IFAQ: Mysteries of History

Every month I ask my Patreon supporters to choose a topic for a major article, and that poll will happen next week. But in the process I get a lot of smaller, infrequently asked questions that can be addressed quickly. Today’s IFAQ comes from Patrick.

I’m always having trouble thinking of what the mortal inhabitants of the world would know in terms of history – and to which degree history has been researched with the aid of magic. For instance, would it be common knowledge that the Age of Giants ended roughly 40,000 years ago? How would that be supported – divination magic perhaps? Would Morgrave University teach chronomantic spells so scholars visiting ancient ruins could catch glimpses of what once happened?

This is one of the tricky questions in any setting. As players and DMs, we have access to a perfect source of information that tells us everything there is to know about the setting. But what do the people IN the world know, and how do they know it? This is complicated by the fact that (thanks in part to the existence of long-lived races like elves and dragons), the scope of history is VAST. By the canon timeline, the civilization of the giants fell forty thousand years ago. In OUR world, forty thousand years ago Neanderthals were making flutes out of bones; the Cro-magnon were still thousands of years from achieving dominance. The timeline of the Empire isn’t that far off Mesopotamia in our world, and again, we all know a great deal about Mesopotamia, right? So it’s reasonable to wonder how much people would know about these truly ancient civilizations.

The 3.5 Player’s Guide to Eberron and the 4E Eberron Campaign Guide both have tables that provide exactly this sort of information, listing skills like History, Arcana, and Religion and setting the DC to know specific facts. Since this is an IFAQ—which means, short answer—I’ll leave that there; if you want to know WHAT people know, you can check one of those out. But that leaves the question of HOW do the people of the Five Nations know these things?

The first answer is simple. Yes, they know the Age of Giants ended 40,000 years ago, because they learned about it from the elves. Aereni civilization is an unbroken path that goes all the way back to Xen’drik, and they care deeply about their history. Aside from the fact that the Five Nations has long had diplomatic relations with Aerenal and there’s an exchange of information, there’s been a significant number of Aereni immigrants over the course of thousands of years, including both House Phiarlan—a house that originally specialized in bards, people who preserved information—and the elves exiled after the fall of the Line of Vol. One of Phiarlan’s branches is the Demesne of Memory, which is all about history and the written word. And, of course, Phiarlan is about ENTERTAINMENT; it’s quite likely that even in the Five Nations, you have at least a few plays, operas, and popular songs that romanticize the battles of the elves and giants.

This same principle applies to later history. Dhakaani civilization collapsed and the Ghaal’dar themselves know little of it… and the Heirs of Dhakaan are largely unknown and not inclined to share their knowledge. But the elves fought the Dhakaani. There are Tairnadal patron ancestors who are celebrated for fighting the dar, and members of the Undying Court who may have personally negotiated with Dhakaani leaders, back in their mortal lives. So once you get to the rise of the Undying Court, you have people with (un)living memory of a vast scope of history — even if, thanks to their insular nature, that may not go very deep.

So that answers the question of whether people understand the BROAD scope of history: yes, they do, because unlike in our world, in Eberron you can essentially go TALK to a Neanderthal leader, and his distant descendants still carefully practice his bone-flute-making techniques.

But the next question is: How MUCH do they know and do they use magic to do it? How much is, again, answered in the PGtE and ECG. An important point here is to always stop and think “What makes a good story?” Because ultimately that’s what matters most. We don’t actually WANT the people of the Five Nations to know everything there is to know about the giants of Xen’drik, because it makes a better adventure to have your characters be on the cutting edge of finding it all out. Yes, the people of the Five Nations know that the Age of Giants ended 40,000 years ago, and scholars even know that the largest and most powerful giant civilization was the Cul’sir Dominion. But they DON’T know what actually happened to the Emperor Cul’sir. They don’t know exactly what happened to the 13th moon, even if some scholars know the giants had something to do with it. Which means your adventurers could learn those answers by finding the Cul’sir Moonbreaker and destroy the emperor’s demi-lich! It’s good for people to have a broad scope of history to know “There was a great nation that fell in war” – but it will usually be more compelling to players to uncover history in the field instead of through a book report.

Which gets us back to the use of magic. The answer is certainly, yes, people DEFINITELY use magic as a tool for archaeology. But remember that the wide magic of the Five Nations tops out at around 3rd level. Which means that speak with dead is absolutely in the quiver of your adventuring archaeologist, but commune or legend lore generally aren’t. It is VERY likely that they do employ chronomantic and divination techniques designed specifically for this purpose, but keep in mind that they should be of about that 1st-3rd level of power; they might show scenes, but they aren’t providing the kind of information you’d expect to get from a 5th or 6th level spell. And it’s also quite possible that they are rituals that may take a while to perform. These are academic tools, and won’t be fine-tuned for the adventurer who needs to cast things in 6 seconds. It might take an hour for a magewright archaeologist to perform the ghosts of the past ritual… and, of course, they’ll need someone to protect them while they do it!

So in short: the people of the Five Nations know the broad scope of history but don’t know a lot of specific details. Scholars know more, and the EPG and ECG give a broad set of skill checks for this purpose. Magic is used to research history, but common magic only goes to 3rd level and spells or rituals may not be optimized for use by player characters. Finally, always consider what will make the best story, and whether you WANT information to come from a skill role or whether adventurers might be making historic discoveries through their actions.

I’d also like to learn what people, both laymen and scholars, know about the history of humanity on Sarlona, given how it’s easier to explore Xen’drik than to convince the Inspired to let anyone past their port city.

Good point, double so because the elves had no contact with the people of Sarlona so that route is closed. The answer is definitely that they remember some things because they brought history with them. The modern faith of the Sovereign Host was established in the Sarlonan nation of Pyrine. But that nation fell in the Sundering over a thousand years ago, and archaeologists CAN’T go visit its sites. And while the modern faith is called “The Pyrinean Creed”, with proficiency in History or Religion a commoner probably doesn’t know what “Pyrine” is (A priest? A city? A nation? All of the above?). With checks people know the names and stories that they have either pieced together from the preserved records and traditions or through use of divination. But largely, the nations of old Sarlona are MORE mysterious to people of the Five Nations than the giants of Xen’drik.

That’s all for now! Thanks again to my Patreon supporters for keeping this site going and for asking great questions.

35 thoughts on “IFAQ: Mysteries of History

  1. Makes me realize that intelligent ancient undead and the deathless really are a vault of information and history much like the immortals and dragons.

      • But trees don’t have much in the way of sensory organs, and they usually aren’t mobile, so while you might get a deep knowledge of local weather, seismic activity, etc. going back centuries or millennia, I think the audience for that information might be limited. Or do druids regularly go ‘read to the trees’ to make a historical archive of data gathered by more well-travelled beings? 😛

        On the topic of storing information, I’ve wondered if Sivis might find a way to record and recall information using the planar fabric of Daanvi, offering a sort of ‘cloud storage’ service. Maybe uploads and downloads require an eldritch machine parked on a Daanvic manifest zone, and/or at a time when Daanvi is coterminous. ‘Shadowrun’ adventures could involve attempts to capture information before the next upload cycle, or even exptraplanar travel attempts to edit uploaded data.
        Maybe other planes would work as well, but order seems like a vital quality. Psychic dreamers can go on about their “Akashic Record” or whatever, but when it comes to data, chaos is synonymous for corruption.

        • I had a player want to play a classic wood elf in eberron, and the compromise I found between that and my desire to have PCs engaged with what makes the world different was that this culture of elves did sit and read to trees.

          But more critically, they gave the memories of their dead to the trees, and the trees hold those memories and impart their wisdom at need. So you can’t go talk to your grandfather, but his experiences are all stored in the roots and heartwood of a 1000 year old tree that, together with the rest of the grove, also holds the memories of the rest of your line, tracing back to the first elves who came to this wood 40,000 years ago.

          • Keep in mind that elves have lived on Khorvaire for thousands of years already. There’s a decently sized elvish population in the Eldeen Reaches that’s pretty classic wood elves in culture. Most of them are part of the Greensinger sect of druids, who’re connected to the fey, so I’d imagine they probably intermixed with eladrin quite commonly.

            So there’s really nothing saying there ISN’T some tree housing the memory of an eladrin that’s been 40000 years dead. This is why I love Eberron so much; as unique as it is there’s still plenty of room to add conventional stuff in it, and you’d come away with an interesting twist on top!

    • Now i’m reminded of that tumblr post about Immortals who always missed all the important history things, and only realize centuries later that they met someone famous in person…

      “Where were you when the big war was happening?”

      “I was trapped down a Well, i only got out once the war was over”

  2. > Remember that the wide magic of the Five Nations tops out at around 3rd level

    I know you’ve said before that 4th and 5th level spells are reserved for very powerful mages, and while people know about them, they’re not widespread. Would you consider more accurate but exceptionally rare books written by a single powerful wizard that includes secrets a 3rd level caster couldn’t uncover? It’d likely be a single spellcaster doing the archaeology, or at least a single spellcaster in charge of the operation, so I’d certainly include a bias and a few incorrect conclusions. But in a game where my players need such information, I’d definitely include one. Thoughts?

    • Oh, certainly. Not to mention that there are other cultures—from the Aereni to the Venomous Demesne—that DO have access to more powerful magic. It’s more a question of what’s typically available.

  3. Why have I never considered a giant Demi Lich? A floating magic skull the side of a Volkswagen!

  4. How well is the history of the Last War documented? Is The Forge of War an in-universe text published by the University of Wynarn as a piece of Aundairian propaganda?

    • I’m sure it’s well documented… by different nations, each presenting their own version of events. And we’ve mentioned people like Kessler writing political commentary; his Cyre and Loathing was an instant classic.

      • I do expect that the Korranberg Chronicle tried to embed chroniclers with different nations to get a broader view. And if some of these reporters were also spies, well, that happens in Zilargo.

        • Indeed. Heck, one of the major NPCs I play/write in a campaign and related story is a Zil gnome foreign beat reporter for the Korranberg Chronicle who was embedded in Cyre, and who just happened to be making a scheduled trip back to Korranberg when the Day of Mourning happened; rather lucky for him, but you wouldn’t know it for how much he was bemoaning being away from the action when a story THAT MAJOR broke. 😉

          I figure he did quite a lot of war coverage up through the end of the Last War, and he manages to capture non-Zil perspectives well enough to surprise some people. (He’s also responsible for an article that created enough temporary fame for a kobold immigrant that when she showed up to get her papers, there was a crowd of 50+ curious gnomes gathered out front all trying to look like they just incidentally happened to be in the area by pure coincidence. 😉

  5. Lots of Sarlona questions!

    In the case of Sarlonan history, would it be fair to say that those fleeing the Sundering likely only had their oral histories for the most part, and the mixing of their cultures in Khorvaire likely obliterated certain Pyrine traditions? I had a Sovereign Host cleric in one game I was playing in who was convinced as a long-term life goal that exploring old Pyrine would reveal secrets of the faith long forgotten. Ditto I suppose for Khalesh and the Church of the Silver Flame, though there you have a disconnect between the rise of the modern faith and the fall of the old one, as well as existing much more ancient cultures in Khorvaire (the Ghaash’kala, the Cold Sun Federation(?), the merfolk, the shulassakar of the Talenta Plains) that are connected to the same divine energy . . .

    Alongside that, the Inspired have a vested interest in discouraging the exploration of ancient ruins and the old cultures as seen with the underground rebel group the Broken Throne. And of course why would you, those times were filled with war and pain and destruction and the Riedran Unity is so peaceful and prosperous! Do the Broken Throne ever reach out to Khorvaire and it’s numerous archaeologists and explorers, or would they have reason to believe the barbarian savages of Khorvaire would have little to offer them?

    Khorvaire shifters are noted to not really know that Tashana shifters exist, but are ogres and ogre mages of Droaam aware they came from a once great kingdom (at least able to be counted among the Ancient Kingdoms of Sarlona) across the sea? Likely they don’t know about their role in Riedran society (or the Horned Shadow) too much, Tharaskh mercenaries in Dar Jin aside, but would this factor into their culture in Khorvaire, these warring tribes of Borunan?

    • Apologies you posted a little about Sarlona while I wrote the above comment, if I’d seen I would have tailored my questions a bit differently!

    • Answering this questions fully would be an entire article. But here’s some highlights.

      Would it be fair to say that those fleeing the Sundering likely only had their oral histories for the most part?

      Sure, but bear in mind that the original settlers of Galifar who founded the proto-Five Nations weren’t fleeing the Sundering. The most significant Sundering refugees include the humans of the Shadow Marches and the Demon Wastes, the tieflings of the Venomous Demesne, and the Khunans of Valenar, along with some others who surely merged into Lhazaar and moved inwards. It would make sense if there’s a Principality that is largely populated by descendants of Sundering-era Rhiavaaran refugees, but we’ve never called one out.

      And the mixing of their cultures in Khorvaire likely obliterated certain Pyrine traditions?

      This is certainly true, though again, not the Sundering as such; more the fact that only a certain number of Pyrineans were part of the original settlement wave, and they were actively working to build new nations. So they kept some of the traditions, but no one was trying to create “New Pyrine” and they only kept what they liked. And definitely, there could be secrets in old Pyrinean ruins that who shed interesting light or reveal new mysteries.

      Ditto I suppose for Khalesh and the Church of the Silver Flame, though there you have a disconnect between the rise of the modern faith and the fall of the old one, as well as existing much more ancient cultures in Khorvaire (the Ghaash’kala, the Cold Sun Federation(?), the merfolk, the shulassakar of the Talenta Plains) that are connected to the same divine energy . . .

      Right. I don’t think we’ve ever said that Khalesh had a concept of “Silver Flame”; they were technically a “Serpent Cult” and closely tied to the shulassakar. So just conclusively confirming that they WERE channeling the Silver Flame would itself be a cool discovery, and there’s surely new techniques and traditions that could be found.

      Do the Broken Throne ever reach out to Khorvaire and it’s numerous archaeologists and explorers, or would they have reason to believe the barbarian savages of Khorvaire would have little to offer them?

      This is a classic example of “What’s more interesting – to have them have done so in the past, or to have them doing it RIGHT NOW and your adventurers are the first people they’ve contacted?” I’d always rather have PCs BE the people doing something historic and making amazing discoveries as opposed to saying “Oh, they reached out to Morgrave a century ago and revolutionized our understanding of Riedran history.”

      Khorvaire shifters are noted to not really know that Tashana shifters exist, but are ogres and ogre mages of Droaam aware they came from a once great kingdom (at least able to be counted among the Ancient Kingdoms of Sarlona) across the sea?.

      Nope. The ogres of Droaam are largely illiterate and have never preserved their history. And the oni of the region have generally been presented as rare and highly individualistic, not as having sought to preserve a culture. They may well have a general idea that they ahve a proud history, but they’ve never been presented as particularly caring about it or acting to assert it in Droaam.

      • Thanks, these are all so enlightening! I always thought the refugees ended up all over but I now realize they filtered out from the Lhazaar Principalities? Also cool! And a bonus with that Khalesh connection being a secret!

        I honestly love when it turns out I’m wrong because the answers even better!

  6. We didn’t lose our stories of prehistory, though. We still have neolithic stories preserved as myth. If we preserved our neolithic past as myth, wouldn’t the humans of Eberron also have preserved their neolithic past as myth also?

    • Certainly; history is a common basis for myth. It’s fairly well established that the myths of the Sovereign Host are based on events that occurred during the Age of Demons, nearly a hundred thousand years ago.

  7. Hi Keith! As you name elves, do they have any institution like a university? How easy is for a common elf to speak with an ancestor?

    The second and silly question is: do you think Sisters of Sora Kell has any interest into building a “university” on Droaam? Technically medusa and ghouls are bright, and Sora Teraza knows literally EVERYTHING

    • Exploring Eberron provides additional information on Aerenal. They absolutely have universities; the reason elves tend not to be considered “adults” until they’re a century old is literally because they spend 70 years in graduate school. And there’s lots of different ways for elves to speak to ancestors without having to go to Shae Mordai; again, ExE will discuss this.

      As for Droaam, I believe Satine Phoenix had a livestream series that was about exactly this. With that said, I wouldn’t expect Sora Teraza to be involved, at least on a regular basis. She doesn’t even tell her SISTERS everything she knows; as a teacher, you can be sure she’d skip half her classes, and half of those remaining would go wildly offbook.

  8. This makes a lot of sense – while Aeren may never have made it to Aerenal, it’s still staggering to think that some of the first Deathless could still exist there today, and be able to comment on events (even if only vaguely) that happened in Khorvaire at any point since then.

    It’s also a great set-up to an adventure: The party needs information about an ancient ritual site, but the only available source of secondhand knowledge is a Deathless who has been hidden away in Aerenal for thousands of years.

    • An interesting side note: While the elves as a culture are isolated, we’ve called out that the Ascendant Counselors spend more of their time exploring the world (and planes) magically. They’re epic level entities with access to powerful divination effects, and they study the Draconic Prophecy. So it’s quite likely that they DO know many things that no elf has personally experienced. There may be a member of the Undying Court who personally studied the Empire of Dhakaan and spent centuries scrying on the marhu. So yes, they’re definitely capable of having information noone else could have — pieces of history that were never recorded.

      • This also turns interesting as the player characters grow in power, since they themselves might be studied by an Ascendant Councilor via scrying.

        From the point of view of the Deathless, their “living” history is still happening, after all – so if the player characters do meet with one of the Councilors, they could also be greeted with strange insight into their own lives, comparing and connecting them to something that happened ages ago, and which may or may not be relevant to plot of the campaign.

        “Oh you’re the current wielder of the Gantii’taash? Be mindful of your reach – three of its previous wielders accidentally killed an ally in battle by swinging the blade a bit too far.”

  9. Thoughts on actual archaeologists in Eberron (vs. the glorified tomb raiders most PCs are)…

    One of the old RPGA modules had the players live out the memories of several participants of the War of the Mark. I’m sure that kind of stuff is invaluable to historians.

    The Q’Barra and the Shadow Marches are both described as bog heavy. Bogs are a major source of archaeological data for us: The Bocksten Man’s clothing was largely intact when he was found half a millennia later and its still our best source for lots of details on historical tailoring (his “round” cloak is actually made of 3 separate pieces of cloth, plus some extra ones to round the edge). One wonders what can be found in these places.

    Scholarly organizations likely have a large collection of skulls sorted by date, location and status that they can keep asking utterly mundane questions about the past (“How much did a pound of flour cost?” “How much did you pay in taxes last year?”). This would be more-so in a 3E based Eberron where spells recharge every day, but a week needs to pass between castings on the same target, though it would still work in a 5E based Eberron.

    On the negative side, Eberron has several organizations that engage in actively distorting history for their own benefit.

    The obscure 3E spell Teleport Through Time would be even more broken than normal on Eberron thanks to the ability to swap material components for dragonshards. Luckily the only people I can think of that would be able to cast it are Mordain (Could either be totally uninterested or become The Meddling Monk), some of the Undying Court (meh, time travel or not they’re bound to a particular location), Vol, and dragons. Vol going back in time and a dragon tasking the players to stop her is probably the best outlet for time travel campaign in Eberron, not that anyone should do such a thing.

    • One of the old RPGA modules had the players live out the memories of several participants of the War of the Mark.

      That would be The Delirium Stone, written by one Keith Baker.

      The obscure 3E spell Teleport Through Time would be even more broken than normal on Eberron thanks to the ability to swap material components for dragonshards.

      Bear in mind that what Rising From The Last War says is that “When casting a spell, you can use Eberron dragonshard dust in place of any spell component that has a cost, unless the DM says otherwise.” The DM can always choose to say that a specific powerful spell can’t be cast using dragonshards.

    • Because I’m a bit pedantic, I feel a need to point out that Bocksten Man is from Sweden, and as far as I am aware all of the bog mummies are from cold bogs (apparently the body needs to be deposited when it is less than 4 degrees Celcius). Based on the global projection of Eberron map that has been kicking around for a few years, both the Q’barran and Marcher swamps lie between about 20 degrees and 35 degrees latitude (I know this because I drew the major lines of latitude on the map) which would ordinarily be too cold.

      Unless, you know, magic swamp.

  10. I find that a major determiner of how much history the “average” person in Eberron knows, is how much my players know. People only have so much tolerance for exposition and background lore. If it becomes relevant in game then it gets discussed and aometimes this means characters “discover” things that might have been common knowledge in another version of Eberron because the players are only now getting interested and it’s not very satisfying to say “here’s a bunch of information you would have always known along with everyone else.”

    One thing I am curious about is how much Warforged see themselves as connected to the ancient giant-made constructs of Xendric.

  11. One of the comments above refers to those who “actively distort history.” It seems to me that thre are quite a few of those in Eberron. The Drogonmakred Houses probably promulated their own version of the history of the War of the Mark, complete with lies about the present: “All powerful aberrant marks were wiped out. They’ll never reappear; trust us!” Not only the Inspired, but the Undying Court and the Chamber may well have deemed parts of history as “Things Humans Are Not Meant to Know”. The Zil regard knowledge as power – is it not likely that there are histories taught at Korranberg that have been carefully doctored to reserve the truth for the masters of Zilargo? Perhaps even the Dirge Singers of the Dar altered the stories they told to suit the whims of the Dhakaani Emperor of the time. So, the door is wide open for a DM to make the REAL history of Eberron vary from what is “common knowledged”. Keith, in your Eberron, did you ever run a “Everything you know is WRONG!” adventure where the PCs learned that this history books had been filled with fabrications and outright lies about a certain topic/era/person?

    • Keith, in your Eberron, did you ever run a “Everything you know is WRONG!” adventure where the PCs learned that this history books had been filled with fabrications and outright lies about a certain topic/era/person?

      The closest I’ve done to this is an RPGA adventure mentioned previously in the comments. “The Delirium Stone” casts the adventurers into the bodies of a group of aberrant refugees during the War of the Mark. Part of the point of it is to emphasize that the aberrants were people and not monsters; on the other hand, it is also emphasizing that the aberrant marks of old possessed very dangerous abilities. But it’s an adventure where you’re fighting Deneith death squads and Vadalis-bred monstrosities, and it’s an intentional twist on the Twelve-approved take on history.

  12. Given that there are good grounds for believing that the Sovereign Host or something like it has metaphysical weight (more clerics per capita if nothing else), would the other cultures of Sarlona have practiced alternative forms of the worship of same or recognized the Host entities in some capacity?

    Perhaps put another way: To what extent do religions in Eberron tend to cluster around a relatively small number of “more real” archetypes such that archeologists can generally pick out which a culture practiced? e.g. would a Morgrave professor of religion examine some Giant runes figure out that the locals practiced a variation of the “Arawai is also the Heart of Winter” heresy without totally making that up to fit preconceived notions? (though that will, of course, happen rather often as well)

    That may be too specific. What I am trying to get at, is “do these sorts of patterns exist in the historical records?” and “if they do exist, have they been identified by archologists less raified than the Undying Court or the Chamber?”

    • Would the other cultures of Sarlona have practiced alternative forms of the worship of same or recognized the Host entities in some capacity?

      Absolutely! There are many examples of cultures that clearly revere Sovereigns but in different groupings (Rusheme, Shadow Marches). I’m sure that there were other Sovereign offshoots in pre-Sundering Sarlona. But what has been established is that Pyrine was an active missionary culture whose view of the Host became the dominant one—so they definitely traveled around Sarlona trying to get everyone to recognize their model, adopting of shifting others.

      Still, the reason it’s called “The Pyrinean Creed” is because there are OTHER Sovereign creeds (again, Rusheme, Cazhaak, etc). Pyrine was just the most active in spreading its beliefs – which is why you had Pyrinean missionaries accompanying Lhazaar and her wave of settlers to begin with.

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