Worldbuilding 101: Taverns

There’s a lot of exciting things in the World of Keith. Phoenix: Dawn Command is now available on Amazon. The price is the same as getting it at your FLGS or from our website, so if your FLGS carries it that’s your best option. However, if you can’t get it locally, Amazon provides a way to avoid the high shipping costs that have been a problem in the past. I’m writing new Phoenix material right now, so you’ll see more of that in the months ahead!

But on to today’s topic. A few weeks back, someone said It’s easy to make Eberron feel like Eberron in the big cities. How do I do the same when visiting a tavern, or hamlet?” 

I addressed the main question in this Dragonmark article, but taverns are an interesting topic and I wanted to take the subject beyond Eberron.

A tavern can serve many functions in a campaign. Traditionally, it’s a place for adventurers to meet mysterious strangers in order to acquire quests. But there are many other ways to use an inn. In Casablanca, Rick’s Cafe is a neutral ground where people from all walks of life mingle; “Everybody comes to Rick’s.” While also in Casablanca, The Blue Parrot is where you go if you want to make a deal with underworld boss Ferrari. Consider…

  • GOODS AND SERVICES. Are you looking for a pilot? You’ll find the best in the cantina in Mos Eisley. Smugglers, traveling merchants, mercenaries, spies… Anyone without a legitimate storefront may sell their services in their favorite watering hole. And the choice of tavern tells you a little something about that person.
  • ONE NIGHT STAND. Your adventure may be taking you to Mordor, but a night at the Prancing Pony can add color and complications to the journey. It’s easy to gloss over travel, taking the “red line on the map” approach. But a night in an interesting inn can be a memorable scene. How do you spend the evening? Do you hide in your room? Sing an old Brelish song with the captains in the corner? Gamble with those mercenaries? When the tinker offers to sell you a lucky charm, do you take it or do you tell them to get lost?
  • DEN OF THIEVES. A tavern can be a home base for a particular group of people. It could be neutral ground: if you want to negotiate with the Boromar Clan, have a drink in Callestan. Or it may be that you’re taking your life in your hands when you go inside, and you’d better be prepared to fight your way out. The party’s rogue may have a bar where she meets fences or negotiates with higher-ups in the guild. In my last CCD20 adventure, the party is pursuing a war criminal who’s holed up in an inn in Graywall; can they dig him out without angering the locals? Cottonmouth’s club in Luke Cage is a good example of this.
  • HOME FROM HOME. A tavern can be a great base of operations for a group of adventurers, especially if they are freelance agents. This could be a location that develops organically over time, or it could be something you work into the initial backstory. It could be a family business associated with one of the player characters, perhaps operated by a parent or sibling. It could be owned by a friend, perhaps a soldier who fought alongside the adventurers during the war but retired from the adventuring life due to injuries. It might be simple business; the innkeeper provides the adventurers with free room and board in exchange for them dealing with any troubles that arise in the bar while they’re around. It could even be that the inn belongs to one of the PCs… consider Kote in The Kingkiller Chronicles. Having a set base of operations can help the players feel a stronger sense of attachment to the world, and you can work with them to develop details about the inn. What’s their favorite meal? What’s an interesting detail about the server? What’s the most unusual feature about their character’s room? And of course, once the players are attached to the location, it becomes a thing that can be threatened to generate dramatic tension…

SETTING UP SHOP

So you’ve some ideas of what to do with your tavern… now you need to describe it. Start by considering the following elements.

PURPOSE. Typically, the general purpose of a tavern is to provide a comfortable place for people to gather over food and drink; if it’s an inn, add lodging to the lineup. Does your establishment have any other purpose? Is it a casino? A brothel? A recruiting center for mercenaries? Is it operated by a church or other organization, and how does that affect decor and services?

CLIENTELE. Does this establishment serve the general population, or does it serve a more specialized niche? While this could be something like mercenaries or criminals, it could just as easily cater to fans of a particular sport, people who work at a nearby business (a quarry, a mill, a shipyard), or members of a particular faith. This decision can help you envision what sort of people might be around on a typical afternoon. If it serves a particular niche, do they welcome outsiders or drive them away? Will the hrazhak fans teach you the sport, or give you the cold shoulder? If you’re planning to use the place more than once, come up with names and descriptions for three regulars people can usually expect to find here.

STAFF. Who runs this place? Is the innkeeper or bartender the owner, or are these separate? Is there live music? Is there a single weary barmaid? A host of goblin servants? Bound spirits that handle domestic tasks? How does the bartender maintain order… a shotgun or wand behind the bar? A scary bouncer? The general love of the clientele?

DISTINCTIVE FEATURES. What makes this inn stand out? Why is it in this particular location in the first place? Who founded it? Is the bartender a former celebrity of some sort? Is there something remarkable about the structure? Is there something that serves a particular purpose… a fighting ring? A stage for performances? What about food and drink? In Eberron, there are Zil waterhouses that only serve water flavored with prestidigitation… what does this place serve, and why?

LOCATION. Why is there a tavern here? In a big city it might be one of a dozen, but if it’s out in the wilds it’s a valid question. Is it on a major trade road? Does it cater to pilgrims on their way to a nearby shrine? Is it the last outpost of civilization on the edge of a mystic wasteland?

Here’s a few examples to consider…

  • The Labyrinth. Located in the monstrous city of Graywall, the Labyrinth is built into an old quarry. A vast awning keeps rain from flooding the quarry, and customers descend a spiral ramp to get down to the common room. A medusa manages the bar, and the statues scattered around are a warning to those who might cause trouble. Goblins and gnolls surround the central firepit, cheering for the harpy performing mesmerizing torch songs. The rooms for rent are part of a vast network of caves that stretch below the quarry.
  • The Quill. Known as a refuge for authors and wizards alike, The Quill is named for the writing implement of a legendary mage, which is ensconced above the bar. The Quill serves the students and faculty of the nearby college of magic, and this is reflected in its fixtures; the rooms are lit by continual flames, and there are a number of unseen servants that perform menial tasks. Most of the servers are students themselves, while the bartender is a retired alumni who prefers mixology to magic. Nonetheless, it’s an excellent place to hear gossip or trade for rare components. Brave mages can compete in the creative cantrip competition that occurs every week.
  • The Crooked Tree. This inn is on the only road that runs through the deep forest. It’s built around the trunk of a gnarled tree, and while she lets the innkeeper handle business, the owner is the ancient dryad bound to this tree. It could be that most customers are mortals who use the main road, or it could be that the inn primarily caters to the fey that lurk in the shadows of the wood; if this is the case, you might have to pay for a drink with a secret, or pay for your room with a promise; gold is worth nothing beneath the Crooked Tree.

These details are great for building random scenes. Even if you’re just using the inn as a one night stand, is there an event going on when the players arrive? Is it a competition a player could take part in? Give that bard a chance to do what they do best! Or if it’s on a trade road or pilgrimage route, will a caravan roll up while the player characters are dining, and will it bring trouble?

Should a fight break out, these details can also add a lot of flavor. In games like d20, combat can sometimes feel very clinical… I rolled an 18 and did six points of damage. OK, but what did you DO? Think about bar fights in any movie. Are you hitting someone with a barstool? Tossing them through the window, or back into a rack of bottles? What I like to do in this sort of situation is to provide the players with a 3×5 card with a list of notable things in the bar… A Roaring Fire; A Barstool; A Plate Glass Window; A Chandelier; A Barmaid With A Tray Of Drinks. If the player can explain how they are using one of these elements as useful part of their action, they gain a benefit. In This is a core principle of Phoenix: Dawn Command, but it’s something you can use in any system; for many players this sort of prompt really helps them visualize the environment and get more creative with their actions. In Phoenix, using an environmental element lets you draw a card. In d20, a good use of a prop could provide advantage to a roll… or in the case of the Roaring Fire, shoving someone into the fire might add a little fire damage to the attack instead of advantage to the roll. Using an element doesn’t remove the element from the environment – the fire doesn’t go out, and people can still do things with it – but the advantage only goes to the first person to make use of an element.

PASSING THE TIME

So: the adventurers stops in the Chattering Skull en route to the Mournland. It’s a Karrnathi bar, and the animated skull of the original owner rests on the bar. They’re there for the night. As GM, what can you do to make it interesting?

  • Games. How do the locals pass the time? If you feel so inclined, you could take a pause to actually play a game you feel resembles something people might play in the region. If you prefer to keep things short, you can use a few quick rolls to resolve the outcome. A bluffing game would be a test of Deception and Insight. A game like darts could be a series of opposed attack rolls; the person who makes the three best ranged attacks wins. Armwrestling? Sounds like a Strength/Athletics check. Drinking contest? Constitution/Endurance. With any of these, don’t rely entirely on the die roll; describe the game, and give a player a bonus for an entertaining description. Typically, the amount of money normal people would wager won’t be significant for PCs, but it can still be a good story and help PCs connect with the locals.
  • Entertainment. Is there entertainment at the tavern? A traveling bard could share local news or a stories of the region… either of which could potentially be useful if the actual adventure takes place nearby. if one of the players is an entertainer, they could be asked to fill this role themselves. Or there could be a competition, whether musical or magical!
  • Stranger Danger. You’re enjoying your dinner when a group of loud, arrogant Emerald Claw soldiers show up and start throwing their weight around. They aren’t here for a fight, and technically they aren’t breaking any laws. Are you going to be the one to engage in violence, potentially bringing harm to the innkeeper? If not, this can be a fun opportunity to interact with people who are usually villains in a non-violent context.
  • Mysterious Opportunity. A traveling peddler offers a good luck charm or an ancient map. A stranger approaches and says something that’s clearly a code phrase, and hastily backs away when the PCs don’t know the right response. A smuggler offers rare goods at a low price – the PCs don’t need the goods now, but do they want to miss the opportunity? A fight breaks out between two strangers at the next table… will the PCs interfere? A stranger – secretly a spy – suddenly collapses from poison. Will the PCs get involved? And there’s always the possibility for romance…
  • Ask The Players. A simple answer is to ask your players what happens. They’re spending an evening in a tavern… what do they think should happen? This gives the players an easy opportunity to shape the story… whether to introduce a new plot thread or simply to describe their armwrestling victory.

BUT WHAT ABOUT EBERRON? 

The original question was about taverns in Eberron. The first issue is definitely location; looking at the examples above, The Labyrinth is in Droaam; The Quill is near Arcanix; and The Crooked Tree is in Thelanis, though you could drop it in a manifest zone. Everything that I’ve said up to this point applies, but you want to answer specific questions tied to Eberron. How does magic apply? What impact has the war had? Is there a warforged bouncer? Did the bartender lose his arm during an Aundairian bombardment? Is there a way to involve a magical beast – the hearth is in a gorgon’s skull, or there’s a giant owl who’s taken up residence there? If there’s shifters in the region, are people arguing about the shifter sport hrazhak? Perhaps the bartender is a changeling, who has different faces for different moods… Max is always up for conversation, but when you see Mildred at the bar, just order your drink and don’t ask questions?

And as long as we’re talking about taverns in Eberron, we have to discuss the GOLD DRAGON INN. While Ghallanda licenses inns of all sorts, the Gold Dragon is their primary franchise operation. Just like in our world, the whole point of the Gold Dragon is that people know exactly what to expect when they go into one. So play that up. Add your own details about what defines a Gold Dragon Inn, and make sure to highlight that every time the players stop at one. Here’s a few I’m literally making up right now.

  • The Gold Dragon Inn has a mascot, Goldie the Dragon. Every GDI has a mural inside of Goldie wrapped around the inn, looking down at you with a wink and a grin. Some inns have a Goldie costume – which involves three halflings – that they bring out on special occasions.
  • The Gold Dragon Inn always has a greeter, typically a halfling barmaid who says something along the following lines. “Welcome to the Gold Dragon Inn, where our guests are our greatest treasure! Would you like a tankard of our Copper Egg ale?”

Basically, any time the players are wandering around and happen to stop for the night, what do you know, it’s a Gold Dragon Inn! With the exact same greeter speech! And friendly, helpful staff who are happy to provide you with useful information about the region! The place is amazingly clean, as the staff uses a minor dragonmark focus item that ties to the Mark of Hospitality, using a prestidigitation effect to wipe away dirt and grime with the wave of a wand. And then, once people have gotten used to it, have them end up in a bad part of Karrnath where there’s no Gold Dragon Inn. The tavern they end up in is grimy and there’s holes in the roof from Thranish air raids (“Never had the gold to fix ’em,” the owner says. “Don’t worry, I moved the bed out from under.”). The owner lost a forearm in one of those raids but has a skeletal prosthetic. He’s probably not going to kill you in your sleep. Probably.

JT: Are there any major inns or taverns that operate without Ghallanda’s backing, or as open competition to the House’s industry?

SD: Dragonmarked’ makes it seem like other establishments certainly exist, but if they’re not at least sponsored by the Hosteler’s Guild, they’re regarded in the Five Nations as second-rate or questionable. If an exception existed that posed a serious threat to Ghallanda interests in an area, unsavory repercussions might occur.

I’m including SpoonDragon’s answer because it hits the nail on the head. The Dragonmarked Houses dominate their fields, and have established and maintained that dominance over the course of centuries. But that doesn’t mean every inn is a Gold Dragon Inn. You have three classes of business, as established in Dragonmarked: businesses directly run by the house; businesses bound to the house, which are essentially franchises like the Gold Dragon Inn; and licensed business, which pay a percentage and agree to meet the industry standards established by the house in exchange for being able to use the house seal. MOST inns and taverns are licensed. The critical thing is that this isn’t just a scam run by the houses. They DO establish and enforce industry standards, a role that is usually handled by the government in our world. A tavern has to pay Ghallanda for the license, but it ALSO has to meet the house standards for hygiene and health, and that’s the real VALUE of the license: potential customers know they can trust it. That shabby Karrnathi inn described above COULDN’T be a licensed business, because it doesn’t meet the standards. So a really successful and well-established business – like The Oaks in Sharn – could run without a license, trusting in its established reputation. But it’s sort of like posting a sign on your door saying “We’ve never had a health inspection.”

Generally the houses won’t act against lone businesses that choose to operate outside their scope. However, if someone truly poses a serious threat to their market dominance, they will take steps to deal with it… starting with negotiation, then negative propaganda, then more severe methods. A Ghallanda Black Dog (from Dragonmarked) can poison food or drink just by looking at it; this is a handy person to have in your back pocket when you want to give a rival restaurant a reputation for food poisoning.

I have always wondered about Gold Dragon Inns, starting with the price point. Are we talking Super 8, or Hamton, or Hilton, or Fairmont, or what? How big is the common room (in terms of area or number of patrons)? Is there both a tavern and a restaurant? What sort of food is served? How many rooms? How many of those rooms cater to small creatures like gnomes and halflings? Are there any other services provided? What sort of security is present – for valuables, or common areas, or private rooms?

This was cut for space from Dragonmarked, but addresses this a bit…

Two Ghallanda-licensed taverns in Sharn may have nothing in common beyond the house seal. But the Hostelers Guild maintains a number of bound businesses with outposts across Khorvaire. These strive for uniformity, and a traveler knows exactly what he can expect when he goes to a Gold Dragon Inn. 

          The Gold Dragon Inn. A home away from home for the frequent traveler, the Gold Dragon Inn provides reliable (if not exceptional) services at reasonable rates. Every Gold Dragon Inn possesses a heavy safe secured with arcane lock, and a soundproofed back room that can be rented for private events or important negotiations. House Ghallanda works with House Thuranni and House Phiarlan, and a Gold Dragon Inn will always have some sort of guild-licensed entertainer on hand.

            The Drum and Lyre. These taverns specialize in spicy Talentan cuisine, and serve as venues for music and dance. Three nights of the week are reserved for halflings performing traditional Talentan works; three nights are filled by performers from House Phiarlan or House Thuranni; and one night is held for amateurs and independents, which can be an opportunity for PC bards to hone their skills and make a little silver. Occasionally musical performances are set aside for athletic events, including sporting matches between miniature clawfeet and other Talentan beasts.   

As I’ve said before, the Dragonmarked Houses essentially set the industry standards, which is to say the prices in the rule book. So if you look on page 158 pf the 5E Player’s Handbook, the Gold Dragon Inn generally would be considered Modest accommodations (5 SP/night) while the best suite in a GDI would be Comfortable (8 SP/night). I generally think of the GDI as having a simple tavern attached, but some might have a full restaurant (perhaps a Drum & Lyre!). The size and number of the rooms will be based on the expected clientele; a GDI in Zilargo will have lots of rooms for small guests, while one in Breland will be predominantly designed with medium guests in mind. A GDI could have six rooms or a hundred rooms, based on the logical ability of the region to support it and the needs of your story.

Now, as noted above, the GDI is not the only sort of inn Ghallanda runs. It’s a known quantity, but many Ghallanda heirs prefer to run their own unique licensed business. The house itself runs a number of more luxurious inns, such as the Twilight Palace in Graywall; these would be in the Wealthy to Aristocratic class of lodging, and include services provided by other Dragonmarked houses – a Sivis message station in the hotel, an Orien courier on call, etc.

HOW ABOUT PHOENIX?

I can’t create new material for Eberron, but I can create anything I want for my new RPG Phoenix: Dawn Command. I think this post has gone on long enough, but I’ll do a follow-up next week that highlights the role of the tavern in Phoenix, with a few different locations you could use in your campaign.

Dragonmarks: Magicians

It’s busy as always here. Renegade Games just announced the Scott Pilgrim game I’ve been working on, and I just got back from a trip to LA where I did some things with Maze Arcana, Saving Throw, and Geek & Sundry. I don’t have time for a big article, but an interesting question came up during the week and wanted to explore it.

Before I start I want to take a moment to address the limitations of this format. Eberron is the intellectual property of Wizards of the Coast, and at the moment, only WotC can create new material for Eberron. What I can do – both here and on Manifest Zone – is to clarify the material that does exist, as well as talk about how I use it and interpret it. But I can’t create entirely new material. So for example: I’d really like to write more about the planes, but I can’t precisely because so little has been written about them – and it’s a logical subject for an official sourcebook or series of official articles at some point in the future. This is why I’m planning to post more Phoenix material here in the future. I can’t create new material for the Shadow Marches, but I can create material for the Fens in Phoenix… and give some tips as to how you could adapt that to the Shadow Marches. So keep an eye out for that. And in the meantime, the best thing you can do for Eberron is to continue to voice your interest and support – to be sure that WotC knows there is ongoing interest in new material!

This question came up in a discussion earlier this week, and it pushes a lot of my buttons, so…

I’ve always felt the sorcerer is a strange class. They don’t “understand magic,” but they can read scrolls, use wands, and have Spellcraft and Knowledge: Arcana in their skill list. Theoretically you could have a sorcerer with Charisma 18 and Intelligence 3, who can barely read but can still use scrolls… Finally, specifically for Eberron, do they immediately control their power or do they have the same problem as aberrant dragonmarks, where they could accidentally harm friends or family? And aren’t they persecuted as “Hidden Aberrants?”

The first issue here is how you view classes. Are classes a construct that exists in the world exactly as they exist in the rules? Does every member of a class have access to all the choices within that class? Or are they simply mechanical tools that allow us as GMs and players to model the characters we want to play? Does every sorcerer in the world recognize “I am a sorcerer?” Or is that a term we use to identify anyone using this rule set, but not something they would recognize?

To me, what’s important is to start with an idea of who a character is and what their role is in the world. Then I will apply a class and break it down from there. Each class has a core, basic mechanical principle; the sorcerer’s is I cast arcane magic from a very limited list of spells, but with greater flexibility in casting than a wizard. The wizard has to memorize spells in advance, but has the ability to use any spell they can acquire; the sorcerer is limited to a very specific set of spells. Bear in mind that arcane magic is an ambient force that exists in the world of Eberron. The power is there, and it can be manipulated by tools, by formulas, by innate talent. A sorcerer interacts with this power in a fundamentally different way than a wizard – but within that framework (spontaneous arcane casting) there’s room for a lot of different concepts and stories.

  • Harry ir’Potter. There are people in Eberron who simply have a natural potential to channel the ambient arcane power in the world, but it’s a gift that they’ll never manifest unless they learn to harness is. Arcanix seeks out these sorcerers. By studying the principles of magic and engaging in a focused curriculum, they learn to produce specific magical effects. This character possesses both Spellcraft and Knowledge: Arcana, reflecting their disciplined study of magic. Their spells have no particular relation to one another, because they have chosen exactly what spells they want to cast as part of their studies; they understand their talent and its limitations. These characters are called sorcerers at Arcanix, though many wizards refer to them as “living wands”, mocking their inability to master a spell from a spell book.
  • Touched By Fire. Irilask is a tiefling conceived in a manifest zone tied to Fernia. She is a living conduit to Fernia, and she has developed the ability to channel its eternal flames. All her spells have to do with fire; as DM, I may allow her to cosmetically shift some spells to reflect this, so maybe her ghost armor is made of solidified flames. She could know Spellcraft or Knowledge: Arcana, but it’s up to the player; her spells aren’t tied to arcane study and there’s no reason she needs to have these skills.
  • Dragonmarked Savant. Haskal d’Lyrandar is a dragonmarked scion with the Mark of Storms. While he only possesses the Least Mark of Storms, he has connected to the mark in a deeper way that most heirs ever do. His mark is a lens through which he focuses arcane power related to winds and lightning; he levitate on a cushion of wind, or strike his foes with lightning or shocking grasp. Again, these are powers most heirs can never develop (and more destructive than the typical mark powers); the point is that the mark helps him understand and focus arcane power. Like Irilask, he doesn’t need to understand how magic works, because the mark is the tool that allows him to use it. He could study Spellcraft, but he doesn’t have to.
  • Deadly Aberrant. Tesha possesses an aberrant mark with power not seen in centuries. Like Haskal, she has a base mark (Inflict Wounds)… but like Haskal, I’m using the sorcerer class to represent the unusually powerful and versatile nature of her mark, which does far more than simply granting a single spell-like ability once in a day. Just as in the stories, Tesha’s abilities manifested when she was young and were never under control, and she killed her family before she knew what she was doing. Even now, these powers frighten her… and yet, they continue to grow stronger (as she gains new spells). If Tesha was a PC, I might provide her with a mechanical benefit (say, +1 to save DCs) in exchange for the downside that as GM, I can trigger her abilities without her permission. Meanwhile, she knows absolutely nothing about Spellcraft or Knowledge: Arcana; she doesn’t understand her powers or CHOOSE to make them grow stronger, they simply do.

These are just a few concepts off the top of my head. A sorcerer could be someone twisted by the power of the Mourning. They could be the beneficiary of some sort of fey boon, or the result of mysterious magebreeding experiments. A sorcerer could have a connection to one of the Progenitor dragons, something I explored in a Dragon article back in the day. Of all these examples, Harry Potter is the only one who would think of himself as a “sorcerer” – it’s simply that *I* will use the class to mechanically represent the concepts I’ve come up with. Most likely an expert in the arcane will use the term “sorcerer” to identify “spontaneous arcane caster”, and HE might call Tesha or Irilask sorcerers, but THEY don’t identify that way.

Let’s revisit a few specific points…

They don’t “understand magic,” but they can read scrolls, use wands, and have Spellcraft and Knowledge: Arcana in their skill list.

First of all: a sorcerer doesn’t have to understand magic. That doesn’t mean they don’t. Looking to the examples I gave above, Harry Potter DEFINITELY understands magic and based on his concept he should have Spellcraft and Knowledge: Arcana. Haskal and Irilask don’t have to understand magic, but they could if you wanted to take the character in that direction – in which case they should take the skills reflecting it. Tesha definitely doesn’t understand magic and her powers have nothing to do with Spellcraft or Knowledge… so I wouldn’t give her the skills. The fact that they are on the skill list is a tool we can choose to use; but if it doesn’t make sense with the concept, don’t give them those skills.

The second question does follow, though: Tesha could be an illiterate peasant. So how is it that she can use a scroll?

The question you have to ask here is what is a scroll? Being literate doesn’t allow you to use it; a normal person can’t read a scroll and produce a magical effect. A scroll isn’t written in any sort of normal language, hence the existence of the read magic spell. Instead, a scroll is about sigils and symbols that contain pure arcane magic… and once you activate the scroll, the magic is GONE. So again, it’s not simply about words; a scroll is a spell that’s been frozen midcast and bound to paper. In my opinion, the ability of a sorcerer to use a scroll doesn’t represent them literally reading it the way you might read a book; it represents them connecting with the magic, feeling the locked progress, and having the power to unlock it and release the power inside. The same principle holds true for a wand. A wand doesn’t have a button; you have to understand how arcane magic works. A wizard may have a disciplined, technical approach to using a wand. In the case of Tesha, whether she’s using a wand or a scroll, she doesn’t understand what she’s doing in a scientific way. She just holds the scroll and she can feel the power within it, see the pattern in her mind… and she somehow knows that if she completes that unfinished pattern, makes that connection, the power bound to the page will be unleashed.

Because they approach it technically, a wizard can look at a scroll and copy the concept into their spell book. They look at the frozen spell and say “I get it – I understand the principle here and I think I can replicate that.” The sorcerer can’t do that, but they can still unleash the frozen spell.

Finally, specifically for Eberron, do they immediately control their power or do they have the same problem as aberrant dragonmarks, where they could accidentally harm friends or family? And aren’t they persecuted as “Hidden Aberrants?”

As outlined above, this entirely depends on the story of your sorcerer. Harry ir’Potter will never manifest magic if he doesn’t get training. Irilask is in some ways like an aberrant, having the ability to spontaneously produce fire, but the fact that it IS entirely under her control and has no negative consequences is what makes her NOT an aberrant. Meanwhile, Tesha IS an aberrant, and her sorcerer levels are simply a reflection of her aberrant power; and it’s part of her story that these powers are dangerous, and thus she WILL be persecuted.

Bear in mind that people with PC class levels are rare in Eberron, and add to that the idea that there is no one set of rules governing how a sorcerer’s abilities manifest. Even with aberrant dragon marks, it’s STORY that says that they are dangerous to the bearer and those around them. Mechanically nothing says an aberrant mark can trigger on its own; it’s a choice we ENCOURAGE because it’s part of the flavor of the setting, and that STORY is why aberrants are feared.

I almost always have low level NPCs call their spells by other names, until some bookish wizard gets a chance to correct them. 

At my table, the spell the sorcerer casts may not BE the same “spell” that the wizard uses. In the examples above, the way Irilask casts her fireball will be quite different to what Harry would do, let alone a wizard. These spells have to have the same limitations laid out in the rules: verbal components, somatic components, etc. And someone can use Spellcraft to recognize a spell from these things. But that doesn’t mean that there is one single incantation that is the only way to cast a fireball, and that Irilask has somehow spontaneously stumbled onto it thanks to her connection to Fernia. Irilask has to have SOMETHING that matches the limitations of a verbal component; but in her case, that could be a strange sort of throat-singing that helps her focus her power, while Harry DOES use the same incantation an Arcanix wizard would use. Spellcraft is about recognizing patterns of magic as much as specific words.

This ties to my idea that Aereni arcane magic presents very differently from Aundair’s path. At my table the idea is that the Aereni use a definitive lexicon of magical incantations, and that as an Aereni wizard you not only learn the 82 words for fire and the proper conjugation, you also learn to enunciate them with the exact pronunciation the elf who first scribed the spell… while Aundair’s Path is that each wizard works from a basic toolset but personalizes it. So four wizards from Arcanix are all using the same fundamental incantation for their fireball, but they are emphasizing different syllables, and they’ve added or dropped a few words to find out what works best for them. Their gestures are similarly unique. Think of it as the magical equivalent of music. The Aereni are a classical symphony orchestra, where each piece has to work just so; Arcanix teaches jazz, and every time you cast a spell the casting might be slightly different, as you adjust to the feelings of the moment. Which is why an Aereni spends a century learning the same foundation a human can master in a decade. It’s not that the elf is stupid; it’s that their wizardry is literally more ARCANE, and human wizardry is more “figure out what works and run with it.” I think the Aereni are appalled by human wizards and amazed that they somehow produce magic with their clumsy, kluge-y methods. Meanwhile, those same methods are why human wizards are coming up with things that the elves have never tried in twenty thousand years of working spells… because their approach to magic encourages creativity.

With planes like Lamannia and Thelanis, is it possible that “sorcerer druids” would appear in the Eldeen Reaches and similar places, essentially treating primal magic like normal sorcerers would arcane?

I have no object to the concept of a spontaneous primal caster. The point of the sorcerer vs the wizard is that arcane energy exists in the world waiting to be manipulated, and the two classes represent two different ways of manipulating that energy. Primal magic is also a force that exists in the world, and I am entirely open to the idea that there are different ways to manipulate that. With that said, I seen Thelanis as more tied to arcane magic than to primal magic… back to my previous posts on Thelanis, I don’t see there being anything natural about Thelanis. A dryad is a fey creature, not an elemental. She’s not a natural entity; she’s about the magic we imagine could be part of the world. So it’s more that I see there being Greensingers with levels in Sorcerer and Bard, who supplement their primal magic with arcane illusion and enchantment, than I see Thelanis producing primal sorcerers. Lamannia is a stronger possibility, but personally, I’d see a primal sorcerer as someone who has simply developed an innate connection to Eberron itself. On some level I could see this in the Rothfuss style of someone who knows “the name of the wind” – they don’t know any of the standard druidic rituals or tradition, but they have found a way to directly interact with primal forces.

How do you conceptualize progress as a wizard (i.e. levelling up) versus society’s progress in arcane magic as a whole in a world where magic is a scientific discipline?

Good question. Check out this post if you haven’t. The main issue is that arcane magic IS fundamentally different from our science and technology. It behaves in a scientific fashion: it is reliable, repeatable, predictable. However, it is something that incorporates a living component in a way that’s not easily defined. A 5th level wizard may be more intelligent than a higher level wizard, and could have a better understanding of magical theory (Spellcraft) than that wizard. They can read a 7th level spell and understand the concept, but they can’t cast it. Further, even the higher level wizard has to memorize that spell and then they can only cast it once before they need to prepare it again. Which means that it’s not simple science like a software engineer coding a piece of software or a scientist making a calculation. The wizard is a direct living component of this effect. The basic idea of arcane magic is that there is ambient energy in the world that can be channeled to alter reality. But beyond understanding theory, I believe that this requires significant willpower and takes a certain toll on the mind of the user. Note that a wizard’s Will Saving Throw goes up as they increase in level. In memorizing a spell, a wizard is balancing forces, weighing energy, both making mental calculations and potentially performing sub-rituals that are triggered when the final spell is released. But the short form is that a lower level wizard literally cannot cast that higher level spell. Something about their brain simply isn’t capable of serving as a channel or focus for the power that’s being unleashed. And that right there is something scientists in our world don’t generally have to deal with.

So first of all: It is certainly the case that if you go to Arcanix, they have a library of spells that almost no one can cast. They’ve had high-level wizards (like Mordain) in the past. And there are a few 12th level wizards floating around Aundair over the course of the war. They know this power exists, but most people simply cannot perform these spells. And you can be sure that they’re researching ways to make that possible.

WITH ALL OF THAT SAID: A fundamental pillar of Eberron is that player characters are exceptional. This is reflected by action points, by the fact that they use player character classes, and by the fact that they can both quickly advance in level and attain levels far beyond the masses. So if a wizard is a scientist, your PC IS Tesla or Einstein. The fact that YOUR wizard can create new spells doesn’t mean that EVERY wizard in the world can do it so easily; your character may make arcane breakthroughs people have been struggling with for centuries.

A 20th level wizard living in the present is going to be able to call down meteor swarms just as a 20th level wizard living in pre-Galifar Khorvaire 1,500 years earlier would be. The GM could restrict the spell list for the earlier wizard but does that still leaves us with phenomenally powerful spells available in the present (and also probably upsets the player of the ancient high level wizard)?

There’s a few ways to look at this. In the case of non-human civilizations, that’s correct. Giants, dragons and Aereni were all throwing around meteor swarms long ago. With HUMAN civilization, there’s room to play with this. Some day I’d like to do a deeper look at the evolution of arcane magic, and to identify the breakthroughs and legendary wizards who made them. But here’s the simple answer I came up with using 3.5 rules to consider how magic might have evolved in Galifar: Components. In 3.5 there are meta magic feats – Still Spell, Silent Spell – that let you cast a spell without verbal or somatic components… by increasing the slot of the spell by one level. This means it is POSSIBLE to perform those effects without gestures or incantations. In MY Eberron, those gestures and incantations didn’t appear out of the blue: they were painstakingly developed over centuries of research. The fact that proper gestures help to efficiently channel arcane energy was a revelation, and then generations of human wizards worked to refine those gestures. Likewise with incantations. So go back a thousand years and a wizard would be casting many of the same spells, but he’d be doing it without somatic or verbal components, and the spell slot would be two higher. So back in the day, Magic Missile was a third level spell. When your future wizard pops back, flinging magic missiles around like they’re nothing, it’s AMAZING to past wizard… even though he recognizes the principles you’re using. Meanwhile, in the present day, we’ve become so dependent on incantations and gestures that most wizards can’t even imagine casting a spell without them without special training (metamagic feats)… just as now we have matches and lighters, most people don’t know how make a fire without them.

How do NpC adepts fit into the mix, especially in 3.5 when they get familiars? If they are a healer, does their magical companion strike anyone as out of the ordinary?

First of all: just as I’ve outlined with sorcerers, the adept is a tool you can use to represent a certain type of character. Just because it has a particular spell on its spell list or skill in its skill list doesn’t mean that EVERY adept has access to that spell in the context of the world. And looking to familiars, note that per the SRD, they may call a familiar; it doesn’t automatically appear if they never call it. So, for example, most Jorasco healers are adepts. Some revere Arawai or Boldrei, while others are agnostic and draw their healing power through the lens of their dragonmark. A Jorasco adept whose power is justified as coming from his mark will simply never take spells like Burning Hands or Wall of Fire; those spells are on the adept spell list, but they don’t make logical sense for THIS adept.

So within the world, adepts are healers, both secular and religious. They are found in all of the major faiths as a step between the mundane priest and the full cleric; they are able to touch the divine, but not with the full power of a cleric, just as the magewright understands the principles of magic but not so well as the wizard. They can also be found in places like the Elder as a simple village healer… though I also created the Gleaner to serve this role.

As for familiars, there are wizards and sorcerers in the world. Familiars exist. And hey, in 3.5 gnomes can talk to animals… not to mention Vadalis magebreeding. Familiars may draw attention, but it’s not like people will freak out about them; it’s a recognized magical talent.

Would 4E/5E rituals be the natural culmination of the process of greater spell acessibility at the cost of more complex spell components? It seems to me that rituals almost all but eliminate the caster themselves as a living component.

I’ve written about rituals before. The basic CONCEPT of rituals is a far better match for Eberron’s vision of a magical economy than Vancian magic. It’s hard to imagine a magewright making a living making arcane locks if he can only make two per day; what’s he do for the rest of the day? This is what led to Dragonmark Focus Items in 3.5 – the point that while a Sivis Gnome can cast Whispering Wind once per day with his mark alone, what is economically important is that it lets him use a Speaking Stone and communicate more frequently. In addition, the idea has always been that Eberron dragonshards are the “fuel” of the magical economy. If you consider 4E’s residuum to be crushed and refined Eberron dragonshards (something I discussed in the Q’barra Dragon backdrops, IIRC) then that works. The magewright can cast arcane lock as often as he wishes during a day, provided he has the time (15 minutes per ritual) and a sufficient supply of dragonshards,  and he marks up the costs to make his profit.

So: the basic principle of rituals is very good for Eberron. However, what I HATE about 4E rituals is the idea that it’s all about just essentially reading them off a book. Because Magewrights and Eberron are about the idea that performing a particular ritual or set if rituals is a JOB – that you have an arcane locksmith who knows knock and arcane lock, an augur who can perform divinations, a lamplighter who makes continual flames… not that these guys could pass books around and suddenly trade jobs. So what I do in 4E is to say that Magewright is a feat allowing the individual to perform three rituals without a ritual book. So PCs with the Ritual Caster feature are prodigies who are so talented that they can just look at a book and perform the ritual on the spot; but most people in the world spend years studying a book and mastering the ritual. They don’t need the book to perform the ritual, but they also can’t just spot-read a different ritual.

Having said all of that, how do rituals eliminate the caster as a component? The ritual can’t cast itself. It’s a pattern that produces an effect… but you still need the ritual caster to perform that ritual, channel and focus the energy, and make it happen. Even dragon mark focus items require a character with a dragonmark to operate them.

Tied to “Greater Spell Accessibility”, in my 4E Eberron I also restricted a significant number of rituals to the dragonmarked… essentially having rituals take on the role of the Dragonmark focus items in 3.5, but with the idea that the Arcane Congress is always looking for ways to replicate these effects with rituals anyone can learn. This is discussed in far more detail in this post.

How have you used sorcerers and magic in YOUR games?

Manifest Zone: The Last War

The second episode of the Manifest Zone podcast is up! The subject is the Last War. As the podcast is a stream of consciousness discussion, I’m going to do a follow-up post after each episode… think of it as my commentary track.

The Last War is a critical part of the story of Eberron. By default, an Eberron campaign begins in the year 998 YK. YK means “Year of the Kingdom” — specifically, the Kingdom of Galifar, which brought together the disparate nations of Khorvaire almost a thousand years ago. Galifar was prosperous and generally peaceful for centuries. However, when King Jarot ir’Wynarn died in 894 YK, his heirs refused to follow the standard practice of sucession. The five provinces of Galifar — Aundair, Breland, Cyre, Karrnath and Thrane — split apart, forming what are now known as the Five Nations. A century of war followed as each heir attempted to rebuild Galifar under their rule. The war finally came to an end following the Mourning, a mystical cataclysm that completely destroyed the nation of Cyre, transforming it into the warped region known as the Mournland. No one knows the cause of the Mourning. Was it a weapon, and if so, are its creators developing a second one? Was it the result of using too much war magic, in which case continued conflict could result in further destruction? The Mourning occurred in 994 YK, and within two years the war formally ended with the Treaty of Thronehold in 998 YK. But no one WON the war, and few people are happy with its outcome. The mystery of the Mourning is holding further conflict at bay, but sooner or later that mystery will be solved… and most believe that when it is, war will be inevitable. Some rulers are actively pursuing the cause of peace, while others are already preparing for the next battle.

The Last War serves a number of important functions. First and foremost, it shatters the established order and creates an era that is filled with conflict and uncertainty. Thanks to the war, we see a number of critical developments:

  • New Nations. Darguun, Valenar, Q’barra and Droaam were all born from the conflict, as new forces seized land once claimed by Galifar. The Eldeen Reaches expanded into Aundair, while the Mror Holds and Zilargo asserted their independence. Some of these shifts were more dramatic than others; for Zilargo it’s virtually a semantic change, while Darguun and Valenar represent violent upheavals of the previous order.
  • Balance of Power. As a single market, Galifar had the power to dictate terms to the Dragonmarked Houses – something it did with the Korth Edicts, which established that dragonmarked house can’t hold land, titles, or maintain military forces (with exceptions made for House Deneith). Now the nations need the houses more than the houses need any one nation. If the houses do decide to violate the Korth Edicts, who would have the power to enforce them?
  • Innovation. The Last War drove innovation, and within the last century there have been many critical developments. First there were warforged titans, and this led to fully sentient warforged. The eternal wand is a critical advance in the science of wands, being both more accessible and reusable; the next step could be a wand that anyone can use. The airship was developed during the war, which is a critical point: air travel is still very new in Khorvaire! These are a few major examples, but in my opinion this is representative of a broader range of advances, as both houses and nations struggled gain an edge in the conflict.
  • Opportunity for Adventure. The Mournland is the world’s largest dungeon, and it’s sitting right in the middle of the continent. Cyre was the richest of the Five Nations, and all its treasures are lost in a twisted wasteland filled with monsters. If you prefer espionage, the Five Nations are all vying for power and position as they prepare for whatever happens next. This can even extend to straight pulp adventure. You’re searching for the Orb of Dol Azur in Xen’drik? Well, so’s the Order of the Emerald Claw… and if they get ahold of it, you can be sure they’ll use its power against Breland in the Next War!

Beyond this, the Last War is a source of infinite character hooks. The war ended two years ago. The typical soldier in the last war was a first level warrior (that’s an NPC class from 3.5 – a crappy version of the fighter – if you don’t know the term). As even a first level PC classed character, you are more talented than the typical soldier. So, if you’re a fighter… did you fight in the war? If so, were you a mercenary, or did you fight for one of the nations… and if so, which one? Are you still loyal to your nation, or are you disillusioned by what you’ve been through? And if you didn’t fight in the war even though you clearly had the skills to do so, why didn’t you fight?

This is something you can develop as deeply as you wish. For some people, this is a way to really add depth to a character. What happened to you during the war? What were your greatest victories, and what did you lose? Were you a war hero, or were you just a grunt in the trenches? Did you spend any time in a POW camp, and if so, what did you endure? How about your family – how did the war affect them? If your character is religious, how did the war and the Mourning affect your faith – was it a solace to you in difficult times, or has it forced you to question your faith?

This can easily form the foundation for a story that unites an entire party of adventurers. One of my go-to ways to start a campaign is to establish that the players were all part of a unit of soldiers during the last war. With that in mind, I’ll ask each character to figure out how their concept fits within that mold. You want to play a warforged fighter? Easy, you were made for the war. You’re playing a warlord? Congratulations, you’re the captain of the unit. Wizard? OK, you were the arcane support. My standard nation of choice is Cyre, because while no one won the war, Cyre definitely lost it. As a Cyran soldier, you have no homeland; you’ve lost everything; and yet, you still have a particular set of skills. Why WOULDN’T you become an adventurer? It’s essentially Mal and Zoe from Firefly. And like Firefly, what I like to do with this set up is to actually set the first adventure (or two) during the war: so we get to see your group working together as a unit, and we get to see some of the things they went through. You’ve got to hold an undersupplied post against an advancing army of Karrnathi undead. It’s a fight that can’t be won, and in the process you’ll have to make difficult decisions, and you’ll deal with a Karrnathi commander who you will surely come to hate. Once we resolve that, we’re going to talk through the next two years: how you moved from being soldiers to adventurers. But you’ve got a foundation to work with. You’re not strangers brought together by an old man at a bar. You’re comrades in arms. You’ve faced the undead together. And when that Karrnathi bastard shows up again working for the Emerald Claw, you’ve got a real reason to take him down.

In the episode of Manifest Zone, we talk about how war can leave fairly intense scars. You don’t have to dig that deeply if you don’t want to. You can establish that your fighter fought for Breland and leave it at that. You may not want to burden your character with a crisis of faith or PTSD. You could very well ask how it benefits YOU to damage your character, or to hand the GM tools to make your life difficult. For me, it’s not about given the GM “things to use against you”, because as the GM I’m not your enemy. At my table, what we are trying to do is to build a story together… and for that story to be as dramatic and compelling as possible. These sorts of scars give your character depth. They give you trauma that you can overcome, and they give you things to fight FOR beyond simply getting a better magical sword. Just looking at, for example, The Force Awakens: Finn is a former conscript who’s fled war and ultimately works up the courage to fight the people he once fought for – even though this pits him against people he once served with. Rey is an orphan who’s avoided the conflict and lived as a scavenger. And Poe is the soldier who believes in his cause. In Firefly, Mal is an officer who was deeply devoted to his cause, only to have that faith crushed in defeat; but it’s still there, underneath his mercenary cynicism. Having flaws gives your character depth. In 5E D&D, these elements can be worked into Backgrounds; at some point I may post something that explores backgrounds particularly well suited to Eberron.

So: the Last War is a source of upheaval and change that creates opportunity for adventure and adventurers. It provides a wealth of hooks for character development. It can also provide a host of possibilities for adventures. Setting aside the Mournland, you can have to deal with mystical weapons gone terribly wrong, from a rampaging titan to a secret program that sought to create magebred supersoldiers. You can have “dungeons” anywhere, because rather than having to rely on ancient ruins you can have NEW ruins created during the war. You can track down war criminals or delve into espionage. Whether you care about a country or are just looking for opportunities, the shadow of the Last War creates many possibilities.

THE SHAPE OF THE WAR

With all that said, many people want a better sense of the actual nature of the war. Was it more like World War I, with grueling trench warfare and soldiers being ground up on a relatively static front line? Was it a time of constant change, with cities being seized and lost? Was it like modern warfare, with air strikes and similar attacks inflicting damage far beyond the front lines?

The sourcebook The Forge of War provides the canon answer to these things and is your best source for in-depth information, since I don’t have time (or permission) to write a sourcebook on the Last War. With that said, I didn’t work on The Forge of War and it is the canon source I have the most issues with. It doesn’t delve as deeply into the concept of innovation as I’d like, and doesn’t explore the question of what new weapons and tools were developed in the war. It ignores many other canon sources; one of the most infamous examples is its statement that Thrane lacked any decent archery support, when archery is a devotional practice of the Church of the Silver Flame and should be one of the greatest strengths of Thrane. With that said, FoW provides a POSSIBLE overview of the course of the war.

As for my answer: The Last War was all of these things. It lasted for a century, and that wasn’t a century of constant, unending total war. It had its slow periods, with soldiers glaring at one another across the static front lines. And these were punctuated by periods of intense conflict, of shifting alliances and changing borders. And while it was largely concentrated on the fronts, there certainly were magical attacks that pushed beyond the front to cause indiscriminate damage further back. Often this would be triggered by a new magical development. When Karrnath first incorporated undead into its armies; when Cyre fielded the first warforged titans; when Aundair pioneered new long-range war magic. One issue to me is that I feel that we haven’t established the primary weapons used in the warThe magic items and spells that PCs use are geared towards squad-level combat with small groups of powerful individuals, because that’s what PCs are. But a fireball that inflicts 6d6 damage over a thirty foot radius is both overkill and too small an area to have much impact on a group of a thousand first level warriors. So what spells did war mages rely on? Do you take the principle of cloudkill to make a larger-scale gas attack… and if so, did someone invent the equivalent of a gas mask? One advantage of this approach — the idea that most spells used in the war were lower damage but larger area — means that faced with such things, PCs get to shine on the battlefield. A 6d6 fireball may be a grave threat to a third level PC. But if the magical bombardment inflicts 1d6 fire damage over a hundred foot radius, it’s still a serious threat to the common soldiers – but the PCs can miraculously survive a few blasts, which is after all how we want this movie to go.

The basic principle of Eberron is that it’s a world in which arcane magic has been used to solve the problems we’ve solved with technology. So if you look to the common tools of modern warfare — mines, tanks, artillery — I feel all of these should have their parallels in Eberron, but based on arcane principles. The warforged titan is one answer to the tank; I could imagine a variation on the apparatus of Kwalish as another. In my novels, we see a variation of mines (based on the principle of a glyph of warding) and artillery — specifically the siege staff. Following the idea that a wand is a form of mystical sidearm and that the staff is physically larger and more powerful, a siege staff is a staff made from a tree trunk — thus capable of holding even more energy and projecting it farther. Neither of these things were ever given mechanics, but it’s the sort of thing I’d like to see addressed some day.

Tied to this, in a previous post Zeno asks: It is said that Titan Warforged was created for war. That sometime devils has been released on opponents. I wonder why 1st level commoners should be thrown in a war like that. A single titan Worforged could kill a whole army.

It’s true: the typical soldier in Eberron has no chance against a warforged titan. Just as common soldiers in our world have trouble when faced with tanks, chemical weapons, or incendiary bombs. It sucks to be a typical soldier when you have to charge up a hill against an entrenched machine gun. War has never been fair, and it’s not fair here.

With that said: the typical person in Eberron is a first level commoner, but the typical soldier would be a first level warrior; a veteran might be second level. Small difference, but a difference nonetheless. Nonetheless, a second level warrior wouldn’t stand a chance against a warforged titan. Why would they be thrown into that war? Because that’s all they had to work with… and because it’s what also forms the bulk of the opposing forces. Infantry is the best tool to hold ground. Meanwhile, the warforged titan is a specialized and very expensive piece of military equipment that serves a specific role on the battlefield. Think of the warforged titan as a tank. If you’ve got a squad of soldiers armed with machetes or even standard smallarms, they simply aren’t equipped to deal with a tank. If they try, they’ll get killed. The same thing is true of a squad of warriors facing a warforged titan. In both cases, what you won’t see is the soldiers charging in and trying to hack the overpowering enemy apart with machetes. Instead, you’re going to have the following questions:

  • Do we have access to equipment that allows us to overcome this threat? Do we have an arcane specialist with a wand or staff with a spell that can defeat this? Do we have a siege staff? Can we summon a planar ally? Essentially, do we have anti-tank weaponry in our unit? You see this in City of Towers, where the unit is faced with a military airship and requires a specialist to bring it down.
  • If not, can we take advantage of the terrain? Can we lure it into swampy terrain where it will sink? Is there a minefield? Can we get it onto a bridge and collapse the bridge?

If the answer to these things is no, then they won’t engage it. They’d retreat and regroup. So IN THEORY a warforged titan could kill a whole army; in practice, the army would disengage.

On top of this, consider that military command would be tracking these things. Units with warforged titans, the capability to summon planar allies, and the like are exceptional; that’s exactly the sorts of units that would be tracked. So when that titan shows up and you have nothing to handle it, you get out of there and hope that command already has forces en route with anti-titan capabilities.

So yes: the warforged titan can slaughter a squad of typical soldiers, as can a summoned fiend or any number of other threats. Which means once the titan exists, people immediately began finding ways to deal with it — just as people in our world invented anti-tank weaponry. And this is great for House Cannith, which sells you the weapons, and then sells you the thing you need to counter the latest weapon, and then sells you the thing you need to counter the counter, and so on.

Could we get a brief overview of each of the Five Nations’ general tactics in the Last War?

Certainly. If they were a party of adventurers, Karrnath was the fighter. Aundair was the wizard. Thrane was the paladin. Breland was the rogue. And Cyre was the bard. This is a gross simplification – not addressing Breland’s industrial capacity or Cyre’s wealth – but it’s a good place to start as a mental image.

With that said, this could be the subject of a sourcebook. I’d refer you to Forge of War, but I don’t think they actually got this correct. So first of all: Galifar was a united kingdom, but its resources were spread throughout the five provinces. This is generally reflected in the culture of that province. So for example, Karrnath was the seat of Galifar’s military and the home of Rekkenmark, its premier military academy. Soldiers from across Galifar trained at Rekkenmark, and when the war began most returned to fight for their own nations. Likewise, wizards from all countries trained at the Arcane Congress in Aundair. So all sides benefitted from these resources initially. But the people of that province were the most committed to the concept embodied by those institutions; had the MOST people trained at those institutions; and held onto the institutions themselves and their resources as the war continued. So at the start of the war, every nation had spies trained by the King’s Citadel. But Breland had the most of them, and had the facilities, records, and resources of the Citadel itself. With that in mind…

Karrnath was the seat of Rekkenmark and the Royal Army. Karrnath has always had a harsh, martial culture. In general, they had the most disciplined and best-trained soldiers, and had exceptional heavy infantry and cavalry. I’ve always felt that they had decent war magic, though obviously inferior to Aundair and extremely focused (primarily evocation). Karrnath was further distinguished as the war went on by the use of undead in battle. So in Karrnath you have stoicism, discipline, and general martial excellence… with a side dish of undead.

Aundair was the seat of Arcanix and the Arcane Congress, and has always had the edge in arcane magic. It is the smallest of the Five Nations, and has always relied on magic to make up for that. So Aundair would have the best mystical artillery, both using things like siege staffs and in terms of having the most actual wizards on the battlefield. They lacked the industrial capacity of Breland or House Cannith, but were always the leaders in arcane innovation… so to make a modern analogy, they didn’t have the MOST missiles and bombs, but they had the BEST missiles and bombs, and were the most likely to surprise you with something you hadn’t seen before.

Breland was the industrial heart of Galifar, and further was the seat of the King’s Citadel… which includes the intelligence agency of Galifar. So from the start they had the greatest numbers of spies, assassins, and other covert operatives. This was further enhanced by a strong relationship with Zilargo and House Deneith. So intelligence was always a strength of Breland. Beyond that, they had numbers and resources, and what they lacked in discipline they often made up for in spirit and charisma; so your rank and file soldiers weren’t as exceptional as you’d get in Karrnath, but they’d be more likely to have truly inspiring leaders, and to break the rules of war to try something new. I still think the rogue is a good analogy: Not as good in a straight up fight, but clever and unpredictable, and very dangerous if they can catch you off guard.

Thrane was the seat of Flamekeep and the heart of the Silver Flame. This shouldn’t be underestimated. While the Silver Flame is revered across Galifar, Thrane was its heart, and Flamekeep is where paladins and clerics would received their training. And this is critical, because the Silver Flame is a martial faith. The Silver Flame is about being prepared to defend the innocent from supernatural evil. Archery is a devotional practice, and every Thrane villager trains with the bow. Beyond that, the Silver Flame maintained its own army of Templars. The Lycanthropic Purge was the biggest example of templars at war, but on a smaller scale the templars were constantly hunting down and eliminating supernatural threats. Karrnath was the seat of the army; but the Thranes had if anything more soldiers who’d actually SEEN BATTLE, even if they hadn’t been fighting other humans. This also meant they had more hands-on experience supplying and supporting their forces than most nations.

In summary, Thrane’s greatest strengths were peasant militias, exceptional archers, morale enhanced by a shared creed, an experienced and disciplined force in the Templars, and beyond that, the greatest ability to bring divine magic to the battlefield. PC class characters are exceptional, but to the degree that there were clerics and paladins on the battlefield, Thrane had the lion’s share of them… and just as Aundair was most likely to produce a dramatic new arcane technique, Thrane was most likely to suddenly summon plaanr allies or otherwise turn the tide through use of divine magic.

Which leaves Cyre. Cyre was known as the center of art and culture, and in some way it wasn’t the best at anything… but at the same time, it also had a little bit of everything. Hence the bard — jack of all trades, not tied to any one path. Cyre also had the fact that according the the laws of Galifar, they were in the right — so back to the bard, strong morale. Finally, Cyre’s greatest asset was holding the wealth of the kingdom… which in turn meant that they could field the most mercenaries and draw the greatest amount of support from the Dragonmarked Houses. And it certainly didn’t hurt that House Cannith was based in Cyre. So Aundair had the BEST arcane magic; Cyre had considerably more of what could be bought from House Cannith. Cyran forces involved a lot of mercenaries (Deneith, Valenar, Darguul) and more warforged than any other nation… and like Breland, what leaders lacked in discipline and experience, they would attempt to make up for with charisma. As we all know, the heavy use of mercenaries had some pretty disastrous consequences down the line… but there you are.

That’s all I have time for now, but I will continue to answer questions over the course of the week. Let me know how you’ve used the Last War in your campaign and what you’d like to know about it! And check out the latest episode of Manifest Zone!

FOLLOW UP QUESTIONS

I seem to recall that Aundair took Arcanix from Thrane. If so, did they possess the arcane advantage they were known for at the beginning of the war? And if so, where did it come from?

This is from The Forge of War and is one of those the elements I strongly disapprove of. With that said, here’s my answer. The Arcane Congress has always been part of Aundair. It was founded by Aundair herself if the early days of Galifar, and respect for magic and education have both been engrained into the Aundairian character in a way no Thrane can understand. Arcanix — the greatest university and the seat of the Arcane Congress – is a floating citadel. It is also a mystical stronghold; Aundair’s greatest military asset its its arcane prowess, and Arcanix is, if you will, its Death Star. And like the Death Star, it’s mobile. It’s a floating institution, and when they seized a particularly desired stretch of land from Thrane and laid claim to it in the war, they moved Arcanix to that region. So it is true, Aundair took what is now Arcanix from Thrane during the war… but it wasn’t Arcanix when they took it.

You’ve established that the Keeper of Secrets is bound at Arcanix’s location. Would you say that she is tied to the town, the mobile fortress, or both?

As a GM, I’d definitely say she’s bound to the location. From a story perspective, this helps justify new developments at Arcanix tied to the presence of Sul Khatesh. I’d probably say that Hektula is manipulating Aundair and that shifting the location of Arcanix is part of the puzzle that will eventually free the Keeper of Secrets. But it could also simply be that Minister Adar learned of the location of Sul Khatesh on his own and has a team of sages seeking to tap into her knowledge and power… and we all know that will go well.

Why did the Five Nations refuse to recognize Droaam in the Treaty of Thronehold, when they recognized Darguun and Valenar? 

On the surface, it’s easy to see all these things as being equals. Darguun and Droaam are both nations of monsters, right? Kind of. First there’s the issue of timing. Valenar rose over forty years before the end of the war; Darguun almost thirty years before the Treaty. Both fielded large armies during the course of the war. Both represented recognized civilizations. Essentially, both had proven that they weren’t going anywhere, and they had sufficient military forces that it was vital to get them to the table in the interests of establishing a general peace.

By contrast, at the time of the treaty Droaam had been around for a decade. It was an assembly of creatures whose cultures were largely unknown in the east; no one had really considered the idea that harpies or medusas we in any way civilized. And while Droaam brokered mercenaries through House Tharashk, it never fielded a true army during the war. It’s the closest thing Eberron has to a terrorist state. It’s something the people of the east didn’t believe would last and something they don’t WANT to last. They settled with Darguun and Valenar because they had to. Droaam wasn’t seen as a civilization deserving of respect or as such a significant threat that it needed to be placated. My novel The Queen of Stone explores the ongoing relationship between the Thronehold nations and some of these issues.

When suggesting your players to be war comrades, did you ever had problems in finding a place for druids and barbarians?

It’s generally an approach I’d use when I’ve got a group of players who don’t have character ideas they’re dead-set on — so it’s something where the players would build characters with the war story in mind, and I’d challenge THEM to figure out how the character fits.

Primal characters don’t have a strong role in any of the Five Nations, so it’s not an easy match. The first and most important question is whether they are driven by the mechanics of the class, or by its specific role in the setting. Do they want to be a barbarian because they want to be a savage outsider, or because they like the mechanical abilities of the barbarian class? If they want to be an outsider — a druid from one of the Eldeen Sects or a barbarian from the Demon Wastes — they need to think of what could cause a character with that background to serve with your nation. They could be a mercenary. In the case of a druid, they might not actually be part of the army; they could simply be a mysterious ally who’s chosen to help the squad. If your soldiers are Brelish, the druid could be one of the Shadows of the Forest who’s chosen to help against their enemies. In the case of the barbarian, I’ll note that among the Dhakaani, the barbarian class represents a martial art that involves a cultivated state of battle fury; they aren’t savages, they are specialized warriors. Your PC barbarian could follow this same path — having the abilities of a barbarian but not the flavor. Worst case scenario, say that the barbarian and druid don’t join the party until after the war… and if you do initial adventures set during the war, it’s a great time to have these players put on red shirts and play the warriors or experts who likely won’t make it through the adventure… and their tragic deaths can help bond the rest of the squad.

But the point of doing that “squad scenario” is to say “Make a character who would be in this squad.” If your players won’t be happy with that limitation, I wouldn’t follow this path.

About Karrnath: do you think people there had already a different relationship with undead and/or death? Were they more ready to accept undead soldiers than others?

Absolutely. It’s not always been presented clearly, but Karrnath and the Lhazaar Principalities have always been the stronghold of the Blood of Vol. The faith was well-anchored in Karrnath long before the war, and in Seeker communities you’d already have undead performing basic labor; they’d just never been harnessed and organized for war, and the Odakyr Rites (which produce the distinctive Karrnathi Undead) hadn’t been developed. In part this is tied to the idea that Karrnath is the harshest of the Five Nations in terms of environment, and its people were generally more receptive to the bleak outlook of the Blood of Vol. It’s not like the Silver Flame and Thrane; the number of Seekers is small enough that Kaius could choose to use them as scapegoats in the present day. But the faith has always been around in Karrnath and thus its people had more casual contact with undead than any of the other Five Nations.

Would a Karrnathi Silver Flame or Sovereign cleric, or maybe even a bard be DIFFERENT in his approach to the topic?

Mechanically or philosophically? Mechanically, no. If you want a different approach to undead, make a Blood of Vol cleric. Philosophically they’ve be more used to having them in mundane roles and thus less likely to see ALL UNDEAD AS ABOMINATIONS then their counterparts in other nations. The focus of the Silver Flame is protecting the innocent from supernatural evil; a templar raised in Karrnath knows that the skeleton working in the fields in that Seeker community ISN’T suddenly going to turn on the villagers. With that said, the Silver Flame has never had a strong foothold in Karrnath, precisely because its culture leans more towards the bleak pragmatism of the Blood of Vol; in my opinion, Seekers have always outnumbered the followers of the Flame in Karrnath.

Five Nations says Thrane was the nation Breland feared the most… I thought Breland was much stronger than all.

If Breland was “stronger than all” the war wouldn’t have lasted a century. Breland had more people and stronger industry. But Aundair had better magic and Karrnath had better soldiers. As for Thrane, I didn’t write Five Nations so I can’t tell you what they were thinking. But let’s look at a few key factors.

  • Thrane and Breland share a significant border.
  • Along with Karrnath, Thrane has the most militant culture among the Five Nations. Its people stand ready to fight supernatual evil… but that still means that they are combat ready and prepared to make sacrifices for their faith. Again, in my mind the peasant militias are one of Thrane’s greatest assets.
  • Tied to this, I feel Thrane had a morale advantage over the other nations because its people are united by common belief, and by a faith that taught them to be ready to fight and to make sacrifices to protect the innocent.
  • Thrane has the greatest access to divine magic on the battlefield. Unlike arcane magic, divine magic isn’t a science. As a result, it’s more mysterious, and mystery isn’t something you want in an enemy.
  • Most of all: Thrane abandoned the monarchy to become a theocracy. That was undoubtedly terrifying to the leaders of all of the Five Nations — especially to Breland, where the monarchy is on thin ice.

Was Talenta pulled into the Last War at all, or was their relative distance and the influence of Ghallanda and Jorasco enough to spare them from most of the fighting?

The Talenta Plains are a large undeveloped stretch of relatively barren land; it’s got little that anyone actually WANTS, and virtually no cities or fortresses that could be claimed as strategic assets. The tribes have never assembled into what the Five Nations would consider an army. Thus they primarily are a path that Karrnath and Cyre passed through while fighting each other. If I was developing a full history of the war, I could certainly come up with some interesting events involving the Plains: interactions with the Q’barran colonists; interactions with Karrnathi forces planning a surprise offensive against the heart of Cyre; general interactions with supply lines, or the time Cyre decided to establish a fort there. But generally actions in the war would have involved raids, mercenary service (uncommon but possible), or defensive actions.

Forge of War indicates that of all the nations, only Karrnath didn’t ally with one of the other five at any point during the war. Do you agree with this?

It’s not my idea, to be sure. With that said, the Karrnathi character includes both deep confidence in the superiority of their own martial skills — a conviction that they are the greatest power in Khorvaire — and a bitter stoicism, they’ll have to kill us before we back down and even then our bones will rise and fight until they are ground to dust. So it seems unlikely to me that they wouldn’t have at least negotiated with Aundair regarding joint operations against Cyre, or the like (and I feel this has even been discussed in some other source), but I’m willing to accept the idea that Karrnath never engaged in a full if-the-war-ends-we-share-power alliance — that they always believed that they would either win the war and rule Galifar on their terms, or fight to the bitter, bitter end. This still can be seen in the present day, where many of the warlords consider Kaius’s strong support of peace initiatives to be a betrayal, a belief that drives many Emerald Claw recruits.

How common were sending stones and other Sivis communications equipment on the battlefield?

We’ve established that communications in Eberron are more akin to telegraph that to radio or phone. It wasn’t a modern battlefield where squads come be in direct real-time communication with one another. With that said, Sivis communication was a vital tool for long-term coordination. Speaking Stones are BIG and expensive; you’re talking about a wagon, and something Sivis wouldn’t want to put at risk in active battle. So you’d have such a thing with a major army, but not a unit. I can imagine a smaller focus device allowing a Sivis heir to send a message to or receive a message from the nearest speaking stone, but how I’d see it would be something requiring a ritual – maybe ten minutes, maybe more, along with expenditure of ground dragonshards – to activate, and likely that ritual has to be active to receive messages. So an heir could send an emergency message to the nearest stone if he had ten minutes to do it; but receiving messages is something he’d do at a specific time – check messages at noon – and not something that could be done in the midst of active combat. Of course, if you’re in a HUGE hurry, sending is an option – but there’s very few heirs who can do that.

So it was a vital tool for coordinating strategies and getting updates, but not real-time communication and not something the smallest units would have. With that said, I think you’d also see the Five Nations exploring other options – experimenting with Kalashtar psions, Aundair developing an alternate method of arcane communication, Vadalis messenger birds – but Sivis would be the gold standard.

Someone mentioned Karrnath doing necromantic experiments on living prisoners? That seems…beyond the pale for a salvageable nation state, to me. I don’t want to go that dark with Karrnath, but I’m curious about your take on that? 

That someone was me. It’s part of the plot for an adventure I wrote for the ChariD20 event; the PCs are former Cyran prisoners of war who were used as fodder in necromantic experiments. A critical point here is that the adventure is about hunting the camp commander down in Droaam, because he’s a war criminal who’s fled the Five Nations. It’s not that Karrnath as a whole encouraged or engaged in such behavior; it’s that there’s ONE GUY (and his soldiers) who did so, and if he remained in Karrnath, KAIUS would have had him tried for war crimes. This ties to the difference between the Blood of Vol – a faith that uses necromancy, but generally as a positive tool that serves the needs of a community – and the Order of the Emerald Claw, which is about over-the-top pulp villainy and routinely engages in horrific actions. This commander is a pulp villain: a scenery-chewing mad necromancer that we all agree is a deplorable human and deserves to be brought to justice (whatever that ends up meaning).

So it’s not about KARRNATH being that dark. This is an example of what the Order of the Emerald Claw is capable of, and it’s WHY the Order of the Emerald Claw is considered a terrorist organization; again, if the villain here remained in Karrnath, he’d have been brought to justice for his crimes.

My player is under the impression that Karrnath was not doing as well as they had, toward the end of the war, and may have started experimenting on people out of a bit of desperation. My impression was that… they were still in a strong position when the war ended, other than the famines.

Karrnath has always been struggling due to famine and plagues. They turned to use of undead in the first place as a way to offset this. However, Kaius chose to break ties with the Blood of Vol and limit the use of necromancy towards the end of the war, as opposed to embracing desperate measures. The main issue is that at full strength one would have expected Karrnath to steamroll Cyre; instead, because of their troubles, it’s been more even. But it’s still a force to be reckoned with, and many warlords are angry at Kaius for pursuing peace because they believe Karrnath is still strong enough for war. As a side note, in my Eberron Kaius blames the famines and plagues on the Blood of Vol, giving him a populist platform to strengthen his position; thus Karrnathi Seekers are dealing with prejudice and anger, which is further exacerbated by the actions of the Order of the Emerald Claw.

Dragonmarks: Rural Eberron

I’m working on a lot of projects right now. Over the next few months I’m going to be putting most of my energy into Phoenix: Dawn Command. Part of the point of developing a new setting and system is that I’m free to develop it in a way I can’t currently develop Eberron. However, my intention is to include conversion notes and to develop ideas that could fit into Eberron or another world, so you can get the most out of whatever I’m doing.

I’m also part of a new Eberron podcast called Manifest Zone. We recently sent out a call for questions. Many of the questions we received are too narrow or specific for what we want to do with the podcast… but they’re still some great questions that I wanted to address. Here’s on that stood out for me.

It’s easy to make Eberron feel like Eberron in the big cities. How do I do the same when visiting a tavern, or hamlet?

It’s an excellent question. I’m going to start with the general topic of rural Eberron, and deal with taverns in a second post – because I actually have a surprising amount to say about taverns. But starting with the general issue: What makes a farm in Breland different from one in the Dalelands of the Forgotten Realms? What is it that makes that small Aundairian village different from a generic Tolkien scene? As a gamemaster, what can you do to draw people into the setting? Well, let’s look at a few of the pillars of the setting.

Magic is a part of everyday life.

Remember: Eberron isn’t about high magic and the works of epic wizards. It’s about wide magic – the widespread use of low-level magic to solve problems that we’ve solved with technology. Everyone needs light. Farmers might not people able to afford everbright lanterns in every room, but I’d still imagine a farm would have at least two. Of course, rural magic depends on where you are. In Karrnath, a Seeker community will have skeletons performing menial tasks. In Aundair, a farm might have a floating disk that serves some of the same purposes as a tractor. In the Eldeen, you might have gleaners – the druidic equivalent of magewrights, with farmers knowing a simple druidic ritual or two to help with the crop. And consider that even one level of magewright gives access to the magecraft spell, which provides a +5 to Craft checks. From the ECS:

Every magewright worthy of the name knows the magecraft spell (see page 113). Truly expert coopers recite the magecraft  spell over their barrels, the best blacksmiths chant it as they hammer hot iron, and the finest potters cast it while they spin their clay. 

Magewrights aren’t limited to the big city; it’s an NPC class for a reason. So again, in describing a blacksmith, mention the magical gestures he makes over his forge and the sigils engraved in the anvil (designed to effectively channel the magecraft effect).

Beyond this, communities will be built around useful magical resources. Any thriving community will have a central well enchanted with a purify water effect. One of the most useful spells is a cantrip: prestidigitation. With this spell you can clean, heat, cool, flavor. Given that these principles exist, it’s easy to envision minor magic items that do just one of these things… and now you have mystical refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, microwaves, washing machines, and more. In a small town people may not own personal magic items, but a large farm may still have an ice room. We’ve mentioned before that Aundairian villages often have cleansing stones, a central fountain-like structure where you can bring laundry to have it instantly cleaned.

Even where people aren’t using magic themselves, consider manifest zones. Sharn exists because it’s built on a manifest zone that makes the towers possible. Dreadhold is built on a manifest zone that strengthens its stone, while it’s the zones to Irian that make the Undying Court possible in Aerenal. Manifest zones are natural resources, and where there are manifest zones with beneficial effects people will take advantage of them. A manifest zone to Fernia could be unnaturally temperate, or it could be that within the stone, basalt grows unusually warm – so the people in the zone heat their houses and foods with these stones. Use your imagination: what could be a beneficial manifestation of a particular plane, and how would people harness it?

Finally, consider the ambient impact of the greater magical economy. Mention the airship this passes overhead; perhaps the old farmer hates the damn things (remember that airships haven’t been around that long!). Perhaps a House Orien representative is in town negotiating a new lightning rail that’s going to pass through the area.

If it’s in D&D, there’s a place for it in Eberron.

Khorvaire isn’t our world. It’s a world where ogres and griffons and medusas are part of nature, and that’s before you get into the possibilities of magebreeding (Cows that produce chocolate milk? Hens that lay hardboiled eggs?). That Aundairian ranch might be breeding dragonhawks instead of horses. When you pass by a field in Breland you might see an ogre pulling a plow on his own. His name’s Bargh; he was a mercenary with Tharashk during the war, and liked the area so much he just stayed behind afterwards and was taken in by the local farm. Which leads to…

Consider the impact of the war.

We’re two years out from a devastating century of war, which involved a wide range of magical weapons. You could have the equivalent of a magical minefield – a stretch of land that’s been abandoned because of explosive wards still scattered across the countryside. You could come to a place where a bridge is being rebuilt and you have to take ferries across; the Brelish ferryman curses the damn Cyrans, and complains about how they ruined his town and now Boranel is buying them dinner. You might find craters from powerful war magics, ruins that have never been rebuilt, a hamlet that was once a prosperous town before the war took most of its population… or another town that’s home to a large refugee population, and tensions are high.

Consider Religion. 

In a village in Thrane, you might find the townsfolk practicing archery on the green while a cantor sings praises to Tira. Next door in Breland you may have a village that has no priest, but everyone believes the oldest farmer is blessed by Arawai, and he speaks on her behalf at village gatherings. Shrines to Sovereigns can take many forms. Daca sits on a pillar in Sharn, but you could just as easily find a pillar saint in a small town.The central square in a Karrnathi hamlet contains a bloodstained stone basin, used for the ritual sharing of blood. In western Breland you might find a cairn made from shards of shattered statues; this dates back to a time when the Znir gnolls lived in the region, but the locals have continued to add stones to it.

Presumably, small villages are less diverse than great cities like Sharn, but how much so? Do non-humans tend to have their own communities in rural areas, or are they integrated with the majority human population?

I believe that most communities are integrated in the Five Nations. It varies by nation – Humans make up 70% of the population in Thrane, while they are less than half of the populace of Breland. Tied to this, through the Dragonmarked Houses every common race has a critical role in the economy that helps their position in society. There’s surely racisim in Khorvaire, and you can play that up from any angle you like; but it’s still the case that I’m used to having halflings running the inn the hospital, and gnomes sending messages. And this has been true for a thousand years. Dwarves built the towers of Sharn. So in my opinion, while racism is definitely out there, in the Five Nations nationalism is stronger. If I’m from Breland, I care more about the fact that you’re Brelish than that you’re a dwarf; that piece of things will come second.

So for the most part, I believe you see diversity in communities. In Breland, if there’s ten families in a village, you can expect at least two of them to be dwarves or gnomes. With that said, you’re likely to see SOME concentration simply because it’s necessary to sustain a community. Which is to say, if each village was a perfect microcosm you’d have one gnome family, one dwarf family, one halfling family… and what happens when the children are looking for mates? So I suspect you have village A that’s blended dwarves and humans, village B that’s gnomes and humans, etc… but people aren’t going to freak out if a halfling moves in. Probably.

You certainly could have entire villages of a particular race, but I don’t think it’s the norm.

Are there any significant numbers of warforged outside of the cities, e.g. the village with the warforged named Smith who was welcomed because the former village smith died in the War?

I’d expect warforged to congregate in the cities. Lacking clear direction and purpose and owning no property, it’s easier for them to make a start around others of their kind. And warforged are both new and created as weapons of war – so it’s far more logical to see prejudice against warforged than against the races that have been part of your civilization for centuries. With that said, I think you see warforged in small communities where they have attachments to people who live there. When the soldier came home to his farm after the war, his warforged companion came with him and works on the farm. In the local tavern, a warforged remains as the bouncer. And I think an entire village of warforged – a gift of land from a noble grateful for their service – is an intriguing story idea. As for your smith (and I played a warforged artificer named Smith for a while), some villages would welcome him and others might drive him away; again, prejudice against warforged is more common than any of the demihumans.

Could a kalashar thrive in a hamet where she is the only psion for miles, or would she feel the need to conceal her talents? Similar question for changelings?

I think a kalashtar could do just fine. It’s easy for kalashtar to disguise themselves as humans if they want, but I also don’t think we’ve established fear of psionics as a big thing in the Five Nations; most people would just assume it’s some sort of mind magic. Changelings are another question and one I’ll address at more length at some places. Breland is fairly accepting of changelings and they may live openly. In other places you’ll oftn see changelings concealing their true nature; bear in mind, the reason they are called “changelings” dates from people having children with a disguised shapeshifter, and when the child is born a changeling, believing that their actual baby has been stolen away. And you also have small communities that are entirely changelings – though you won’t know it passing through. So it depends on the place: changelings will often hide, but a trusted changling whose family has been part of the community for a while may just live out in the open.

These are just a few ideas. The possibilities are endless, especially when you get into the different nations and their own unique elements, but that’s all I have time for now. Feel free to share ways you’ve presented the flavor of the world below!

Dragonmarks: Tieflings

In a previous Dragonmark I wrote about my general approach to adding exotic races to Eberron. Since then there’s been a fair amount of interest in a race that already has a vaguely defined role in canon Eberron: The Tiefling. While tieflings have come up in canon sources — the Venomous Demesne is mentioned in the 4E sourcebooks — as always, this is what I’d do in my personal campaign and it may contradict canon material.

The basic concept of the tiefling is a humanoid touched by infernal powers. Some interpretations present the concept of an empire whose lords bargained with dark forces; in others, tieflings are loners without a clear culture or path. As always, my goal in adding a new race is to find out what the players are looking for. If I have a player asking to be a tiefling, do they want to be part of an ancient tradition of warlocks? Would they rather play a loner who feels cursed by their infernal blood? Here’s two different approaches, each of which provides a very different story for a player to build on.

THE VENOMOUS DEMESNE

The Sarlonan nation of Ohr Kaluun was infamous for delving into dark magics. In the depths of their war labyrinths, the mage-lords of Ohr Kaluun forged pacts with infernal spirits and tapped into the powers of the planes. Over generations this twisted the blood of the nobles, producing the first tieflings. This corruption didn’t go unnoticed. Khaleshite crusaders fought bitterly against Ohr Kaluun, and fear of the demonic taint of Ohr Kaluun spreading across Sarlona was a cornerstone of the civil strife that resulted in the Sundering. The civilization of Ohr Kaluun was wiped out during the Sundering, but a small force of nobles and their retainers escaped across the sea. These refugees created a hidden enclave on the west coast of Khorvaire. Over the course of centuries, they regained a portion of their pride and power. They inspired fear in the savage creatures that lived around them, and their realm became known as the Venomous Demesne. The tiefling lords were largely content in their isolation until the Daughters of Sora Kell rose to power in the region and sought to unify the wilds into the nation of Droaam. Sora Teraza herself came to the Venomous Demesne, bypassing the mystical concealment as if it didn’t exist. She spoke to the Council of Four, and none know what she said. But in the days that followed, the noble lines sent representatives to the Great Crag and joined in the grand experiment of Droaam.

The Venomous Demesne is a tiefling community and culture. It is a small hidden city, whose population includes both humans and tieflings… though many of the humans have minor signs of infernal heritage, even if they don’t have the full racial mechanics. The Demense is ruled by an alliance of four tiefling families, and the members of these families are powerful casters delving into many paths of magic: there are warlocks, clerics, and wizards of all schools. Their powers are vast, but grounded in dark bargains made in the past. To most outsiders, their traditions seem arbitrary and cruel. The price of magic is often paid for in pain and blood. Duels are an important part of their culture – never to the death, as they are still too few in number to squander noble blood so casually, but always with a painful cost for the loser.

If you are a full-blooded tiefling of the Venomous Demense, you are a scion of a noble line – a line that made bargains with malefic powers in the past. Your people have long been extremely insular, shunning all contact with the outside world. Now that they are expanding into Droaam, some are interested in knowing more about Khorvaire and the opportunities it presents. Consider the following options…

  • Your noble house is the weakest of the four lines. You are searching for allies or powers that will allow your house to gain dominance over the Venomous Demesne.
  • You are a lesser heir of your house and will never achieve status in the Demesne. You are seeking personal power that will let you take control of your house. You’re especially interested in the Mourning; it reminds you of stories you’ve heard about the magics of Ohr Kaluun, and you wonder if you could unlock and master its powers.
  • You have discovered a terrible secret about your ancestors and the bargains that they made… a pact that is about to come due. It may be that the cost affects you personally; that it could destroy your house; or that it is a threat to Eberron itself. Perhaps an Overlord is due to be released, or a planar incursion will occur if you can’t stop it. The Council of Four won’t listen to you – so you’re on your own.
  • You have been exiled from the Demesne. This could be because of a duel you lost, a crime you committed, or a crime you WOULDN’T commit. Perhaps you were ordered to participate in a pact that would damn your soul, or to murder someone you cared about. You can never return: what destiny can you find in the outer world?

You are from a hidden city of dark wonders, and the Five Nations seem hopelessly primitive and savage to you. Where is the blood wine? Where is the music of the spheres? Imagine you’re an alien from an advanced civilization, forced to deal with savages.

PLANETOUCHED TIEFLINGS

The tieflings of the Venomous Demesne were mystically engineered. Their ancestors chose to become tieflings by binding dark powers to their blood. But those same dark powers can leak into the world uncalled for. During coterminous periods, planar influences can shape an unborn child; this is especially true in a manifest zone. In this way, a Tiefling can be born into a human family. This occurs most frequently in the Demon Wastes, and among the Carrion Tribes Tieflings are seen as blessed, often rising to positions of power in a tribe. Within the Five Nations such births are more often viewed with fear and concern. This is often justified. A planetouched Tiefling isn’t the result of a bargain or pact. They are touched by planar power, and this shapes them in both body and mind.

When making a planetouched tiefling, the first question is which plane you’re tied to and how that manifests physically and mentally.

  • Fernia is an obvious choice, as its residents include devils and demons and many Tiefling racial abilities are tied to fire. A Fernian tiefling fits the classic appearance. Skin could be fiery red or orange, and warm to the touch. Eyes could be glowing embers, and when the tiefling grows angry the ambient temperature could rise. A Fernian tiefling would be fiery and passionate, with an innate love for seeing things destroyed by flame.
  • Shavarath is also a good choice, as it is home to the majority of fiends that resemble tieflings. A tiefling tied to Shavararath might have horns of steel, and their skin could seem to be made of leather or iron, though this would be a cosmetic effect only. A fiend of Shavarath could keep the standard flame-based powers, but would have a martial nature and strong instinct for aggression, conquest, or bloodshed.
  • Risia also works as the counterpoint to Fernia. A Risian tiefling would have pale white or silvery skin and hair. Their horns might actually be made of ice, staying frozen even in the warmest temperatures, and they might draw heat from their surroundings. A Risian tiefling should have resistance to cold instead of fire, and their Hellish Rebuke would inflict cold damage. Emotionally, Risian tieflings tend to be cold and distant, rarely showing emotion or compassion.
  • Mabar is home to succubi, and a Mabaran tiefling takes after these fiends. A Mabaran tiefling replaces fire resistance with resistance to necrotic damage, and replaces Hellish Rebuke with Arms of Hadar. Mabaran tieflings are often extremely attractive; some have natural skin tones, while others have unnaturally dark skin. Mabaran tieflings are predators by nature and often sociopaths or narcissists.
  • Sakah are tieflings of the Demon Wastes who are touched by the power of the rakshasa. Instead of the horns and tail of the typical tiefling they have feline traits – cat’s eyes, fangs, skin with tiger-stripe patterns, often in unnatural colors. Sakah can use the exact same racial traits as the traditional tiefling, though with the DM’s permission you can exchange Hellish Rebuke (at 3rd level) for the ability to use Alter Self once per day. Sakah are inherently deceptive and manipulative; like the Mabaran tieflings, they are almost exclusively sociopath who have difficulty empathizing with humans.

A critical point here: you aren’t simply touched by the plane, you are touched by its fiendish influences. The fiends of Fernia don’t simply represent fire: Fernian demons reflect the chaotic, terrifying destructive power of fire, while Fernia devils embody the use of fire as a tool for destruction and torment. A genasi is an individual tied to neutral elemental forces: as a tiefling, you are a malevolent embodiment of the planar concept. If you’re a tiefling from Shavarath, you’ve innately got a strong bond to the Mockery – you might want to follow the path of Dol Arrah, but it will definitely be a struggle as your instincts push you towards treachery and cruelty.

Unlike the tieflings of the Venomous Demesne, planetouched tieflings aren’t a true-breeding race; they have no communities or culture. Were you abandoned by your parents who considered you a freakish mutation? Did they instead embrace you and try to help you find a place in the world? Are you a bitter lone wolf, or someone who has fought to find acceptance in public society? Were you born in the Demon Wastes and considered to be blessed… and if so, why did you ever leave? Most of all, do you consider the touch of the plane a curse or a blessing?

PUBLIC REACTION

So the question that comes up most often is how do people in (place) react to tieflings? People in Thrane must hate them, because they’re like demons, right?

Well, sort of. The point I’ve made before is that WE look at the tiefling and see a demon: but the demons the people of Eberron know best are rakshasa, so “horns and red skin” doesn’t automatically mean “evil.” Consider the vast number of monstrous humanoids that exist in the world: if you live in Sharn you’ve encountered harpies, gargoyles, ogres, goblins, shifters, changlings, warforged, and potentially even medusa just doing everyday stuff in town. There’s a creature with living snakes for hair, and while people are definitely UNCOMFORTABLE around medusas, they are still a part of the world.

So the first question is: does the person in question actually know what a tiefling is? By default, tieflings are extremely rare. The tieflings of the Venomous Demesne have always been in hiding. Planetouched tieflings are most common in the Demon Wastes and rarely ever leave it. If you don’t know that a tiefling is connected to fiendish powers, then they are just a person with strange skin and horns. My point in the previous article wasn’t that anyone could mistake a tiefling for a minotaur, but rather that to the casual observer there’s nothing more inherently threatening about a tiefling than there is about a minotaur; both are horned humanoids, and frankly the tiefling is closer to being human. So by default a tiefling won’t produce a reaction of “BURN IT! IT’S A DEMON!” because it’s not the right sort of demon. It’s just some sort of monster, and there are lots of monsters in the world.

With that said, if you WANT the story of persecution and fear, it’s a trivial thing to say that people do know what tieflings are and why they should fear them. Looking to my explanation for planetouched tieflings, I suggested that this is a thing that happens when the destructive planes are coterminous. In this case, as rare as they are, it could be understood that tieflings care the touch of evil – that there is a fiendish taint in their blood, and that most are dangerous and destructive. In this case, I’d look at the treatment of the aberrant dragonmarked as a guideline. Like a tiefling, an aberrant didn’t choose to be cursed – but they possess a dangerous power, and superstition states that they are inclined to be evil. People may not call a priest when a tiefling shows up, but they could certainly treat the tiefling – and any who associate with them – with fear and suspicion, and want nothing to do with them. Followers of the Silver Flame or Dol Arrah could assert that through no fault of their own, the tiefling is inherently inclined to be evil; it might not be a matter of shoot-on-site, but a templar could easily be looking for an excuse to take the twisted thing down.

Now, if this is the path you use, the critical thing would be that if you have BOTH planetouched tieflings and the Venomous Demesne, people will assume the tiefling from the demense is planetouched. Because again, the Demesne has always been hidden and planetouched tieflings aren’t true-breeding; so the idea of a city of tieflings is definitely beyond anyone’s imagining.

RELLEKOR

In a previous post, I mentioned the idea that the village of Rellekor in Thrane has had a large Tiefling community for centuries. How does this tie into these two models? Recall that the Church of the Silver Flame is founded on principles of compassion. It seeks to protect the innocent from supernatural evil. A tiefling has the potential to be a supernatural threat, but it can also be innocent; a tiefling can even become a champion of the Flame.

With this in mind, Rellekor was established as a haven for planetouched tieflings. When Thrane families give birth to a tiefling (due to planar influences), they will usually turn the child over to the church, who will in turn deliver it to Rellekor. Thus, the population of Rellekor is made up of planetouched tieflings with ties to many different planes. It’s not a prison; it’s a place where tieflings can be with their own kind without dealing with the fear of others. Priests of the Flame seek to help tieflings come to terms with their planetouched nature and any gifts or powers associated with it, and help them find a path to the light… while Templars stand ready to deal with those who prove dangerous or irredeemably sociopathic. Note that most of these priests and templars are themselves tieflings.

People of Thrane thus have some concept of tieflings, but bear in mind that part of the point of Rellekor is to keep tieflings from mingling with the general population. The basic attitude is thus that tieflings are dangerous, much like people with aberrant dragonmarks.

If you want to play a tiefling devoted to the Silver Flame, it makes sense that you would have been raised and trained in Rellekor. Otherwise, it can be an interesting location to visit. There are a number of tiefling sages and priests with great wisdom in this place, and it’s also a center for study of the planes tied to the tieflings; if you need insight into Mabar, speak to the Mabarn tiefling monks of Rellekor.

I’m going to leave things there, but hopefully that’s given you some ideas if you’re looking to bring tieflings into your campaign!

 

Podcasts, Livestreams and Conventions

If you’re interested in Eberron, Phoenix: Dawn Command, or my opinions on random TV shows, here’s a few things you might want to watch or listen to.

For around the last twenty years, I’ve had a weekly phone call with friend and fellow game designer Andrew Looney. Sometimes we talk about game design or our latest projects; other times we talk about the shows we’re watching or stories we’re reading. We call this The Download, and in 2015 Andy suggested we make it a podcast. I’m not sure if it’s interesting for anyone but us, but if you’re curious what two game designers talk about, check it out.

But that’s not my only podcast. If you’re interested in the Eberron Campaign Setting you should definitely check out Manifest Zone. This is a podcast about Eberron, and each month Kristian Serrano, Wayne Chang, Scott W and I will be discussing a particular aspect of the setting and how it’s relevant to both players and gamemasters.

And as long as I’m talking about podcasts, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Going Last podcast, where I’ve been an occasional guest and co-host.

If visuals are more your thing, I wanted to draw attention to Maze Arcana and Saving Throw, two livestreams tied to RPGs I love. Maze Arcana is a D&D 5E livestream featuring the fabulous Satine Phoenix, GM Ruty Rutenberg, and others. I’ve worked with Satine for the years on the ChariD20 charity RPG events, and I’ve enjoyed consulting with her and Ruty on the story behind Maze Arcana. Meanwhile, Saving Throw is the only place where you can see Phoenix: Dawn Command in action – including a session run by me in season one! Honorable mention here goes to RoleOut, an Eberron livestream from Oz Mills.

Last but not least, if you’re in the Memphis area I’m the gaming guest of honor at MidSouthCon this weekend, and it’s a chance to play or discuss Eberron, Phoenix: Dawn Command, Illimat and more. I hope to see some of you there!

Catching Up and the Eldeen Reaches

It’s been over a month since my last post: where have I been?

There’s been quite a few things that kept me off the internet. At Twogether we’ve been hard at work getting Illimat to press. Gloom In Space just came out, and I’ve been working on another game you’ll be seeing later in the year: Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Card Game. Beyond this, I’ve been dealing with family issues and helping organize gaming on the JoCo Cruise. And to top it all off, I have the flu.

So: I’ve been busy. And I’m going to continue to be busy for the forseeable future. I’m a Guest of Honor at MidSouthCon later this month; I’m working on a new new game, just recorded an episode of a new podcast, and I’m still planning a range of support for Phoenix: Dawn Command in the next few months.

However, I don’t want to let too much time go by without addressing Eberron questions, so let’s get back to it.

Would people from Varna and other eastern settlements in the Eldeen Reaches reconsider going back under Aundairian sovereignty if the Ashbound and the Children of Winter increase attacks against those “civilized” lands and the Wardens are reluctant or unable to protect them? 

As with most things in Eberron, it’s certainly possible if it’s a story you want to explore. It’s especially plausible in Varna, as House Vadalis maintains strong ties to Aundair and would be happy to see Varna return to Aundair.

The critical thing to understand is that the split between Aundair and the Eldeen wasn’t a spur of the moment decision during the Last War. The bandits were the excuse but not the root cause. Instead, it was the culmination of events that had been brewing for a thousand years. The Wardens of the Wood predate Galifar, and always had ties to the people of the Reaches. Galifar united the Five Nations by conquest. His daughter Aundair was set over the northeast, and she sought to instill her values in the people of the region: her love of education, civilization, and arcane magic. But the further you get from Fairhaven, the more people hold to the old ways. When the Eldeen Reaches seceded from Aundairan, they weren’t suddenly allying with mysterious druids they knew nothing about; they were throwing off centuries of oppression and returning to their ancestral roots.

Varna is an exception. It has always been the seat of House Vadalis. It’s the largest city in the Reaches, a center of industry, and it has the strongest ties to Aundair. It’s the logical place for a pro-Aundairian movement to arise.

With that said: the critical question is why the Wardens wouldn’t take action if the Children of Winter and the Ashbound became increasingly aggressive. Small raids may be overlooked, but large-scale action should draw a response from Oalian and the Wardens; that’s what the Wardens are for. One option is that they simply can’t defend the Reaches — that the Ashbound or Children of Winter have had a sudden surge in numbers and power, perhaps drawing members away from the Wardens. If this is the campaign plan, I’d want to explore WHY the sect in question has suddenly gained such power. What’s behind the surge? Why do they feel expanded aggression is necessary? Alternately, it could be that the Wardens are unwilling to interfere… but again, why is this? If innocents are being hurt, why won’t the Wardens take action? If it were me, the answer to these questions would be a critical part of the story of the campaign.

Are there still any operating shrines to or faithful of the Silver Flame in the Eldeen Reaches since the time of the purge?

Excellent question, and one that hasn’t been explored as deeply as it probably should have been. The Silver Flame gained a foothold in the region when the templars fought the lycanthropic plague. This is an example of a time when the Wardens couldn’t defend the region against a threat, and many placed their faith in the force that saved them. With that said, it’s important to emphasis that this is the stronghold of the so-called “Pure Flame.” These are people who first encountered the Flame as a tool of war. It’s this splinter of the faith that has produced people like Cardinal Dariznu. Charity and compassion aren’t key components of the Flame you’ll find here, and a friar from Thrane may find little common ground with a templar from the Reaches.

I guess those faithful are mistrusted by the local shifters…

That goes both ways. Followers of the Pure Flame generally consider shifters to be tainted by lycanthropy… essentially, that they are werewolves-in-waiting, who could at any time fall prey to the corruption in their blood. And it was the followers of the Pure Flame that instigated the worst of the atrocities in the inquisition that followed the Lycanthropic Purge — driven by an understandable hunger for vengeance on the force that nearly destroyed them. So yeah, local shifters will generally dislike followers of the Flame.

Are purified shifters seen as traitors by others?

I don’t think “traitor” is the right word, but it’s something that would be incredibly rare. The primary faith of the Flame in the region is the Pure Flame, and per the Pure Flame shifters are cursed. So a Shifter follower of the Pure Flame would be someone who in all likelihood distrusts their own kind; it’s sort of like a half-fiend embracing the faith, likely believing that it can help them overcome the evil in their lineage.

With that said, the core beliefs of the Silver Flame aren’t prejudiced against shifters, and a shifter cleric from Flamekeep wouldn’t feel this way; however, most locals don’t know the difference, as the Pure Flame is the only form of the Silver Flame they’ve encountered.

Could a surge in the other sects be perhaps the outcome of a ploy by queen Aurala?

I wouldn’t see that as happening directly, but indirectly, certainly. The Ashbound are deeply opposed to the abuse (or for that matter, the use) of arcane magic. Imagine that Aurala makes a gift of mystical tools to villages in the Reaches – a kindly peace offering. Cleansing stones, everburning lamps, some new system of wards, or especially something that affects the natural order – something that blocks disease, affects the fertility of the region, etc – could push the Children of Winter or Ashbound to aggression removing this unnatural thing. Thus Aurala is doing something generous and the sects blocking it are seen as heartless and cruel. Of course, if you want to keep it interesting, it could be that Aurala’s magic WILL disrupt natural patterns; there’s no reason the Ashbound can’t actually be RIGHT with their concerns.

 

Or a rogue dragon trying to shape the prophecy by weakening the Wardens or furthering chaos in the Reaches?

Seems more like something that would be tied to the Lords of Dust, and the Lords of Dust would have a more logical basis for having an entrenched network of agents in the region that could help manipulate events.

If it was a Gatekeeper that awakened Oalian (if it was), why did he found a new sect of druid faith?

Why do new religions evolve, or existing religions change? Tira Miron was a paladin of Dol Arrah, and she became the Voice of the Silver Flame. Oalian is a unique individual. He’s bound to the natural world in a way the druid who awakened him never could be. He has a unique perspective and centuries of experience – and in that time, he created the sect he believed the region needed.

How has having Droaam as a new neighbor and influenced the Reaches?

Before she joined her sisters as a ruler of Droaam, Sora Maenya was the Terror of the Towering Woods. She’s not a new threat, and the Towering Woods have never been safe. That’s why the Wardens of the Wood exist: to protect outsiders from the wood, and to protect the wood from outsiders. They’ve clashed with the Znir Pact and the Wind Howlers long, long before Droaam ever existed. If anything, hostilities between the Reaches and Droaam have probably DROPPED since Droaam became a nation as the Daughters have tighter control over forces that would have otherwise engaged in random raids and skirmishes.

Did the Greensingers arise from other druidic sects like the case with Oalian founding the Wardens? 

Essentially. The druidic traditions in the Reaches can be ultimately traced back to the Gatekeepers. But like Oalian, the inhabitants of the Reaches — shifters, human settlers, others — learned these traditions after the Xoriat incursion, and weren’t as focused on the Gatekeeper mission. Imagine that a member of the Chamber founds an order of wizards and teaches them arcane magic to use to find a demon. They do, and the members of the circle devote their lives, and those of their descendants, to maintaining the seals. But along the way, a member of the circle teaches some of their magic to someone else – an outsider who hasn’t sworn to maintain the seals, or a child who leaves their family instead of embracing their duty. This person goes north and teaches the magic they’ve learned to someone else. At this point, this third generation wizard knows only the basic principles of the magic and almost none of the history behind it; but they have enough to build upon, to make their own discoveries and create their own traditions.

This is what you have in the Reaches. The basic techniques of druidic magic can be traced back to the Gatekeepers, but we’re talking about thousands of years — more than enough time for new traditions to evolve and arise. The Greensingers are just such a case, shaped when druidic initiates encountered envoys of Thelanis, or found their way into the Faerie Court themselves.

And do you see the majority of the Greensingers as being more loyal to their fey patrons or to the people of the Reaches, considering that they act as intermediaries between the two?

I see the Greensingers as being an intensely individualistic sect, far more so than any of the others. They’re tied to different patrons and inspired by different things. Some of them may be deeply devoted to serving as intermediaries or guides; others may solely be concerned with the agendas of their fey patrons.

What could change if the Wardens decide that Ashbounds are right and arcane magic is driving the world to apocalypse? Could the druid together do something? Would they try something extreme like a war to house cannith, attempting to kill everybody with the mark of making?

Do they have the resources to do anything like that? It’s really up to you as a GM. In my opinion, the Wardens of the Wood are a small force; while they may have access to significant primal power in the Towering Woods, like the Undying Court, that power is concentrated in a specific geographic location; they simply don’t have the capability of threatening House Cannith across the Five Nations. Which is part of the basic premise of Eberron: if they DID decide House Cannith was a threat, they’d need to find some champions – IE PCs – to do something about it. Note that even at the height of their power, the Gatekeepers couldn’t face the Daelkyr on their own; it was the alliance of Gatekeepers and Dhakaani that overcame the incursion.

With that said, if you wanted to use this as something the PCs need to prevent as opposed to enact, there’s any number of plots I could image. Perhaps they work with the Children of Winter and come up with a plague that specifically targets the dragonmarked, killing them or simply sterilizing them. This isn’t an instant effect, but it’s something that is spreading rapidly; can the PCs find a cure before it’s too late? What consequences will losing a big chunk of the dragonmarked have on the world?

Perhaps they enact a massive ritual that separates Eberron from Siberys and completely disrupts arcane magic – which would have widespread ramifications, such as the collapse of Sharn and crashing of airships. The initial ritual might only last for a day – but can the PCs find an answer before a follow-up ritual makes it permanent?

And the real question I’d ask is What if they’re right? What if it IS pushing Eberron closer to the apocalypse? If you reverse this ritual, will it trigger a new and more widespread Mourning?

I explored this concept in greater depth in an Eye on Eberron article in Dragon 418. Here’s an excerpt.

The doctrine of the Children of Winter states that Siberys is the source of arcane and divine magic; Eberron the mother of primal and natural things; and Khyber is the font of aberrations and fiends. The first signs of Eberron’s fury would be a wave of natural disasters. Thousands die as floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes shake the world. Once she is fully awake, Eberron asserts her preeminence over her creation, banishing the influence of Khyber and Siberys alike. The Lords of Dust are forced into the depths with other fiends, while the dragons of Argonnessen are wiped out. The magical energies wielded by both wizards and priests are cast back to the Ring of Siberys, and arcane and divine magic fails utterly. The towers of Sharn collapse under their own weight. Airships fall from the sky. Amid this chaos, awakened plants tear down the foundations of cities, newborn primal predators hunt survivors, and plagues ravage the land.

            The loss of magic is the key event of this disaster, but it doesn’t make the world a mundane place. Dragons are hard hit because arcane magic flows through their blood—but there are many natural creatures that have innate supernatural abilities. The ogre still has his strength, and the blink dog can still slip through space. Primal magic is stronger than ever, and the youngsters in the ruined cities will grow up to be barbarians and wardens. But beyond that, only a handful of people can still use arcane and divine magic . . . including the player characters. One of the underlying themes of Eberron is that the PCs are the most important people of the age, and here is where that precept is made manifest. Player character clerics and paladins are the last connection to the divine in a world cut off from the heavens. The PC sorcerer still holds a spark of Siberys in his blood, while the artificer is one of the only people who can harness the residual energy that remains. The characters have powers that no one else can wield. Will they search for a way to restore the old order, or will they use their abilities for personal gain? Will the wizard try to create rituals that anyone can use, or use his powers to carve out a kingdom?

Maybe it’s a too off topic question, but if the plan of the Ashbound was to kill or sterilize every Cannith… what would change in Eberron? How would it be an Eberron without House Cannith?

It’s off topic, but I’ll allow it. Personally, I don’t think the removal of House Cannith alone is a logical goal for the Ashbound. Among other things, House Vadalis and House Jorasco are more obvious offenders when it comes to “twisting the natural order of things” and Vadalis is based in Varna, right on the doorstep of the Ashbound. Beyond that, removing House Cannith WOULDN’T have a dramatic immediate effect on things, because most of what Cannith does can be replicated by independent artificers, alchemists, wizards and blacksmiths; what Cannith does is a) innovate and b) industrialize. Inventions like the warforged – something that can only be created by Cannith – are rare; mostly, they produce everything from potions to mundane tools, and creation forges and schemas allow them to produce these things more efficiently and in larger quantities than other folks. Remove House Cannith and what you’ll get is prices of common items going up, shortages occurring, and quality starting to vary dramatically; right now Cannith defines the “industry standard”.

We’ve always said that Eberron is “widespread magic” as opposed to “high magic”. It’s the industrial aspect of Cannith that allows it to be widespread, producing mundane items like everburning torches and the like. Remove Cannith and those things will still be produced – just by a hundred independents, resulting in that range of quality and availability. It wouldn’t be as dramatic as eliminating arcane magic entirely.

Do you have questions about the Eldeen Reaches? Post them below!

Eberron Flashback: The Lords of Dust

I’ve got a lot of articles I’d like to write when time permits, but at the moment it’s not permitting. So today I wanted to revisit a previous topic: the Lords of Dust and their masters, the Overlords of the First Age. I’m incorporating a few new questions from the mailbag, and post your questions in the comments below. I also want to give another shout-out to Maze Arcana, an Eberron livestream campaign put together by Ruty Rutenberg and Satine Phoenix, the mastermind behind the ChariD20 events I’ve done for the past few years. Check it out! And now, on to the Overlords. As always, these answers are just my opinions and may contradict canon sources… though to the best of my knowledge, I’ve written most of the canon sources on the Lords of Dust!

There are a number of decent sources of information on the Lords of Dust. I recommend the Eberron Campaign Guide (4E) and Dragon 337. With that said, let me try to clarify some of the common points of confusion right away.

The Lords of Dust is an alliance of fiends—mostly rakshasa, as they are the most common native fiends of Eberron—who serve the interests of the fiendish Overlords of the Age of Demons. There were originally approximately thirty of these Overlords. Their power was equivalent of that of gods in most other settings. Most exerted influence over a region akin to a large modern nation, but some had more subtle influence reaching across the entire world. Overlords are part of the very fabric of reality, and they cannot be destroyed any more that you can destroy death or treachery. They can only be bound, and that only with the guidance of the Prophecy. The only known force capable of binding them is the Silver Flame, which was created by the sacrifice of the Couatl host, a sacrifice that created an immortal force of light to contain the immortal force of darkness.

The Overlords of the Age of Demons are the most powerful entities that exist in the setting. An individual Overlord is equivalent in power to il-Lashtavar (the force behind the Dreaming Dark) or the entire Undying Court. A question worth asking is, if they are so incredibly powerful and had hordes of demons on top of it, how did the war of the Age of Demons last so long? It lasted for centuries… why didn’t the Overlords just win?

There’s a few answers. The first is that it wasn’t a “war” in the sense we think of it. Some of the Overlords—like Rak Tulkhesh and Katashka—fielded armies that could be fought in a traditional battle. Some sought to directly control and enslave dragons, titans, and other creatures. But with many of them, the “war” was simply existence. They are immortal. Their fiendish servants are immortal. They don’t NEED to conquer you. They just do what they do. A battle against Tul Oreshka is a battle against madness; having more soldiers doesn’t help you win a fight. The Voice in the Darkness “wins” when you succumb to madness; she doesn’t need to occupy your city if she occupies your mind.

Got that? Now add to this the fact that for the most part, the Overlords were neither friends nor allies. They are not human in any sense of the word: they are primal entities who shape reality by virtue of existing. Far from being friends, many of them actually fought one another; when you’re an incarnation of strife or discord, that’s kind of what you do. One of the main reasons they were finally defeated is because their opponents were able to target them individually or use their existing rivalries against them. And bear in mind that absolute immortality and nigh-omnipotence breeds a lot of overconfidence.

After they were bound, their surviving servants eventually recovered and began laying plans to free their masters. Eventually this brought them in conflict with one another. The Lords of Dust aren’t a monolithic force; they are more like the United Nations, with each member of the Council of Ashtakala representing the interests of a different Overlord. They don’t all share resources, and three different Lords of Dust may all have personal agents in the same court. The purpose of the Council is at best to exchange favors and at worst to try to keep the Lords from interfering with one another’s plans accidentally (key word: accidentally. Intentional interference happens). The Wyrmbreaker calls the council together and explains that he’s going to be doing something that involves a group of heroes and will probably kill the Queen of Aundair. The Shadowsword explains that he has plans involving Aurala, but based on his insights into the Prophecy, perhaps Durastoran could achieve the same results with the death of Kaius III—and he’d be happy to lend some agents to that cause. Perhaps the Wyrmbreaker agrees, perhaps he doesn’t, perhaps he agrees but still plans to see to it that Aurala dies.

The next thing is to understand what it takes to release an Overlord. It’s nothing so simple as breaking a seal or melting a ring. The conditions for the release of an Overlord are different for each one, and involve a long-term manipulation of the Prophecy. In the case of the Aurala death above, we’re not just talking about Aurala’s death; it would be trivial for one of the Lords of Dust to make that happen. Instead, it’s that a particular hero (the son of a particular person, herself the daughter of a particular person, born in particular circumstances) must kill a beloved ruler on a particular day with a particular weapon, and must do so believing they are serving a greater good but in fact be wrong. So the Lord of Dust not only can’t kill the ruler, they actually have to make sure that the person who does the killing doesn’t know why they are doing it. Some of the Overlords’ release conditions have nothing to do with one another; others are actually overlapping or contradictory, so actions cannot be taken to free one without directly screwing with another. This can result in Lords of Dust helping heroes. The problem is, if a Lord of Dust is helping you, you can be certain it’s somehow benefiting them.

If an Overlord is released, it generally won’t return at full power. It will take time for its power to grow.  Bel Shalor was released, and wreaked havoc in Thrane for almost a year before he was finally bound again by the sacrifice of Tira Miron. It wasn’t the end of the world; it was simply a year of utter terror for the people of Thrane. Of course it’s possible that Bel Shalor intended this all along as a way of infecting the Silver Flame, and thus his release wasn’t as devastating as it could be. But generally, the immediate release of an Overlord will affect an area of a few miles, spreading out until it encompasses a nation or more. The impact will also greatly depend on WHICH Overlord is released. An incarnation of madness or war will cause immediate violence or insanity. An elemental force like Dral Khatuur would cause a new ice age. But an incarnation of tyranny or betrayal may have a very subtle effect that takes years to really be noticed. It’s entirely possible that the Mourning was caused by the release of an Overlord, and that there are continuing effects that people simply haven’t identified. Essentially, the effect of an Overlord’s release is up to the DM. It could have instantly apocalyptic effects, or it could be a slow cancer that eats away at the region over time.

Tied to this, I once had a PC warlock in my campaign who was actually a willing agent of an Overlord. The idea behind his character was that it was inevitable that an overlord would eventually be released… but his overlord would at least keep society intact in a form that people could live in, as opposed to dissolving it into chaos, war, or ice. Life in the domain of his overlord might be endless tyranny and oppression and tears of blood, but it’s far better than what you’d get from Tul Oreshka or Rak Tulkhesh. He didn’t LIKE the future he believed was coming, but he believed that ONE of them had to get out eventually, and his was the best option.

So bearing all that in mind…

Is there a list of all the rajahs already published somewhere? With the rajahs theme, location and where to find the full writeup?

I’ve never done it. However, Lord Gore at the WotC forums put together this list, which may be the most comprehensive around; I’ve updated it with Overlords mentioned since it was written.

  1. Bel Shalor, the Shadow in the Flame (Tamor Hills, Khorvaire) ECG page 29
  2. Dral Khatuur, the Heart of Winter (Frostfell) female overlord Druid 25/Sorcerer 15/Frost MageFb 10 Death, ColdFb, WinterFb unpublished
  3. Eldrantulku the Oathbreaker (unknown) NE male overlord rogue 15/sorcerer 15/mindbenderCAr 10 CorruptionBoVD, Trickery Dragon 337 pages 63, 69-70
  4. Katashka the Gatekeeper (Lair of the Keeper, Khorvaire) LE male overlord cleric 8/wizard 8/true necromancerLM 14 Deathbound, UndeathECS DoE page 36, Dragon 337 page 70, ECG page 30
  5. Rak Tulkhesh, the Rage of War (Khorvaire) NE male overlord fighter 15/blackguard 10/cleric 15 Destruction, War; Dragon 337 pages 65, 70; ECG page 31; Eye on Eberron, Dragon 314
  6. Ran Iishiv the Unmaker (Korrandar, Sarlona) SoS page 12
  7. Sakinnirot the Scar that Abides (Stormreach, Xen’drik) CoS page 156
  8. Shudra the Fleshrender (Mel-Aqat, Xen’drik) PGtE page 155, TFoW page 127
  9. Sul Khatesh the Keeper of Secrets (Arcanix, Khorvaire) LE female overlord wizard 36/archmage 4 Knowledge, Magic CoS 89, Dragon 337 pages 60, 68; ECG pg 31
  10. Tiamat, the Daughter of Khyber (Pit of Five Sorrows, Argonnessen) DoE page 9
  11. Tul Oreshka, the Truth in the Darkness (unknown) CE female overlord bard 20/wizard 10/loremaster 10 Madness, ShadowECS Dragon 337 pages 64, 70
  12. Masvirik the Cold Sun (Haka’Torvhak, Q’Barra); Dungeon 185 (DDI)
  13. Unnamed (Krertok Peninsula, Sarlona) SoS page 12
  14. Unnamed (Sustrai Mor, Sarlona) SoS page 91
  15. Unnamed (Tempest’s Isle, Lhazaar Principalities) PGtE page 99 possibly a rajah
  16. Yad-Raghesh (The Vale of the Fallen Rajah, Argonnessen) colossal two-headed overlord DoE page 50 “dead”
  17. The Spinner of Shadows (Xen’drik), DDO

I believe that Sul Khatesh is the only one that’s received a complete 3.5 writeup, in Dragon 337. I’ll also note that I prefer the term Overlord to rajah. “Rajah” tends to get subsumed into “rakshasa rajah”—and while the Overlords rule the rakshasa, they are not themselves rakshasa.

For you, how many overlords do exist? There is 17 listed, that’s all? There is a couple more? 17 more? A hundred more?

According to the Eberron Campaign Guide (page 30), “approximately thirty fiendish overlords are bound in Khyber.”

How big is the area of influence of an overlord?

Thirty overlords once held dominion over all of Eberron. A fully empowered overlord can easily hold dominion over an entire nation. However, it will take time for a released overlord to regain its full power. Its immediate dominion would cover a few miles, and would then quickly grow until it covered an entire nation or more.

If Katashka is made free, how long until the effects(pests, deaths, undead hordes) are sensed in the Talenta Plains? And Q’barra? Or Xen’drik/Sarlona?

That’s entirely up to you. You could decide that Katashka’s influence spreads quickly and that within days wights are crawling out of cemeteries across the world. Or you could decide that his power is growing slowly and won’t expand exponentially until Mabar’s next coterminous phase.

What if more than one overlord is released. Would they ally or make war on one another?

It entirely depends on what overlords they are. The Voice in the Darkness doesn’t do alliances. The Oathbreaker will, but there’s no question that any alliance with him will end in betrayal. And in some cases there’s no real basis for alliance—Rak Tulkhesh wants endless war, while Dral Khatuur simply wants to freeze everything in her reach. Some might fight, but such a feud might be even worse for mortals in the disputed territory than an alliance.

Are the overlords friendly to each other enough to release some or all of the other still bound ones? If Bel Shalor breaks his bonds, he will stride to Aundair and try to release Sul Khatesh, or he will just make sure she never gets free?

First, Bel Shalor can’t stride to Aundair and release Sul Khatesh. For Sul Khatesh to be released, the conditions of her Prophecy must be met. It doesn’t matter how much raw power Bel Shalor brings to bear; releasing an overlord is delicate work. Now, would he TRY to? Possibly. Bel Shalor in particular is a devious force, and has clearly learned a thing or two from his imprisonment. He might well see the value in releasing as many of the other overlords as possible, where Tul Oreshka just wouldn’t bother. On the other hand, there are certainly rivalries and some overlords might work against one another. It’s been noted that Dral Khatuur has no love for any of the others, and as a result she doesn’t have representatives on the Council of Ashtakala.

How common is the knowledge about how their prison works or where each of of then is between the overlords? Does every overlord know how to break free? Or how to break other free?

Extremely uncommon, no, and no. The secrets are all held in the Prophecy. It likely took thousands of years of study before any rakshasa figured out the secrets of releasing their master, and there may well be ones whose release conditions have never been identified. One thing to bear in mind is that the Prophecy is a living thing that constantly shifts as the future becomes the present. So Rak Tulkhesh can be released if X, Y, and Z happen. If you remove Z from the equation—by destroying the person who was supposed to have a child or the sword that child was supposed to use—the universe will simply recalculate and find a new way to solve for Z; and all the scholars who knew the original answer will have to keep studying until they figure it out. This is what the Chamber does: seek to identify paths that will release Overlords and eliminate them, while the Lords of Dust find paths that will release them. It’s a never ending conflict, even though it rarely comes to a demon and a dragon fighting one another.

What should the response of the Argonessen dragons be if an overlord is released?

Rebinding an overlord is just as difficult as releasing one, and in the same way, brute force is no answer. Bel Shalor wreaked havoc for a year in Thrane before Tira defeated him. Do you think Argonnessen just didn’t know or care? They knew; they simply had no path to rebind him, so they stayed far away. They may well have helped Tira without her knowing it. Just as it doesn’t help Sul Khatesh to have a rakshasa kill Queen Aurala, it doesn’t help Argonnessen if an army of dragons defeats Bel Shalor; he’d just reform tomorrow. So Argonnessen would get to work trying to find an answer to the problem, and trying to isolate themselves from the impact of the release. But brute force—even all the magic of Argonnessen—is no answer to the release of an overlord.

Of course it’s possible they would take action to contain the impact of a release. If the Rage of War gets out and transformed the Five Nations into a raving army of bloodthirty reavers, the dragons might sink their boats before they can reach Argonnessen. But this won’t stop Rak Tulkhesh.

And what about Aerenal? Are they safe against one overlord? Two? How long could take to the free overlord to crack the island defenses?

The Undying Court is essentially an artificial overlord. As such, it would be able to stave off the hostile influence of another overlord for a time, but as noted above, it would also depend on the form that influence takes. Tul Oreshka drives mortals mad. Rak Tulkhesh drives them to war. Aerenal could keep Rak Tulkhesh from infecting the elves, but they can’t stop him from flinging hordes of reavers at the island. And if you had an alliance of overlords, who knows?

Realizing that the bonds of the Daelkyr have to be maintained, and with the chaos brought by one or more released overlords, is safe to assume that sooner or later they would falter, and the mad gods would spill in Eberron again. How could they interact with the acting overlord(s)?

Daelkyr are small potatoes next to overlords. Bear in mind that the daelkyr aren’t even the toughest things in Xoriat; they’re just the toughest things that have any interest in other planes. Beyond that it depends on the overlord in question. The Voice in the Darkness might welcome the daelkyr. Rak Tulkhesh doesn’t care who’s fighting as long as someone is. An overlord who actually wants to exert dominion over mortals and have some semblance of civilization—an incarnation of Tyranny, for example—would need to deal with the daelkyr to keep them from wrecking that. But many overlords might just incorporate the daelkyr into their plans.

And Sarlona? What would be the Dreaming Dark response to an age of demons again?

Pretty much any free Overlord will mess things up for the Dreaming Dark. However, the Dreaming Dark has never been noted as having expert knowledge of the Prophecy, which means a) they don’t have lots of warning about it and b) they don’t really know what to do to deal with it. And remember, fiends don’t dream. Again, the Dreaming Dark was active when Bel Shalor spent a year free in Thrane. Most likely they would keep their distance while studying the situation and trying not to panic about it. They might provide aid to whoever proves to have a chance to bind it. But a Riedran army won’t help. Thought they may not know that—so if you WANT them to, you could have them panic and do something dramatic, simply so it can fail awesomely. Heck, a confrontation between the Dreaming Dark and an overlord might be just what it takes to push Dal Quor into the next age… which could be the best thing that could possibly happen, if the next age of Dal Quor is one of light.

You mentioned that “An individual Overlord is equivalent in power to il-Lashtavar (the force behind the Dreaming Dark) or the entire Undying Court”, but then said that il-Lashtavar would lose against an overlord. Isn’t that a contradiction? Do the Quori stand no chance?

The power of il-Lashtavar isn’t directly relevant because it can’t manifest on Eberron. The specific phrase I used was “any free Overlord would mess things up for the Dreaming Dark.” Chaos is the enemy of the Dreaming Dark: they seek to enforce stagnant order and stability, and any free Overlord would shake that up. The power of the Dreaming Dark is spread over continents, and it’s not like they’d want to pull every active Inspired away from what they are doing to battle an Overlord… and even if they could defeat it, it would be reborn. So rather than fighting it directly, I would expect them to operate as they always do – by manipulating mortals to fight the battle for them.

If a Lord of Dust was killed, would the death be for good (akin to killing a demon in the Abyss) or would it reform somewhere?

In Eberron, immortal spirits cannot be destroyed. Unless they are bound, they will always reform. This is true of every immortal from rakshasa to devils to quori. Depending on the type of immortal, it may not retain its memories after death and reincarnation. This is true of quori, and it’s why the Dreaming Dark seeks to exterminate the Kalashtar quori – so they can be reintegrated and reborn as part of il-Lashtavar. With rakshasa, weaker ones generally lose memories, while strong ones (such as the Council of Ashtakala) will generally reform with memories intact. Now, there are ways to ensure that you destroy the memories, and ways to delay that reincarnation, and the key there is to know your Prophecy. Kill the Wyrmbreaker with normal steel on a Tuesday and he’ll be back by Thursday. But if the Son of Seven Sorrows kills him with a silver sword forged in the tears of the Keeper under the light of a new moon, he might be dead for a year and a day. Which is to say, a DM should always feel free to come up with interesting circumstances under which it is possible to effectively kill a fiend.

Are there angelic or good aligned counterparts to the overlords?

If you mean “Is there an incarnate force that’s called something like ‘The Cuteness of Kittens’?” No, there isn’t. If you mean “Is there any sort of native celestials on Eberron,” there WERE: the couatl. They were never as powerful as the Overlords, and were more on par with the rakshasa… and they sacrificed themselves to create the Silver Flame. On some level you could say that the Silver Flame is the good counterpart to the Overlords, which is why it can bind them; it’s simply less concrete and more abstract.

Why is this? Look to the progenitor myth. Khyber killed Siberys and was in turn imprisoned by Eberron. The Overlords are Khyber’s children, and like Khyber, are forces of evil that cannot be vanquished, only bound. Eberron doesn’t produce incarnate spirits like the Overlords: her children are mortal. So Eberron DID create a thing that embodies the cuteness of kittens: she created kittens. Meanwhile, Siberys would be the source of native celestials, and he did create some, like the couatl – but they were created from the blood of Siberys after his defeat, and thus lack the power of the victorious Khyber.

From a purely practical worldbuilding standpoint, there’s a simple reason for this. Eberron is designed to be a world that needs heroes. All the powerful forces of good are limited. Jaela Daran is a child whose power is limited beyond Flamekeep. Oalian doesn’t leave the Greenheart. When evil rises, the world needs you; there is no ultimate good force that can step in and solve the problem for you. The Silver Flame can empower you to solve the problem, but it can’t solve the problem for you.

Is there not even a single surviving Couatl?

We have a few places in canon where there are still couatl who were left behind to watch over things. And there are of course the Shulassakar, the feathered yuan-ti. Beyond this, the fact that the couatl are gone from the word doesn’t mean that they can’t play a role–it means that they need your help to do it. Tira Miron was aided by a couatl, but it didn’t help her in corporeal form; it empowered her and advised her spiritually. In D&D 3.5 this is called divine channeling; I don’t know if 4E ever did a version of it. Essentially, it’s a form of possession that doesn’t actually control the person being possessed, instead granting them additional powers. The premise is that this isn’t something just anyone can do; Tira’s faith and courage made it possible, and it’s what defines her as the Voice of the Silver Flame — her ability to hear the Flame when others did not. So the couatl CAN affect the world, but only through the medium of heroes. Which comes back to that basic premise of Eberron: there are no forces of good that can solve the problem alone. They need you.

On the other hand, the Silver Flame preaches that it will one day cleanse the world from all evil, and naturally that involves the lords of dust, which entails that they are not truly invincible.

This idea comes from Faiths of Eberron. I didn’t work on that book, and I don’t agree with the idea. To me, the key of the Silver Flame is that you don’t fight because you think the battle can be won: you fight because it is that battle which makes the world a better place. There’s no end condition: it is an eternal struggle. There will always be a need for champions. There will always be a need for courage and sacrifice. Evil can’t be permanently vanquished, because good and evil are choices people make. You can’t eliminate lying from the world, because every time someone speaks they have the choice to lie. You can teach that person the value of honesty. You can encourage them to tell the truth. But if you truly eliminated their capacity to lie, you have taken away their free will, and how is that a good thing? This is the lesson of the Overlords. They will always be there, just as the potential for war, death, and treachery will always be there. Through our actions, we hold them at bay, both physically and in the human heart. Through courage and virtue, we show people the proper path and inspire them to be better than they are, to ignore the tempting whispers of evil. And when a noble soul dies their spirit joins the Flame, where it continues to hold evil at bay and strengthen those who fight it.

In several tales heroes tend to be inspired by higher noble powers and realize that they are still fragile and prone to temptation (this is well reflected by Eberron’s handle of alignments), and just as the lords of dust embody several aspects of evil (war…), there ought to be embodiments of goodness.

The Silver Flame is a positive source of spiritual power. It is a source of inspiration. But unlike the Overlords, it cannot act alone: it needs to act through champions. Again, this is part of what defines it as good; it cannot enforce its nature on others, but rather they must choose it. Rak Tulkhesh makes people fight. Katashka revels in death. There is no entity that forces you to be good; there are simply powers that can strengthen you if you choose to be good, just as it was Tira’s courage and virtue that allowed the couatl to empower her.

In my eyes, the fact that virtuous behavior is a choice is what makes it truly virtuous. If it is enforced–whether by a supernatural agency or a mortal power–it loses its meaning. The followers of the Silver Flame don’t do what they do because they expect to win and utterly eliminate all evil forever; they follow the precepts of the Flame because doing so is what makes the world a better place.

This is in marked contrast to the Blood of Vol, many of whose followers believe that they can some day eliminate the concept of death from the world; one can well ask what that would actually mean, and if in so doing they would also eliminate new birth. But that’s another topic. Meanwhile, you might want to consider the following…

Could the place of an Overlord be usurped, or could a person rise to become an overlord? For example, if Erandis Vol decided that her destiny was to achieve actual dominion over death, could she rise to become the embodiment of the concept of death, or failing that, usurp the place of Katashka as the gatekeeper of death?

Anything is possible. We have said that there are members of the Lords of Dust who don’t want to free their Overlord masters, but rather to usurp their power. If it’s possible for a rakshasa to do it, than it’s presumably possible for a human to do it; you’ve just got an interim step of becoming an entity of incarnate spirit like a rakshasa. With that said, you don’t have to usurp the power of an Overlord to become an embodiment of a concept. Erandis Vol wishes to become the Queen of Death (and bear in mind, she’s been working at it for thousands of years and has a unique spiritual basis for being able to do it–the Mark of Death–so clearly this isn’t a casual thing). However, I don’t think this requires her to displace Katashka. The Overlords embody horrible things. That doesn’t mean they govern them. Katashka embodies our fears of death and the horror of the undead. He can enslave the spirits of the dead and bind them to his service in the mortal world. But as he is part of this world, he doesn’t govern the fate of the dead in the worlds beyond. Rak Tulkhesh gains strength from strife, and when free he can create strife. But again, he only has dominion over the rage of war… he has nothing to do with a just conflict.

So the question you have to ask, is do you want to become an Overlord… a finite entity who can be bound and whose dominion is limited… or do you want to become a Sovereign, whose power is unbound and touches all it inspires? The Sovereign Host maintains that Dol Dorn and Dol Arrah can be found any time a blade is drawn, and that Onatar is there in every forge. Tied to the previous answer, the Sovereigns don’t take incarnate form; they inspire and act through mortal vessels. When you create something new, Onatar (or the Traveler) is with you. When you fight, Dol Dorn is with you. And, of course, when you choose to do evil in war, the Mockery is with you. But even the Mockery isn’t finite in the way an Overlord is.

People have sought to become Sovereigns before. The founder of the Library of Korranberg sought to displace Aureon as lord of knowledge. According to the draconic faith of Thir (as discussed in Dragons of Eberron), this is possible; when a new being takes on the mantle of a Sovereign, the previous one ascends to greater realms. Myths suggest that the first Sovereigns were ascended dragons who fought the Overlords in the first age. So there’s mythical precedent for it; it’s just a question of what it takes, and what it actually means if you succeed, since Sovereigns don’t manifest after ascension.

Is there any connection between Katashka the Gatekeeper and other prominent undead-themed entities (eg Vol and her followers).

Not according to canon. However, you could always decide that Katashka is connected to all negatively empowered undead, whether they know it or not… and that Vol, Kaius, and other influential undead are all secretly pawns in the Overlord’s plans. This certainly seems like a fine approach for starting with the Emerald Claw as a heroic tier threat, moving to Vol herself in paragon, and then bringing Katashka in as the true epic threat. For those wanting to know a little more about Katashka, check out Dragon 337 or this Eberron Expanded article.

Any idea what Overlord you would place under Sharn? Some of the details of Fallen (the improvement of which was a major goal of a paladin in one of my games) seems to imply something malign is buried below the city.

By canon, the spiritual force of evil in Sharn isn’t tied to an Overlord; it’s tied to the fact that it’s a dumping ground for Syrania where fallen angels… AKA Radiant Idols… are left to rot. My novel The Son of Khyber specifically addresses the idea of a malign spiritual force tied to Fallen. With that said, you could decide that the reason Sharn is such a great place for dumping angels – aside from being a manifest zone – is due to the presence of an Overlord.

Why could Siberys be killed, but Khyber only imprisoned? Or could Khyber be killed by (only) Eberron or an alive Siberys?

Assuming you take the myth at face value, there’s a few reasons. First, Khyber employed treachery, taking Siberys by surprise. Second, because that is what Khyber is: destruction. Treachery. Corruption. Evil. Eberron, on the other hand, is Life. Destruction isn’t in her nature. So she deals with Khyber by imprisoning him through creation–by building the world around Khyber, creating a living prison to hold her sibling at bay. One point I’ll make is that despite the power of Khyber’s children, their number is limited. They may never die, but if there are thirty overlords today, there will never be thirty-one tomorrow. Eberron’s children may be mortal, but they have the power of creation, and that’s something Khyber lacks. So again, Eberron didn’t create an immortal, stagnant overlord called the Cuteness of Kittens; she created kittens, and new kittens are born every day.

Of course, the progenitors and the myth are symbols as much as anything else. The triumph of Khyber explains why evil can exist in the world. Destruction cannot defeat creation, which is why Khyber can never escape Eberron; however, it can corrupt creation, as made manifest in the Age of Demons. The defeat of the demons shows that mortal life can choose a better path – that virtue can hold evil at bay – but as noted above, it can never be defeated eternally.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the Ring of Siberys is the primary source of arcane energy; as such, even in death Siberys gives people the tools to change the world. They must decide whether to use them wisely.

I’m planning a campaign now and I was wondering if you had any thoughts on the Overlords and the planes… Dral Khatuur & Risia, Rak Tulkhesh & Shavarath. As Eberron natives, do you see them as being linked to the planes at all? Or do you prefer to emphasize ties to Eberron? Esp. curious about ones like those, where there’s some conceptual overlap.

Every plane has its own native spirits. The native spirits of Shavarath are the fiends and celestials who fight the Eternal War. The Overlords are native spirits of Eberron (or more, strictly, Khyber). It is true that Rak Tulkhesh embodies an aspect of war, and Shavarath embodies war. But the catch is that Shavarath is ONLY war, and ALL of its spirits represent war in some way. By contrast, Eberron is a realm where you can have war AND peace, life AND death. Thus, the native spirits of Eberron can embody ANY concept that has a place in Eberron.

One way to think about this: According to the creation myth, the Progenitors created the outer planes together. Khyber’s touch is especially strong in Kythri, Mabar, Shavarath and the like, while the hand of Siberys is felt in Syrania, Daanvi, and Irian. They crafted each of these planes around a single idea. Eberron is the final product, where all these ideas are blended together. So the native spirits of Eberron reflect the full spectrum of concepts, as opposed to the outsiders who are always tied to the core concept of their plane.

According to the myth, Eberron, Khyber and Siberys were “dragons”. So, why the children of Khyber are not dragons too?

The Progenitor myth is a metaphor. If you believe the myth, the Progenitors were beings who shaped planes. According the the legend, the planet is Eberron’s body – but the planet isn’t a giant dragon, is it? Again, assuming you believe the myth, it’s likely that the Progenitors were conceptual beings with no fixed form – that Eberron BECAME the planet to trap Khyber. But it’s not much of a story to say “In the beginning, there were three conceptual entities of no fixed form…”, and so we call them dragons.

The Overlords are themselves conceptual entities with no fixed form. The Lords of Dust article in Dragon 337 provided D&D 3.5 stats for Overlords, and noted that all Rajahs possess the following ability:

Change Form (Su): A rajah can assume any form from Fine to Colossal size, or simply increase or decrease its own size. This is similar to polymorph, but the rajah retains the outsider type and use of all of its special attacks and qualities while in another form. The rajah can maintain a form until it chooses a new one. 

Overlords have PREFERRED forms – Tiamat likes her five-headed dragon – but an Overlord can take any form it wants.

As a side note, per the classic myth, dragons as we know them were formed when drops of the blood of Siberys fell from the sky and struck Eberron. The different types of dragons are based on what the blood touched – so white dragons were born when the blood of Siberys struck ice, black dragons in the swamp, etc.

 I admit that I don’t like too much the idea that overlords don’t have a real form.

I didn’t explain the idea clearly. Overlords represent ideas. Their physical forms represent those ideas. Any overlord has a default, “resting form” that they tend to return to – such as Tiamat and the five-headed dragon. But an overlord may have a wardrobe of forms that reflect its core idea. Rak Tulkhesh might appear as a massive armored rakshasa; as a dragon with bloodstained claws and steel scales; as a handsome human general with blood on his hands. He will choose the form that fits the situation. And if he NEEDS to, he can become something else: A giant, a fly, a duck. But by default, his form will reflect his concept – and he has a few forms he will always return to, which are recorded in myths. In Dragons of Eberron there’s a picture of Dol Arrah fighting Katashka in the form of a dracolich; but that’s just one of Katashka’s shapes, chosen because it was fighting dragons.

If overlords exist since the beginning, do they KNOW if myths are true? Do they remember the agonizing Siberys and Khyber being trapped inside Eberron?

Overlords didn’t exist at the beginning. Per the legend, ALL life as we know it exists after the binding of Siberys. The Overlords emerged from the depths of Khyber onto the surface of Eberron — thus, after that legendary conflict. The beings who could have had personal interactions with the Progenitors would be the immortal spirits of the outer planes, as the planes were (according to myth) created before the struggle between Khyber and Eberron. So if you want to confirm it, check the libraries of Daanvi’s Infinite Archives. However, if you’d rather keep it mysterious, you could easily say that even the inhabitants of those planes had no contact with realms beyond their plane until after the final struggle – they were created, but they never personally encountered the entities that created them.

You’ve already made clear the differences between the Sovereign Host and the Overlords, but would you consider the Dark Six as a whole to be enemies of the Overlords as well? 

I’m going to rewrite my original answer to this question, because I think it was unclear. First of all, a defending element of the Sovereigns and Six is that their existence cannot be conclusively proven. They are said to be omnipresent and to influence their spheres wherever events occur. The Dols are present anytime blades are drawn. And yet they cannot physically manifest. In this, they are concretely different from Overlords, who influence a limited area (even if potentially a very large one) and can physically manifest. An Overlord can be bound, and an Overlord cannot. So in some ways it’s a meaningless question, because the Dark Six don’t manifest, so HOW WOULD YOU KNOW? With that said, I’d argue that EVERYONE is against the Overlords. If I’m a medusa priestess of the Shadow, I’m not going to look at Bel Shalor and say “I dunno, I kind of like the cut of his jib.” Among other things, most cultures that revere the Dark Six look at their positive elements. You could say that Tul Oreshka and the Fury have some overlap, but Tul Oreshka is PURE MADNESS, while the Fury can reflect the positive aspects of passion and emotion.

WITH THAT SAID: Canon sources suggest that many of the myths associated with the Sovereigns and Six are drawn from the actions of dragons in the First Age, who may have somehow ascended to become the Sovereigns; this is the foundation of Thir and the Church of the Wyrm Ascendant. By these principles, Dol Dorn, Dol Arrah and Dol Azur were all martial dragons, and Dol Azur was flayed after betraying the others – suggesting that he, at least, was working with the enemy. The dragon who became the Keeper may have had an alliance with Katashka. The MYTH of the Shadow may have been inspired by Bel Shalor – even though the Shadow that is worshipped in Droaam ISN’T Bel Shalor.

If I can humbly say my opinion, the dark six are very different from overlords.

They are entirely different. The Overlords embody very specific, dark concepts. Their influence is limited to a particular area. They can physically manifest. The Dark Six are broader in concept, universal in influence (if you believe in them) and can be seen in a positive light. Per canon sources, there are many in the Five Nations who worship the Dark Six in some way; the Three Faces of War, the Cannith Traveler cults, the Restful Watch. A Zil assassin could definitely offer a prayer to Dol Azur.

I remember you in other posts said that the myth of sovereign host exist in some way even in other planes. That suggests that they may exist since the very beginning, since before Eberron and Khyber maybe.

Yes and no. It’s unquestionably the case that in the Age of Demons, a number of dragons gained transcendental power and crafted identities that resemble the Sovereigns and Six. Beings on the outer planes interacted with these entities. This isn’t myth; this is fact. Asmodeus claims to have taught Aureon about politics. In 4E, the Sovereigns are credited with creating the demiplane of Baator.

But at the time they did these things, these beings were still less than the Sovereigns that are worshipped today. The people of the Five Nations don’t worship dragons (mostly), they worship omnipresent forces that shape reality. The question is HOW Ourelonastrix went from being an epic dragon to a divine force, and if someone else could… which is, again, the basis of the draconic religion of Thir.

 Would Rak Tulkhesh  be empowered by what philosophers call “just war” e.g. Self-defence. Would it empower an overlord, or only -as I think- aggressive conflicts or those in which atrocities as torture or attacks against civilians are committed no matter the justification? 

Rak Tulkhesh doesn’t care about goals. He doesn’t care about the overall cause: what you’re fighting for, what you’re trying to accomplish, what you do or don’t do to civilians. He cares about whether you HATE the person you are fighting, whether you hunger for vengeance, whether you yearn to hurt your opponents. He doesn’t care about Queen Aurala’s justification for war; he cares about what’s in the heart of the individual soldier when he drives his spear into the chest of an enemy. The EOE article says “He draws strength from every blow struck in anger, and his will drives the peaceful to hate. He is Rak Tulkhesh, the Rage of War.”

 

So one of the Shadowsword’s favorite things is to encourage people to start such “just wars”, because once blood is spilled it’s so much easier to fan the flames of hatred. The Lycanthropic Purge is a perfect example of this: the CAUSE was entirely just, but along the way hatred, fear, and the thirst for vengeance turned it into a bloody witch hunt.

Perhaps “just war” is embodied by the tenets of Dol Arrah and Dol Dorn and so they prevent it from empowering an overlord if no abuses are perpetrated?

Again, it’s not about the cause or the action: it’s about what’s in the heart of the soldier. If you can fight without feeling hate; if you can truly feel compassion and fight solely for justice, then your actions don’t strengthen Rak Tulkhesh, even if your cause is TERRIBLE. But if you are filled with hatred and bloodlust, the righteousness of your cause is meaningless.

Beyond that, Dol Arrah encourages just war and the Mockery supports treachery in the pursuit of victory, but Dol Dorn is simply about strength, courage and skill; he doesn’t particularly care if the war is just or not, he’s just about supporting the soldier.

How much do the Silver Flame church knows about the Lord of Dust and the Overlords? Do they know the organization, the names of the Overlords, that every demon is immortal, that every overlord can be set free following the path of the prophecy?

Good question. The foundation of the modern church is Tira’s struggle with an Overlord. From that, it’s logical to conclude that anyone who knows the story of Tira knows the following things.

  • There are ancient and powerful demons bound by the Silver Flame.
  • It is possible for them to escape, and they have demonic minions working to help free them.
  • These arch-fiends cannot be destroyed, only bound; this is why Tira’s sacrifice was necessary.
  • We must all be vigilant and prepared to make our own heroic sacrifices to protect the innocent from these forces of evil.

That much is common knowledge; it’s the basis of the faith. The greatest evil cannot be permanently destroyed; it can only be held at bay by the courage and sacrifice of good people. There are dangerous supernatural forces in the world scheming to do terrible things – fiends, undead, lycanthropes – and we need those with courage to take on the mantle of the templar and defend us from them.

Beyond that things get murkier. Bel Shalor is absolutely known and well documented, because he was freed and active in Khorvaire for a period of time… so there are records and accounts from people with first hand experience. Beyond that, it’s going to be much like the accounts of demons in OUR major religions. No human on Khorvaire has ever directly encountered Rak Tulkhesh. So what we have are accounts from sages who have spoken with Couatl, communed with the Flame, or encountered the influence of the Overlord or their minions. So while Rak Tulkhesh hasn’t been freed since the Church began, there have been Templars who have studied his influence, and surely at least one account claiming that one reason things went so wrong with the Lycanthropic Purge was because Rak Tulkhesh led the righteous astray. Meanwhile, looking to Draal Khatuur: no human has EVER encountered her or seen her influence at work. She might be included on a list of names of the Overlords – an scribe’s account of the words Tira relayed while in a trance speaking to her couatl guide, along with the name “The Heart of Winter” – but she’s been locked away in an almost entirely unexplored continent since before human civilization existed, so we don’t know much.

To further complicate matters: The Lords of Dust have been part of human civilization since the beginning. They are master manipulators who don’t WANT humanity to tell the truth. They even have agents in the Church of the Silver Flame. So for every true account that comes from some hero’s personal encounter with the Lords of Dust or a priest communing with a couatl or speaking with a dragon, you probably have two intentionally misleading accounts by rakshasa or sages duped by rakshasa that present misleading information: Rak Tulkhesh is only empowered by blood sacrifice, he can only influence deminhumans, he will be released from bondage when all the moons are full at the same time and Shavarath is coterminous. The forces of the Church have no way to perfectly verify these, and again, some Church historians surely are rakshasa or their agents.

Beyond this, remember that the Prophecy is always changing and that it’s almost impossible for a single mortal to see its full scope. So yes, it may be that the Church generally understands that the Overlords can be freed through the Prophecy – but they will be relying on accounts of sages to say what that means, and since one account was written the path of the Prophecy may have changed due to the actions of the LoD and the Chamber.

In part, this ties to What do you need for your story? If you WANT the players to have learned a chunk of the Prophecy that could release an Overlord, make it happen. But as a whole, what the Church has access to is a cauldron filled with a spectrum of good and bad information. This is what is reflected by a player character making a skill check. Someone with a reasonable check might know Tiamat is the name of an Overlord associated with dragons; someone with an exceptional skill check remembers the Codex Argent Draconum, the account of a paladin who spent an extensive amount of time working with a silver dragon who shared information about Tiamat and her legends. That information comes from in-world sources, and the degree of skill reflects both the player’s familiarity with the sources and ability to draw valid conclusions.

So: The Church knows there are demons active within the world. It even knows the names of some of these archfiends and their masters, along with stories about them that may or may not be true. These things are why the templars are always vigilant. We say that the purpose of the church is to defend the innocent from supernatural evil. This is a world where supernatural evil unquestionably exists. The Church trains exorcists because it knows they will be needed. But it doesn’t have perfect information about the enemy… all the more so because a particular cell of the Lords of Dust may literally have been laying dormant for the last thousand years waiting for the right moment to act.

After the Coautls sacrificed themselves and bound the Overlords, the remaining fiends retreated to the Demon Wastes. They plot from the ruins there. Are the cities and temples there ruins because of time, or did the dragons assault the Demon Wastes after they grew in power? Given the magic that they brought to bear against Xen’drik, and the fact that (some) dragons study the prophecy to combat (offensively and defensively) the Lords of Dust, have the dragons ever laid waste to the Demon Wastes throughout the history of Eberron?

The Demon Wastes are on my list of topics for an article when I have time. There’s a number of different factors here. The cities were ruined over the course of the millennia of conflict. But it is on the edge of Khyber, honeycombed with portals to demiplanes within Khyber. The rakshasa largely dwell in these demiplanes. Ashtakala itself exists between planes, draped in its own memories. Setting aside their impressive wards and powers, it’s difficult to spy on the Lords of Dust because much of the time they aren’t entirely on this plane. If they WERE to rebuild cities on the surfaces, the dragons would wipe them out again, and they may well have done so at times in the past. But they can’t be pried out of Khyber.

Did the Silver Flame only bind the Overlords, or were many other lesser fiends caught up in it’s power as well?

While the principle is that the small fish slipped through the net that bound the Overlords, I’ve always assumed that the majority of fiends were trapped in the Flame. During the Age of Demons, there were enough fiends to support cities of fiends, or to field vast armies. Tied to the previous question, there ARE still significant numbers of fiends in the worlds – but significantly fewer that existed in the First Age. So the release of an Overlord could easily include the release of a large force of lesser minions as well.

It’s my impression that the Night Hags made it out of the Age of Demons relatively unscathed, is that the case? And do they have their own imperative or are they also interested in releasing the Overlords?

That is the case. Despite technically being children of Khyber, they were never aligned with the Overlords. They’re neutral and independent; each one pursues their own agenda. Some served as envoys in the ancient conflict; others had no interest in it.

Do you see the Lords of Dust having an advantage over the Chamber in reading the prophecy because they are immortal and have more time, or could the rakshasas be hindered in their efforts because of limited perspective? Maybe both?

Absolutely both. Immortality is an advantage, and sages like the Bloody Sage and the Wyrmbreaker are the greatest individual authorities on the Prophecy. But at the same time, they largely operate in isolation, rarely sharing their secrets with the servants of other Overlords. By contrast, the Chamber has a host of scholars – and while they may not be immortal, they live for thousands of years and can draw on the work of those who have gone before them.

Short form: The rakshasa are the experts at the paths dealing with their specific Overlords, but the Chamber has a far WIDER view of the Prophecy and sees a bigger picture.

So I think the Lords of Dust have the edge on their specific threads – while the Chamber has a far WIDER view and has a greater understanding of the Prophecy as a whole.

Has there been a rakshasa artificer mentioned anywhere? Someone that has, over the many thousands of years, been equipping the Lords of Dust and their innumerable pawns with fiendish items? I wonder if Eberron’s take on low level magic and items applies to the fiends as well, especially given their natural talents with magic.

The rakshasa do produce magic items for their servants and even for themselves; most notably, they have a very high demand for items that can protect deep cover rakshasa from divination magic. I don’t think they are bound to low level magic; on the contrary, I think they can produce artifacts. BUT… I don’t think they’ve ever embraced the industrial approach to magic that differentiates the artificer from the wizard. A rakshasa might be able to make an artifact, but it is a focused piece of work that could take decades… because, of course, the rakshasa HAS decades.

Essentially, the raksahsa have been doing this for a hundred thousand years. If they were innovative, they’d have innovated by now. If they could developed entirely new forms of magic, they would have. So I think that they are still making the same things they would have made in the Age of Demons. In my mind, this is also the slight edge that the mortals have. Rakshasa like the Wyrmbreaker are epic-level magi capable of producing wonders, but new techniques – the artificer, things like incarnum – are beyond them.

Does anyone in other planes care about Overlords? They’re so powerful that they could easily access dimensional travel and change things there.

Their vast power is precisely why they CAN’T access dimensional travel. The most powerful spirits of planes are tightly bound to their planes; they are literally a PART of that plane, and they can’t separate from it. This is why the Quori can come to Eberron, but il-Lashtavar can’t… and why we have pointed out that the Daelkyr aren’t the most powerful spirits of Xoriat, but simply the most powerful entities that have come from Xoriat.

Is there any reason for you choosing to have “more or less 30 overlords” instead of canonic number of 12+1 (bel shalor maybe)?

Because we concretely didn’t want to have a completely list of Overlords. From the outset, we wanted to leave room for individual DMs to add Overlords to fit the needs of the story… and for us to have room to do the same. This ties to the fact that the Overlords’ powers are limited in scope. Which means that when I wrote an article exploring Q’barra in more depth, I could add a new Overlord – Masvirik, the Cold Sun – without contradicting previous material or having to force an existing Overlord into a slot that doesn’t really fit.

It has been mentioned that in Eberron, Lolth could be one of the Overlords, like Tiamat. What about other famous villains from other settings, such as the other demon lords (Orcus, Demogorgorn, etc), maybe Vecna, or even the Tarrasque? If you wanted to use them, would you cast them as other Overlords, or servants equivalent to rakshasas, or maybe just powerful fiends on par with the Daelkyr?

Per 3.5 rules, Overlords are entities with power on par to divine rank. As a result, they are concretely more powerful than demon princes and archdevils. Here’s a (somewhat lengthy) thing I wrote for the Savage Tide adventure path, which involved Demogorgon.

The influence of Demogorgon raises one of the primary challenges of converting this adventure path to Eberron. The cosmology of Eberron is quite different from that of the Great Wheel… so where does Demogorgon reside in the Eberron Campaign Setting?  

            Many demons can be found in Shavarath, the eternal battleground. It is certainly possible to place Demogorgon in Shavarath as one of the generals of this endless war. However, the spirits of Shavarath are ultimately spirits of war; the demons of Shavarath may be creatures of chaos and evil, but they are still spirits of battle.

            But there is another alternative for the DM who wants demons to be spirits of pure evil, unbound by any ties to Shavarath or the outer planes: Khyber, the Dragon Below. Legends say that in the dawn of time, the vile dragon Khyber spawned fiends in the darkness, monsters that tormented the children of Eberron. The rakshasa are the best-known native fiends, and to this day it is the rakshasa that have the strongest presence in the world above. But Khyber’s children take many forms, and there is nothing preventing the Dragon Below from creating its own variations of the spirits found in Shavarath and Fernia. Balors, Mariliths, and even demon princes; all of these could be children of Khyber. Like the rakshasa, these Khyber-spawned demons are native outsiders, but they possess most traits of true outsiders; they do not need to eat or sleep, they are immune to the ravages of time, and the most powerful among them are truly immortal.

            As spawn of Khyber, the demons of Eberron are not tied to any planar agenda. They are not bound to the great war of Shavarath. Instead, they embody Khyber’s wrath and hatred of the world above. They seek to corrupt destroy the children of Eberron. Some may seek to free the Overlords of the Age of Demons, and these fiends will usually join with the Lords of Dust. But many are spirits of pure chaos and evil, and seek only the pleasure of sowing discord and pain across Eberron.

            And what of the Abyss? Again, it could be grafted onto Shavarath, with each layer being one more battlefield. But it can also be bound to Khyber. Eberron is a magical world, and it does not have to obey the laws of logic. An adventurer who ventures too far beneath the surface of Eberron will be amazed by the horrors that lurk below. A deep cavern can open into the endless maze of Baphomet. A whirlpool can draw unwary travelers into the abyssal ocean. Many people think Xen’drik is the ultimate destination for the pulp adventurer. But the most exotic and terrifying realms are not across the water; they lie beneath it, in the very heart of the Dragon Below. While these are not outer planes, they exist beyond normal space and cannot be reached by normal forms of teleportation; travelers must either find the proper path between the realms or emply planar magic to step into these demiplanes.

            This is the path that these conversions will follow. Demogorgon is one of the lords of the worlds within the world. While he is weaker than the great Overlords of the Age of Demons, he is one of the mightiest spirits that remains unbound. He stands apart from the Lords of Dust; he seeks to claim the power of the rajahs for his own, not to free these ancient spirits. He is a patient being, and his plans take centuries to unfold. Now his latest scheme is coming to fruition, as the savage tide begins to rise.

So: that’s the approach I would take with Orcus and Demogorgon – powerful native fiends, above the rakshasa but below the Overlords. Looking to the Tarrasque, I might similarly make it a Khyber-spawned immortal force – but I wouldn’t consider it an Overlord.

Have you used the Lords of Dust in a campaign? Post your questions and experiences below!

Dragonmarks: Exotic Races in Eberron

The original Eberron Campaign Setting promises “If it exists in D&D, then it has a place in Eberron.” Over the years, one of the most common questions I’ve heard is “How do I use (insert unusual race) in Eberron?” How would people react to an Illumian in Sharn? Where would you put a Goliath? Recently I’ve been talking with Ruty Rutenberg of Eberron livestream Maze Arcana about tieflings and aasimars; over in Facebook’s Eberron Enthusiast group, someone was asking about playing an imp. In the weeks ahead I may look more closely at specific races and how I’d use them. But let’s start with a general discussion about introducing new races to the setting.

As a general rule, I prefer to avoid adding too many new races to the common tapestry of the world. In my mind, the streets of Fairhaven don’t look like a Mos Eisley cantina. I prefer to focus on fewer races but to make sure each one has a strong place. Warforged are defined by their role in the Last War and the chaos caused by their emancipation. Shifters are haunted by the Lycanthropic Purge and tensions with the Silver Flame. When we made dragonborn a common race in Fourth Edition, we did so by co-opting the existing story of lizardfolk in Q’barra, explaining that most humans couldn’t tell the difference between them. For the Eladrin we introduced the concept of the Feyspires, explaining that while the Eladrin were an ancient race they had always remained hidden in the shadows – until the current disaster that brought the Feyspires into the light. In this way, each race had a place in the world deep enough to generate story, without radically rewriting the setting. So that’s a starting point. If a new race exists as a true race – with a significant population and established culture – I want to think about how it fits in and the impact it should’ve had on history.

With that said, part of point of “If it exists in D&D, then it has a place in Eberron” is that there is plenty of room for unique entities. As a member of an unusual race, you could be…

  • A strange effect of the Mourning. You were once human, but you were caught in the Mourning and it transformed you.
  • A unique creation of Mordain the Fleshweaver, or one of the Daelkyr. Perhaps you escaped your creator, or perhaps you were released as part of an experiment.
  • A mutation caused due to your being conceived and born in a manifest zone/during a coterminous phase; your inhuman nature is a reflection of the influence of one or more of the planes. You could be unique, or this could be a mutation known to occur in this place at coterminous phases – so you could potentially encounter others of your kind.
  • A member of a hidden community. Your people could have a secret city in Xen’drik never seen by human eyes. You might come from a demiplane in Khyber that only touches on Eberron in a few places. You could even come from another plane, like the Eladrin; the Kenku could easily be from Lamannia or Thelanis, depending how you want to depict them. Or you could be hidden among a better known race, just as the dragonborn of Q’barra are confused with lizardfolk.
  • You might not be a member of a new race at all. If the player is primarily interested in the MECHANICS of the race as opposed to the story behind it, you have the power as DM to simply reskin that race as something else. In a 4E Eberron campaign, I played a character who was mechanically a Deva avenger with shaman subclass. However, my STORY was that I was a human peasant from Cyre who had become a host for the vengeful spirits of thousands of Cyrans who died in the Mourning. The Deva race is about having “memories of a thousand lives”; in my case, those were thousands of lives of the ghosts haunting me. The Shaman subclass gave me the ability to summon a spirit – one of my haunting spirits temporarily manifesting through me. The idea wasn’t that I was a trained warrior, but rather that the ghosts infused me with the powers of an avenger. The point being that I had all the abilities of a Deva, but we didn’t actually add a new race into the setting; we said that I was a human modified by magic.

All of this comes to the most critical question: WHY does the player want to be a member of this race? Roleplaying is collaborative storytelling, and as DM you are working with the player to create a story you’ll both enjoy. Rather than you deciding unilaterally how a race fits into the world, the critical first step is to identify the story the player is trying to create. Is the player only interested in the mechanics of the race, in which case reskinning is an option? Are they tied to the exact appearance of the race, or could you reimagine it to better fit the setting? Is it important to them to be part of a community of their own kind, or are they OK with the concept of being the only member of this species that exists in the world? Are there other elements that define the character they want to play?

For example, looking to the question “How would people feel about a tiefling in Sharn?” In my opinion, the people of Sharn would have very little reaction to a tiefling. Devils play a minor role in the world, so common folk would be more likely to consider the tiefling to be a shaved minotaur than touched by infernal power… and in Sharn in particular, the locals are used to seeing gargoyles, harpies, goblins, warforged, and even medusas. The guy with red skin and horns is exotic, sure, but I’m not going to get a mob together. But if the player specified that she wanted to be persecuted and feared – that the whole concept was that her infernal blood was a curse that made life difficulty for her – then I’d find a way to make it work. My first question would be if she was set on the general devil-horns appearance of the Tiefling, or if we might reskin it to have more of a rakshasa flavor, given that rakshasa are the most common fiends of Eberron; if so, it would be easy to play up the idea of stories of these rakshasa halfbreeds and persecution by the Church of the Silver Flame. If the devil-appearance was important, then I could easily run with it and say that people in this campaign are familiar with devils… because it’s an easy change for me to make to give the player the story she’s looking for, and I’m comfortable doing it. With that said, tieflings DO have a few defined roles in the setting, and I’ll talk about them in more detail in a future post… but you get the idea.

With that said, it’s also OK to conclude that a particular concept just doesn’t work in a campaign. Given that it’s collaborative storytelling, it’s OK for you to conclude that YOU aren’t happy with the direction the story would have to go… in which case hopefully you and the player can work together to come up with something that works for both of you. As I mentioned above, I was recently in a discussion with a DM putting together a shades-of-grey campaign set at Rekkenmark Academy, and one of the players wanted to be an imp dedicated to Dol Arrah. Through discussion, the idea was worked out that the character could be an imp-like entity tied to the Three Faces of War (since the player really wanted the ABILITIES of the imp, which were more in line with the Mockery than Dol Arrah) conjured to serve as a sort of spiritual mascot for the mortal characters. But ultimately, the player was deeply attached to the character being a pure embodiment of LAW and GOOD, and that character just didn’t belong in the noir environment the DM was creating with this Rekkenmark story; even if the DM allowed the player to use the character, the player wouldn’t get the EXPERIENCE they wanted… so ultimately, better to come up with an idea better suited to the campaign.

All of which is to say: you CAN find a place for any concept in Eberron, but that doesn’t always mean you should. Make sure that you understand the experience the player is looking for, and that the interpretation you’re using will actually provide that experience.

SUBRACES IN 5E

One point that’s come up in the comments discussion is how to incorporate the subraces of Fifth Edition into Eberron. Are Tairnadal High Elves or Wood Elves?

In my opinion, most subraces in 5E are designed for character optimization as opposed to story impact. If you’re going to play a wizard, you want to be a High Elf; if you’re going to be a ranger, play a Wood Elf. The system isn’t tied to any setting and there’s no built in reason that you HAVE to make Wood Elves and High Elves culturally distinct… so in my campaign, my answer is that all the common Elves of Eberron – Tairnadal, Aereni, Phiarlan, Thuranni – can be either Wood Elves or High Elves, as the player chooses. Essentially, subrace is a reflection of individual aptitude and specialization. WITHIN EBERRON, no one will ever use the terms “high elf” or “wood elf”; it’s simply a question of whether your Tairnadal elf is more attuned to arcane magic or to the wilds.

I’d take the same approach to most of the common subraces in the 5E handbook. A Mror Dwarf can be Hill or Mountain; a Talenta halfling can be Lightfoot or Stout. The only place where I’d separate subrace is where the subrace has a unique story, place in the world, or abilities that should have a notable cultural impact. So Wood/High Elves are simply personal aptitudes within the general “elf” race… while Drow and Eladrin are unique races/cultures with their own societies and stories. Mror dwarves can be Hill or Mountain, but Duergar are something else entirely.

As always, this is a personal choice. But to me it’s a case of most subraces serving the purpose of class specialization – and there being no compelling reason to force a player who wants to be a Valenar wizard (and there are many mighty wizards in Tairnadal legend) to be a wood elf when they’d rather have the mechanical benefits of the high elf.

In future posts I’ll talk about ways I might work particular unusual races into the setting. What races would you like to see me discuss? What unusual races have you used in your campaign?

Dragonmarks: The Evolving Artificer

The latest Unearthed Arcana presents a new version of the Artificer for 5E D&D.  Right from the start, there’s a few things to note.

  • This is a work in progress. They say at the outset that it’s a rough concept that hasn’t been refined or fully tested. They’re presenting it because they want feedback, not because they think it’s perfect.
  • This isn’t designed for Eberron. The word “Eberron” never comes up in the article or introduction. The existence of an artificer class is obviously useful for Eberron, but this isn’t specifically designed with Eberron in mind; it’s an artificer that could exist in any setting, and that thus works with the general “magic items are rare” assumption of 5E D&D.
  • I haven’t tried it out. I’m juggling a lot of projects right now, and I haven’t had a chance to review the class in depth.

Having said all of that, I’m not going to go into a detailed analysis of mechanics and balance. They aren’t claiming that it’s balanced; that’s the point of pushing it out into the world. What I’m concerned with is how it fits into Eberron and how it lines up with the original Eberron artificer.

THE GOOD

This is a big step forward from the last version of the artificer we saw in Unearthed Arcana, where it was a wizard subclass. We have a d8 hit die, light and medium armor proficiency, and proficiency with thieves tools… all things missing from the wizard and more in line with the original artificer. Just having it as a standalone class is important, because it allows for subclasses, unique spells, and similar features. I like the Tool Specialist and Magic Item Analysis features. So I like the foundation.

Wondrous Invention and Superior Attunement seem like a reasonable step at blending one of the core concepts of the artificer — being able to create magic items — with the low-magic foundation of 5E. You can’t make ANY item as a 3.5 Artificer could… but it still provides the artificer with the ability to say “Good thing I made these goggles of night!” I haven’t had time to review the item lists and really think about the impact on character balance, but it seems like a good start.

THE BAD

In Eberron, the artificer is presented as a magical engineer — someone who approaches magic in the same way a technician approaches technology. The artificer’s spells are all infusions, and all reflect the artificer’s ability to temporarily cobble together short-term magic items. This is most strongly represented by the infusions Armor Augmentation, Weapon Augmentation and Spell-Storing Item. The Augmentations allow the artificer to temporarily infuse weapon or armor with an enchantment — making your hammer Undead Bane when the vampire shows up, or adding some fire resistance to your armor when things get hot. Spell-Storing Item is the cornerstone of the artificer for me: it allows you to attempt to create a one-shot wand of almost any low-level spell, but with a chance of catastrophic failure. To me, this ties to the concept of the artificer as a magical hacker. The artificer doesn’t know the rituals and formulas a wizard uses to reliable create a fireball over and over. But she understands the principles of generating magical fire, and if you give her a moment she can put something together; just hope it doesn’t blow up in her face.

The critical point is that this emphasizes the idea of the artificer as someone who works with magic; again, spell-storing item is essentially about creating one-shot wands. One of the protagonists in my Dreaming Dark novels, Lei d’Cannith, is an artificer and I frequently represent her as weaving tapestries of magic to create her tools. She also makes regular use of spell-storing item and the augmentation spells.

By contrast, the foundation of the UA artificer is about magic… but the specialties are not. The alchemist specialty seems like it could be fun at low levels, and I love it as a way to represent a Zil alchemist. We’ve always said that the Zil were the masters of alchemy and that they manufacture alchemical weapons, and I love the concept of the gnome alchemist darting around and blowing things up. But that’s an alchemist, not an artificer. The focus here seems to be as much on science (chemistry) as on magic. Yes, the inexhaustible alchemist’s satchel is clearly magical, but the general effect is that the character is running around throwing flasks of acid and fire; it is more mundane than using spell-storing item to create a one-shot wand of fireball.

So: I like the alchemist, but it doesn’t feel like a classic artificer to me. On the other hand, for Eberron specifically, I have bigger issues with the gunsmith. Because the gunsmith is presented as USING A GUN: an alchemical device that explicitly fires lead bullets. I’ve never liked firearms in Eberron because I’ve always emphasized that people in Eberron solve their problems with magic instead of technology: make a wand of magic missiles or enchant a crossbow, don’t invent gunpowder. Next we have the obvious question: If this is a technological device, why is the artificer the only one who can use it? How is it that the Thunder Cannon becomes inert the moment the artificer hands it to a friend? If that’s the intent – that it is magical, and that’s why the artificer is the only one who can use it – then in my opinion, don’t make it a gun. Make it a literal boomstick, a staff that functions as a gun in the hands of the artificer, but which is clearly a magical tool. Or make it about elemental binding – it’s a rod with a fire elemental bound into it. In Eberron, I posited the existed of siege staffs instead of gunpowder artillery – essentially, magical staffs the size of tree trunks, enchanted for maximum range and area of effect. They serve the same FUNCTION as cannons, but they are tied to the existing wand/staff “technology” of the world, as opposed to introducing an entirely different paradigm.

Essentially, in Eberron the artificer is a magical engineer who manipulates magic as if it’s technology. Both of the UA specialties bring in a degree of mundane science – gunpowder or chemistry – that push them away from the vision of the artificer as the person who understands the principles of MAGIC. It becomes a blending of magic and ACTUAL technology, which is something I generally sought to avoid in Eberron. Warforged aren’t steam-powered; they are golems, operating on entirely magical principles.

WITH ALL THAT SAID: I still think that this is a very good start, and I can see that both these specialties work for the idea of the artificer-as-technological-tinker, which might be exactly what you want in most settings. And I think that in Eberron, many problems could be solved by adding additional infusions to the artificer spell and a specialty path that is specifically tied to Eberron. Spell-Storing Item was an infusion, not a class feature; it’s something that could easily be added to the artificer spell list in an Eberron sourcebook.

So overall, I’m happy with the article. It creates a general-purpose artificer that I can see fitting into a range of settings, and it’s a big step forward from the last version. It creates a foundation that could be adapted to Eberron. I think I’d have fun with an alchemist, at least at low levels. And as for the gunsmith, in MY campaign I’d shift the Thunder Cannon to be an entirely magical tool, but that doesn’t invalidate the concept… and I know there are many people who DO like gunpowder in their chocolate, who I’m sure will love it as is.

Update

On consideration, most of my issues are cosmetic. If you shift the appearance of the Gunsmith and Alchemist to a more magical interpretation, I’m happy to give them a try. Rather than having the Alchemist hurl flasks of oil, his “Alchemist’s satchel” could be a bandolier of components that he uses to assemble one-use charms and wands. The effects he can produce are identical, it’s just a different tone. Likewise, if the Thunder Cannon is a mystical tool – perhaps a weird variant of wand and staff that’s the size and weight of a log – I’m happy with the “Wandsmith.”

There’s still things I’d change. I’m not thrilled about every artificer having a construct companion, and I’m REALLY not thrilled about that companion being a Large creature; I might have a construct owl, but I don’t want to be followed around by something the size of a horse. I like the idea that the Mechanical Servant could be a path feature or swapped out for another Wondrous invention. I’d add a few new infusions for Eberron. But I’m certainly interested in playing around with it.

What are your thoughts on the latest UA Artificer?