The latest episode of the Manifest Zone podcast deals with Dragonmarks and the Dragonmarked Houses. I want to follow up with a quick overview of the topics discussed and provide an opportunity to deal with questions you may have after listening to the episode. I don’t want to retread too much old material, so if you know nothing about the marks, you may want to check out these previous posts on The Dragonmarked Houses and Aberrant Marks.
Dragonmarks are sigils that appear on the skin, reflecting a magical talent possessed by the bearer of the mark. There are thirteen “true” dragonmarks. These are called true marks because they have a consistent appearance, range of abilities and progression; if you have the Least Mark of Making, it’s not going to suddenly mutate into the Lesser Mark of Finding. In addition, the true marks are tied to specific races and bloodlines. They only appear on people with some connection to a dragonmarked bloodline, and someone with a dragonmark can pass that mark to a child.
Per the original 3.5 rules, a dragonmark provides a few concrete mechanical benefits.
- It allows use of a specific spell like ability (chosen from a short list) a number of times per day.
- It provides a bonus to a specific skill (so the Mark of Detection provides a +2 to Spot checks, the Mark of Making provides a +2 to Craft checks, etc).
- It allows the bearer to use dragonshard focus items tied to their mark. From an economic perspective this is the most important aspect. The fact that a gnome with the Least Mark of Scribing can use whispering wind once per day is a cool party trick. The fact that he can operate a speaking stone is what gives the houses their power.
These are the basic abilities of the mark. They are tied to bloodlines. Over the course of centuries, the bloodlines that carried specific marks joined together to form houses, and ultimately those houses came together to form the organization known as The Twelve. So a critical point here is that all of the dragonmarked houses include multiple bloodlines, and over the course of generations new lines have evolved within the houses. So the fact that you have the Mark of Making doesn’t mean you’re directly related to every Cannith heir; it means you’re tied to one of the Cannith lines.
The next important thing to understand is that Eberron treats magic as a science. Which means that you can’t just create something just because you want to, any more that we can create a teleporter today. The fact that it takes a Lyrandar heir to pilot an airship isn’t some sort of scheme on the part of Lyrandar; it’s simply that no one’s been able to mass produce a wheel that unmarked people can use. You can certainly add one in if you want an airship an unmarked pilot can fly – but understand that within the canon assumptions of the setting, that’s a remarkable treasure that can’t be easily reproduced.
So: Each dragonmarked house has a monopoly on a particular magical service because they are the only force that can provide that service. If you want to get a message across the continent in an hour, House Sivis is your only option. In addition to these core services, each house maintains the guilds that dominate the mundane aspects of their specialty. These guilds are a source of training and resources, and most businesses in this field will be licensed by the guild so they can get access to these things. A licensed business shares profits with the guild and must also meet the standards set by the guild. If you’re a tavern licensed by Ghallanda, you have to abide by their standards on sanitation and pricing. As a result, a license – represented by the house seal on a sign – has real value to potential customers as an assurance of the quality of the service. So licensing isn’t just a power play by the houses; the common people trust the quality of guild services, and an unlicensed business will have to earn the trust of its potential clients.
All of which is to say that the houses have real, concrete power in the world. Their heirs can provide services no one else can, and they are the cornerstones of Khorvaire’s economy.
As a player character with a dragonmark, there’s a few things to consider.
- What is your relationship with the house that carries your mark? Are you a proud scion of your house, working to advance its power and influence in the world? On the other end of the spectrum, are you an excoriate banished from your house for some terrible transgression, or a foundling whose mark has only just manifested… and if the latter, are you excited about your good fortune?
- The houses have power and influence… these days, dragonmarked heirs could assert that their houses are more powerful than the broken nations of Galifar. Do you embrace that and act like royalty? Or are you more down to earth? Are you proud of your heritage or do you have issues with house leadership?
- The mark is more than just a spell-like ability. The idea behind the mark giving you a skill bonus is that the mark gives you supernatural insight into the area of expertise. As an heir with the Mark of Making, you understand how things fit together, reflected by your talent for crafting. With the Mark of Scribing, languages make sense to you and you can see the meaning in strange script when others cannot. This is likewise the idea behind your ability to use dragonshard focus item. It’s not that the object just lights up when you touch it; it’s that the object connects to and amplifies an aspect of your mark. It allows you to focus the mark to accomplish something special.
The latest episode of Manifest Zone talks about ways to use the houses as a player or as a gamemaster, and I won’t retread that. But here’s a few questions that have come up.
One thing is missing both here and in the podcast: do you exclude the possibility of using one of the houses as an essentially good/philanthropic organization?
As presented in canon sources, the houses are not essentially philanthropic organizations. They are businesses whose first and foremost purpose is to increase the wealth and power of their founding families. For more than a thousand years they have taken actions necessary to maintain and enforce their monopolies over their fields. Jorasco doesn’t have free clinics that perform charitable healing, something we’ve mentioned the Silver Flame and priests of Boldrei sometimes maintaining.
So: I do exclude the possibility of using one of the houses as essentially a good and philanthropic organization. That’s not their fundamental purpose or nature. If they were inherently good we’d see more charitable works, we’d see more sharing of power within their field. We have multiple examples of Dragonmarked heirs leaving their houses because they want to pursue purely altruistic actions.
With that said: Just because a house isn’t essentially good or philanthropic doesn’t mean that individual people within it can’t be both philanthropic and good. An influential Cannith heir could be working to help warforged within the framework of the house. A particular Jorasco heir could be pioneering new techniques to reduce the costs of healing for all… even though the house may never offer its services for free. Any number of houses could be working on things they feel will make the world a better place. As an agent of the house, a PC could be working with such a patron who has noble goals. Or even if those goals are less noble, they could still involve fighting forces that are unquestionably evil. The houses may not be essentially good, but neither are they essentially evil. They are businesses that have done what has been necessary to survive and thrive over the course of centuries. They are driven by self-interest… and there will certainly be times when that self-interest can serve a greater good.
The Dragonmarked Houses each have their own version of the Test of Siberys specific to the effects and role of their mark and house. The method seems pretty clear for some, such as the Mark of Sentinel/Storm/Shadow/Passage, while it seems odd that there would be a life-threatening reproducible test for Scribing, Making, or Hospitality. Would you mind expanding on the possible methods used in these Tests of Siberys?
This is a topic covered in this previous blog post, but I’ll repost the critical piece here.
In 3.5, every dragonmark provides a bonus to one skill. The Mark of Finding gives you a +2 bonus to Search. The Mark of Making provides you with a +2 bonus to Craft checks. These are powers of the mark! Whether you use the spell-like abilities of 3.5 or the rituals of 4E, there’s no telling what the first power a marked individual will develop will be. So you can’t force a Cannith heir to repair a warforged and hope that he’ll turn up with repair light damage; even if he manifests the mark, it might give him mending. But you can rely on the fact that he will be better at Craft, or that the Tharashk heir will be better at Search. So that’s what you base your test on. Stress doesn’t have to mean a life-or-death situation; it can easily be derived from the threat of social humiliation or professional ruin. So, you’re put in a room with a tool box with only half the tools you need and told to fix something. It’s a nearly impossible task. Can you push your Craft skill to levels you didn’t know you possessed? Even if you can’t, will the stress of trying unlock the crafting talent within you? Likewise for Finding: It’s ultimately a test of the Search skill. And it’s THE test of the Search skill. You have one shot to have your best hunt ever, and if you fail, you shame your family. You don’t have to develop the Mark to succeed, but it would sure make it easier!
Bear in mind that this means it is possible to succeed at the Test without actually developing the mark. While this would be a disappointment to the heir, it’s still an important demonstration of the core skills of the house. So again, think of a way to test the skill. Make it difficult and consider the immense social pressure placed upon the heir. Come up with any way possible to add to the stress of the situation. But it doesn’t have to literally be life or death.
Keith mentioned that the standard houses began the War of the Mark partially to suppress the “source of power” coming from aberrant marks. What economic threat did the aberrant marks pose to the houses? I get that there must have been a popular fear of the real danger posed by aberrant marks, but if that’s the inciting factor in the War of the Mark why was the main opposition towards Aberrants coming from the Twelve? Why not a religion (Silver Flame, in the vein of the lycanthropic purge, perhaps) or the secular monarchy?
In dealing with the War of the Mark, it’s important to understand the world in which it took place. The War of the Mark happened fifteen hundred years before the present day. That’s five hundred years before Galifar and almost eight hundred years before the Church of the Silver Flame was established. It was a world with no lightning rail and no speaking stone network. There was no common code of laws uniting the nations. Humanity’s understanding of arcane magic was far more limited and no one had spells such as sending. The followers of the Sovereign Host had no army, and the nations didn’t perceive the aberrants as a threat that required the mobilization of an army.
What people know about the War of the Mark today is based on centuries of House propaganda. Even calling it a “war” is disingenuous, conjuring images of armies of aberrants wielding dark powers facing off against house armies in dramatic battles. In truth, most of the aberrants were noncombatants and the “war” was an organized and ongoing purge as opposed to an actual conflict. Halas Tarkanan and his peers could singlehandedly cause massive destruction, and they had small units of skilled warriors who did engage with house forces – but these were the exception, and conflict was always more guerilla war than anything else. There’s more details about this in this previous blog post.
The War of the Mark was preceded by a dramatic rise in the number of aberrant marks in the world, and those marks were considerably more powerful than those seen in the world today. So the marks were known and those who bore them were known to be dangerous, and knights of Dol Arrah or local soldiers might deal with a specific problem when it arose. But the idea of them presenting a serious large-scale threat was a new concept. And it was a concept pushed by the houses at the time. Why? Largely as a means for the houses themselves to consolidate their power. This is addressed in Dragonmarked on pages 56-57: “The War of the Mark transformed the dragonmarked houses into their modern form. It solidified the early influence of House Cannith and House Deneith, both of which brought significant military force to bear in the struggle.” … and… “However, scholars claim that the so-called war was largely fought to secure the power and prominence of the true dragonmarked bloodlines and to eliminate a possible source of competition.”
Note the word possible in that second quote. Essentially, the aberrants were a convenient foe for the houses to rally against… and the fact that they could position it as “good marks versus bad marks” helped their branding. But it was as much about uniting the houses themselves as anything else, and the result of this was the Twelve and the house structure we see today.
Usually, in canonical sources, characters are simply named as Soandso d’House, rather than Soandso Surname d’House. Is there some pattern to this usage?
It varies by house and is discussed in more detail in Dragonmarked; notably, Sivis heirs always use line name, and Tharashk heirs typically use their clan name instead of the house name. The general idea is that Soandso Surname d’House is the character’s full name and would be used in formal occasions within the house, where people understand the significance of it… while when dealing with the common folk they drop the surname because the house name is the one people know and respond to. So Lady Elaydren IS Eladyren Vown d’Cannith, but she generally goes by Elaydren d’Cannith outside the house.
Also, the d’ can be used with the surname or house name. Thus you have Tharashk triumvir Varic d’Velderan.
What was, in unified Galifar, the relationship between the House of Shadow and the Citadel?
It’s the same sort of relationship you see in our world today between a national army and a private security force like Blackwater. Consider the following…
- The Entertainers’ Guild is the foundation of Phiarlan’s reputation and its primary face in the world. This is a legitimate business, and most of the people working for it have no connection with the Serpentine Table.
- Looking to the Serpentine Table: the Citadel is an arm of the government. It serves the needs of the crown and isn’t available for hire. The Serpentine Table primarily serves the needs of wealthy private citizens, who are primarily engaged in acts of espionage targeting other private citizens.
- On the other hand, just as the US government might employ private security forces for particular situations, there could be times when someone within the Citadel might engage the services of the Serpentine Table. Perhaps they’re investigating corruption in the Citadel itself. Perhaps they are taking action against a noble family or foreign government and want deniability. Perhaps they have reason to believe Phiarlan has vital sources for their particular task that they don’t have.
So, what’s the relationship? Use them when they are useful. Stomp on any agents you catch with their fingers in one of your cookie jars.
An issue here is that many people have the sense that entertainment is simply a cover for Phiarlan, and nothing could be farther from the truth. Here’s a quote from one of my early Dragonshard articles:
The first and most important thing to know about House Phiarlan is that most of the people of Khorvaire have no idea that the house is engaged in espionage work. The role of entertainer is not simply a cover. It is a tradition that dates back tens of thousands of years, and for many members of the houses, it is the only trade that they follow. Certainly, rumors state that the elves are spies and assassins, but to most people this is an urban legend. Where would the virtuoso soprano find the time to be a spy? She’s known across Khorvaire for her talents — do you really think she sneaks out and kills people during the intermission? And if you walk into a Phiarlan enclave and ask to hire a spy, the coordinator will advise you to hire a Tharashk inquisitive. Phiarlan does possess one of the finest intelligence networks in Khorvaire, rivaled only by the Trust of Zilargo, but these services are available only to guildmasters and nobles, which are forces Phiarlan recognizes as players in the great game of politics and power.
What would be a good way to show a Siberys Mark at lower levels?
It’s an odd question. The defining aspect of a Siberys Mark is that there ARE no low levels: it grants an extremely powerful ability – on par with a 7th-9th level spell. It does so without warning, manifesting suddenly on someone who’s had no mark prior. Granting a low level character the ability to produce a ninth level spell effect is surely going to throw off the balance of your game… and if they DON’T possess that degree of power, they don’t actually have a Siberys Mark. So my main question is the story you’re actually trying to tell here. I’m going to assume that it’s “I want a PC who is marked for greatness and has an important role to play within the house, but I want to start that story at an early level.”
Given that, there’s a few things you could do. We’ve said of Erandis Vol’s apex mark that she never managed to fully control in her mortal life. Now, her mortal life was quite short after she developed the mark, but nonetheless, there is precedent for someone developing a powerful mark and not being able to immediately control its power. So, a few things you could do.
- The character physically has the mark, but has no power at all.
- The character has the mark and can’t control it, but you the GM can occasionally spontaneously have the full power of the Mark manifest. Since you decide when it happens, you control how it affects the balance of the game.
- The character physically has the mark, and you use it to justify the class powers that she possesses. If she has the Mark of Healing, you can make her a Life Cleric and say that she doesn’t pray at all – that all her powers are simply manifestations of the power of her mark, which she’s slowly unlocking. This gives her a far wider range of powers than a Siberys mark normally provides… but so what? In my opinion it’s an interesting character concept and I don’t care if it doesn’t line up with the typical ability of the Mark; perhaps the character is more in tune with the mark than other Siberys heirs have been. The Mark of Storm could produce something like a sorcerer or druid. The Mark of Shadow might produce a rogue with some illusion ability.
If you’d suggest that the answer would be to flavor other features of the character (spells or powers or feats or skills or whatever) as coming from the dragonmark, how would you (roleplay-wise) differentiate that from a character with a less-powerful mark but which features similar character-building choices?
I would probably limit some of the mechanical choices of the character, potentially compensating for that with a bonus. So the life cleric whose powers come from the Mark of Healing shouldn’t be able to cast Flame Strike or any spell that can’t in some way be logically defined as coming from the Mark; but I might compensate with a bonus to caster level or something similar. Meanwhile, the actual cleric who happens to have the Lesser Mark of Healing has no such restrictions… and furthermore, THAT cleric is actually a cleric and connected to a divine power source, and has something in common with other clerics who share their faith. To get more specific I’d really have to know exactly which mark we’re discussing, because each one would be different. Looking at the sorcerer with the Mark of Storm, I’d likewise limit spell choices to things related to wind, weather, and storm… though I’d also be willing (and I’ve done this in a campaign) to reflavor spells to fit with the mark, so letting them have a ball lightning spell that’s essentially a fireball dealing lightning damage. From a roleplaying perspective, I’d emphasize to the player that they feel a connection to a primal force and that their abilities come from it; that they don’t fully understand it and don’t entirely feel in control, that they know there’s greater power still untouched and they don’t know if it could all come boiling out sometime.
Another example would be an artificer with the Mark of Making. A normal artificer starting off with the Least Mark of Making is a typical trained artificer. Their mark gives them insight into artificing, and the player could cosmetically describe it enhancing the character’s actions, but they are fully trained at the job. By contrast, if I had a “latent Siberys” artificer I’d emphasize that he doesn’t understand the science of what he’s doing at all; he experiences it in a primal way and his mark makes the things he’s trying to do happen. He can’t explain it and he doesn’t really understand it; he can just DO it.
What is the in-setting role that a Siberys heir, regardless of character level, plays in a House? Are they the only ones that can use certain powerful Shard Focus Items, or is it just that they have access to some of the most powerful spell effects available to a House?
What works best with the story you want to tell? We’ve never defined a shard item that can only be used by a Siberys heir, but if you want the Siberys-marked PC to have a vital role in the house you could absolutely say that there’s a important focus item that can only be used by Siberys Heirs – and that can’t be used by the PC until she fully masters her mark. As it stands, it’s largely ornamental – a symbol of the house’s power. Spells of 7th-9th level are not normally available in the general public, and a power like True Creation could be tremendously useful if Cannith needs to get a rare resource instantly. On the other hand, Storm of Vengeance doesn’t serve a useful economic function for Lyrandar – but dang, isn’t it impressive that she can do that?
So like many things, it’s a matter of doing what works best for your story. If you just want them to be a symbol, that’s easy. If you want them to be integral, create something that only they can use.
And further; if Siberys marks requiring high levels of experience isn’t intrinsic to them, why would a House allow a Siberys Heir to be an adventurer?
We’re dealing with multiple layers of hypothetical here, because you’re having to change the existing rules to have an unskilled character with a Siberys mark. However, assuming that you’re letting a low-level character have a Siberys mark and you’ve come up with a way to represent it: I don’t think they’d just say “Go out there! Have fun! Kill a goblin or something.” But why could they be encouraged to be an adventurer?
- All dragonmarks have relevance in the Prophecy. Siberys dragonmarks are incredibly rare and can almost always be assumes to have significant prophetic relevance. There are those in the houses who study such things, and in your campaign such an individual could hold power within the house and have declared that the marked character has to be an adventurer – because it is tied to their prophetic destiny (the details of which may not be shared with the character). Bear in mind that such a scholar could easily be a disguised agent of the Chamber or the Lords of Dust.
- One of the main values of such a character is as a symbol of the house. Therefore, if the adventures the character is being sent on in some way serve a greater good or at the least reflect well upon the house, they could again demand the character become an adventurer. And again, this could be a case where it’s less important that the thing happen – it’s possible the House could accomplish the task more easily with elite forces – but because they want to build the PC up as a public face.
- Once the character is skilled, part of their value to the house is as “You’re one of the most powerful agents we have” and then we get into being sent on missions that are important to the house.
Dragonmark Houses are powerful. The Twelve have a foothold on Khorvaire but who is against them? Who’s the enemy of the Twelve? It seems like they have no overall threat against them other than each other and other businesses. Do they have an enemy or is it a House by House basis? Is anyone trying to end the Houses and if so, why?
It is part of the intentional design of the setting that the houses don’t have true economic rivals in 998 YK. It’s an exploration of the theme of monopolistic power and the balance of rising economic power versus an ailing traditional monarchy. As it stands, the houses have a true monopoly on many important services and they’ve had a thousand years to solidify their reputation. We don’t have to like the idea – I don’t – but it was the intention of the setting.
By and large, the enemies of the houses are found on a house to house basis. Consider the following.
- House Conflicts. Phiarlan and Thuranni. Tharashk and Deneith. Cannith and Cannith. A number of the houses have longstanding rivalries, and you can always introduce new ones.
- Internal Rivalries. Setting aside dramatic schism as you have in Cannith, individual heirs can have feuds. These could be tied to business – a Cannith artificer wanting to steal or spoil a rival’s work – or driven by passion or other exterior factors.
- Exterior Foes. Many houses have specific enemies. The Ashbound hate House Vadalis. While they are largely isolated from it, the Children of Winter certainly despise the concept of House Jorasco. The Lord of Blades hates Cannith. We’ve presented situations where the Lords of Dust and the Dreaming Dark are manipulating specific enclaves or heirs.
- Progress. Magic is a science. At the moment, the houses have monopolies on many important services. But all across Khorvaire people are searching for better ways to solve those problems. The Arcane Congress is definitely working on ways to replicate or evolve beyond the methods used by the houses, and right now a Zil binder could be inventing an airship anyone can pilot. The houses will certainly fight to maintain their dominance – but if you want, you can certainly present a dramatic advance that threatens the position of one or more houses.
As for the houses as a whole, there’s two organizations that could fit the bill.
- The Aurum is a cabal of powerful and wealthy people, specifically to give these people the power to deal with their dragonmarked rivals. Not every Aurum Concordian has it in for the houses, but many of them would like to see the Twelve broken.
- House Tarkanan can be a rival if you want it to be. Under the leadership of Thora Tavin it’s mainly an underworld organization that seeks to provide a haven for the aberrants and to build power. The Son of Khyber has grander schemes, and when the time is right he may lead the house to take vengeance on the Twelve.
About House Kundarak: I read recently your article on Dreadhold, the Kundarak prison… I was surprised of having so many 10-13 level pngs working there. At that level you are almost a legend in Eberron and you accept to live in a sad desert island?
Dreadhold isn’t a “sad desert island.” It is one of the most important enclaves of House Kundarak, second only to Korunda Gate. It holds some of the most infamous and dangerous prisoners in history, from the false Keeper Melysse Miron to an immortal incarnation of death. As the article says, “it is more than just a prison: it is a stronghold of House Kundarak, and many treasures are hidden in its deep vaults.” Later it’s noted: “Kundarak conducts most of its of its secret research at Dreadhold, and there may be up to twenty additional artificers, wizards, or magewrights working on secret projects on behalf of the house.”
So: Lord Warden Zaxon d’Kundarak is a legend – and it is for that reason that he is entrusted with the awesome responsibility of overseeing Dreadhold. Beyond this, a reason you have one of the finest wizards in Eberron in Dreadhold – along with Warden Darunthar, an excellent artificer – is in part to maintain the defenses and to be able to personally handle any threats; and in part again because Dreadhold is a center for Kundarak’s mystical research. And much of Kundarak’s mystical research is about crafting improved wards and vaults — all of which can be immediately put into effect in Dreadhold.