My previous post dealt with creating an Eberron campaign based in Q’barra, and it spawned the following question.
How do you see a human (or dwarf or whatever) barbarian raised by Cold Sun lizardfolk working in this campaign?
As I mentioned in my article on exotic races, the first thing I’d want to do with this is to find out why the player wants to play this character. Why do they want to have been raised by scales? What impact has it had on them? How do they see this background playing into their future? The critical issue here is that Q’barra has three distinct reptilian cultures. Each one plays a dramatically different role in the campaign. I’m not thrilled about the idea of having a player character with deep connections to the Cold Sun Federation, because they have a very alien culture. Learning their motivations and figuring out how to communicate with them is something that I’d planned on being a significant challenge that would play out over the course of multiple adventures. Having a player who has been raised among them and thus inherently understands their customs and has contacts within the Federation completely changes that story.
But: this isn’t my story. It’s our story. If the player understands what the Cold Sun Lizardfolk are all about and specifically wants to have a connection to their culture, I want to find a way to work with that. I can change the direction of the story to embrace this new hook, and I’ll talk about that below. But the thing is that I doubt the player has that in mind. I suspect that they just like the idea of being an outsider raised among the indigenous culture, of walking between two worlds, trying to reconcile the values and culture they were raised with against the common culture of their biological kin. That’s a great story. But if that’s all they are looking for, I will steer them away from the Cold Sun lizardfolk – the Masvirik’uala – and encourage them to have ties to the Trothlorsvek dragonborn.
To explain in any more detail, I have to delve into potential spoilers for a Q’barra campaign. Most of what I’m about to discuss is drawn from the Q’barra articles I wrote for Dungeon 182 and Dungeon 185. If you’ve only read the core Eberron sourcebooks you won’t have encountered some of these ideas… and it’s important to remember that in Eberron, everything is optional. If you don’t like these ideas, don’t use them – and if you’re a player, don’t assume that your DM is using these things. But this is where I’d be going in my Q’barra campaign.
TROTHLORSVEK: The Dragonborn of Ka’rhashan
Long ago the dragons of Argonnessen dispatched forces to Q’barra to stand watch over places where fiendish influences lingered from the Age of Demons. To cut a long story short, over the course of thousands of years the dragonborn grew bored with their duties and spread out to the west, establishing a nation in the Talenta Plains and Blade Desert. They clashed with the goblins that dominated the heart of Khorvaire, but it was the corruption of Rhashaak and the rise of the Poison Dusk that destroyed their empire. They fell back to Q’barra and have never regained their power; what strength they have is spent guarding the cursed sites and fighting the Poison Dusk.
The dragonborn are divided into clans. They are a martial culture, still hungry for glory; they split their energies between battling the Poison Dusk and ritual battles against other clans. There are clans and leaders who believe that the it’s time for their people to abandon the ancient duties and turn their eyes to more glorious battles… perhaps beginning by driving the softskins from Q’barra.
So looking back to the question: while it would be unusual, I can definitely imagine a human (or dwarf, or halfling) who somehow ends up being raised by dragonborn. Perhaps the child’s parents earned the respect of a dragonborn champion before they died. Perhaps it was some form of debt of honor… or perhaps an elder believed that the Prophecy called for the protection of the child. This creates a host of possible story hooks. Was the character taken in by an entire clan, or were they only accepted by a specific champion or elder? Either way, did this create conflict for the clan or champion, either with another clan or within the clan itself? Does the character still have a place among the dragonborn, or were they driven out from the clan? Over the course of a campaign, members of the clan could show up; they might need the PC’s help on a mission, or could call the PC back to clan lands to defend their foster family or to represent the clan in a ritual battle or a rivalry with another clan. Or, a rival clan could show up in pursuit of a vendetta. Or trouble could arise with the Poison Dusk – and by the traditions of the character’s clan, they’re duty bound to oppose the Poison Dusk. Will they uphold the duties of their clan, or have they turned their back on that life?
So: Lots of story hooks here. The only problem is that the dragonborn aren’t especially barbaric. They have a sophisticated martial tradition and excellent smiths, and would be more inclined to produce fighters or paladins than barbarians. But if the player is set on barbarian, you could establish this as the traditions of their particular clan – which could be something else that sets that clan at odds with others.
MASVIRIK’UALA: The Lizardfolk of Q’barra
In developing the lizardfolk of Q’barra, I wanted to make them a truly alien culture. They aren’t just humans with scales; there are fundamental differences that make it very difficult for them to understand and communicate with humans, and this is something that has led to the current conflict with the colonists. In my Eberron, part of a Q’barra campaign would be coming to understand these differences and finding a way to improve communication. So, spoilers to that mystery lie ahead.
On the surface, the lizardfolk are a primitive tribal culture. They have no written language, and in conversation they often seem terse and cryptic. While they initially held to treaties established with the colonists, they’ve recently engaged in savage attacks on mining camps and caravans, leaving no survivors.
The lizardfolk are an ancient race. The Overlord Masvirik dominated their ancestors, and the couatl freed them from this demonic tyranny. Following to the great sacrifice that kindled the Silver Flame, the couatl planted a seed in the collective unconscious of the lizardfolk of the region — something that would guide them and unite them, and help prevent Masvirik from rising again. And that is this: The lizardfolk of Q’barra have shared dreams. Their dreams aren’t in any way random: they are lessons. They dream of the battles their ancestors fought, and from those dreams they learn both how to fight. They dream of the tyranny of the Overlord, and from this they know what they are fighting against. They have no written language because they don’t need one; everything they need to know comes to them in their dreams. This is why their culture remains largely unchanged even though their civilization is ancient; their dreams haven’t changed, and their dreams show them how to live. So they follow the exact same paths of war and magic that their ancestors followed, and have never tried to improve upon them.
Because of their shared dreams, all lizardfolk know the same stories. The idea of explaining one of these stories is an alien concept, because how could someone not know the story of the infamous traitor or the brave martyr? As such, one of the lizardfolk might say “We do not embrace T’karr.” What he means is “We cannot be fooled and we will not take a traitor into our midst; we recognize your treachery.” Should someone say “Wait, I don’t understand what you mean by that” he’d be at a loss – how can you NOT know the story of T’karr? EVERYONE knows that story.
This is why communication with the lizardfolk is so difficult… because even comprehend languages can’t unpack context and metaphor. The lizardfolk call themselves the Masvirik’uala, which literally translates to “The Cold Sun Alliance” or “Cold Sun Federation.” It is obvious to the lizardfolk that what this means is the alliance that stands against the Cold Sun, and this isn’t something they have to explain… but most humans assume that it’s the federation of the Cold Sun. Likewise, I’ll preserve one mystery and won’t say exactly while the Masvirik’uala have become hostile (you can get my reasoning in Dungeon 185), but I’ll say that to them it is entirely obvious that the people they are killing are agents of the Overlord Masvirik, and they know from their own experience with the Poison Dusk that such creatures cannot be saved or reasoned with; the only thing to do is to kill them quickly. No one could be accidentally doing the foolish and dangerous things these colonists are doing, because everyone knows how foolish and dangerous those things are.
A secondary point here is that the Masvirik’uala are entirely united. They don’t appear to have a structure that bonds all the tribes together, because they don’t need one; they all share the same background and values. So their tribes never fight. They work together to share territory and resources. They aren’t set apart by petty feuds or desire for glory, because they all know the enemy they must stand against, and that’s a struggle that will never end. So the PC raised among the dragonborn can be caught up in (or the cause of) feuds between dragonborn clans, and have to deal with those rivalries and vendettas… but the Masvirik’uala don’t waste time on such petty things.
And a final point that ties to all of these things and again emphasizes how alien the lizardfolk are: they don’t experience emotion the way that humans do. Their brain chemistry is different; while they HAVE emotions, they are generally at a flatter level than how humans and demihumans experience things. It’s not like a Vulcan who choses to embrace logic over emotion; it’s that the lizardfolk simply never become as consumed with extremes of rage or sorrow as a human can. When the lizardfolk massacre a mining camp, they aren’t driven by fury: they’re approaching it with the detachment of a gardener plucking weeds. They can feel sorrow when a friend dies unexpectedly or anger when they are unexpectedly betrayed – but even their, they don’t experience those emotions as deeply as other races; they are quite literally cold blooded. They certainly have barbarians among their warriors, but their “barbarian rage” is literally a triggered adrenaline rush, not “rage” as humans experience it.
Now, if a player really wanted to play a character raised among the Masvirik’uala – if they couldn’t get what they were looking for from the Dragonborn – I’d let them run with it. The critical question is does the human share their dreams? There’s no logical reason why they would… and without knowing their dreams the human would always be an outsider. They’d have learned some of the stories and references over time and they’d have a weird emotional affect, but they’d always be an outsider. However, at the end of the day the dreams of the Masvirik’uala come from the Silver Flame. It was the couatl who planted the dreams in their unconscious, and in many ways this is a model of the Voice of the Flame revered in the Five Nations. So you could say that a human raised among the lizardfolk actually learned to hear their Voice of the Flame — and as such, though human, they dream the lizardfolk dream. This would mean that they understand the ways and culture of the lizardfolk, that they can interpret their metaphors — that when the elder says “We don’t embrace T’karr” they know what that means; and they understand why the lizardfolk would massacre a mining camp, and that such an action would actually make sense to them. A critical question is why this character would LEAVE the Masvirik’uala and live among humans who don’t know any of these things. One logical reason would be because they want to serve as a bridge between the two cultures, and to try to mediate or rally the colonists — in which case that story should be a major part of the campaign. But it could also be that they were raised by lizardfolk but then “rescued” at a relatively early age by colonists. So they dream the lizardfolk dream and that keeps them on the path of the barbarian… but they haven’t actually been part of a tribe for a while.
With that said: My original plan for a campaign was that learning the motivations of the lizardfolk and figuring out how to communicate with them would be an ongoing challenge. If there’s a player who gets all of this, I might add a new mystery. The Masvirik’uala are driven by dreams. Those dreams are shaped by a divine force and thus, in theory, immune to manipulation by, say, Quori. But what if they aren’t? What if the Dreaming Dark has been manipulating the shared dream to create conflict? In Sarlona, the Dreaming Dark created a terrible war so that their Inspired vessels could emerge as the heroes of that conflict. They could do the same thing here — escalate the conflict, and have their new chosen vessels (who could be a noble family in Newthrone, a dragonmarked house, followers of some religion, etc…) take the spotlight as the people who will defend against this threat. Because the player character also dreams the dreams, they know why the lizardfolk are fighting; but because they are among the colonists, they know that what the dreams claim is untrue. Can they uncover the Quori manipulation and find a way to stop it before the conflict goes too far?
How would you handle a Q’barran lizardfolk leaving the tribe to become an adventurer, or a lizardfolk acting against the cultural norms in general? Would they be ostracised? Is there room for interpretation in the Lizardfolk Dream?
Sure. The lizardfolk are less driven by raw emotion than humans are, and they essentially know they have a purpose in a way humans don’t. They aren’t generally driven by a desire for change or innovation, and thus their civilization has remained largely unchanged for tens of thousands of years. They all know all the same stories. But once you set all that aside, they aren’t mindless. They have elders and priests to help guide them — and that means that individuals can always find their own paths.
So, my question is WHY one of the lizardfolk would leave their people and travel among the softskins – these strange savages who know so little of the world. Here’s a few ideas I could see.
- They have had a unique and personal diving vision beyond the shared dream. This could be the direct intervention of a couatl spirit — just as Tira Miron had a couatl guide her on her path. Or if could be a Quori who’s intentionally misleading them. Either way, this vision could establish that there is something they must do away from their tribe.
- They could have a role that’s clearly defined IN the shared dream. Perhaps the lizardfolk PC is tied to the Prophecy and has a role to play in dealizing with Rhashaak or Masvirik, and all the Masvirik’uala know it. Whenever they encounter lizardfolk, they’ll treat the “chosen one” with respect… meanwhile, the Poison Dusk is particularly targeting this PC.
- Due to extended contact with outsiders, the PC has come to question the dreams. They believe that the dreams are holding their people back and are determined to find out more about other places and cultures. Meanwhile, they have been banished from the Masvirik’uala for these heretical beliefs. Yet they still dream the shared Dream — something terrible threatens their people, they’ll know about it through the dream.
- The PC was touched by the Poison Dusk, which cut them off from the Dream. The PC then overcame the corruption and broke free from the influence of the Cold Sun, which no one has ever done before… but their connection to the Dream was never restored. The Masvirik’uala believe the PC is corrupted and has exiled them. Is the PC corrupted, or is their victory proof that they are the one who can bring down the Poison Dusk once and for all?
The idea that people can’t tell the difference between lizardfolk and dragonborn seems hard to swallow.
The idea was never that people literally can’t tell the two species apart; it’s that most people have never cared enough TO tell the species apart. The distinction isn’t part of the common knowledge of a person living in Khorvaire. The settlement of Q’barra only began seventy years ago, and during a time of war. Q’barra includes multiple species: kobolds, troglodytes, lizardfolk (who come in multiple shades and sizes) and dragonborn. All of these cultures are insular and many are either actively hostile to the colonists or have difficulty communicating. So: A jungle guide or a Newthrone envoy will know ALL about the differences between these difference species and cultures. But even a typical prospector doesn’t CARE to know the difference. They’re all creepy. They’re all dangerous. It doesn’t make a difference if they’re tall or short, if they have tails or don’t have tails; they’re all scales. Meanwhile, in the Five Nations Q’barra is little more than a curiosity. People know stories of miners being attacked by dinosaurs and reptilian humanoids. There are probably stories that dragons live in the jungle, or even that the colonists domesticate dinosaurs. A SCHOLAR may know all about the Trothlorsvek and the Masivirik’uala… but the commoner doesn’t know and probably doesn’t care. They’re lizard people halfway across the world.
THE POISON DUSK
So what about the third faction: The Poison Dusk? Per Dungeon 182/185, the colonists have never understood the true nature of the Poison Dusk. They’ve assumed it’s just another tribe, when in fact they are the victims of fiendish corruption — reptilian creatures of many species who have fallen under the sway of Masvirik and Rhashaak. This is why they’ve never been completely destroyed. Even if they are wiped out, they eventually return; often those most involved in the destruction end up falling prey to corruption. Per canon, humans – and for that matter, any warmblooded creatures – aren’t vulnerable to Masvirik’s influence. However, just as with the shared dream of the Cold Sun, you could say that THIS human was touched by Masvirik, which would explain why the Poison Dusk took them in.
If I were to do this, I’d probably say that there is a dusk shard – a dragonshard imbued with demonic energy – embedded in the body of the player character. For most of their life, the demon in the shard has controlled them. At some point the PC was on a raid; their scaled comrades were killed; and something happened that broke the demon’s hold over the PC. If another member of the party is a divine character, I’d suggest that it was their power that freed the PC. Now the PC is in control, but they don’t entirely know what that means; they’ve been driven by a demon their entire life, and they have to discover what it means to make their own choices. Assuming you stuck with barbarian as a class, I might come up with a new Barbarian path playing with the idea that their “rage” draws on the demonic power of their shard. This is a way to justify the PC growing up in a savage culture while giving them an opportunity to be innocent of atrocities they may have committed while with the Poison Dusk (and I would definitely have them end up visiting villages they raided while with the PD and facing the families of people they murdered)… to have them have to decide if they want to embrace a brighter path or cling to their demonic instincts. And is there a risk that the demon could regain control of them?
RHASHAAK: LORD OF HAKA’TORVHAK
The black dragon Rhashaak came to Haka’torvhak as a guardian. He was corrupted by Masvirik and now channels part of the power of the Overlord… and because of this, he too is bound to Haka’torvhak. He is the figurehead of the Poison Dusk, and the colonists believe that the Poison Dusk worship Rhashaak as their living god. Which for all intents and purposes they do. But what does Rhashaak actually WANT? How can you use him in a campaign? Here’s a few ideas.
The Voice of Masvirik
Rhashaak is the living avatar of the Overlord Masvirik, one of the most powerful and evil beings ever to walk the world. Most of the Overlords essentially slumber in their prisons, but Masvirik is fully aware; the dragon is effectively a puppet. But While Masvirik is conscious, he is bound to the body of the dragon and has only a fraction of his power. His primary goal is to build his power, crush his enemies, and ultimately find a way to break the bonds of the Silver Flame and regain his full power. He calls himself “Rhashaak” because there’s no reason to let his enemies know that he has returned. But in truth, he is the Overlord Masvirik.
Under this storyline, Rhashaak remains as the god-king of the Poison Dusk. The critical aspects are that his ultimate purpose is to break the bonds and release Masvirik in his full glory.
The Mad Wyrm
Rhashaak is fused with the consciousness of Masvirik. He dreams the dreams of the slumbering Overlord, but doesn’t fully understand them. Instead, he truly believes that he, Rhashaak, is a god… or at least, he has the potential to become one. He seeks to force all of the people of Q’barra — both the lizardfolk and the softskins — to bow down and worship him. He is certain that if he can only bend enough followers to his cause, he will achieve his true divine potential, break the bonds holding him to Haka’torvhik and ascend to the heavens. It’s up to you if he thinks he’s going to become one of the Sovereigns or Dark Six, or if he will be an entirely new godlike being.
In this storyline, Rhashaak’s schemes DON’T clearly intersect with a desire to free Masvirik. His power comes from Masvirik, and the Poison Dusk are drawn to him because of this, but he will never mention the Overlord. He’s focused on dealing with dawn and dusk shards, and in fact, House Tharashk is more likely to free Masvirik than Rhashaak is. Instead, his actions purely about expanding his personal power in Q’barra, crushing his enemies, and forcing people to worship him. In this case, there could be a SEPARATE sect of dusk-shard fiendish reptilian champions that are working to free the Overlord… who resemble the servants of Rhashaak, but are actually working against him.
The Tortured Mastermind
Rhashaak began as a guardian. If you want to make the dragon a more complicated villain, you could say that he’s still that guardian. He’s been merged with Masvirik. The Poison Dusk worship him as a god and expect him to show them the path to unleash the Cold Sun. But he hates the Overlords and would never unleash Masvirik. At the same time, if the Poison Dusk knew this they would turn on him. He has to keep them believing that they are working towards the rise of the Cold Sun… all the while trying to find his own path to freedom and to ensure that Masvirik is never freed. In this scenario, a party of adventurers could be captured by the Poison Dusk and brought to Haka’Torvhak to be sacrificed – only to have Rhashaak himself set them free and help them escape.
Now, this is tricky enough – but if you want to make it even trickier, you could say that just because Rhashaak isn’t the villain people think he is doesn’t mean he’s a hero. Rhashaak may hate the Cold Sun and the Poison Dusk… but he could still be working towards a plan that will grant him divinity. This could be something that will let him claim Masvirik’s power as his own… or it could be something more akin to the divine power of the Undying Court. If he can fully bind Masvirik and also secure the full devotion of all of the scales, he could harness that to become something like a god. Would he use this power to redeem the Poison Dusk and be a just guide to the scales? Or would be be an even deadlier tyrant, free to unleash both his divine power and draconic might against the colonists?
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