As time permits, I like to address the INfrequently asked questions of Eberron—interesting questions posed by my Patreon supporters. Here’s a few you may not have heard before! As always, these are MY opinions and may contradict canon sources.
How would a trading/collectible card game (like Pokémon TCG, Magic the Gathering) manifest in Khorvaire? What Dragonmarked house (or other) would develop and manufacture these games?
Why make a TCG when you could make actual Pokemon? A Bag of Tricks is an uncommon magic item that lets you summon a random beast from a specific list. I could easily see the Twelve—specifically Vadalis, Orien, and Cannith—working together to produce a variant Bag of Tricks. Rather than summoning a beast with a random roll on a table, it starts containing only one special Vadalis-bred beast and you expand your list by finding and collecting other monsters. Aside from that limitation/advantage, it would work exactly like a Bag of Tricks—it’s an action to summon a beast, you can use it three times a day, beast disappears when reduced to 0 HP. Perhaps, with work, you can evolve your creatures into more powerful forms. BAGMON, it’s the new big thing!
When I initially answered this question, I’d forgotten that my Manifest Zone co-host Imogen Gingell has in fact already created a host of Eberron-themed Pokemon that you could use with as Bagmon creatures. Her Five Nations set is pictured above, but you can find more here! In addition, she’s actually developed a full bestiary with stats for these creatures, which is available on the DM’s guild. She ties them to Thelanis rather than my Cannith/Vadalis Bagmon idea, but the creatures can work with any of these ideas.
If I was going to make a card game like Magic, I’d want it to still be magical—to have the cards produce Prestidigitation-level sounds and illusions as you play it. With this in mind, I could see three paths. It could be Aundairian; we’ve always called out Aundair as having the most use of casual magic. It could be created as a joint product by Sivis and Phiarlan, blending Scribing with the illusory elements of Shadow, and being both a printing thing and a form of entertainment. But I could also see it as being a Fey artifact from Thelanis—something that came to Eberron through a manifest zone and is now spreading rapidly, like a weed or a predator introduced into an environment that’s not prepared to deal with it.
Did you ever think up rules, terminology, and/or a simple general description of how the game of Conqueror is played?Is there a word to announce your victory, kinda like “checkmate”?
Conqueror was introduced in Five Nations, a book I didn’t work on. It runs into a tricky question of worldbuilding. The idea is that the Karrns are a people with a deep love of competition and strategy; the game is described as “Chesslike.” The problem with creating new rules and terms for the game is that YOUR PLAYERS WON’T KNOW THESE RULES AND TERMS. The SIMPLE approach is to say that Conqueror uses the basic rules and terms of Chess. It is less deeply satisfying because why would this alien world have a game we play—but the point is that if a villain says “Checkmate” the players understand the reference whereas if a villain says “No more conquests” you’re going to have to explain to the players “That’s a term from the game Conqueror which is used when the opponent is out of moves, sort of like saying ‘checkmate.'” Essentially, is it worth the effort involved on all sides to create an entirely new game, or is it simpler to just have the Karrnathi warlord say “Checkmate”?
With this in mind, when I had people playing Thrones a recent Threshold game, I essentially said “It’s like poker, but it uses a five-suited deck with a suit for each of the Five Nations.” While it would make more sense for it to have entirely unique rules, for SPEED OF PLAY it was easier to have it use basic Poker rules, because the players KNOW those. The five suited deck changes the odds a bit and added a unique twist (and I came up with the face cards based on notable figures from each nation), but I didn’t have to make up an entirely new game and the players could make some quick decisions based on their pre-existing knowledge of Poker.
The main thing is that if I was going to make rules for Conqueror, I’d want to go all in and MAKE A SET THE PLAYERS CAN PLAY, and play it with them a bunch of times, so they KNOW the terms when I drop them into the world. And like Thrones and Poker, I’d probably use Chess as a foundation (IE, 8×8 grid board, pieces with specific movement patterns, win by capturing an opponent’s Sovereign) rather than making something completely unique, because again, ultimately I WANT THE PLAYERS TO UNDERSTAND THE GAME. Creating an entirely unique game that only I really understand is a cool thing, but the question is whether the experience at the TABLE will be satisfying for the players or if it’s going to be more fun all around if I just said “Checkmate.”
Are there Khorvaire (or Karrnath) parallels to our chess champions?
Five Nations calls out Conqueror as the national pastime of Karrnath. With that in mind you can be certain that there are competitions and champions, and I’d expect Rekkenmark to make use of a form of Kriegsspiel. And I do expect that there are players across the Five Nations, it’s just that Karrns dominate the game. So I could definitely imagine running a Queen’s Gambit style campaign in which a young warlock is a Conqueror prodigy and they go to competitions across Khorvaire—possibly being pushed by Kaius as a peace initiative and way to bring the nations back together. But I’d be fairly likely to lean heavily on Chess terms unless I had time to create something entirely new—just as I use the foundation of Poker for Thrones in Threshold.
That’s all for now! Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters, both for asking interesting questions and making it possible for me to spend time on these articles. If you have an infrequently asked question of your own, you can ask me on Patreon!
The race of medusas was born in Khyber, but two hundred twenty years ago a clan emerged from the darkness and laid claim to the city of Cazhaak Draal in Droaam. The medusas have played an important role in Droaam’s rise as a nation. They are skilled stonemasons and architects, and their deadly gaze attack makes them dangerous warriors and valuable bodyguards.
This is what the original Eberron Campaign Setting had to say about medusas. It followed our general approach of questioning and considering previous assumptions. Traditionally, medusas were monsters, expected to hang around in statue-filled caves waiting for adventurers. But third edition didn’t present them as being created by a curse or otherwise existing in isolation—and further, the mental ability scores of the typical medusa were superior of those to the typical human. So why would these intelligent, powerful creatures hang around dank dungeons waiting to fight adventurers? Why wouldn’t they have a civilization of their own? Beyond this, it was easy to see how medusas could play an important role in Droaam. They’re smarter than humans, let alone ogres—and they have a power that even a gargoyle or minotaur has to respect. Breland might not think much of a city of ogres, but a city of medusas is a force anyone has to take seriously.
I expanded on the medusas of Eberron in this Dragonshard article, which added a few additional twists. The medusas of Cazhaak Draal use their serpent manes as secondary eyes, allowing them to see while their primary eyes are closed or covered. They’ve developed a language called Serpentine, which uses the hisses and motions of their serpents. Medusas can petrify other medusas (something that has varied by edition) though they’ve developed a ritual to negate the effects of their gaze. Within their own culture they use petrification as a tool, preserving elders or mortally wounded medusas. However, this article leaves many questions unanswered… a situation further complicated by the constantly shifting lore about medusas. Sharn: City of Towers has male medusas with the same capabilities (serpents, petrification) as females, while non-Eberron lore in some editions presents male medusas as a divergent species with entirely different abilities. Fifth edition presents medusas as isolated individuals rather than a distinct species; in 5E, medusas (male or female) are created as the result of a curse and they have no culture.
Eberron has always diverged from default lore; just look at gnolls, drow, and mind flayers. The fact that the default lore of medusas has changed in fifth edition doesn’t make any difference, because Eberron wasn’t using the lore of previous editions either; again, in S:CoT we have the male medusa Harash, who’s notably not a maedar. The medusas of Eberron are the medusas of Eberron: a unique species who emerged from Khyber to found a city-state on the surface, and who possess a distinct culture and language. In Eberron, vanity alone can’t make you a medusa. Which is fine, but it leaves many questions unanswered. Keep in mind that—like all of these articles—all of what I’m about to say is what I do in my Eberron campaign. Nothing here is canon, and it’s entirely possible I will contradict canon sources. This is how I use medusas; it’s a suggestion, not a fact.
What’s so interesting about medusas?
There’s many things I like about medusas.
They’re traditionally encountered as lone monsters, and I love turning that around and exploring the idea of medusas as a civilized people. Along with the Venomous Demesne, they have a sophisticated culture that predates Droaam, and they’re a power bloc the Daughters want to keep as allies.
Many of the creatures of Droaam—ogres, trolls—are creatures that rely on brute force. Medusas are more intelligent than humans. They’re an excellent tool for getting across the point that these things humans consider to be monstersmay be alien, but that doesn’t make them subhuman.
At the same time, medusas ARE very alien, and I like exploring that. I like digging deeper into the serpent mane, and in playing up ways that human assumptions about them can be very off-base.
Medusas are POWERFUL and dangerous. The mere threat of their gaze is enough to change the dynamics of a conversation.
The Cazhaak medusas are a very spiritual people, and are the primary priests of the dominant religion in Droaam—a religion based on deities humanity fears. This is another source of power and potential story hooks, and something that can give a medusa goals that run counter to those of Droaam; Zerasha of Graywall places the her duty to the Shadow above the desires of the Daughters.
All of these things combined can make medusas excellent ambassadors, enigmatic priests, or Daask commanders. They can enforce order among dangerous and diverse minions, but they aren’t inherently bloodthirsty or brutish. They are a truly alien species, and for people who have never actually dealt with them before it’s fun to play with expectations and fears.
Where do the medusas of Eberron come from?Were they created by Orlassk?
The Cazhaak creed asserts that the Sovereigns created and cultivated weak creatures that they could dominate—pathetic, powerless creatures, like humans. It was the Shadow who gave the blessed creatures—those humans call “monsters”—their gifts. The oldest medusa myths maintain that their ancestors were slaves in the depths of Khyber—enslaved by a “stone tyrant,” most likely the daelkyr Orlassk—and that the Shadow gave them their powers and inspired them to break the yoke of their oppression and claim their freedom. Keep in mind that these are myths, passed down through oral tradition for centuries before they were even concretely codified. Gatekeepers and many modern scholars assert that it was most likely Orlaask who actually created the medusas, blending humans (Explorers? Some sort of colony?) with basilisks. But religion is about faith; even if they were presented with absolute concrete proof that Orlaask created the first medusa by merging a human and a basilisk, a medusa would say that Orlaask was simply a pawn guided by the Shadow, and that it was the Shadow who gave their ancestors the strength to rebel against the Stone Tyrant. The Cazhaak medusas know that they are children of the Shadow, and simple facts won’t shake this faith.
Regardless of the truth, the medusas are a relatively young species. In describing Cazhaak Draal, the Eberron Campaign Setting says that Cazhaak Draal “was abandoned after the daelkyr released a horde of basilisks, gorgons, and cockatrices from the depths of Khyber.” Note the lack of medusas in that description. Medusas generally resemble humans more than they do hobgoblins or dwarves (let alone gnolls), and their first historical appearance on the surface world is when they emerge to claim Cazhaak Draal. It seems likely that as a species, medusas are little over a thousand years old. On the other hand, it is entirely possible that there is a second culture of medusas that has yet to be encountered by humans—medusas who remained servants of the Stone Tyrant. So explorers in Khyber could discover a city of medusas still devoted to Orlaask, who know nothing of the Shadow or the Cazhaak creed.
What is the life cycle of medusas in your Eberron?
First of all, in my campaign maedar—the serpentless “male medusas”—are an entirely separate species. Fourth edition presented them as having a “venomous gaze” and I’d be more inclined to use these scaly, venomous humanoids as creations of the overlord Masvirik, the Cold Sun—an overlord noted for reptilian traits and poison. The medusas of Eberron are defined by their serpent mane and their petrifying gaze.
Cazhaak medusas can have a masculine or feminine appearance. Thus we have Queen Sheshka, but also the medusa Harash in Sharn, who is described as male. The majority of medusas—around 80%—have a feminine appearance. However, the fact is that medusa physiology is nothing like that of humanity and that this presumption of gender is misleading. “Female” medusas may have a feminine shape, but they don’t suckle their young and don’t actually have mammary glands. Medusa myths suggest that they were created (whether by Orlaask or the Shadow) from another humanoid species, and most likely their silhouette is an artifact of that forgotten past.
Medusa reproduction is nothing like human reproduction, and any two medusas can reproduce. After a period of foreplay that causes key chemicals to be released, two medusas entwine their serpent manes. They bite one another’s serpents, and those bitten in this way fall off of the head. The entwined, impregnated serpents undergo a metamorphosis, merging together into leathery “eggs,” eventually releasing a young medusa that blends the traits of both parents. A stranger aspect of this lifecycle is that there’s no absolute assurance how long it will take for a medusa’s egg to mature. It takes at least a year, but it’s not uncommon for an egg to take anywhere up to ten years to hatch… and some eggs never produce a child. Many medusas believe that a child has to want to emerge. Eggs are typically buried in warm sand, and it’s not uncommon for one parent to tend to their brood, singing to the eggs each night; it’s this caregiver who the medusas would call the “mother,” even though they don’t carry the children directly. This slow gestation is offset by a long lifespan. Medusas can live between three hundred to four hundred years before falling victim to old age; There are many medusas in Cazhaak Draal who were part of the expedition that originally claimed the city.
When interacting with other humanoids, medusas often adopt the pronouns people typically associate with their appearance; thus, Sheshka is a queen and uses she/her pronouns. However, the Serpentine language doesn’t use gendered terms. In Serpentine, Sheshka is simply leader, not queen.
Where did the medusas live before Cazhaak Draal? Do they live there still?
The medusas have never been a widespread or numerous people. Their myths speak of a long period of nomadic wandering following their escape from the Stone Tyrant, and describe periods of settlement in what seem to be different demiplanes—periods that always end in disaster, with the medusas being forced to move on. This exodus came to an end when they settled in a Dhakaani city deep below the surface, a vault whose keepers were slain long ago. The medusas call this city Niaanu Draal, the Mother City, and it was here that they wrote down their myths and established the traditions they carry on today. They remained in Niaanu Draal for over two centuries, before this, too, ended in tragedy. The forces of a daelkyr drove the medusas from Niaanu Draal. These enemies could not (or would not) follow the medusas to the surface, and so they came to Cazhaak Draal and claimed it as their home.
Which daelkyr did they fight? It’s possible that it was Orlaask, that the minions of the Stone Tyrant sought to reclaim its former subjects. It could be that Belashyrra was offended by these creatures with their deadly gaze, or that the crawling hordes of Valaara overran the Mother City. This battle took place centuries ago, and ultimately it only matters if a DM wants to run a story related to Niaanu Draal; as a DM, if you want to tell that story, it’s up to you to decide which daelkyr best suits the needs of your campaign. Note that this isn’t a mystery to the medusas themselves; there are medusa elders who took part in the battle, along with petrified elders who once lived in Niaanu Draal. It’s simply that there’s no reason for me to lock in a specific daelkyr here, when a different daelkyr might serve your story better. The medusas faced a great enemy they couldn’t defeat, but it has left them alone ever since. Given the enigmatic nature of the daelkyr, it’s entirely possible that this exodus was the daelkyr’s goal all along… that for some reason it wanted the medusas to rise up from Khyber.
Has Sheshka always been the Queen of Cazhaak Draal? If not, how did she gain the title?
It wasn’t Sheshka who led the medusas to Cazhaak Draal. In the novel The Queen of Stone, a warrior who’s been petrified for over a century recognizes Sheshka as “Lady Sheshka” and is surprised to discover that she is now queen. Sheshka inherited her title, but it is about more than just bloodline. Also from The Queen of Stone…
“It’s not as simple as it seems.” Sheshka’s hand brushed against the silver collar that hung around her neck. “I am Sheshka, the Queen of Stone. To you, that may seem an arrogant title, an affectation of a woman who governs a city smaller than your Wroat or Passage. But it is not just a title of nobility: it is a statement of fact. I am the Queen of Stone. I hear the whisper of marble and granite…”
Essentially, Sheshka is the Queen of Stone because she IS the Queen of Stone. In a sense this is similar to the Keeper of the Flame. Medusas have varying degrees of natural affinity for stone. The regalia of the queen—the pendant Sheshka wears—amplifies this gift, but only one with the gift can attune to the collar. If Sheshka were to be killed, the medusas would search among their people for another with this gift—starting with Sheshka’s relatives, but continuing until a suitable medusa is found. So it’s as much a theocracy as it is a monarchy; Sheshka is considered to be blessed by the Shadow.
How do you see a medusa’s gaze working in general interactions. 5e’s gaze feature indiscriminately tries to petrify any qualifying targets in range…
Not exactly. Let’s look at the text…
When a creature that can see the medusa’s eyes starts its turn within 30 feet of the medusa, the medusa can force it to make a DC 14 Constitution saving throw if the medusa isn’t incapacitated and can see the creature…
There’s nothing indiscriminate about this. The medusa CAN force the creature to make a saving throw as long as the medusa can see the target, but it doesn’t HAVE to. My interpretation of this isn’t that a medusa can somehow make it safe for other creatures to look it in the eye, but rather that it’s a simple enough matter for a medusa to avoid meeting another creature’s gaze, using any of the methods I describe in this article. Notably, I still maintain that a medusa only petrifies with its primary eyes, and it can close them (or wear eyeblinders or a blindfold) and use its serpent mane for vision. In 3.5 I assigned a -2 penalty when a medusa uses its serpents for vision, and that’s an option here (fifth edition rarely does penalties, but disadvantage feels too severe). On the other hand, it’s also reasonable to say that the fifth edition medusa can choose not to petrify creatures, and that it does this by closing its main eyes and using its serpents—and therefore apply no penalty for doing so.
Fifth edition also says…
If the medusa sees itself reflected on a polished surface within 30 feet of it and in an area of bright light, the medusa is, due to its curse, affected by its own gaze.
I’m ambivalent about this. It seems very vague and ill-defined compared to the very specific degree of control the medusa has in dealing with enemies. A medusa can choose not to look at an adventurer (not forcing them to make a saving throw)—if that adventurer is holding a mirror, I’d assume it can avoid looking at that, too? I’m not adverse to the idea that a medusa could be affected by its own gaze—as the article suggests, medusas can petrify other medusas—but I think they’d be VERY used to the risks and good at avoiding them; and they’d be able to avoid the threat completely by closing their main eyes (or blindfold) and seeing through their serpents. I’d also hold closely to that “polished surface” and say that they don’t get petrified by, for example, looking at rhe rippling surface of a glass of water. So I’m fine with saying that if there’s a really well-executed plan it is POSSIBLE to petrify a medusa with their own gaze, but that it’s not something you can do casually by just wearing a mirror around your neck.
Cazhaak Draal is noted as being the spiritual center of Droaam. Do the medusas have an arcane tradition as well, and if so, what is that like?
The Cazhaak medusas have an arcane tradition. They are devoted to the Shadow, and the Shadow is a deity of KNOWLEDGE; according to Cazhaak myths, it was the Shadow who taught Aureon all that he knows. However, the Shadow is also about personal ambition and power, and rather than developing a shared system of arcane science that can support wizards and artificers (as seen in the Venomous Demesne), Cazhaak Draal is more a collection of individuals following their own secret paths to power.
Cazhaak Draal has both magewrights and adepts. Medusas have a natural affinity for stone, and their spellcasters often cast spells (or rituals) related to stone, earth, or poison. Cazhaak Draal thus has a strong corps of magewrights capable of casting mold earth and stone shape; working together and using arcane focuses they can cast move earth. More sophisticated spellcasters generally follow the model of bards (most often Whispers), sorcerers (typically Shadow or Storm), or warlocks (potentially any). In the case of warlocks, most Cazhaak warlocks believe their powers flow from the Shadow; they might have the powers of an Archfey of Great Old One patron, but those are the gifts the Shadow has bestowed upon them. However, medusa warlocks believe that the Shadow’s gift was connecting them TO their patron, and you could find a medusa warlock dealing with an archfey, a dao, or some other patron. The main point is that such spellcasters are remarkable individuals, each blazing their own trail—and thus, Cazhaak Draal overall doesn’t have the arcane infrastructure of the Venomous Demesne.
Does it bother you that mythologically, Medusa was a specific gorgon, while in D&D, medusas are a species and gorgons are an entirely different, unrelated creature?
Not really. D&D is full of such flawed mythological analogues. Greek Mythology is as irrelevant to the medusas of Eberron as the default lore of third or fourth edition. The medusas of Eberron are an alien species that share a name and a few cosmetic traits with medusa and the gorgons of mythology. (As a side note, I’ve always loved the name Euryale—one of Medusa’s sisters.)
In conclusion… What I enjoy about medusas is that they alien and intelligent, that they are spiritual but devoted to a tradition humanity shuns. Cazhaak Draal is a distinct faction within Droaam that has considerable power and influence, and I enjoy exploring its relationship with the Daughters. And I like the dramatic weight that comes with the medusa’s gaze, especially when dealing with a medusa in a non-combat situation.
Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters, who requested this topic and who are the only reason I can taker the time to write these articles!
As time permits, I like to answer interesting questions from patrons. Here’s a recent one…
Is there anything going on in the Barren Sea beyond well… A lack of anything really? What would that be?
Good question! The Player’s Guide to Eberron has this to say:
The Barren Sea is so called because it is poor for fishing and devoid of apparent life. Hideous monsters are said to inhabit its depths—but sailors make that claim about all ten seas. In fact, sailors have more to fear from storms, icebergs in the north, and unpredictable winds than they do from any living thing in the Barren Sea. In addition to the mundane risks of storm and calm, the Barren Sea is known for scattered areas of dead calm—areas of perfectly still water, sometimes suffused with negative energy that attracts undead.
The Eberron Campaign Guide adds this…
The Barren Sea is home to dark and sinister fiends that dwell in horrid cities far below the waves… and tremendous storms send ships to splinter against the rocky shore (of the Demon Wastes).
The Thunder Sea is home to powerful civilizations, and those who cross it will have to deal with the sahuagin or sea elves. The Lhazaar Sea is more chaotic, home to pirates, drake hunters, elemental islands, and all manner of monstrosities. The Barren Sea tells a different story. As its name suggests, it seems to be almost lifeless. The Barren Sea isn’t a resource to be harvested; it’s a deadly obstacle to be crossed, an aquatic desert. It’s for this reason that you don’t see the equivalent of Rhiavhaar or the Lhazaar Principalities on the coasts around the Barren Sea; there’s no fishing, nothing to draw people into the water. The people of Ohr Kaluun, Nulakhesh, and the lands now known as Droaam largely ignored the Barren Sea. Today, the Riedran province of Corvagura is an important port that supports shipping to and from Riedra’s interests in western Khorvaire and Xen’drik, and many of Riedra’s merchant sailors are Corvaguran; but there are no fishing boats in the Barren Sea.
So why is the Barren Sea so barren? The practical explanation is hypersalinity. The waters of the Barren Sea have almost ten times the salt content of the other seas of Eberron. Few plants or animals can survive in these waters. A side effect of this is that the waters of the Barren Sea are surprisingly buoyant; anyone swimming in the Barren Sea has advantage on checks made to stay afloat. But while the salt content explains why the sea is devoid of life, the larger question is why is the water so salty? Hypersalinity is usually caused by mineral deposits, but that’s not a factor here. The mystery is further compounded by the fact that the majority of the Barren Sea is shielded from divination (including the psionic clairsentience techniques employed by Riedrans). A massive nondetection effect blankets the barren waters and anything upon them. Sages can’t explore the Barren Sea with scrying, Tharashk prospectors can’t sense what lies beneath the waves, and even commune can’t unlock the secrets of the Barren Sea. Mystical navigation tools become unreliable in barren waters, and navigators must be prepared to use mundane techniques. Taken together, the hypersalinity and nondetection effect are clearly unnatural. The cause of these effects is explored later in this article.
Calm and Still, Merchant and Spy
So, back to the original question… What goes on in the Barren Sea? You won’t encounter dragon turtles or merfolk there, to be sure. But that doesn’t mean that it’s boring and uniform. Here’s a few of the things you can find.
Deadly Storms. The Player’s Guide to Eberron calls out the risk of storms and “unpredictable winds.” it later specifies that these are “mundane risks”—so while storms are always a risk on the Barren Sea, they aren’t as dramatic as the Lamannia-fueled storms of the Thunder Sea. The exception is to the north, where the ECG notes the “tremendous storms” that can dash a ship against the Demon Wastes; along this cursed coast, the weather is enhanced and twisted by the malevolent powers bound in the Wastes.
Dead Calm. The southern Barren Sea holds a number of large manifest zones tied to Mabar. Normally Mabaran manifest zones can be recognized by their impact on flora and fauna, but in the Barren Sea there’s no native life to use as a yardstick. As called out in the Player’s Guide to Eberron, these Mabaran zones create areas of unnatural calm. Winds die and currents are diverted. Some of these share Mabar’s trait of Eternal Shadows; in such regions all bright light is reduced to dim light, and ships must make their way through this gloom.
As noted in PGtE, regions of dead calm are often inhabited by undead. Zombies, skeletons, and other undead can be found—animated corpses both of travelers and of strange creatures from deep below the poisoned waters. However, the most common form of undead are shadows. Superstition holds that within the dead calm, the shadows of sailors can come to life and kill their owners, persisting even after killing the mortal who cast them. There are countless tales of merchants stumbling on ghost ships inhabited solely by shadows. In the annals of the Wayfinder Foundation, Lord Boroman ir’Dayne discovers a massive graveyard of ships in the Barren Sea, including vessels that seemed to be the ships of giants and Dhakaani galleys. According to the story, Boroman’s own ship was overrun by shadows and he was forced to abandon his vessel and flee. His dinghy was overturned and his friends consumed by “shadow sharks,” but—at least according to the tale—Boroman managed to swim for days and made landfall in the Demon Wastes (which is a story in its own right). Though he tried, ir’Dayne was never able to find the graveyard again.
Still Water. While there are Mabaran manifest zones across the Barren Sea, to the north they are outnumbered by manifest zones tied to Risia. These zones are unnaturally cold, home to unexpected icebergs and creeping ice that can potentially trap slower vessels. Such zones have Risa’s Lethal Cold trait as described in Exploring Eberron. A few of the largest manifest zones have the Preservation trait; any creature or object that is completely encased in this Risian ice is kept in stasis, ignoring the passage of time. Travelers or entire ships could be found trapped in such an iceberg: fiends or dragons from the first age of the world, Sarlonan refugees fleeing the Sundering, or more recent sailors from Khorvaire. The shroud against divination makes it difficult to track such prisoners from afar… but there are wonders waiting to be found.
Known Threats and Dangerous Paths. Over the centuries, sailors have charted safe paths through the Barren Sea, identifying deadly manifest zones and plotting routes that avoid them. There are three primary routes used by Riedran ships and Lyrandar vessels, and with a reliable map and a good navigator you can follow such a path and avoid the planar threats. However, many independent captains—smugglers, spies, Adaran vessels avoiding Riedran patrols—pride themselves on knowing shorter paths. Such routes can save you time and avoid contact with other vessels… but a false map can lead you into still water or a shadowy end. Even if route is good, since these paths are less traveled there’s a greater chance of running across an intermittent manifest zone that was dormant when the cartographer passed through. When you leave the known paths you may encounter deadly threats—but it’s in these dangerous regions that you might find ghost ships laden with treasure or ancient wonders preserved in Risian ice.
Merchants and Soldiers. There is a regular stream of legitimate traffic across the Barren Sea. In the south, merchants and cargo ships travel between Dar Jin, Dar Qat, Stormreach, and Sharn. A northern route connects Dar Jin and Dar Kel to Aundair and points east. The majority of these ships are Riedran, though Lyrandar and other vessels are mixed in. Diplomats and scholars can also be found making their way across the sea. Riedran frigates patrol the trade routes, ever watchful for pirates and smugglers. While Riedran soldiers aren’t inherently hostile to the people of Khorvaire, they may stop and board any vessel they suspect of smuggling or of supporting the enemies of Riedra—notably, the kalashtar.
Smugglers, Spies, and Pirates. The steady stream of merchant vessels provide an inviting targets for pirates in the Barren Sea. Riedran frigates are ever vigilant, but the shrouding effect of the barren waters makes it possible for pirates to evade pursuit by plunging into uncharted waters. Of course, this means risking the dangers of a dead calm or still waters, but there are always those willing to take that risk. Given the dangers, the Barren Sea isn’t exactly teeming with pirates, but those who manage to thrive in these dangerous waters are often quite capable.
The shrouding effect also makes the Barren Sea a haven for smugglers—including the Dream Merchants of Riedran, Adarans making to or from Khorvaire, and others—and spies, whether they’re spying on Riedra, Droaam, or elsewhere. Conspiracy theorists claim that many dragonmarked houses maintain secret facilities on platforms in the Barren Sea, places where they can defy the Korth Edicts.
Sahuagin. The hypersalinity of the Barren Sea is just as deadly to the sahuagin as it is to other creatures, and the Eternal Dominion of the Thunder Sea doesn’t extend into these western waters. However, there are a few sahuagin clans scattered across the very edges of the Barren Sea. Each of these small enclaves have their own unique cultures; some are peaceful, others vicious and cruel. The most dangerous of these are the Sa’arlaath, “The All Consuming”; these sahuagin dwell on the coast of the Demon Wastes and have been twisted by fiendish powers. The Sa’arlaath raid vessels that pass over their terrain, but most of the sahuagin of the Thunder Sea remain in isolation in the deep, ignoring both the people of the surface and those who dwell in the deepest depths of the Barren Sea—the Kuo-Toa.
The Kuo-Toa: Dreamers in the Deep
The upper waters of the Barren Sea are deadly, but descend far enough and the salinity of the water drops. It is here that adventurers can discover the “sinister fiends that dwell in horrid cities far below the waves” mentioned in the Eberron Campaign Guide. Those creatures that dwell on the ocean floor aren’t literal fiends, but their realm is a terrifying array of nightmares. This is the domain of the Kuo-toa.
While the upper waters of the Barren Sea are close to Mabar and Risia, the depths of the ocean once held powerful manifest zones tied to Dal Quor, the region of dreams. A unique species evolved in this region. All mortals of Eberron possess a connection to Dal Quor, glimpsing the Realm of Dreams when they sleep. But these creatures possessed a far deeper connection; they existed in both realms simultaneously, perceiving both dream and reality at all times. They called themselves the Quor-Toa, the People of Dreams. Beyond their power to perceive Dal Quor, within the manifest zones below the Barren Sea, the Quor-Toa could draw the essence of Dal Quor into reality and shape it, sculpting tools, structures, and servants from the stuff of dreams. Their deep empire was a place of impossible wonders, of spectacles dragons and giants could only dream of. Yet because they could only work these wonders in manifest zones to Dal Quor, the Quor-Toa never sought to spread out into other lands or seas. They defended their territory, and it is for this reason that few giant explorers ever reached Sarlona; there are records in Cul’sir accounts that describe the glories glimpsed below the waves of the “Golden Sea” and of the godlike beings that defended it. In the end, the giants destroyed the Quor-Toa without even meaning to. Forty thousand years ago the giants severed the ties between Eberron and Dal Quor, as a way to end their conflict with the quori. In the process, they destroyed the Quor-Toa. As the manifest zones tied to Dal Quor were stripped of power, the dream-towers of the Quor-Toa melted away and the fishfolk themselves suffered devastating psychic trauma. Their civilization collapsed into chaos. It took generations to recover from the shock, and the survivors weren’t the people they had once been. Their knowledge had been storied in libraries of dreams, vaults that were shattered and lost. Their psychic gifts had been twisted. They were no longer the Quor’Toa; they had become kuo-toa, the fallen people.
Following Two Paths
The kuo-toa have never regained the power of their ancestors. The energies of Dal Quor no longer flow naturally into Eberron. But the kuo-toa still possess a stronger connection to Dal Quor than any other mortal creature. Most mortal creatures describe the kuo-toa as “mad”, but the truth is far more complicated. Where most mortals only glimpse Dal Quor when they sleep, the kuo-toa perceive both realms simultaneously; they are ALWAYS dreaming, experiencing the dream overlaid over reality. This has a few effects.
A kuo-toa can always be targeted by the dream spell, even while it is awake.
A kuo-toa experiences two realities at once—the physical world and Dal Quor. Thus, when a kuo-toa is dealing with an adventurer, it is also dealing with whatever dream occupies the same space as the adventurer in its vision. It could be holding a fish and describe it as a sword, because in Dal Quor, it is holding a sword. To the kuo-toa, both realities are equally real. It is a sword AND a fish. And the kuo-toa could be fighting a monster in Dal Quor while also talking to an adventurer; so while it appears to be waving a fish around, it is fighting a nightmare with a mighty sword.
This is the source of the Otherworldly Perception trait of the 5E kuo-toa; they perceive invisible and ethereal entities through their echoes in the dream.
If a kuo-toa is slain in Dal Quor, it loses its perception of Dal Quor until it completes a short rest. There’s no other negative consequence; it’s essentially no different from a human being killed in their dream and waking up.
The kuo-toa of Eberron speak Quori instead of Undercommon. They have no ties to the creatures of Khyber, and they learned Quori long ago from their dreams.
While they lack both the resources and the knowledge of their ancestors, the kuo-toa still possess supernatural powers tied to their dual existence. Kuo-toa seers have a sharpened form of their Otherworldly Perception, seeing dream visions that reveal secrets about the waking world; a seer might manifest true seeing—seeing a shapeshifter’s true form as a dream aura around it—or other divination effects. Kuo-toa shapers can cast illusion or conjuration spells by pulling dreams into reality, often without fully understanding that this is what they’re doing. This is just a shadow of the power they wield as a community, which is discussed below. But there’s a second aspect that’s crucial to understanding the kuo-toa. They experience Dal Quor and Eberron at once. But they don’t just dream any dreams. For whatever reason, nightmares are drawn to the kuo-toa. They aren’t just always dreaming, they’re always experiencing nightmares. And this in turn shapes the way they interact with the world.
Gods & Monsters
A single kuo-toa might have the power to draw a wisp of dream into reality to create a minor illusion. But as kuo-toa join together, their collective unconscious amplifies their nightmares—and they can bring these things into reality. Kuo-toa cities are ruled by gods they have dreamed into being, but these aren’t the gods they have chosen; they are deities built from their fears. Every kuo-toa deity is unique, and they shape their cities to match their nature. Hence, “sinister fiends that dwell in horrid cities beneath the waves”—for the gods of the kuo-toa make harsh demands on their people. Beyond their gods, the kuo-toa dream other horrors into existence. They may dream creatures that have the abilities of krakens or aboleths (though not their exact shapes or motivations), or entirely new abominations. Such monsters might serve the local deity, or they could simply rise to the surface to prey on unwary travelers. So in truth you never know what you’ll find in the Barren Sea… because the kuo-toa in the deeps could dream up a unique nightmare that’s never been seen before and which will never be seen again.
Kuo-toa and Quori
It might seem like the Dreaming Dark would love the kuo-toa and would exert power over them; in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Consider than in the Age of Giants, the Quor-Toa were in a realm close to Dal Quor, and yet the Quori came to Xen’drik instead. Why not travel through this open gateway? Because the quori of the past feared the Quor-Toa, just as those of the present fear the koa-toa. Because the koa-toa shape dreams, pulling the essence of the Dal Quor into reality and bending it to their will. The kuo-toa gods began as quori—but they have no control over the situation, and are forced to play out the roles the kuo-toa have set for them. This isn’t something the kuo-toa do consciously, and they can’t choose NOT to do it. But the quori are aware of the kuo-toa and stay far away from the ocean deeps.
The Barren Truth
The beginning of this article raised a question: why is the Barren Sea so barren? What is the cause of the focused hypersalinity, and what is it that blocks divination? Scholars on land have advanced many theories. Clearly it’s the work of the dragons of Argonnessen, an epic curse like those unleashed against Xen’drik. Obviously it’s the handiwork of the Daelkyr. Or maybe there’s an unbound overlord in the water and this is its domain. Any of these ideas are plausible, and a DM could choose any one of them. But in my campaign, the Barren Sea is a nightmare of the kuo-toa. Collectively, they see the world as a barren place of death, and it is this shared nightmare that actively poisons the waters above them. This is part of the wounded psyche of the species, and it’s not something that could be changed by a few friendly conversations. On the other hand, if Dal Quor itself were to change—if il-Lashtavar were to give way to il-Yannah and an Age of Light—perhaps the Great Light could heal the kuo-toa and life could return to the Barren Sea.
So, back to the original question… What goes on in the Barren Sea? Pirates! Smugglers! Getting boarded by Riedran soldiers who want to inspect your cargo! Ghost ships filled with shadows! Finding an ancient couatl frozen in an iceberg! A secret Cannith research platform! A nightmare from the depths! Or, perhaps, a visit to a city deep beneath the waves, where a nightmare deity rules over people poised between two worlds…
What’s Common Knowledge?
The people of the surface world know almost nothing about the kuo-toa. They know exactly what the ECG suggested—that there are “fiends in horrid cities” at the bottom of the Barren Sea. To this point, the nightmare deities of the kuo-toa have kept their dreaming subjects in the depths—and the major trade routes used by Riedra and Khorvaire don’t pass over kuo-toa cities. So how will adventurers discover what lies below? Adventurers venturing through uncharted waters could be shipwrecked by a nightmare and drawn into the depths. A dragonmarked research platform could shift the focus of a kuo-toa god, causing it to focus its wrath on the world above. A kalashtar could be urged to venture below by visions from il-Yannah; could the kuo-toa play a vital role in the turning of the age? And what affect might the kuo-toa dreamers have on a kalashtar’s quori spirit?
How powerful are the Kuo-Toa gods?
It depends on the community they’re tied to. A small outpost might have a “god” with the power of a pit fiend. For the major cities, I’d personally use this as an opportunity to repurpose the statistics of existing archfiends; this would be a fine place to have a version of Demogorgon or Asmodeus, thought I’d definitely give them some distinct kuo-toa flavoring. The main thing is that their power is definitely geographically limited; while Blibdolpoop/Demogorgon might be extremely powerful in their domain, they couldn’t leave it and go attack Sharn. It’s a little like the Undying Court, except that the kuo-toa gods feed on the nightmares of their people instead of on their love.
Maps are inconsistent across editions. Some maps show the Barren Sea extending all the way to the Dagger River; others present it further west. Where do you draw the line for the “Barren” waters?
The general description of the Barren Sea is that it is “west of Khorvaire, northwest of Xen’drik and east of Sarlona.” If you consider the most recent map—page 104-105 of Rising From The Last War—the labeling of the Thunder Sea is significantly southwest of the Dagger River and Manta Bay. I’m inclined to say that the barren waters start just to the west of Zarash Bay. So Zarash Bay has standard water, but the Bay of Madness and the western coastline of the Shadow Marches are barren water.
How does that even work? Shouldn’t currents disperse the high-saline water? Nature doesn’t just stop at an arbitrary border.
That is ABSOLUTELY CORRECT. The point is that there is nothing natural about this. Hypersalinity is an effect that can be found in the natural world based on mineral deposits in closed bodies of water. But this ISN’T a bounded body of water and there’s no clear mineral deposits that could cause it. Likewise, the fact that it STOPS when you do deep enough is entirely unnatural. And keep in mind that once the giants referred to it as the “Golden Sea.” The hypersalinity is a natural effect that is being created and sustained by a supernatural force. When the waters of the Barren Sea are flow out of the Barren Sea, the charged salinity fades. If the science of this is troubling, you can just think of it as “magical death water.”
Since it’s so barren, what do the kuo-toa eat? Do they dream food into existence?
The Quor-Toa dreamt food into existence. The kuo-toa don’t have quite such perfect control; it’s possible that there are kuo-toa shapers who can cast effects like goodberry, create food, or even heroes’ feast by conjuring food from dreams, but this is a rare gift and isn’t enough to sustain a city. The main point is that the barren water ENDS when you go deep enough; there is flora and fauna in the depths. Much of it is unusual—shaped over time by kuo-toa nightmares—but there’s definitely edible plants and fish.
That’s all for now! I am traveling at the moment with limited internet and there is a good chance that I will not be able to answer many questions on this article, though I’m happy for people to pose questions and discuss them in the comments. Thanks to my Patreon supporters both for suggesting the topic and for making it possible for me to write it; it’s only this support that allows me to spend time on articles like this.
As time permits, I like to answer interesting questions posed by my Patreon supporters. Questions like…
Where and how do you see whaling playing a part in Eberron?
The immediate question is are there whales in Eberron, because there’s no particular reason to assume that any random thing that exists in our world does exist in Eberron. As it turns out, whales have been mentioned; Exploring Eberron has this to say.
When dealing with the Thunder Sea, remember that it’s just as civilized as the Five Nations. It does have wilderness regions with feral beasts roaming at will, and you might find wild plesiosaurs, a scheming sea hag, or a hungry scrag. But in the areas above and around sahuagin city-states, such beasts have been tamed or destroyed. All cultures of the Thunder Sea farm fish like the people of the land farm sheep or cattle; a pod of whales may be carefully managed and cultivated, and their farmers will be quite angry with dryskins who poach their ichthyic livestock.
So first of all, I don’t see whaling as being a common practice in the Thunder Sea, because blundering out and killing a random whale is a great way to get your ship sunk by an angry Karakala stormcaller. We’ve called out that agreements between the Five Nations and the powers of the Thunder Sea do allow fishing in close coastal waters, so you have Brelish fishing villages on the southern coast, but I wouldn’t make them whalers.
So, where and how do I see whaling playing a part in Eberron? I see it as being focused on the Lhazaar Principalities, but the twist is that it’s not whaling. In our world, whales are the largest and most dramatic denizens of the sea, but this isn’t our world. In the Lhazaar Sea, the mighty creatures bold sailors hunt are dragon turtles. They aren’t the SAME dragon turtles described in the Monster Manual; they’re slightly smaller and weaker (commonly huge, though they can reach gargantuan size), they’re omnivorous, and they’re less intelligent, notably not speaking Draconic; we can call them drake turtlesor softshell dragon turtles. But they are still built on the model of the dragon turtle. Building on this, I’d say that drake hunting is a major part of the Lhazaar economy. Drake (turtle) blood is a crucial component in industrial alchemy, part of what allows Jorasco and Cannith to produce mass quantities of healing and other potions. Drakebone could be used in everything from corsets to weaponry. In the Principalities, most medium armor makes use of drake turtle scales and heavy armor is typically made not from metal, but from drake turtle shells. Essentially, this not only creates an industry that parallels whaling, it also creates a unique flavor for Lhazaar fashion and tools and introduces the disturbing idea that many mass-produced potions use components drawn from a deeply questionable source. Because I’ve said that these are as intelligent as the standard dragon turtles of the Monster Manual… but less intelligent doesn’t mean they aren’t intelligent. They don’t perform magic. They don’t speak Common or Draconic. But they sing… and anyone who knows the language (which very few land-dwellers do) will realize that they are singing in Aquan.
Part of the point of Eberron is that stories don’t always end well and that good people can do bad things. A druid adventurer may realize a drake turtle is singing in Aquan. But even if the character speaks Aquan, the drake turtles may not think or communicate the same way humans do—even if it is clear to the ADVENTURER that the turtles are intelligent, it may not be a simple matter to prove it. And there could always be the chance that while the turtles appear to sing in Aquan, they aren’t actually intelligent by the typical measures. Even if adventurers can prove it, the response of the common Lhazaar sailor will be “Who cares if drake turtles sing in Aquan? They’re MONSTERS. I need to feed my family. The healing potions Jorasco will make using that drake’s blood will save countless HUMAN lives. I chose my family and my species over the well-being of alien sea monsters.” Personally, I like the idea of placing player characters at the very forefront of this issue—making it THEIR discovery, because it’s their story—but you could also say that it’s something that’s been known for decades and is being actively debated. Druid activists could be blocking drake hunting boats. Principalities could be split, with some princes forbidding drake hunting, while other principalities are deeply dependent on the drake-hunting economy. It could be that ending dragon-hunting would be a major blow to industrial alchemy, unless Cannith and Jorasco can be pushed to find new methods of production. Ultimately, it’s a more dramatic and bloodier version of the ethical questions of elemental binding… and it could be that fighting over this issue could force people to reevaluate Zil binding as well.
So, going back to the original question, I’d place whaling in the Lhazaar Principalities and I’d make it an industry that has great impact within the region but also to the greater economy of Khorvaire, but I’d also make the creatures hunted an variant form of dragon turtles as opposed to whales. Not with that said, there’s nothing wrong with saying that there’s also traditional whaling in the northern Lhazaar Principalities. But personally, I’m more interesting in adding something that’s unique to the world—and in doing so, being able to add a unique twist to the economic impact of that creature. But if you want a story focus on traditional whaling, tell that story!
Do drake turtles have blowholes?
No, they don’t. However, they do have steam breath—though it’s weaker than that of a dragon turtle and takes longer to recharge. They need to vent this occasionally, and common drake hunter practice is to wait for such an exhalation before attacking, to strike while the breath is discharged. So you can still have a “Thar she blows!” moment.
Does Riedra have any interest in drake turtles?
Certainly! I think that drake’s blood is a useful basic alchemical component and that the shell, scales, bones, and teeth all have their uses. I definitely think fishing rights in the Lhazaar Sea is an lingering point of tension; it’s even possible there’s been an open conflict—similar to the Cod Wars—between Rhiavaar and one of the Principalities at some point in the past.
If drake turtles sing in Aquan, how can there be any doubt they’re intelligent? Why don’t people just use the Tongues spell or similar magic to talk to them?
A parrot can recite a poem in English; does that mean it possesses human intelligence? The drake hunters argue the same thing of drake turtles; it’s exotic behavior, but that doesn’t mean they’re PEOPLE. Which comes to a key point in my description: Even if the character speaks Aquan, the drake turtles may not think or communicate the same way humans do. My point is that if you know Aquan, when you hear the drake’s song you’ll recognize it as, for example, “Bluuuue sorrow delving deeeeep.” But if you row up to the drake turtle and say “Hi! My name’s Keith! What’s yours?” in Aquan (or using tongues) it will ignore you. Perhaps it doesn’t recognize the tiny non-turtle as a creature. Perhaps it doesn’t respond to simply spoken words; you need to SING your statement at a particular pitch for the drake to recognize it as an attempt at communication. Or perhaps it’s a parrot—it produces words it’s picked up from passing elementals but it doesn’t actually understand their meaning.
D&D has a tendency to treat any creature with a language as communicating exactly as humans do. I like to explore the idea that alien creatures may communicate in very different ways, something I’ve discussed in articles relating to elementals and lizardfolk. The point is that your Aquan speaker/tongues caster can understand the words the drake turtle is singing; but that doesn’t mean that you understand the meaning or how to effectively communicate back. The point of all this is because I’m interested in exploring the question of drake turtle intelligence as a STORY. Consider the movie Arrival; it wouldn’t have been much fun if the protagonist just walked in, cast tongues, and it was all over. I like the idea that people KNOW the drake turtles sing in Aquan, but because no one’s ever managed to have an effective conversation with one, the hunters can dismiss them as parrots. If the player characters get involved, their challenge is to figure out how the turtles communicate, beyond simply the words that they’re using. In OUR world there’s considerable debate about cetacean intelligence; my point is that I want it to be a possible story that adventurers can be a part of, because player characters are remarkable. If drake turtles are fully sentient, I want your character to be the protagonist of Arrival or Spock mind-melding with a whale; I want YOU to be the one who solves a mystery others have abandoned or dismissed. But if that’s not a mystery you want to explore, you can definitely resolve it one way or the other using NPCs or have it have been clearly established in the past.
That’s all for now! Thanks again to my Patreonsupporters for making these articles possible!
As time permits, I like to answer questions posed by my Patreon supporters. Here’s a few questions that came up last month and didn’t make it into previous articles.
Currently, the Keeper of the Flame with the longest historical reign was Saren Rellek, who lead the church for 88 years. Would you say this is because they were a non-human Keeper? Is the tiefling sanctuary of Rellekor named after them?
Yes, on both counts. While it is tempting to suggest that Rellek was a tiefling, if there was a tiefling Keeper in power for nearly a century, I feel that tieflings would have a better reputation than they do. In my Eberron, Saren was a Khoravar. Half-elves make up a tenth of the population of Thrane, so it’s not a shocking shift; nonetheless, it may be due to their Khoravar heritage that they were especially concerned with oppressed minorities and helped establish the tiefling sanctuary that bears their name.
What are one or two examples of a major Chamber dragon operation currently operating in Sharn? The 3.5 Sharn: City of Towers book is very sparse on the Chamber.
The general idea of both the Chamber and the Lords of Dust is that they typically work through pawns—that any operation could be tied to the Chamber. Adventurers aren’t expected to run into a force they would recognize as the Chamber at 4th level. But they could get involved with the Boromar Clan / Daask conflict, and at a late stage discover that one of Saiden Boromar’s chief advisors is actually a shapechanged dragon. In the novella “Principles of Fire”, there’s a Chamber dragon on board the Lyrandar patriarch’s airship. What are they DOING? Likely, observing, and perhaps subtly pushing the patriarch in a particular direction. Essentially, my common approach with the Chamber isn’t that you run into a bunch of “Chamber goons” on a Chamber mission—it’s about running into people following what seems to be an entirely personal agenda (Boromar-Daask Gang War) and then discovering that it’s tied to the Chamber, because the Chamber has a Prophetic interest in a particular outcome of the war. This ties to the fact that the Chamber isn’t interested in wealth or power for their own sake; what they care about is ensuring that specific Prophetic events come to pass, which means that they can be working with ANY organization if it makes your story more interesting. A Chamber agent could be supporting the Daask/Boromar war. They could be posing as a member of the Aurum. They could be staging a terrorist attack on the Tain Gala this month and making sure the adventurers are in a position to stop an attack at the Gala the following month. The key for the adventurers is reaching a point where they have enough information to understand their motives—the Prophetic paths they are working to fulfill.
I’m running the Savage Tide adventure path, and what I’m most curious about are the obyriths. Obox-ob, Dagon, Pazuzu, Pale Night, etc. – how would you fit them into Eberron?
There’s a few ways you could go about it, depending which aspects of the STORY of the Obyriths are most important to you.
The simplest option would be to introduce the obyriths as the lords of shadow demiplanes, as described in this article. The main question would be what is drawing their attention to Eberron, as shadow fiends usually don’t and can’t leave their demiplanes. With that said, this is a fairly generic approach that doesn’t especially capture any of the existing lore that defines the obyriths and doesn’t give them a strong motive
Obyriths are described as being exceptionally ALIEN; their appearance alone could drive mortals insane. Both of these suggest that they are creatures from Xoriat. The daelkyr aren’t the only powerful entities from Xoriat. Perhaps the obyriths came to Wberron from Xoriat in the Age of Demons and fought with the overlords, and were imprisoned by the overlords long ago.
A third option—and the one I’d personally use—would be to combine these. Exploring Eberron presents the idea that the current incarnation of reality may not be the first one… that the meddling of the daelkyr can lead to a full reseting of reality. Exploring suggests that the Gith may be refugees from a previous incarnation of Eberron. An exotic option for the obyriths would be to say that they are fiends from a previous iteration of Khyber… That somehow they escaped into Xoriat and ultimately came to the current incarnation of reality, most likely finding shelter in a shadow demiplane. This preserves the idea that they are ALIEN—fiends from another version of reality, further altered by their time in Xoriat—and that they are ANCIENT, as they literally predate reality itself. It also means that their agenda is entirely separate from that of the overlords and the Prophecy itself. Is their goal to overthrow and replace the overlords? Is that even possible? Or are they just bitterly trying to survive? A side note is that since they don’t belong in this reality they wouldn’t have heart demiplanes, and while they are physically immortal, if they are destroyed they won’t return—which gives them a clear motive for laying low despite their vast power.
Were ancient Dhakaani really ruthless? Take torture and Grieving tree for example, how many of them were constructed? Were they seen as a horrible invention or as a useful and necessary tool? How are they seen by modern Kech Volaar, will they want to use/preserve or destroy them?
The Dhakaani were and are quite ruthless. Consider this section of Exploring Eberron:
The Dhakaani idea of ‘honor in victory’ is quite different from that of Dol Arrah and the people of the Five Nations. The Dhakaani prize victory and efficiency, both on and off the battlefield. Atcha comes from standing your ground against seemingly impossible odds and from displaying skill and discipline. There is honor in using cunning to defeat a superior foe, so guerilla warfare, ambushing a foe, and even assassination are acceptable tactics, if this is what muut requires. Dar must be ready to die for the empire—but when possible, it’s always better to kill for the empire.
What you call ruthless, Dhakaani might call efficient. A second note from Exploring Eberron:
The Dhakaani don’t practice slavery—but not because of compassion. Rather, they consider it inefficient to try to force their values and traditions on creatures who have no concept of muut and who don’t share the Uul Dhakaan. Thus, Dhakaani tradition has always been to drive enemies out of their territories, or if such exile is impossible, to kill them.
The Kech Volaar are the most flexible of the Keepers. Exploring Eberron notes:
Perhaps because of this, the Kech Volaar are also the most conciliatory of the Keeper clans. They are the most willing to interact with the gath’dar, both because they recognize the need to understand these possible enemies, and in the hopes that some form of coexistence may be possible. Like the Kech Uul, Volaar leader Tuura Dhakaan wonders if the Uul Dhakaan can expand to incorporate other creatures—if the empire can unite gath’dar as it does the dar. Despite these hopes, the Kech Volaar are devoted to the dar above all else. They are the Keepers of History, and they know the sacrifices their ancestors had to make and the bitter wars against the chaat’or and the taarn (elves). They are wise and willing to seek all paths to prosperity, but will never surrender the dream of the eternal empire.
Ultimately, the point is that the Dhakaani have no use for petty cruelty. They value EFFICIENCY above all. The Grieving Trees were a creation of a specific (albeit legendary) daashor and aren’t commonplace, but the point of the trees was to serve as a SYMBOL and as a warning. As to whether the Volaar would embrace them, I think it’s a simple calculus as to whether they feel use of the trees would strength their position among the Dar—using them is an assertion of power, as they were originally the tools of the Marhu—or whether they would horrify the chaat’oor and the gath’dar and interfere with their future plans.
The Dhakaani are a very alien culture, shaped by the Uul Dhakaan and thousands of years of martial discipline. They don’t see the world in the same way as humans of the Five Nations, and yes, their behavior will generally come across as ruthless; but ultimately, the best way to describe it is inhuman.
That’s all for now! Thanks to my Patreonsupporters for making these articles possible!
July is quickly fading, but as time allows I want to answer a few questions posed by my Patreon supporters. This month, people asked about a pair of priests—High Cardinal Krozen of Thrane and Zerasha of Graywall.
Dealing with the Divine
Krozen and Zerasha are both powerful divine spellcasters. In third edition, Krozen was defined as a 12th level cleric of the Silver Flame, making him one of the most powerful clerics in canon Khorvaire. While never defined, Zerasha is supposed to be similar in her power—a priest respected and feared by a city of monsters and the mind flayer who governs it. Given that most priests in Khorvaire are adepts—or don’t even cast spells at all—I want players to feel how remarkable these individuals are when they encounter them. A powerful wizard is essentially a scientist, someone who uses logic and knowledge to break the laws of reality. A powerful divine caster is something else. Both Zerasha and Krozen are the chosen agents of cosmic powers. The Sovereigns and Six are omnipresent forces. The Shadow knows the evil that lurks in the hearts of mortals, and Zerasha is one of its chief agents. Krozen can command the dead to return to life or call celestials from the essence of the Silver Flame. We can debate the existence of the Sovereigns, but the Silver Flame is the force that stands between Eberron and the overlords, and Krozen is a conduit for its power. These aren’t just people who have learned how to perform magic tricks. They arethe chosen agents of vast cosmic forces. If you’ll pardon the phrase, they are burdened with glorious purpose.
But how do you make the powerful priest feel different from a wizard or a prince? This is something I discuss at more length in this article. One of the key points is to separate the way divine NPCs cast spells from how player characters do it. We need the structure of the classes for player characters because we need tactical precision, and I’m fine to say that in combat, Krozen casts spells as a 12th level cleric. But outside of combat I don’t feel that he needs to engage with his magic in the same way as a player character. The most common divine spellcasters—adepts—function much like magewrights; they have a specific set of cantrips and spells they can cast and that’s all they can cast. A typical spellcasting priest might be able to cast thaumaturgy, light, and ceremony. There are specialist adepts—oracles who can cast divination, healers who can perform lesser restoration—but the oracle can’t just decide to become a healer in the morning. They have been granted a divine gift, and they can’t exchange it for another one. More powerful spellcasters like Zerasha and Krozen aren’t limited like this, but they also don’t call their divinity on the phone each morning and make spell requests. Their divine power source grants them the spells they need when they need them, provided the request is justified. Krozen doesn’t prepare zone of truth ahead of time, but if he formally demands you speak the truth in the light of the Flame, zone of truth happens. Essentially, his spells are selected on the fly to match the situation he finds himself in. But the contrast is that he doesn’t have the freedom a PC has to request any spell.The Flame may empower Krozen to raise someone from the dead or to smite them with a flame strike, but in spite of his effective level it’s not going to grant him the power to create undead or to cast contagion; these aren’t the tools of a righteous servant of the Flame, and if you DO see a Flame priest using such spells, it’s a clear sign that they are actually a servant of the Whispering Flame or a warlock hacking the Flame. Krozen may take actions we consider evil, but he believes his actions are righteous in the light of the Flame; he’s not drawing on malefic powers.
Divination is another important example. With the spellcasting power of a 12th level cleric, Krozen could technically cast commune three times a day, along with a batch of auguries. And that’s how things work for PCs. But Krozen doesn’t just have some magic hotline that he can dial three times per day. He can’t just call up Tira Miron and say “Does Boranel dye his hair? Yes? I KNEW it!” It’s not some sort of abstract, scientific tool that he can just use for whatever random, trivial detail he wants to know. But the flip side is that he may simply receive information that he needs—that he can receive divine visions. Even when he doesn’t cast augury, he may suddenly KNOW that a decision he’s about to make could lead to disaster. Even without commune, he might KNOW the truth about a situation. This is especially relevant for Zerasha, because part of what defines the Shadow is dangerous secrets. Consider this description of the Shadow from this article:
As the dark side of Aureon, the Shadow is also the Sovereign of Knowledge… but specifically the things you shouldn’t know. The Shadow knows the evil that lurks in the hearts of mortals. It knows who killed your parents. It knows what your lover really thinks about you. And it knows secrets of magic that Aureon won’t share… techniques that can provide power, but at a cost.
So It’s not that Zerasha sits down and says “I want to know secrets about this player character” and casts commune or some other divination spell; it’s that when the players come before her, she simply DOES know who killed the paladin’s parents and why the rogue murdered their partner, because that’s part of what it means to be the voice of the Shadow.
The short form is that when dealing with NPCs who are powerful divine spellcasters, I want them to FEEL like they are conduits to powers far greater than they are. When Krozen demands that you speak the truth, zone of truth happens. When he barks out an order, it may become a command, because that’s the power that flows through him. I want the powerful priest to feel larger then life, because at the end of the day they are the conduits for something that IS larger than life.
Now, reading all this, you might say “But I thought Eberron was the setting where we don’t know if the gods even exist.” We know that deities don’t walk the world in Eberron. You will never have a chance to punch Aureon in the face. But we know that divine power sources exist. We know that priests have been drawing on the POWER of Aureon for tens of thousands of years, and that in part because of this, most people believe divine forcesexist. They may argue about details; the Cazhaak interpretation of the Dark Six is quite different from how they’re depicted in the Pyrinean Creed. Butmost people believe in SOME form of divinity, and part of the reason for that is the fact that divine magic exists.
With all of this in mind, you might say “If that’s how you handle NPC priests, why don’t you deal with player character clerics in the same way?” I offer some suggestions in that direction in this article. But fifth edition embraces the idea that NPCs and PCs don’t have to follow the same rules. Part of being a player character is having flexibility and tactical control. It’s about having the ability to make choices. I’ve played campaigns in which divine characters CHOSE to give me more control over their spells—embracing the idea that the powers were gifts they didn’t fully control—but that was a choice they made that fit the story of that character. But one of the fundamental principles of Eberron is that player characters are remarkable, and I have no problem with them having a greater degree of versatility and precision than most other servants of the divine.
Having worked through that, let’s talk about the two specific priests that people have asked about…
Who is High Cardinal Krozen of Thrane?
Our blessed child is the Keeper of the Flame and shows us all the path to the light. But I am the keeper of the nation, and if I must toil in the darkness to ensure its prosperity, so be it.
High Cardinal Krozen
People have lots of questions about Cardinal Krozen of Thrane. What’s his first name? Does he realize he’s evil? Does he believe in a greater good—or for that matter, does he even believe in the Silver Flame? What makes him more important than the other 11 High Cardinals of the Church? These are all good questions. I’ve always liked Krozen, but my vision of him is quite different from how he’s evolved in canon sources. I know what I originally planned for him when we first created the character, and that’s how I use him, so I’ll lay that out here. Keep in mind that this directly contradicts multiple canon sources (which, admittedly, contradict themselves on some points). This is MY interpretation and I am not going to reconcile it with what other authors have done with the character; it’s up to you to decide which version you prefer.
My original vision of High Cardinal Thrane was loosely inspired by Cardinal Richelieu as depicted in The Three Musketeers—a ruthless man who is engaged in sly intrigues, but who is nonetheless an extremely capable leader, perhaps moreso than the king the protagonists serve. It was always my vision that Cardinal Krozen was devoted to Thrane and that he performs his duties exceptionally well—that he is a brilliant strategist and a charismatic orator. But this is tied to the idea that he truly believes that he knows what is best for the nation. The basic dictate of the Silver Flame is to protect the innocent from supernatural evil. Where Jaela recognizes that this applies to ALL innocents, regardless of their faith or nationality, Krozen believes that you aren’t innocent unless you’re a Thrane and a servant of the faith, and don’t oppose him. He DOES fight to protect the innocent—but only those HE decides are innocent.
So I see Cardinal Krozen as a remarkable man—one of the player characters of his generation. He’s human and I see him as being about fifty years old. The details of his youth—and, in fact, his first name—aren’t generally known; the general story is that he lived on the Aundairian border and that the Flame granted him the power to perform great deeds, first in the defense of his village and then as a templar. He was always charismatic and intelligent, but beyond that, his divinepower was always remarkable; when he called on the Flame, he gained the power to smite his foes. In his early twenties he rose out of the templars and into the hierarchy of the church, turning his gifts to leadership behind the scenes rather than fighting on the battlefield. From there, his star rose and rose; those who opposed him were either won over by his charisma or driven from his path, one way or another.
Part of the core idea of Krozen is that he represents the danger of Thrane becoming a theocracy—that in doing so it drags the church into the management of temporal matters and political concerns. The idea of Thrane is that Jaela Daran represents the pure ideals of the faith—while Cardinal Krozen deals with political realities. Again, Jaela does believe that “protect the innocent” applies to all people—that Krozen believes that it can only be applied to the faithful and to Thranes. It’s not that he is a vile, selfish person; but he has blended his faith with his devotion to his nation and places the good of Thrane over all others. Beyond this, Krozen very much has a Chosen One mentality. He possesses immense divine power, and in his mind this proves his righteousness. He believes he was given this power to serve the interests of Thrane, and the fact that he still wields that power proves that he is right to do so. He will crush others who get in his way—even other priests or templars—because he believes, again, that those who oppose him aren’t innocent.
In considering all this, take a moment to think about the Shadow in the Flame. There are those—the Whispering Flame cultists—who knowingly choose to serve Bel Shalor. But the true power of the Shadow in the Flame is its ability to piggyback on the Voice of the Flame and to pour poison in the ears of the truly faithful. Bel Shalor loves to erode empathy and to convince people to do evil when they only seek to do good. The Shadow in the Flame reveled in the suffering caused by the Silver Crusade, and Bel Shalor undoubtedly sees Cardinal Krozen as a valuable tool. The question for the DM to decide is how much of a hold does Bel Shalor have over the Cardinal? In MY Eberron, Krozen KNOWS the dangers posed by the Shadow of the Flame; all the faithful do. And with that in mind, he does his best to resist those impulses; he knows that he does questionable things (like, you know, torture and murder…) but he truly believes that he is acting for the greater good and that he’s NOT a tool of the Shadow in the Flame. But in your campaign you could decide that he HAS fallen prey to Bel Shalor’s whispers and no longer realizes the evil he is doing… or even go further and decide that he is a priest of the Whispering Flame. Personally I prefer to follow the shades-of-grey model, to say that while Krozen does evil things, he only does them when pursuing the interests of Thrane—that he always believes his actions are justified. I like the idea that Krozenknows he walks a dark path, but that he believes it is the path the Flame has set him on, and that at the end of the day he is protecting the innocent—even if he has had to sacrifice his own innocence to do it.
Now, some people may be say “That’s all fine, but who IS he?” Krozen is one of the high cardinals of Thrane. Per the original Eberron Campaign Setting…
This group of powerful church leaders administers both the workings of the church and the functions of the government. In theory, the cardinals answer to the Keeper of the Flame. In practice, they run the church and the government, only dealing with the Keeper on issues that require divine attention and interaction with the Voice of the Flame. The cardinals believe that they know best when it comes to running the government and the church, and they leave the Keeper to deal with the well-being of the spirit of the nation. This arrangement has led to problems between the Council and the Keeper in the past, but the current Keeper seems interested more in divine and spiritual matters than the intricacies of secular administration.
There may be twelve High Cardinals, but Krozen is the effective leader of the Council—and thus, of Thrane. If you have a divine problem, talk to Jaela. But if you’re looking into the deployment of Thrane troops or about getting more resources for Rellekor, it’s Krozen who can get things done. The general idea is that Krozen is in many ways the opposite of Jaela. Where the Keeper is compassionate, the Cardinal is ruthless. The Cardinal is a master of political intrigue, while Jaela prefers honest dealing. Jaela wants what’s best for all innocents; Krozen cares only for Thrane.
The final thing I’ll call about about Krozen is this: If there’s twelve high cardinals, why is he the leader? What makes him special? The short answer is that what makes him special is that he IS special. Again, not all priests are spellcasters at all, and in a world where everyday magic goes to 3rd level, a 12th level spellcaster is remarkable. He can raise the dead! Those who oppose him are struck down by flame strikes! You’ve seen him shape celestials from the pure power of the Flame! And as I said, while I don’t just let him cast commune three times a day, he hears the Voice of the Flame in ways that others do not (and, of course, potentially the Shadow in the Flame as well). There’s surely other spellcasters among the cardinals, but Krozen stands out; if you look to the 3.5 statistics, he’s notably a more powerful spellcaster than the high priest of the Host and Archierophant Ythana in Sharn: City of Towers. Power alone isn’t everything, but the whole idea is that this power is matched with passion and charisma—that just like a player character, Krozen is remarkable. With this in mind, he doesn’t command the Council of Cardinals, but he has won the loyalty of the majority of its members and thus is the EFFECTIVE leader of the council. In my opinion, there’s four cardinals who are utterly devoted to him; three who believe he’s doing what’s best for Thrane; and four who don’t support him. Of these four, all believe that the Keeper shows the proper path for the nation and that Krozen’s actions are concerning; one or two may have deeper concerns, or believe that he is serving the Shadow in the Flame. So Krozen DOESN’T have absolute control of the council, but he’s effectively the leader.
Krozen as a Villain
As I’ve just spent a lot of time insisting that Krozen believes he’s acting for the good of Thrane and that he is an effective leader, you might wonder if I actually see him as a villain. I do, generally—just a villain with many layers. He performs evil deeds in pursuit of the greater good, and more than that, he is only concerned with the greater good of THRANE. When I use Krozen, I want it to be clear why people support him. I want Thranes, in particular, to feel conflicted because Krozen IS good at his job—that if the nation was guided purely by the idealistic Jaela, it would be easy prey for the machinations of Kaius, the Royal Eyes of Aundair, and the Dark Lanterns. Krozen is effective; but is that enough to justify his methods? And IS he a tool of the Shadow in the Flame, even if he refuses to see it?
Zerasha, the Voice of the Shadow
You think you know why you’re here. You think we have to be enemies. But that’s the voice of your petty and jealous Sovereigns, who fear what you could become if you follow the paths I could show you.
Zerasha of Graywall
The medusa Zerasha is a priest of the Shadow in the city of Graywall. She’s mentioned in a Dragon article, which says…
The street ends at the Eye of the Shadow, a small windowless temple formed from black stone. The medusa priestess Zerasha holds court here. A fearsome combatant and skilled ritual caster, Zerasha is the most influential voice in Graywall after Xorchylic; the people of the town have come to trust her oracular gifts. At the moment, she is an ally of the Daughters of Sora Kell, but her first loyalty is to the Shadow and to her own warlord, the Queen of Stone. Should there ever be a civil war in Graywall, the black-scaled medusa will be a force with which to be reckoned.
Backdrop: Graywall, Dragon 368
That’s the only canon information that exists on her. Since I wrote that article, people have asked: What is the priestess Zerasha’s relationship with Xorchylic? What are her goals, and what might cause those goals to become so misaligned with Xorchylic’s as to cause open conflict?
In my mind, Zerasha is truly devoted to her faith and to her Queen, in that order. As described in this article, she believes that the Shadow is the guide and guardian of those creatures followers of the Sovereigns consider monsters. Beyond this, she is what the article describes as a mentor. Acting on behalf of the Shadow, she seeks to help the faithful achieve their ambitions—even if that means following the darkest possible paths to do so. Beyond that, the Shadow is the Sovereign of secrets. As described above, she is an oracle—not as gifted in this regard as Sora Teraza, but certainly the most powerful oracle in Graywall. She knows secrets. Having said that, as I called out above, her knowledge comes from the Shadow and she doesn’t know things until she needs to know them. When she meets a player character, the Shadow may tell her their secrets; but it’s not like she just randomly knows everyone’s secrets all the time. And again, if the Shadow shares a secret with Zerasha, it’s so she can DO something with that secret.
So in terms of her goals, I believe that Zerasha’s goals are first and foremost to offer spiritual guidance to the people of Graywall and to help them achieve their true potential. Beneath that, her goals are whatever tasks the Shadow sets before her; it’s quite common for her to feel that there is a particular individual the Shadow wishes her to focus on, someone who needs to be guided on the proper path. And beneath that, her loyalty is to her queen, the medusa Sheshka, and to the people of Cazhaak Draal.
Her relationship with Xorchyllic largely depends on what the DM decides Xorchyllic is truly up to. As long as Xorchyllic is pursuing the greater good of Graywall and Droaam, Zerasha will support him. But we’ve called out that the Flayer Guard of Droaam serve the interests of the governor first and the common folk second. If Xorchyllic is somehow oppressing or harming a portion of the city in pursuit of his personal agenda, that could bring him into conflict with Zerasha. Ultimately, the question is what is the interest of the Shadow? If the Shadow supports Xorchyllic and wants the illithid to achieve its ambitions, Zerasha could work closely with the governor. On the other hand, if the Shadow is most interested in helping a lowly kobold on the Street of Shadows achieve her ambitions of overthrowing Xorchyllic and becoming a new warlord, than Zerasha would oppose the mind flayer. The same is true for player characters. What does the Shadow think of them? It could be that it favors their enemies, in which case Zerasha will oppose them. Or it could be that the Shadow has an interest in one of the adventurers and wants to show them the path to power—in which case, Zerasha who seek to serve as their mentor. But again, a mentor of the Shadow will always lead you down dangerous paths…
That’s all for now! Thanks to my Patreon supporters for making these articles possible.
As time permits, I like to answer interesting questions posed by my Patreon supporters.
In what clever ways do the Talenta halflings utilize their dinosaurs besides using them as beasts of burden?
The halflings of the Talenta Plains are what I call a Wide Primal society. They have never pursued the arcane science that defines the Five Nations, in part because they’ve never felt a need to do so. The Talenta have a path of magic that they use to solve their problems; they work with spirits, employing both druid magic and fey pacts. So while they don’t have arcane magewrights, they do have widespread adepts and gleaners who employ magic as part of everyday life. Like magewrights, Talenta gleaners generally know a few cantrips and can cast a few spells as rituals—typically druid spells, though those that deal with fey spirits often work with enchantment and illusion.
With this in mind, consider that the following spells are “Everyday Magic” in the Talenta Plains: animal friendship, animal messenger, beast bond, beast sense, find familiar and speak with animals. When the Talenta talk about having a bond with the spirits of their mounts, it’s because many of them literally do. Even when you’re dealing with beasts of burden, halflings will usually talk to their beasts. We’re still talking about dinosaurs, so they are limited by their intelligence; but there’s a general sense of partnership between the Talenta and their dinosaurs.
An important thing to keep in mind is that the spells and cantrips used by NPC magewrights(or adepts or gleaners) don’t always work like their PC counterparts! Often they are more limited; when Talenta gleaners use the spells mentioned above, they typically can only cast them on reptiles, which is one reason they work so closely with dinosaurs; their magical traditions have evolved to work with them over time. However, these specialized rituals can be more effective in other ways, such as having a longer duration. The spirit rider is an important form of Talenta gleaner; they employ a ritual that combines the effects of beast bond and beast sense, allowing the gleaner to enter an extended trance in which they perceive the world through the senses of their dinosaur companion and can guide it telepathically. Note that this doesn’t dominate the beast; it simply allows telepathic communication. It takes a long time for a spirit rider to establish a necessary connection to a dinosaur, and they can’t just ride a new beast on the spur of the moment. Spirit riders who work with glidewings and dartwings serve as scouts and couriers; but spirit riders often also work with larger dinosaurs—hammertails, bloodstrikers, threehorns—to guide them while traveling or performing heavy labor. As a random point: most of the everyday magic of the Plains works specifically with reptiles, and one of the reason the Talenta use tribex as livestock is because they don’t talk to the tribex.
So throwing out a few random ways dinosaurs are used…
Bloodstrikers are large burrowing herbivores. Many Talenta tribes have a single bloodstriker, which will use its burrowing abilities to help establish camps. In Gatherhold, bloodstrikers are used to maintain latrines, and as living mining tools. The caustic blood of the beast is also harvested.
Dartwings, typically just called darts, are small pterosaurs; they use the hawk stat block. Dartwings are the primary messengers of the Talenta, and they are also used by scouts—both full spirit riders who may spend hours watching the world from above, and hunters who may just use speak with animals or beast sense to get information from their companions.
Glidewings and soarwings are larger pterosaurs. While often used as flying mounts for hunters and warriors, spirit riders can use them to scout and they are also often used by couriers, swiftly transporting goods between tribes.
Many large herbivores are used as beasts of burden, but hammertails (Ankylosaurs) are often used as mobile homes; a family can make its home in howdah tent on the back of the beast. few tribes have thunderherders (diplodocus)—among other things, they require a great deal of food—but those that do often use the herder for their leader’s tent, leading to the phrase that someone important “rides the thunder.”
Carvers, clawfeet and swiftclaws (velociraptors) are all used for hunting and for defense. Swiftclaws are used for pest control. Along with the fastieth, clawfeet are often seen as a simple form of mobility enhancement; it’s very common for a hunter to ride their fastieth or clawfoot in situations where most people would dismount; the rider considers themselves to be a single entity with their mount.
Scampers or scamps are a tiny form of fastieth, and can use the weasel stat block. they have nimble foreclaws and are often used as assistant animals, fetching small things or performing simple tasks.
These are just a few examples. The main thing to keep in mind is that through spirit riders and general use of speak with animals, the Talenta can get their dinosaurs to perform precision tasks that would otherwise be difficult or impossible. Large dinosaurs are used as beasts of burden, but also perform a wide range of heavy labor—effectively serving as living cranes and bulldozers. Within Gatherhold, you have a few high chambers that can only be reached if a thunderherder lifts you up.
So dinosaurs help with scouting, hunting, transportation, communication, and heavy labor; hammertails serve as housing! Dinosaurs are even used as instruments. Three-horn bellows can be heard across a great distance, and are often used for signaling purposes. Hammertail drums may be used in somber rituals, while dartwing choirs support other musicians. Scale singers blend the talents of spirit rider and bard, riding a dinosaur and singing with its voice. Dinosaurs are worked into sporting events as well; the Talentans play a mounted sport called Dalasci that is somewhat like aggressive polo, and scamp races are a common basis for gambling.
What kind of dinosaur would be the typical livestock of one of the nomad tribes?
Dinosaurs don’t produce milk and generally aren’t raised as food; both of these are the role of the tribex. So most tribes have a herd of tribex. Beyond that, tribes often breed a specific type of dinosaur, which they will then trade with other tribes. So most tribes only have a few hammertails, but there’s a tribe that has a breeding population of hammertails, a tribe that breeds threehorns, a few that breed clawfeet, and so on. The point is that there is no “typical” dinosaur livestock; it’s a choice that shapes the tribe, and a hammertail-breeding tribe will be quite different from the tribe with a host of clawfeet.
Do Talenta halflings eat dinosaur eggs? Would they raise dinosaurs to harvest their eggs?
There’s no taboo against eating unfertilized dinosaur eggs; these are celebrated as a gift from a friend. However, keep in mind that dinosaurs don’t lay eggs like chickens do. Some species don’t lay unfertilized eggs. Others do, but only at a specific time of year—typically Nymm to Lharvion. These are generally times of feasting, and for celebrating the dinosaurs that share these gifts. But they don’t keep dinosaurs JUST for the eggs; dinosaurs are essentially members of the tribe who perform a useful function, and the eggs are a bonus. In my opinion, the only Talenta dinosaurs that lay unfertilized eggs across the entire year would be scamps; so scamp eggs are certainly part of the Talenta diet.
Are there any Talenta tribes that use necromancy?
Certainly! The Tolashcara (“Keepers of Bones that Rustle and Moan”) tribe guard a manifest zone to Mabar in the Plains and draw on its power to animate the dead. They believe that by using its power as they do, they keep the hungry spirits from venturing further afield to prey on innocents. Some Tolashcara are drawn to pursue undead threats elsewhere in the Plains or in the world, and a small group of Tolashcara halflings patrol the edge of the Boneyard (the graveyard of dragons) hoping to keep the dead quiet. So overall, they are a peaceful and benevolent force; on the other hand, you could always have a new leader rise up among the Tolashcara with a more malevolent agenda.
That’s all I have time for today, but add any interesting ways you’ve used dinosaurs in your campaign in the comments! Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters, who make these articles possible.
The wolves of Karrnath howl at our gates. The vile necromancers of the north have brought their armies of the dead. But we are Cyrans. We do not give in to fear. What our dreams imagine, our hands create, and we have dreamt a dream of victory. It will take all that we have to give—even our very bones, so that the Karrns cannot turn our dead against us. But I know the Cyran heart, and I know that we will prevail. If you’re willing to wield a sword, report to the Vermishard of War; otherwise, report to the Vadalis Kennels for processing.
—Queen Dannel ir’Wynarn
In 994 YK, the Mourning swept across the nation of Cyre. The glorious capital of Metrol was one of the first cities to fall to the Mourning. But what if Metrol wasn’t destroyed in the Mourning? What if the city was lost in the mists, cut off from the rest of Eberron ever since that day? What if it has been under siege by what seem to be endless undead forces? How would Metrol survive? What would Queen Dannel do in pursuit of victory?
These are the questions posed in Dread Metrol: Into The Mists. We describe the book as a crossover with Ravenloft, and if you’ve read Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft you’ll recognize the core ideas of the Domain of Dread and the dark lord Dannel. But you don’t need to know anything about Ravenloft to explore Dread Metrol. All you need to know is that it’s a city that’s fallen through the cracks of reality and now is trapped in an endless siege. It’s a vision of Eberron where House Vadalis has weaponized wererats and where Cannith corpse collectors comb the city looking for spare parts. You can use it as a deadly detour for existing characters, adventurers who are torn from their regular world; or you can use it as the foundation for a new campaign, creating characters who could only emerge from this dark crucible.
Dread Metrol is a 110-page PDF that comes with a 10 high-resolution maps. The first half of the book is a deep dive into the city of Metrol, discussing the layout of the city and the forces that wield power within it. This also contains a section discussing adventurers from Metrol, whether as part of a Metrol campaign or as an unusual background for unusual characters. Do you want to play a Reborn halfling stitched together and animated by Jorasco chirugeons? Metrol is the place for it! It also contains the Mastermaker, an artificer archetype that replaces their own flesh with wood and steel. The second half of the PDF is “The Mourning After,” an adventure by Andrew Bishkinskyi set in Dread Metrol that can take characters from 1st to 4th level; the hooks provided can pull characters to Metrol, or the adventure can be used as the beginning of a campaign set in the city. In addition to all of this, Dread Metrol comes with a separate, 32-page player-friendly PDF that provides general information about Metrol without spoiling the deepest, darkest secrets!
The short form is that if Dread Metrol brings the themes of Ravenloft to Eberron and can serve as a bridge between the settings. But if you know nothing about Ravenloft, you can still explore the horrors of war in Metrol. And if you’re planning a Last War campaign, the sourcebook provides a snapshot of a city that now only exists as a ruin and a queen lost to the Mourning.
Previously you’ve suggested that Barovia could be a pre-Galifar Karrnath domain, and Strahd could be an ancient Karrnathi warlord. But the section on Mabar in Exploring Eberron suggests that the Hinterland consumes fragments within years or decades; how do you reconcile this with a pre-Galifar fragment that would be over a thousand years old?
The short answer is that while both can be found in the Hinterlands of Mabar, there’s crucial differences between a typical planar fragment and a domain of dread. The fragments are essentially being digested by Mabar, after which they become part of the plane. But a domain of dread isn’t just being digested; it is specifically designed to imprison and torment a darklord. The question is why. The most logical answer is thatit is is how new Dark Powers are created—that somehow a darklord can evolve to become one of the Dark Powers. We see an example of this in the Queen of All Tears; for some time, she might have been a darklord imprisoned in a Hinterlands domain.
So essentially, standard fragments are digested over a period of years, but domains of dread exist for as long as it takes to complete the journey of the darklord, whether they ascend to the ranks of the Dark Power or somehow find release.
Dread Metrolsays that Queen Dannelwas crowned in 943 YK and was 17 years old at that time. So she’s 73 years old?
That’s correct! those dates and her age were established in Five Nations and Forge of War. If that seems surprisingly old, keep in mind that (as seen on the cover) Dannel has made construct improvements to herself; beyond that, she may well receive experimental Jorasco treatments that limit the effects of aging.
How would you integrate the haunted lightning rail—Cyre 1313—from Van Richten’s Guide with Dread Metrol?
The two are different domains, and part of the theme of Dread Metrol is its absolute isolation. So by default, I wouldn’t integrate the two. However, there is a lightning rail station in Metrol; if I was running a Dread Metrol campaign and was ready to change things up, I might have Cyre 1313 pull into the station. I would expect there to be a flood of people trying to get to the train; how will the adventurers get to the front of that line, and what intrigues might carry onto the train when it leaves?
Falkovnia in Van Richten’s Guide is a “Domain Besieged by the Dead.” Is Dread Metrol basically the same thing?
There are certainly similarities between the two domains; both explore the horrors of war and an extended undead siege. The primary differences are the intensity of the siege and the application of arcane science—both as employed by the attacking forces and the people of Metrol. In Falkovnia, criminals are impaled; in Metrol, they’re taken to the Vadalis Kennels or given to Cannith as spare parts. In Falkovnia, new zombies show up on the night of the new moon. In Metrol, new forces emerge from the mists each night, and they may bring mystical siege weapons and arcane bombardment. You can wander the ruined countryside in Falkovnia; in Metrol, the city is the domain, and all that lies beyond the walls are blasted battlefields.
So the two domains explore a number of overlapping fiends—but aside from the possibility of fighting some zombies, an adventure in Metrol will be quite different from one in Falkovnia.
Will this be available in print?
Not at the moment. We’re looking into this, but there are certain restrictions—and also, print on demand costs have increased dramatically.
As time permits, I like to answer interesting questions posed by my Patreon supporters. Often those questions are tied to Eberron, but sometimes there’s a more general topic. Case in point…
As a world builder myself and a long time improviser, making things up on the fly to adapt to situations is the environment I *live* for and it’s made my storytelling in this game really step up. I’m writing more than I’ve ever written before in order to keep up with my players story as well as be a few steps ahead. While I know it can be a matter of taste, which do you like to do more as a DM; prepare for the most likely situations but expect the unexpected or completely roll with the punches because you’re so familiar with the world you’ve created?
I love the collaborative element of TTRPGs. I may know all the secrets and where the action will go, but I love that I don’t know which hooks the adventurers will latch onto. I have an adventure that I’ve run almost sixty times, and it’s still fun for me to run again because there’s always somethingthat comes up in each session that I’ve never seen before. I love to see players come up with creative solutions to problems, and I’m always going to encourage that, because that’s what makes it interesting for me; if they followed an entirely predictable path, if I knew exactly how the story was going to end, it wouldn’t be that interesting to run it twice, let alone sixty times.
With that said, fun fact: I’ve never published that adventure I’ve run sixty times, because I’ve never written it down in such a way that anyone else could run it. The adventure is set in the city of Graywall, which I know like the back of my hand. The adventurers are trying to locate a fugitive. Because I know the city so well, I don’t have to have every option written down. If the adventurers say “We want to talk to a Brelish expatriate” or “Who sells refined dragonshards in bulk?” I know the answers to those questions, and I can freestyle a quick encounter with the Tharashk shard salesman. However, I also have a few anchor points that I know the adventure will hit. Whatever path they take to get there, I know the adventurers will have to deal with at least two of three specific people/places… and I know where the fugitive is and what they will find when they get there. So I have those four scenes prepared ahead of time—with statistics for the combat encounters, traps and treasures, and the like. But I never know which three of these four scenes I’ll use in a particular run of the game.
The same thing is true when I’m running my Patreon campaign on Threshold. In session 2, the adventurers were investigating the disappearance of local kobolds. I knew where they would end up—that they’d need to investigate the farmstead of Kaine Agran, and that doing so would lead them to a sinister chamber of skulls hidden in the mountains. I had both of those scenes plotted out, complete with statistics for the threats they would face. But I didn’t know how they would GET to the farmstead. And case in point, when I ran the adventure twice, one group of players focused on dealing with the Brelish veterans in town, while the other group centered their investigation on the kobold community. But I knew that both of those were options, and I knew that I could improvise a scene in either direction—because I had an established cast on NPCs in each location and generally knew how they could help.
Meanwhile, the fourth Threshold session—the first hour of which is available here—was set at a festival. I had five specific scenes planned at the festival—Kobolds dancing around a fruit idol; a tiefling missionary approaches one of the characters; an illusionary shooting gallery; a baking contest; and an unexpected confrontation at the final feast. But I didn’t know which of these would catch the players’ interest or how long each might take; they could have just shurgged and walked by the fruity kobolds, or they could join in the ceremony (which they did). So I had a handful of established NPCs there at the festival I was prepared to deploy. The adventurers could have been approached by the priest who was organizing the festival, or caught up in a drunken brawl; I knew I could fill space if I needed to. And taking the shooting gallery—the structure was that the PC wandslinger had to face five illusionary opponents. I had each of the other players describe one of these illusionary opponents—so even though it was a scene revolving around a single PC, each player got to be involved—and then when it got to the fifth opponent I revealed it to be an ambush by a gang of halfling hitmen (a combat which then involved everyone). The main point is that I’d planned how the scene would end—I had stats for the squad of halfling hitmen—but I didn’t know what the players would come up with for the four first targets, and it was fun for me to see what they thought up.
So MY preferred style is to work within an area that has some flexibility, with a number of concrete scenes or locations that drive the story and that I know will be involved: I know that sooner or later the adventurers will get to the Chamber of Skulls, or they will get to the confrontation at the final feast. But I’m prepared for them to take an unexpected path to reach that point, because I know the cast and locations around them and I can improvise secondary scenes. This doesn’t work with every story; if I’m doing a serious dungeon crawl where resources are limited and the players’ choice of which rooms to explore matters, I’m going to carefully map it out ahead of time. If the adventurers are going to a new location where I don’t have a well-established supporting cast to fall back on, I’ll plan things more carefully. But I personally like the middle ground—not planning every detail or leaving everything to chance, but building an adventure around a few scenes I know will occur, with flexibility to improvise around them.
How do you handle times when the players bring about a situation that you really ought to know how to handle, but in the heat of the moment can’t imagine what to do next?
I try not to be caught in this situation. While I don’t plan for every contingency, I do prepare notes ahead of time and think about characters and locations that might turn up—for example, the idea that a drunken brawl at the festival would be a simple way to fill a hole if the players moved too swiftly through the content I’d prepared. But while I do my best, it’s impossible to prepare for every contingency. Sometimes a player asks a question you just don’t know the answer to—”This is a textile factory, right? Are they doing mule spinning or ring spinning?“—while other times you may just have had a long day and find yourself out of ideas. When I do find myself in that situation, my standard approach is ask the players for the answer. First of all, in the case of the person asking about an obscure subject, given that they asked the question they probably know what they WANT the answer to be. I don’t know the difference between mule spinning and ring spinning, but THEY do, an d this gives them an opportunity to educate the group and the answer that they think makes sense. And beyond this, at the end of the day, it’s a collaborative story. Perhaps the players are in a stagecoach and it gets blown off a bridge, and you suddenly realize you have no idea how they’re going to survive. Turn it to them: How are you going to survive this? Depending on the situation, this could be a metagame discussion, where you freeze the action and talk to the PLAYERS—”How do we get out of this mess?” On the other hand, I could also present it as a simple skill check to players. “You’re going to take 50 points of damage when the coach strikes the bottom of the ravine. What do you do to survive this?” I’d evaluate their answer and either have them make a skill check (reducing the damage taken by the result of the skill check, or perhaps by double the result for a great idea) or assign an arbitrary value to an interesting, non-skill based idea. The main point is that ideally, what everyone in the group wants is a satisfying story; there’s nothing wrong with occasionally asking the players to fill in the blanks. Looking back to the textile question, I could go research textile factories to find out a good answer—but if the player already has that expertise and knows what the smart answer would be, why not use that expertise?
If you have questions about this approach or want to share how YOU do things, add your comments below! Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters for making these articles possible.
Currently I’m taking part in two live-play streams of fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. The two campaigns are very different; one you can watch, the other you can potentially participate in! Here’s the story.
Threshold is an Eberron campaign I’m running as DM. It’s set in a small town that lies between Droaam and Breland, the setting of my upcoming Frontiers of Eberron sourcebook, and I’m using the plots and places I’m creating for that sourcebook in the campaign. Threshold is tied to my Patreon. The story is ongoing and it involves a consistent cast of ten player characters, but each session only involves five of those characters—and the players change each session, being drawn from among the patrons. Those patrons who don’t get a seat at the table still have a chance to influence the story through polls and discussion on the Threshold Discord. Patrons have access to both audio and video recordings of the sessions, but I’m not sharing these with the general public. However, if you want a sense of what Threshold is all about, I’ve just posted a one-hour excerpt from a recent session. I love how Threshold has evolved through the collaboration of the patrons, and I can’t wait to see where it goes next! So if you join my Patreon (at the Threshold tier) you get access both to the past episodes, the campaign website, the Threshold Discord, and the chance to play in a future session… As well as helping to support the articles I post on this site!
In addition to running games, I occasionally like to play games with my friends. Back in 2020 I started playing in a weekly online campaign with a few of my friends in Portland—Colin Meloy and Chris Funk of the Decemberists, Charlie Chu from Oni Press, and Patti King from the Shins. Conveniently, Charlie—the only one of that line-up who isn’t a musician—is the one playing the bard. DM Han Duong is running us through Rime of the Frostmaiden, and after thirty sessions we thought “Hey, why don’t we let other folks watch?” Fugue State happens from 7:30 PM – 10:00 PM Pacific Time every Wednesday, on the Twogether Studios Twitch channel. We’re also working to raise money for local charities; this month we’re raising funds for the Black Resilience Fund. So it remains to be seen if we’ll save the eight remaining towns of Icewind Dale (seven if you leave out Targos, which is a garbage town for garbage people), but we can do a little good regardless. I’m only a player in Fugue State—it’s not set in Eberron and I’m just along for the ride—but if you want to take a peek at the game I’m playing in, drop by!
THE ZONECAST SUMMER
The final stream I want to mention isn’t a D&D stream at all, and I’m not actually a regular! However, Twogether Studios is sponsoring the ZoneCast, a livestream in which Gnomedic and guests play my game The Adventure Zone: Bureau of Balance! The ZoneCast will be happening throughout the summer on the Twogether Studios channel, every Tuesday at 6 PM Pacific Time! So if you’d like to see what TAZ:BoB is all about and possibly win some fabulous prizes, check that out!
In Threshold, players take control of pre-existing characters. Do you feel that players get into character easily or do they struggle at times? I’ve had guest players take the role of pre-established NPCs before, and it didn’t always mesh well.
So far it’s gone great, and I really enjoy seeing what each new player brings to their character. When players apply to play in a session, they request a specific character; it’s not random, and people know what they’re getting into. The campaign website has detailed backgrounds of each character and their past exploits. And this includes a section of roleplaying notes; the image below is from Rolan Harn, the former Sentinel Marshal.
Think of these as expanded Bonds and Flaws. A player doesn’t HAVE to abide by these restrictions, but if they play these up they may receive Inspiration or gain advantage on an action; conversely, if they go against the character’s nature, they may suffer disadvantage or other penalties. So an oathbreaking, cruel Rolan will effectively have very bad luck—whereas if you play up Rolan’s honesty and integrity, you’ll have a better chance of success.
That’s all for now! I hope to see you at a future stream!