Dragonmarks: Powerful Characters and Campaigns

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 ideaI’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.

Recurring Characters

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!

44 thoughts on “Dragonmarks: Powerful Characters and Campaigns

  1. Would setting a game in Eberron’s history open up potential for higher level threats, or are the mortal heroes of previous ages still bound by the soft caps of wide magic?

    • HEROES aren’t bound by caps. Tira Miron may well have been a 20th level character at the time of her sacrifice. And part of the point of this article — which will be called out more clearly — is that modern Khorvaire has no shortage of higher level threats, it’s simply that the common people of towns and cities aren’t their threats.

      While it’s reasonable to think that there were great heroes that did die in the war, OVERALL the Five Nations were at a lower level in the past, not higher. Breland has considerably more veterans among its population than it did a hundred years ago. But even seasoned veterans are still going to fall into that lower level cap that’s reflected by the wide magic level, where a 5th level caster is good and a 9th level caster is remarkable. It’s not that there was a time when the Sharn Watch was filled with tenth level fighters and they all got killed; a tenth level fighter would ALWAYS have been a remarkable hero.

      But the point is that HEROES aren’t bound by caps, which is why player characters aren’t; because they are heroes of this age. And villains aren’t bound by those caps either, which is why we have Mordain and Illmarrow. You can find powerful foes wherever you need there to be powerful foes: they’re just exceptional, like the player characters.

  2. What do you do when you hit this conflict of story you want to tell and players who want to play it? Do you just have to find new people to play with?

    • Excellent question! There’s a few ways I’d handle that. The first is that I have no shortage of potential players. So usually I will say this is the campaign I want to run, who wants to play in it? Which is of course exactly what Threshold is: I’ve said “I’m running a fantasy western, who wants to join in?”

      However, in times when I have been working with a small group of players I really want to play with, I’ll usually have a session -1 where I will pitch multiple basic ideas and see what people like. I had one time, for example, where I offered the choice of a Last War campaign, a Mission Impossible campaign in which all PCs would be changelings, and… Something else, I forget (they chose war).

      • They chose war over the changeling spy campaign?!?! Just hearing this one gets ideas flowing for me. Right away I thought what if Ethan Hunt or James Bond or Natasha Romanoff was a shared identity of a group of changelings? They could literally do anything because different people swap out to make sure they have the skills they need.

        Damn. Now I really want this game. Anybody out there up to run this one?

  3. Suppose I am GMing for a high-level party, and the party is tampering around with the Draconic Prophecy, perhaps even traveling to Argonnessen. I worry that the party’s goals are inevitably going to conflict with Argonnessen’s agenda. What should I do about this? I was considering, perhaps, encouraging the party to set up a magical communications link with the Conclave, the Light of Siberys, and the Chamber, so that the party can understand what these dragons want, can make sure that the party’s agenda does not conflict with Argonnessen’s agenda. Otherwise, the dragons would obviously just destroy the party.

    Would you consider this to be a good idea? What sort of draconic leader would be ideal for them to communicate with, if so?

    • I’d suggest that you leave a little room for the player’s agenda to drift from their patron’s agenda. There’s drama in this. I’d use something like a book that synchronizes with another book every night at midnight. The players use the odd pages to report and the patron uses the even pages for instruction and follow up.

      The players could deceive the dragon if they wanted, but the dragon has other resources to investigate if the PC’s are being honest.

      I’d make it a single dragon of the council. The Council isn’t always unified and there’s lots of politics between them. They might be competing with the agents of a rival at times. This could be interesting if their patron wants them to succeed first, but try not to kill the enemy agents.

      • All these are certainly good ideas. Definitely, I’d start out by having a dragon interacting with the group without them knowing it’s a dragon, and that revelation would be part of the story. And as suggested, the dragons aren’t omniscient! Part of the point of the Chamber is that it is constantly gathering information about the Prophecy and DEBATING the proper course forward. It could be that some dragons feel the adventurers should be destroyed, but their patron insists that he needs more time to prove that the adventurers have a key role to play, because he’s SURE that they are vital to an important path but he’s still looking for a few missing pieces of the puzzle. Meanwhile, there could be a single dragon who opposes this and takes action against them — but again, a single dragon, not the Light of Siberys.

    • I worry that the party’s goals are inevitably going to conflict with Argonnessen’s agenda. What should I do about this?

      You’re the DM. It’s entirely up to you to decide whether or not the players’ actions conflict with Argonnessen’s agenda. You could decide that the player’s actions are PART of Argonnessen’s agenda — that they actually support what the adventurers are doing, that maybe they ARRANGED for the PCs to travel to Argonnessen so they could help them in some way. You might decide that the players’ actions have no bearing on Argonnessen. The dragons don’t seek to manage or safeguard every single strand of the Prophecy; they are interested in the ones that have a direct impact on Argonnessen.

      Otherwise, the dragons would obviously just destroy the party.

      … Unless they CAN’T destroy the party because they are needed in a path of the Prophecy the dragons care about. Which might not even involve something they are going to do in the campaign; it could be that the dragons care about something one of the PC’s CHILDREN or even grandchildren will do, but they can’t possibly destroy them until they’ve had those children.

      Part of the point of Argonnessen is that it is both extremely powerful but also limited in ways humans never realize. Both they and the Lords of Dust often can’t use their power directly, because to achieve their ultimate goals they NEED humans to actually be the people who take critical actions.

      In MY campaign, what would happen is that the adventurers would meet a helpful sage early on who gives them a lot of advice that guides them on their adventurers. In the second or third season, they’d discover that this sage was in fact a shapechanged agent of the Chamber, who might start speaking to them directly now that they’ve proving their capabilities and integrity. They begin by being manipulated by the Chamber, but as they become more capable, they are able to work on a more equal level. Yes, “equal” is an odd term because the dragons have much more power, but again, the way the Prophecy works, the Chamber will NEED the players to do things that the dragons could easily do themselves but can’t because that won’t move the Prophecy down the path they need it to go.

  4. What would you advise for a party with a character who actually becomes king or queen of Aundair, Breland, Karrnath, or Thrane over the course of the game, and not even at the end? It is not entirely implausible as a high-level event, particularly if a ruler gets killed and a PC steps up as a replacement.

    • Well it would be good to be in the line of succession, to start. A player of mine has a character she has wanted to play for a while that is a niece of Boranel. Revisiting this after I became interested in Eberron I remarked that this would place her in line for either the Brelish or even Cyran throne (through Boranel’s wife, of Cyran nobility) and the potential plot writes itself because he becoming a ruler is a bad thing (as Boranel or Oargev would need to die). You’d need to kill off Boranel’s children, or Aurala’s or Kaius’ sister before a PC would stand to inherit

      I’d imagine if it isn’t the end of a campaign you’d need to find reasons to not immediately retire the character to their obligations. Some regent or steward would need to rule in their stead for them to continue adventuring

      • Or maybe that is the campaign from now on. Probably less tomb robbing in their future but you could certainly run a campaing all about politics and managing a kingdom (see MCMD’s upcoming book Kingdoms and Warfare).

    • It’s certainly possible. Looking at the examples I gave, the whole idea was that the BoV paladin would overthrow Kaius and become King of Karrnath… but part of the point was that accomplishing this would be a major focus of the campaign, and once he DID it, a major focus would be dealing with the ongoing chaos caused by his coup. It wasn’t like Kaius was going to die, he’d grab the crown, and the rest of the world would say “Oh, that’s OK then. Carry on.”

      The main thing is that a player character becoming a monarch of one of the Five Nations couldn’t possibly happen by accident. The nations have deeply etched lines of succession and traditions. Thrane has abandoned the monarchy entirely and Breland is on the verge of doing so. For a player to become a monarch they’d either have to be IN the line of succession — which means the DM and players should be aware from the beginning that this is a possibility and be prepared for it — or it should be the result of a major effort that wins the hearts and minds of the people of the nation, in which case by the time it happens you should also be prepared for it. Look to Lord of the Rings; Aragorn becomes a king, but that journey is spread out across the entire trilogy. It’s not like they say “Hey, why don’t we just make the elf our king instead?”

      The main thing is that unless it’s part of the story you have planned — as it was with that paladin — I’m not sure why a player character would WANT to be a ruler of one of the Five Nations. If they’re breaking lines of succession they will have to deal with conflict with both loyalists in their own nation and the other Five Nations, who definitely won’t like an upstart violating the tradition of Wynarn kingship (which is after all a crucial underpinning to the idea of a restored Galifar). Let’s assume that they ARE part of the line of succession and it’s a smooth transition: they are still going to be the leader of a nation caught in a cold war, dealing with threats of the Mourning, enemy spies, rebellious dragonmarked houses, etc, etc. They aren’t going to have a lot of time to just go raid some tomb. So again, in the paladin-of-the-Blood-of-Vol story we KNEW that going in and embraced the idea that if he pulled it off, that second act of the game would become Game of Thrones in Karrnath — that they wouldn’t BE “adventurers” any more, but that the campaign would become a story of trying to restore order and being the king.

      So I think it’s a very interesting story to explore, but it should only happen if both the DM and players are interested in exploring it and dealing with the shift in the story that will bring.

  5. Hello Keith! Great article, I think it is very usefull for any DM that approach Eberron as setting, I would love to read this type of article as intro of any manual of a setting!
    Question: I’m thinking to prepare a campaign where the main idea is to have a powerful villain that has the ability to permanently suppress the power of a Dragonmark on every bearer that this villain touches. He/she do this because he/she does not like the power of the Dragonmark Houses and believes that Dragonmarks have created an unbalanced society in which “normal people” are too subjected to the economic power of Houses (This idea comes from the first season of “The Legend of Korra” now on Netflix.). This villain is supported by the Emerald Claw organisation. The secret of the villain is that he/she is an UNAWARE Dragonmark bearer of the Mark of Death, so he/she is the Villain that I want to set as final treat of Season 1 of my campaign. Then, at the end of Season 1 the PCs discover that the Villain was “used” by a BIGGER BOSS, Lady illmarow, with the aim to develop the full power of the Death Mark and then steal the corpse of the Season 1 Villain in order to reincarnate in that corse (so Lady Vol is no longer an undead anche can use again the Mark of Death powers to conquer the world!). Do you think that this story-line could work?
    Thanks a lot!

    • Sure, I think this storyline could work! And this is exactly the sort of thing I was talking about. Early on the PCs aren’t powerful enough to face Lady Illmarrow, so they deal with your Big Bad. after they beat them, they are ready for the bigger boss!

  6. Another great article Keith.
    (If any of my players read this blog, look away now!!!)
    In my campaign, we started with Curse of Strahd then continued the campaign with a homebrew story. After a while where the characters ran around doing stuff for House Cannith, when they came home from the Lhazaar Principalities, Aundair, Breland, Karrnath, and Thrane had been taken over by Empress Donata in just a day. But in fact she is a rakshasa, who’s sick of the war between overlords and dragons, so she’ll recreate Eberron in her own image. She orchestrated every major threat the characters have faced, even Strahd von Zarovich, so they could grow stronger. Soon she’ll reveal herself to them, and use their powers to essentially become Sul Katesh, without actually being that overlord. There’s a lot more to it of course (including the party’s tabaxi druid being the original Donata), but it’s been a slow build-up over 3 years next month. They still need to release themselves from fake-Donata’s Crisis Energy power, which will probably include a rendezvous with Lady Illmarrow, and then defeat Donata (with the stats of Sul Katesh).

  7. Hi, Keith. I’m interested in the “ratcatcher” campaign you played in. What sort of non0XP, non-treasure rewards did your character(s) receive? By campaign’s end, they wwere still 3rd level…but were they still ratcatchers? City guard, perhaps, or King’s Citadel? Had any of them acheived enough social standing to be invited to the Tain Ball? And were the rewards attained by the PCs as a group, or did your character evolve in a different direction from some of the others?

    • We were still ratcatchers by the end of the campaign, yes. We weren’t particularly trying not to be; we just wanted to be the best ratcatchers we could be. We got resources that expanded our capabilities as a business (as a group), we expanded our client list, etc. So we didn’t go to the Tain Gala, but we did earn the favor of Ilsa Boromar. But again, that was part of the idea that was clearly established in Session Zero: that this was a campaign about RATCATCHERS, not that we were going to leave the business behind. Largely, the rewards were the STORY ITSELF.

  8. Would it be feasible to run a campaign wherein the quori decide that the PCs, specifically, will be the “Inspired 2.0” who will go around the continent, brokering peace between nations and vanquishing all sorts of Lords of Dust and daelkyr menaces? The idea is that once the PCs have won over the hearts and minds of Khorvaire, the quori can bring out some eldritch machine in Dal Quor to brute-force their way into the PCs’ minds in an attempt to possess the PCs, which would be an unusual finale.

    Maybe a single PC in the party could be in on the plan from the beginning.

    • Sure, that’s absolutely something the Dreaming Dark might do. It’s essentially what they ARE doing with the Sovereign Swords.

  9. On the bit about not advancing to higher levels, I feel the need to mention the “Epic 6” (or “E6”) homebrew alternate system for third edition for anyone that hasn’t heard of it: Once a PC hits level 6, they no longer gain levels and instead they gain an extra feat whenever they get so much experience. This meant PCs didn’t really get much more powerful (their BAB, HD and saves would be barely if at all better than a normal 6th level character), but got more versatile as they gained experience (often dipping into sub-systems that allowed access with just feats like Psionics, Incarnum, and Tome of Battle). This reflects plenty of archetypical heroes well: Batman’s strength isn’t that his mastery of martial arts makes him able to accomplish superhuman feats ala Flex Mentallo, it’s that he’s a world class martial artist AND the world’s greatest detective AND a master of stealth AND a comic book scientist/inventor AND well equipped (and a few other things) which makes him more than the sum of his parts.

  10. How does the DM compensate for the action economy scaling up? My concern has been that while five 5th level players might have 25 potential actions in a round, five 12th level players might have 50 to 80 potential actions in a round. And as always, players can ‘parallel-process’ the action/reaction sequence, the DM has to keep up with more & more variables (not Eberron-specific I know, but I promise I’ll use the knowledge in Eberron).

    • I’m not really the best person to ask. I can and will be talking about story ideas for high level characters, because I know a lot of those. But as a DM I generally RUN lower level adventures, and I’m sure there’s other people better suited to giving advice on the mechanics of high-level combat.

    • Standard advice in 3.5 was to build out to accommodate more party members, not up. More enemies gives the enemies more actions, while one big guy, though a larger individual threat, can get swarmed

      In the case of one four person party just getting more actions, lair actions and legendary actions are useful for enemies which are supposed to be prominent and have staying power

  11. Would you see Ascension to Sovereign status a valid high level plot arc or does the unknowable gods status of eberron preclude that?

    • I think the nature of the divine is a “Your Eberron” thing, much like the nature of the mourning ect.. The way the dragon’s consider the Sovereigns in DoE is relatively friendly to it from what I remember of it. 4E’s epic destiny system did allow it (core Demigod destiny) and even some of the Eberron specific destinies were very close to it.

    • As suggested, that’s really up to you. It’s certainly the case that there are people in the world who absolutely believe it’s possible. The main thing is that becoming a Sovereign is very different from becoming a god in the FR sense. Assuming the Sovereigns exist, as depicted they are omnipresent and immaterial. If your fighter becomes the new Dol Dorn, you are now present on every battlefield, watching and guiding wherever blades are drawn; you aren’t going to be continuing to walk around in humanoid form. It would be a true ascension: an amazing epic destiny, but something that would definitely be the end of your career as a player character.

      A smaller scale thing might be to attain some more limited form of ascension on one of the planes — joining one of the Legions of Shavarath, for example.

      • Keith, this may be getting a little off track but… 1) Are there any sects of Sovereign worship that believe there have been historical examples of Ascension (not counting the possible Ascended dragons)?
        2) Given the nature of the Sovereigns, would a “new” Dol Dorn, for instance, be any different from the old one? Would a newly Ascended human lose all their personality in the process and simply become an abstract embodiment? 3) Could a PC aspire to becomeing a “new” Sovereign, that is, an embodiment of some principle not ocered by the existing Host? I could see such an ambition arising in a follower of the Traveller or the Lord of Blades, for instance. Yeah, there are probably more the subject of heated bun-fights in the Phiolosphy depts. of Morgrave and Korranberg than concerns of actual DMs, but I’m still curious.

        • Keep in mind that because there’s no PROOF of anything related to the divine, there may be any number of lunatic fringe faiths. Dorius Alyre ir’Korran believed that he could displace Aureon; that suggests that someone else shared that belief, either before or after. It is the foundation of Thir; maybe some dragon Prometheus tried to share it with others.

          With that said, such a sect would DEFINITELY be a lunatic fringe that would be condemned as heresy by adherents of the core faith. It’s right there in the name: they are the SOVEREIGNS, you are the VASSAL. A true vassal doesn’t try to steal their sovereign’s crown. Besides which, if ir’Korran had succeeded, we wouldn’t be offering our prayers to Aureon today, would we? Wouldn’t we be praying to ir’Korreon? With that said, the common belief is that Dolurrh is the gateway to the unknowable realm of the Sovereigns. So I’d say that the common belief is that truly amazing people might be rewarded in that higher realm—that Galifar I might be leading an army in Dol Dorn’s domain or attending Aureon in his court-and THAT is the ascension you can look forward to, not staging a divine coup and displacing a god. Keep in mind also that in the Sovereign Myth, this was something that happened in the Dawn of Time, and they defeated the Overlords and had to essentially rebuild a wounded reality. It’s like Odin and his brothers creating the world from Ymir’s bones. Whatever you may do today, are you REBUILDING THE FOUNDATIONS OF REALITY, Bob? No? Then you’re probably not going to be a Sovereign.

          Looking to 2: the idea of a Sovereign is that you are omnipresent. Onatar is simultaneously present with EVERY artisan. Dol Dorn is ready to offer guidance to EVERY soldier on both sides of every war. Arawai doesn’t just walk around making gentle winds, she IS the gentle winds, and is in fact ALL gentle winds. I don’t know that they would lose their personality, but I certainly don’t think they could exist like that and maintain the narrow focus of their former personality. Looking to Thir, the dragons see being a Sovereign as a JOB and a DUTY. It’s not that you do it to rule the world, you do it because SOMEONE HAS TO and because it’s an honor to do it. But that’s also why in Thir it’s not an insult or heretical to displace the previous Sovereign: because IT’S A JOB, and after a millennia of doing it, you might be ready to move on to the next stage of existence.

          Playing off that, though: I suspect that in Argonnessen there is some sort of records that track who the DRAGONS believe have ascended, and that they do believe that Aureon-Joe and Aureon-Bob are distinct people with different personalities. However, a) there’s no absolute proof so there’s likely lots of conflicting accounts and b) they may have personalities, but these are still vastly overshadowed by their need to do their duties and to guide lesser beings. They may think that Arawai-Jill had a particular fondness for spring rains, but that didn’t mean that she made there be spring rains all year, because it was her DUTY to move on to summer and winter.

          Looking to 3: Sure, if you could find some universal concept that truly isn’t already in the domain of an existing Sovereign, sure. One question is whether, based on that concept, such an entity would truly be on the scale of a Sovereign or if it would be closer to a Dominion of Syrania. It could be that there is a Sovereign sect that keeps a big catalogue of mortals they believe have been granted SOME tiny divine role—Galifar I is a judge in Aureon’s court—even if there’s no way to prove it.

          But I think the main thing is that most Vassals would be far more into that smaller idea — “If I am the greatest warrior, maybe I’ll be a champion in Dol Dorn’s host in the realms that lie beyond” not “If I’m the greatest warrior, may I can push out Dol Dorn and steal his crown!”

  12. I’m starting a Eberron campaign that takes the PCs through the Eberron adventures. I don’t have something planned for the end yet.

    Some players submitted dragonmarked characters. Others, psionic characters. I don’t have a big bad decided yet, but the Emerald Claw is there in the second adventure.

  13. Keith thanks for taking the time to write these articles. This one in particular is great timing, as our campaign which has been going for nearly 2 years finally had the players reach 11th level. That may not be “high” in some respects, but it means the 2 spellcasters can now each cast 6th level spells, putting them basically beyond the level magical power known to basically any “normal” person living in Khorvaire.

    On thing that I though I would throw out there to people that i hope to incorporate is that the characters are special, and powerful, but that doesn’t mean that everybody accepts this kind of power as “normal”. Basically displays of magic beyond people’s understanding (raise dead, disintegrate etc) or being able to strike with a double bladed scimitar 4 times in a 6 seconds is going to SCARE people, and probably gather unwanted attention (especially if they do it where there is a nosey reporter looking for a headline grabbing story to get in the newspaper). The possibility of things snowballing where larger organizations (could be anything – from a person looking for a great hero they read about, to governments deciding something needs to be done to reign in these powerful individuals) is likely going to have a drastic impact on the way the campaign proceeds moving forward for us.

    • On thing that I though I would throw out there to people that i hope to incorporate is that the characters are special, and powerful, but that doesn’t mean that everybody accepts this kind of power as “normal”.

      Certainly. If you haven’t yet, take a look at the three recent articles on Arcane Science. Part of the point is that a high level player character wizard has a unique talent — a genius that goes beyond what a magewright can accomplish. They may be using their own unique techniques that the wage mage can’t comprehend. One could see them as astonishing prodigies, or indeed as terrifying loose cannons depending how they apply their talents. The key is that just because a PC wizard can cast 6th level spells doesn’t mean that they could completely revolutionize arcane science.

      • Well, if the magic was from a wizard absolutely. In that case I could easily see someone from Arcanix traveling to seek out the group to try to convince the wizard to come teach others and help with research (which I’m sure could end up being a very fun NPC to have show up again and again). In our case, we have a Kalashtar sorcerer. So power that doesn’t follow the standard method is the kind of thing that would make wizards and magewrights who feel they understand how magic works rather uncomfortable. Especially when the power level is exceeding what the “more educated” are able to accomplish.

        The other is a cleric, and in a world where arcane magic is taught and understood as a science, divine magic is again a bit of an unknown, and at higher levels a source of fear for those who don’t’ understand it.

        But more that just those who are comparing themselves to the PC’s, would be people like city guard captains or generals who are used to looking at everything as a weapon to be used by their country or against their country. Same would go for some sort of politician who thinks they can use the PC’s and is scared they could be used against them bu another nation, or dragonmarked house. Very much like the Emperor in the Empire Strikes Back being scared of Luke, but Darth Vader seeing him as a potential powerful ally (but agreeing he would need to die if he was not on their side).

        And then there are the even more common folk – farmers, store owners and such. It may be awesome that some guys showed up and took out that band of bandits who had been causing trouble around here for weeks. They killed them in less than 30 seconds! But wait a minute, what happens if they decide they want to cause problems? if the local law enforcement had issues with those bandits – what is there to stop these so called heroes? Just because they don’t do something bad doesn’t mean can’t become worried that they might. Especially if there is someone spreading rumors about them to fuel those concerns.

        Anyways, thanks for taking the time to read and respond to all the comments in this and all the other articles here. It is always exciting to see a notification that a new article is up, and i love reading through the comments to see different peoples perspectives on them and your thoughts on those views and ideas.

  14. You frequently discuss bringing out higher-level spells as proof that a high-level spellcaster stands head and shoulders above the masses of Khorvairian spellcasters, but what can a high-level, say, martial character do to solidify themselves as a world-changing paragon?

    • Well part of that is D&D’s problem with “linear fighters, quadratic wizards”, but I would think that martial types distinguish themselves through endurance and grit (more hit points, however you flavour them), and their ability to fight more opponents or strike telling blows (more attacks, maneuvers, sneak attack)

      Likely with a keen enough eye the skill of a character can be assessed

    • I think the caliber of their enemies would make a good metric. King Boranel is famed for his prowess because he fought (wrestled?) an ogre and won. So imagine the prestige a fighter could get from being able to win a head-on fight with a wyvern, a true giant, or even a warforged titan.

  15. Once my players went wild in a small town and a major had a discussion with townfolks what to do to prevent such things in future.

    They collected money and put it on deposit to the Zhentarim. After this they showed the contract to the party. The party stopped robbing openly.

    One more thing in my mind regarding a high-level party and other villains. Those big bad guys are usually acting hiddenly, setting up the game by other hands. From the fantasy history we know that openly acting Sauron triggered an alliance of nations but hiddenly acting Sauron was a fairytale for the most of authorities, till the final act.
    The same here, Eberron might be not fulfilled with overpowered individuals, but there nations and acrknowledge which could bring the necessity of union and revolution in weaponry to stop the big visible threat.

    • One more thing in my mind regarding a high-level party and other villains. Those big bad guys are usually acting hiddenly, setting up the game by other hands.

      That’s exactly what I’m saying. My point in choosing an “endgame villain” is that this villain may be INFLUENCING events from the very beginning, but the adventurers may not see their hand until far later. The Dreaming Dark isn’t mentioned by name in my novel City of Towers, but if you go back to it after the other books you can SEE that it has been manipulating events from the very beginning.

  16. Thanks, very instructive, as always.

    One remark on the problem of PCs becoming too strong: that’s a problem in Eberron more than in other settings, because a large part of Eberron’s appeal (in my view) lies in the fantasy Cold War, espionage games, and political intrigues involving the Five Nations, the Houses and other powerplayers. That, and the exploration of industrial applications of low-level magic and their economic consequences.

    Once PCs are practically demi-gods, this aspect of the setting becomes somewhat obsolete. And, when it comes to facing high-level threats – Lords of Dusts, extraplanar entities… – Eberron feels more like a regular fantasy setting. With a lot of depth, for sure – don’t take my wrong, I very much like what you wrote on the planes – but I feel that any adventure designed for high-level Eberron could be relatively easily ported over to, say, the Forgotten Realms, whereas this doesn’t hold for low-level adventures involving the Houses or the various espionage agencies.

    In fact, that’s one reason I’ve been looking for alternatives to D&D 5e. In FATE or Dungeon World and derivatives, the power curve is much flatter: level 1 PCs feel much more like outstanding heroes than their D&D counterparts, a league above regular guards and tough thugs, but as they gain levels their progress is horizontal as opposed to vertical. They can do more things, develop or deepen their areas of expertise, but there’s very little “power creep”. That’s better if you want your campaign to stay at the level where factions other than the Dreaming Dark, the Chamber or the Lords of Dust remain relevant allies and enemies.

    • Check out the “Epic 6″/”E6” variant of 3.5/PF if you haven’t already. In it player characters never progress past level 6, but continue to accumulate feats and wealth. A character can get some vertical power with feats, but most feats that do such can only be taken once. Instead a character gets more versatility from the abilities unlocked by feats.

      This works particularly well in Eberron since Dragonmark feats are actually very effective instead of outclassed by spellcasters. Even just Lesser Dragonmark grants potent abilities (4th level spell equivalents when few have 3rd) and Greater Dragonmark’s 5ths are outright legendary, but rare (It requires dumping 5 E6 feats/3 E6 feats and one PF feat+Greater Dragonmark itself, all ontop of the two proceeding dragonmark feats, so a character isn’t getting it till their 7th “epic” feat).

      (I think E6 plays better with PF than 3.5, despite not being designed for it. The good hybrid classes fix 3.5/E6’s issue of hybrids only working at higher levels, and the “Extra ____” feats give the option to keep acquiring class features. Also Spheres of Power/Might 3rd party systems work very well in E6.)

    • Once PCs are practically demi-gods, this aspect of the setting becomes somewhat obsolete. And, when it comes to facing high-level threats – Lords of Dusts, extraplanar entities… – Eberron feels more like a regular fantasy setting.

      I agree. Eberron CAN support higher level play, no question, through the use of the more epic threats. But once adventurers can teleport, raise the dead, and so on you do lose some of the elements that make the setting unique. The Callestan campaign I ran was designed with the idea that the adventurers, while remarkable, weren’t heroes of legend, and I would probably have capped things at 7th or 8th level; and in the Ratcatchers campaign I played in, we stayed at 3rd level for the entire campaign! It’s important for players to have a sense of advancement and accomplishment, but in a campaign where such things have value that can be accomplished through gaining reputation, connections, property, and similar things. With that said, in the next article I will talk about the way I do handle higher level adventures.

  17. Great article! I really appreciate the outlining of a campaign planning for Eberron, and just generally good advice for campaign planning in general.

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