely survive contact with the enemy. I’m not going to try to force the campaign to follow an absolute path, because it’s a collaborative story; it could be the choices of the players will carry us in a completely unforeseen direction. I was in a campaign where we were fighting the Emerald Claw and we all got killed by vampires, and the players (myself included) lobbied the DM to have us all come back as vampires forced to serve the Emerald Claw, trying to find some way to escape this curse. That sort of creative freedom is one of the things that makes RPGs great. But even if I know it may not last, I’m still going to have a general idea of where the campaign is headed and with this in mind I’m going to pick an endgame villain. I’ll talk about this more below, but the point is that I’m going to pick a powerful villain who is driving the ultimate story—someone who can pose a threat to high level characters, and someone who they may not even KNOW about until they’ve come a long way. The players may initially think that they’re fighting the Aurum, but once they finally defeat the Aurum mastermind they’ll discover that he was just a pawn of Sul Khatesh… and I know that the final endgame will be defeating the unleashed Sul Khatesh and restoring her binding.
The Story of the Season
Once I’ve come up with the overall story—The adventurers are going to start as adventurers in Sharn but will stumble into a mystery that will ultimately lead them to saving Aundair from Sul Khatesh—I am going to break it down into seasons. This means coming up with clear milestones where the players feel a real sense of accomplishment and learn something significant that will drive the next season. So looking to the plot I’ve described, the players may not even hear the name Sul Khatesh in the first season. They’ll be dealing with mysteries in Sharn, clashing with the Boromar clan and a powerful Aurum Concordian. But there’s a recurring villain or NPC who’s a warlock of the Court of Shadows, and it’s going to be in the SECOND season that we realize that he’s been manipulating the Concordian or providing them with secrets or magic items on behalf of Sul Khatesh.
To begin with, I’m only going to focus on the first season; I’ll have general ideas for what will happen next (it’s in season two that they discover who the warlock works for) but I’m going to start by developing that first season. What’s the primary action: Solving mysteries? Defending a small town? Recovering relics from the Mournland? Who’s the first major villain the adventurers will have to deal with? What’s the first clear, concrete milestone where they’ll feel like they really accomplished something and made a lasting change? How will this set things up for the second season?
One aspect of this stage is to estimate how MANY seasons there may be. Do I think this campaign could go on for years, or do I only expect it to last for ten sessions? If it’s a limited run, I may not need that endgame villain; the big bad of the season may be sufficient.
The Story of the Episode
Each adventure is like an episode of a show. Some are going to advance the story, moving us toward the milestone that defines the season. Others may be “Monster of the Week” stories that are just fun and don’t advance the story, and that’s OK; sometimes you just need a chance to beat up a bandit and take their pie. I’m not going to try to plan every adventure in a season right away, in part because the actions and decisions of the players are likely to change the path. But I’ll usually come up with basic ideas for the first three adventures, figuring out out how these will introducing critical elements of the overall story and the season. Who are the key NPCs I want to appear? Will the adventurers obtain an item that’s going to become important later?
For example, two years ago I was running a short campaign (only planning one season). The setting was Callestan in Sharn, with a Gangs of New York vibe. The adventurers were going to have to deal with the conflict between Daask and the Boromar Clan, but the big bad would turn out to be the Order of the Emerald Claw. In the first session, one of the characters—a courier—was hired to deliver a package to a tavern. The package contained a timelocked bag of holding filled with skeletons, and the adventurers had to deal with them. The second adventure involved a zombie outbreak in a dreamlily den. The third adventure involved a device being triggered on a planar faultline, dropping a section of the district into Mabar. The key point is that as of the end of that third adventure the PCs still hadn’t heard the name “The Order of the Emerald Claw.” They knew that SOMEONE was using Callestan as a proving ground for necromantic weapons, but they’d been busy putting out the fires and dealing with tensions among the gangs. They were getting clues and they were making friends, but they hadn’t yet identified the necromancer who was the big bad of the season.
Another example is my novel Dreaming Dark novel series. From the beginning I knew that the endgame villain was the Dreaming Dark; heck, it’s the title of the series. But in the first novel, City of Towers, the adventurers never fight an agent of the Dreaming Dark or hear its name. Instead they deal with a Cult of the Dragon Below. But certain things happen that they’ll later find were caused by the Dreaming Dark, and they get help from a kalashtar NPC who becomes very important in the second book. So, the Dreaming Dark is the endgame villain, but the big bad of the first season is a Cult of the Dragon Below.
For a final example, consider the campaign I’m currently running for my Patreon supporters; Patrons can watch the first session here. First I pitched the idea of running this fantasy western on the edge of Droaam. Then we built out the characters. Now the first season has begun. With minor spoilers, in this first session I’ve introduced a threat that could play a greater role in the future—the fiend-touched minotaurs of Turakbar’s Fist—and the adventurers have made a bargain with an enigmatic supernatural entity. Right now the players don’t KNOW the full importance of either of those things. It could be that one of those is tied to the Big Bad of the season. It could be that one of them is tied to the endgame villain. Or either or both could be more incidental. It’s only over time that they’ll learn what’s important and what’s incidental, as the story continues to unfold.
Something we called out in the original Eberron Campaign Setting is that good campaigns often have recurring characters, both villains and allies. Player characters grow more powerful over time; nothing stops VILLAINS from becoming more powerful as well. Magneto won’t suddenly become irrelevant when the X-Men gain a level; instead, he’ll find an even greater source of power HE can use, becoming an even greater threat that only they can face. Lady Illmarrow, the Lord of Blades, Mordain the Fleshweaver… the statistics given for them are a starting point, but if you’re using them in a major role and the adventurers grow in power, have the enemy improve as well! While this is something you can do with the major villains, you can also build a great villain from humble beginnings. The original ECS included three sets of statistics for Halas Martain, who was essentially Belloq from Raiders of the Lost Ark—a rival adventurer who might try to steal the achievements of the PCs. We included three sets of statistics so he could continue to grow just as they did. We originally planned to do the same thing for the Lord of Blades—three sets of statistics, so that he could grow in power over the course of a campaign—but this ended up being cut. Recurring villains and allies are a great way to build investment in a story. Players may not care about a random bandit, but when they realize that bandit is working for #$%# Halas Martain—who spoiled their previous adventure, and who they thought was dead—then there’s investment.
One problem with this is that D&D is a system where casual death is often assumed… Where player characters often just kill their enemies. When Halas Martain tries to steal the Orb of Dol Azur from you, what, you’re going to take him prisoner and keep him with you for days while you find an appropriate authority? Who does that? but there’s lots of ways to deal with this. Don’t have your villains fight to the death. Perhaps Halas jumps off a bridge in Sharn when he only has 1 hit point left; and you know he’s got a feather token. Perhaps he vanishes. Did he blink? Turn invisible and run away? Who knows, but he’s clearly gone. Or perhaps he definitely died. So what? This is a world with raise dead. Maybe he was restored by the Queen of the Dead in Dolurrh and charged with a mission! Maybe this ISN’T Halas Martain at all — it’s a changeling who’s adopted the identity to mess with you. Consider comic books; there’s always a way to bring back Doctor Doom if you want to.
Big Bads, Endgame Villains, and Incidental Opponents
Eberron has a LOT of villains. Just between the different daelkyr and overlords there’s a host of awful fates awaiting the world. Add in the Dreaming Dark, the Aurum, the Cults of the Dragon Below, the Dragonmarked Houses, the Heirs of Dhakaan—there’s no shortage of possible enemies, and one might think that there’s no possible way Khorvaire could survive with such forces arrayed against it.
The key for me is that I’m never going to use all of those villains in a single campaign. The Rak Tulkhesh exists, sure; but it’s entirely possible that the threads of the Prophecy won’t align in a way that could release him for another thousand years, and that Tulkhesh and his cults just aren’t a factor in my campaign. Perhaps the Dreaming Dark is busy in Sarlona and just doesn’t have time to meddle with Khorvaire right now. It’s OK to leave some of the toys on the shelf. When I start a campaign, I’m going to start by picking an endgame villain—someone with the power to challenge even the most powerful characters, someone whose ambitions will create a compelling story. With that in mind, then I’ll pick a big bad for the first season. Perhaps the two will be related; if my endgame villain is Lady Illmarrow, I might choose Demise (an Emerald Claw necromancer) as my first big bad; she’s powerful, but she’s someone the adventurers CAN clash with at, say, 6th level. On the other hand, I might pick someone who has no connections to the endgame villain. Perhaps the big bad of the first season is going to be Daask; it’s simply that while we are fighting Daask we’ll stumble onto a few plans and agents of the Emerald Claw, things that won’t make sense until we get to season two… just like the Dreaming Dark in City of Towers.
Once I’ve got my endgame opponent and my big bad(s), I can decide if I want to use any of the others as incidental opponents. It may be that the Dreaming Dark won’t have any major role in the campaign, but that means I could use a Thoughtstealer as a monster of the week and not worry about how it connects to anything.
We designed our villains with these roles in mind. The Lords of Dust, the Dreaming Dark, and the Daelkyr are all good potential endgame villains. The Aurum, the Emerald Claw, and the Cults of the Dragon Below are all designed to be possible opponents for low level characters. Villains like the Lord of Blades and Lady Illmarrow falling in the middle, as powerful foes who aren’t entirely beyond reach but who could grow more powerful over the course of a campaign. I talk more about different villains and the way they can shape a campaign in this article (which predates Rising, so it might be outdated!).
So that’s a glimpse into MY process; hopefully you enjoyed it! In my next article I’ll give some more specific examples of story hooks, plot twists, and characters you might use in high level Eberron campaigns. Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters, who chose this topic and who make it possible for me to write these articles!