Eberron turns Thirteen!

I first began working on Eberron in 2002, but the Eberron Campaign Setting was released in June of 2004. So the setting has just turned thirteen, and anyone who knows Eberron will know that thirteen is a number with special significance. There are thirteen planes, thirteen moons, thirteen dragonmarks… although all too often, one of these thirteen is destroyed or lost. While here in the United States we’re still waiting for Eberron to be unlocked for 5E, a gaming community in Peru organized a month-long Eberron celebration in honor of its 13th anniversary. The tome pictured above is a cake produced for that celebration, and it is one of the most fantastic things I’ve ever seen.

While I couldn’t make it to Peru for the party, I did appear in video form, and I promised to answer a question chosen by the group. I’ll get to that at the end of this post, but before I do I wanted to take a moment to thank all of you who have kept Eberron alive for the past thirteen years. I hope that we will see Eberron officially revived for 5E, but until that time it means a great deal to me that there are still those of you out there who are enjoying the world. My favorite thing about RPGs is the ability to create new stories — and I love that you are out there creating Eberron stories of your own.

At this time, I still have no official news about support for Eberron. I’ll continue to answer questions on this site, but I cannot produce new material here. With this in mind, I am and will be continuing to produce new setting material for my own RPG, Phoenix: Dawn Command. Even if you don’t play Phoenix, my hope is that you may find this material to be useful in your Eberron campaign. The main article I’ve produced is about The Fens, and this follow-up article talks about how you can use the Fens in Eberron.

With that said, there are many people working to keep Eberron alive, and I wanted to call out some of these. I am part of the monthly Manifest Zone podcast; each month we explore a particular aspect of the setting. On Facebook I’m aware of the Eberron Enthusiasts and Sages of Eberron groups, and beyond that The Piazza is the primary Eberron forum I keep an eye on. If you’re into live play, Maze Arcana is a livestream working with Wizards of the Coast, and you can get more Eberron in Role Out.

That’s all I have time to say at the moment, but I’d love to hear more from all of you. What’s your favorite moment from your time with Eberron, or your favorite thing about Eberron itself? What do you want to see in the future?

Meanwhile, here’s the two questions from the party in Peru…

How would you organize a campaign around a party of Dragonmarked characters? What could possibly bring them to work together? 

One obvious answer is the thing that brings all the houses together: The Twelve. This organization serves as a sort of United Nations for the Dragonmarked Houses. It exists to mediate grievances and resolve disputes, but also to unite the houses to accomplish things they couldn’t do alone. The Kundarak vault system – which required the talents and marks of House Orien and House Cannith to create – is a prime example of such cooperation. So, a party of adventurers could easily be elite troubleshooters for the Twelve – nominated by each of their individual houses and dispatched by the Twelve to handle problems or investigate opportunities that matter to all of the houses. Just a few examples of things that could fall into this category…

  • Investigating ancient magic that might be something the houses can use or reverse-engineer, such as evidence of warforged and elemental binding in ancient Xen’drik.
  • Investigating or shutting down operations of House Tarkanan.
  • Investigating a house enclave that has mysteriously gone dark.
  • Recovering valuable treasure from house enclaves in the Mournland.
  • Helping house operations that are threatened – for example, dealing with the Poison Dusk forces threatening a House Tharashk mining operation in Q’barra.
  • Mediating a dispute between two houses.
  • Deal with a house experiment gone wrong – a rogue Cannith construct, Vadalis magebreeding mistake, plague unleashed by Jorasco – without revealing the true nature of the problem to the public.

… And that’s all literally off the top of my head. This provides the PCs with an immediate powerful patron that will always be ready with a new assignment. If you want to complicate things, each of the houses the players are personally tied to could have their own agendas, and players could be torn between their own beliefs, the common goals of the Twelve, and the desires of their house.

A completely different approach would be to focus on a party of adventurers who are all excoriates – the EX-Dragonmarks. This could be unjustified – making them the Dragonmarked equivalent of the A-Team – or they could actively opposed the agendas of the houses they are from. They’re united because they are all outsiders, and the question is whether they are trying to redeem themselves and get back into their houses… or whether they are on an ongoing mission to expose corrupt and illegal activities tied to the Houses, whether these reflect the house as a whole or are the work of a small group of corrupt barons.

There’s three ideas – hopefully that’s enough to get you started.

What is the reach of Zilargo? Does the Trust meddle in other nations if Zilargo’s interests are at stake? 

Absolutely! In my opinion the Trust is one of THE most efficient espionage agencies in Khorvaire. The Zil have always embraced intrigue and cunning over military power as their primary means for affecting change in the world… and with their natural talents for illusion gnomes can be very efficient spies. The Trust doesn’t have the same degree of power or coverage in the Five Nations that it has in Zilargo, but it’s still very efficient. Likewise, the Trust won’t be as blasé about assassination elsewhere as it can be in Zilargo, but it definitely employs assassination when it has to. One of the most dangerous characters in the Sharn: City of Towers sourcebook is Madra Sil Sarin, one of the Trust’s top assassins. Madra has rings of sustenance and invisibility, and communicates with her superiors via telepathic bonds. As a result, she is a ghost: she spends her life in silence and invisibility, moving unseen through the city while waiting for a telepathic call to action.

While agents like Madra are ready to take direct action when it’s called for. the Trust PREFERS to act indirectly. The Zil maxim is Five words can defeat a thousand swords — and the trick is saying the right five words to the proper people. Just as hacking is becoming an increasing concern in modern politics, Zilargo can manipulate things very effectively simply by revealing secrets in the proper place and time. Does Zilargo support the Brelish monarchy or not? Do they support Kaius of Karrnath, or do they want to see rival warlords bring him down? Do they support the theocracy of Thrane, or might they help the monarchy by revealing evidence of corruption within the church?

But to deal with the question: Yes, Zilargo definitely meddles with other nations if their interests are at stake. However, more often than not they will meddle by exposing secrets… doing so in a way that furthers their own agenda, but at the same time, it’s an action that’s hard to trace to Zil actors.

If you’re dealing with PCs who are Zil agents, the most common thing they will be called upon to do is to acquire information – as secrets are the primary weapons in the Zil arsenal.

Dragonmark: The Blood of Vol

With all the things I should be working on, I shouldn’t be doing another Dragonmark so soon. But this topic came up in online discussion and it’s one of those things I can’t resist talking about. The Blood of Vol is one of the most misunderstood aspects of Eberron… which is only fair, since it’s misunderstood by most of the people OF Eberron. So I figured I’d post my thoughts here so people can find them in the future. Bear in mind that everything I say here is based on MY vision of the Blood of Vol, and contradicts canon sources. 

Now as I said, the followers of the Blood of Vol – who call themselves Seekers, shorthand for Seekers of the Divinity Within – are misunderstood both by writers, players, and the majority of the people of Khorvaire. A few common beliefs: The followers of the Blood of Vol worship Erandis Vol. All Seekers revere or worship undead. All Seekers want to become undead. The Seekers are all evil. All Seekers support the Order of the Emerald Claw.

Before I address these points, let’s look at where the Blood of Vol comes from. The roots of the religion can be traced back to the early elves of Aerenal. Elven culture sought to preserve the souls of their greatest heroes, and the resulted in a cultural split. The Tairnadal believed heroes could live on through their ancestors. The Undying Court sought to preserve their heroes through reverence and positive energy. The line of Vol rejected this, saying that both of these paths relied on living elves supporting the dead. They sought an approach that would ensure that their heroes were self-sustaining or could take what they needed to survive. This resulted in the development of Mabaran necromancy and the creation of vampires, liches, and the like. Then the Mark of Death came along, and the Undying Court used this as the foundation for a brutal power grab. Per other sources, The Sibling Kings declared that the blood of Vol was to be completely destroyed, since even a drop could destroy all living things. It was believed that they successfully exterminated the line; the survival of Erandis Vol is a secret that lasts to this day. The allies of the line of Vol were allowed the option of either swearing fealty to the Undying Court or choosing exile.

Now: The religion we know as the Blood of Vol was not practiced by the line of Vol. The elves of the Bloodsail Principality (Eye on Eberron, Dragon 410) are more representative of their traditions. The Blood of Vol evolved from the interaction between elven exiles and humans who believed in the Sovereign Host, and it was something entirely new. The elves brought with them the story of heroes who sought to transcend death, and how they were wiped out by cruel beings who feared the power of their blood. This blended with the myths of the Sovereign Host and the basic question what just god would allow death and suffering? Instead of the Mark of Death, the faith of the Blood of Vol maintains that all of us have a spark of divinity within our blood… and that the jealous gods cursed us with mortality so that we would never be able to unlock that power and challenge them. So: We all have the divinity within, but the universe is against us and death is oblivion. All we can do is stand together, look after those we love, and hope that some day we can break the curse of mortality and bring about a new age.

Now let’s get back to those common misconceptions.

  • The followers of the Blood of Vol worship Erandis Vol. NOPE. The typical Seeker knows nothing about Elven history. If asked to explain who “Vol” is, most would say that Vol was the first Seeker to discover the Divinity Within; others might add that the Sovereigns wiped out Vol and their family, fearing this power. But the Seekers don’t worship any Vol. The idea that Erandis is a member of that founding family would impress Seekers, who would assume that she’s spent the last few thousand years finding a way to break the curse of Mortality and free everyone to unlock the Divinity Within… but Erandis keeps her true identity secret because she doesn’t want the Undying Court coming after her. So only her closest associates know her true identity. Most agents of the Order of the Emerald Claw only know her as “The Queen of Death,” a lich with vast power and wisdom.
  • All Seekers revere or worship undead. The Seekers see undeath as a tool. Undead such as skeletons and zombies are useful and a way to thumb your nose at the universe: You may have killed me, but you’ll have to grind my bones to dust before I stop helping my people. Seekers believe that their souls are destroyed after death, so there is nothing magical about the body; why not use it in a way that will help those who still live? In addition, throughout history the Blood of Vol has had champions who have become undead so that they can continue to teach or protect the living, or search for ways to break the curse of mortality or fight the Sovereigns themselves; essentially, undead saints. What makes these beings worthy of respect isn’t that they are undead: it’s what they do WITH their undeath. So a Seeker doesn’t inherently see a vampire as worthy of reverence; they understand that many vampires are selfish and only out for themselves. They understand that a ghoul may simply be a slavering beast. It’s simply that there are those who have become mummies or vampires or liches so that they can champion the faith, and those beings deserve reverence.
  • All Seekers want to become undead. Actually, most Seekers don’t want to become undead. While it’s a way to literally avoid death, it’s accepted that the Divinity Within is tied to your blood and your lifeforce; once you become undead, you lose that spark (not unlike the fact that Erandis Vol can’t use her dragonmark…). The undead champions are considered to be martyrs who have given up their own chance at divinity to help others. It’s a way to avoid death, but it’s a crappy half-life compared to what we could be.
  • The Seekers are all evil. The Followers of the Blood of Vol have a bleak outlook on the world. Many hate the Sovereigns and consider those who worship them to be dupes and idiots. And they are comfortable with undead and practice necromancy, things many people associate with evil. But Seekers can be any alignment. In short, being a Seeker means you believe in the Divinity within and that death is oblivion. Armed with that knowledge, do you seek personal power or do you try to protect the weak? Do you care only about yourself; your family and community; or all people, as you see every death as a tragedy? The universe is against us: Does that make you selfish, or does it fill you with compassion for those who suffer? Do you hate those who follow the Sovereigns, or do you pity them? The faith of the Blood of Vol is a foundation, and one that encourages compassion and community. It’s what YOU do with that foundation that determines your alignment.
  • All Seekers support the Order of the Emerald Claw. NOPE. Overlap between the faith and the EC is a Venn diagram. Some agents of the Emerald Claw are Seeker extremists who believe that the Queen of the Dead is an undead champion who will break the curse of mortality and show them the path to the Divinity Within. They don’t question her actions: whatever she tells them to do, she must have a reason. Others aren’t Seekers at all; some are simply Karrnathi patriots who believe she will lead their nation to greatness, or who simply seek vengeance on the rest of Khorvaire. And then there are some – like Erandis herself – who see the Emerald Claw as a tool, and don’t believe in Karrnath or the Divinity Within. Meanwhile, the typical Seeker doesn’t condone the terrorist actions of the Emerald Claw and hates the fact that the Emerald Claw paints all Seekers in a bad light.

If you want to do deep reading, here’s a few other options.

Now, let’s get to questions.

Are undead warriors an extreme solution in Karrnath or now undeads are used in common works? Do they have undead farmers?

“Karrnath” isn’t the same thing as the Blood of Vol. The Seekers are comfortable with undead and have always used mindless undead – standard skeletons and zombies – for manual labor. You can definitely find a Seeker farmstead with skeletons in the fields. But Seekers have always been a minority in Karrnath and most Karrns consider that sort of thing to be creepy. During the Last War, Kaius embraced the Blood of Vol during a time of crisis recognizing that their necromancers could help reinforce the armies of Karrnath with undead, and they did. However, many Karrns hated this practice, believing that it sullied the martial reputation of their nation; they didn’t need to turn to such dark magics. Towards the end of the war Regent Moranna broke ties with the Blood of Vol, and Kaius III has actually blamed the Seekers for some of Karrnath’s problems – perhaps it was their dark magics that sickened crops and caused famines in the first place! This is basically a populist move that helped Kaius reinforce his power base, giving his people someone to blame for their misfortunes. In keeping with this – and as a gesture of goodwill to the other Thronehold nations – Kaius largely sealed his undead forces in the catacombs below Atur or in Fort Bones. So there ARE undead still in service in Karrnath – as seen in my novel The Queen of Stone – but they are the exception rather than the rule, and undead haven’t been incorporated into all walks of life. But if you WANT to explore how undead could be incorporated into everyday life, you can do this in Seeker communities – and on a larger scale, in Atur or Fort Bones.

I thought the undead in the Karnath military were former patriotic elite soldiers?

There are two common classes of undead in military service. The rank and file undead soldiers are mindless skeletons and zombies – the sort that can be created by animate dead, which must be controlled by a capable leader. The sentient “Karrnathi Undead” were a later development created at Fort Bones using the Odakyr Rites. These produce skilled undead soldiers that can take personal initiative, but the rituals can only be performed in Mabaran manifest zones (notably Atur and Odakyr, AKA Fort Bones) and require the remains of elite Karrnathi soldiers… so to get an elite Karrnathi skeleton, you have to lose an elite living soldier. Note that Karrnathi undead are sentient but do NOT have memories of their former lives. The Fort Bones article in Dungeon 195 goes into more detail about what Karrnathi Undead are actually like.

How do Seekers see uncorporeal undead? Are they treated the same as zombies?

The undead most commonly encountered in Seeker communities are the mindless skeletons and zombies that can be created using the Animate Dead spell, a third level spell that falls in the scope of Eberron’s “Wide Magic.” Animate Greater Undead is an eighth level spell, far out of reach of most BoV clerics, so you just don’t see a lot of spectres and wraiths in the typical community the way you see skeletons. Beyond this, the attitude towards skeletons and zombies is that they are tools – they’re made with the remains of your friends, but they aren’t your friend. By contrast, a sentient incorporeal undead that has the memories of its former life, such as a ghost, falls into the category of “You’ve transcended death at the cost of your divine spark… now what are you going to do with your unlife?” There’s nothing inherently good or bad about a ghost. If that ghost chooses to help mortals, it’s an undead champion; if it’s a selfish being or a crazed killer, it’s a monster.

BoV is like two different religions. One talks of community, god within, and how to unlock it. I don’t really understand how undeads fit in that: are they experiments? Are they supposed to fight with other Gods? And who is Vol for them?

Largely answered above, but to be clear: Undeath is a tool that allows you to extend existence at the cost of your divine spark. Mindless undead are simply tools, nothing more. Sentient undead who follow the faith are supposed to help mortals, whether that’s by protecting them, teaching them, or potentially yes, finding a way to defeat the gods and break the curse of immortality to them. “Vol” is a mythical figure, possibly the first Seeker; “Erandis” isn’t a name most Seekers have ever heard. Some may know that “Vol” was an elf, a necomancer, or even part of an elven family of master necromancers. But what matters is that this Vol was the one to discover the Divinity Within.

Then there are the ones who know. Vol is an evil lich who cares nothing of humans. They believe that she can become a God. Why should they believe it so much to cast spells through that?

Most of Vol’s inner circle aren’t actually Seekers themselves; they are simply aping the faith of their Seeker followers as a way to gain their loyalty. Such individuals AREN’T divine casters; they’d be arcane casters, like Erandis herself. Those that are Seekers fall into the evil Seeker definition above: They are interested in their OWN personal power and don’t care about the greater good. But as for spellcasting, they don’t get their power from their belief in VOL; they get their power from their belief in their OWN divine sparks. For a divine-class Seeker, their power comes from within.

So the huge misunderstanding I was in is that the Blood of Vol is NOT, in your opinion, a creation of Erandis Vol. I admit this will miss me. I loved the idea of Erandis creating her own religion for transcending death or maybe creating her personal Undying Court. But if I understand you see Erandis taking control of a pre-existing religion that could even be right and twisting the believers at her own plans.

Like all things in Eberron, you should definitely do what makes sense to you! But you are correct about my idea. I like the fact that the religion is an entirely plausible faith that stands on its own and that has a logical basis for providing followers with divine power: that power comes from within them. I love the idea that in spite of the fact that the faith works, that Erandis herself doesn’t believe in it. I also like the idea that this faith has been around for thousands of years – something that’s tricky if Erandis is a visible, known figurehead, since Erandis is hunted by both Aerenal and Argonnessen and the idea of slapping a big “I AM HERE” target on her head is a little wacky. My premise is that the religion emerged long ago, the dragons and the Undying Court looked at it and said “Bad name, but it’s just a name” and that Erandis stepped in long after to take over.

Beyond this, I like it as a religion that has a plausible basis in the world. Person A believes in the Sovereigns, benevolent beings who define reality. Person B’s son dies, and she says “Why would your Sovereigns take my son from me? Why would your Arawai let us starve? Why would your Aureon let this king oppress us? If there are gods in the heavens, they care nothing for me. I will find my power within.” With that said, I also see it as the perfect atheist’s religion. SOME members of the faith believe the whole Sovereigns-are-evil concept, but others simple assert (as presented in Faiths of Eberron) that there are no gods – that all divine power comes from the Divinity Within, and clerics of other faiths are just deluded people slapping pageantry on what ultimately comes from inside them. Power is there to be taken, but that doesn’t mean gods exist.

By the way: am I right that in some canon seeker are said like to search for people to donate blood for rituals and/or for feeding vampires?

You are correct, though they don’t have to search. This is called the Sacrament of Blood, and it’s a communal activity practiced by any Seeker community: coming together and sharing their blood in a basin, which can then be transferred to barrels of preserving pine to be shared with vampires in need. While the feeding of vampires is a side benefit, symbolically it’s about affirming that the members of the community are one, and united in their divinity. It’s covered in detail on page 79 of Faiths of Eberron.

If the champions of the Blood of Vol become undead and continue to walk the earth, even by restricting this to the most valiant ones, after a few centuries of practice that’s bound to be quite a crowd. Are they super-extra-picky? Or is there another explanation?

This is exactly why I push back on the idea that “undeath is the path to divinity” – because it’s not THAT hard to become undead, really, and if that truly was the goal you should have a huge pile of vampires out in the world. Thus, my version of the faith gives a concrete reason why it’s NOT the primary goal. Aside from this: liches and mummies are the preferable form of long-term sentient undead, because they don’t require sustenance (well, the Undying Court maintains that they draw life force from the world around them and are slowly killing us all – but they don’t need blood like vampires do). So that’s the preferable choice for your undead champion… but they aren’t easy to create, and in some ages there’s no one around who CAN make one. Looking to vampires, the community sustains vampires using the Sacrament of Blood, but that’s a limited resource and thus yes, creating a new vampire is considered to be an important decision, not something done lightly.

With that said, why aren’t there more undead champions? Because of all the people who want to destroy them. The Deathguard of Aerenal, the Church of the Silver Flame, the paladins of Dol Arrah… there’s a lot of groups out there that are happy to hunt down vampires and their kin, and this is one reason Erandis Vol keeps a low profile. There is surely a codex in Atur of all the great champions who have been destroyed by misguided mortals.

A good follower of the Blood of Vol wants to preserve all life. This proves to be an uneasy goal to reach, as the very mechanics of the game tend to push players to kill their opponents without seconds thoughts more often than not. What creatures, would you think, the BoV faith may consider “impossible to save” (and so, fair game to kill if they act evil)?

Well, rather than saying they want to preserve all life, I’d say that they consider every death a loss. Every death is a tragedy, and a good follower of the BoV sympathizes will all who labor under the curse; in my opinion, BoV clerics are the MOST likely to help others with resurrection magic, because they don’t believe dying people have some pleasant future with the Sovereigns of Flame. But with that said, that doesn’t mean that every life must be saved or that they cannot kill. Every death is a tragedy, but first and foremost you have to protect your people. If a bandit tries to kill you – or if a paladin of Dol Arrah is going to destroy your undead champion – it’s OK to kill them. If you CAN take them alive, great. But if misguided people pose a clear and deadly threat to the faithful, shed a tear for them and do what you must do to protect those who are truly innocent. Basically, it’s never something you should do without a second thought – but it’s acceptable to kill someone who will kill you or your people if nothing is done.

Aberrations are definitely fair game. Strangely, undead are valid to destroy, because they’re dead. Constructs, oozes, etc – all good. Beyond that, many Seekers only see the divine spark as existing in “things that look like me”. TECHNICALLY any intelligent creature with blood has the Divinity within, but many Seekers only extend that to humanoids, and others limit even further to humans and demihumans. So if you try to protect all sentient things you’d a very noble Seeker… but many would just see the blackscale lizardfolk as a monster, not a brother-in-blood.

What would be the position of the Church toward the warforged, in your opinion?

A warforged is essentially like an undead. Pity them as they have no blood and can never attain true divinity, but if they choose to serve the faith, it’s a noble calling and they should be treated with respect. Now, the stranger case is the warforged Seeker who attains divine power; in the 5E game I’m running right now, one of the PCs is a warforged BoV paladin. Some Seekers will look at this and say that they must have a piece of the divine spark for this to occur. Others would assert that because they are acting as a champion of the faith, they are actually drawing on the divinity of the people they are protecting.

You mentioned that the Bloodsails are more representative of the first traditions of the line of Vol. Does it have something to do with the presence of “Lady Illmarrow”, a.k.a. Vol herself, among the Grim?

No – it’s because the Bloodsails are the direct descendants of the elves who served the line of Vol and fought alongside it against the dragons and the Undying Court. The Blood of Vol took their ideas and mixed them up with existing beliefs about the Sovereigns and such; the Bloodsails follow the more pragmatic approach that death sucks and undeath gives you power and immortality, without investing in the idea of the Divinity Within.

I assume that the Church’s leeway, so to say, from what would had been its first “orthodoxy”, *whereas their very Messiah is still alive among them*, is a side effect of the fact that the existence of the said Messiah must stay a secret laced in several layers of mystery. That’s not a configuration that facilitates control. Would that assumption be correct? Or does Lady Vol just not care at all about what the content of those religions becomes, if she can use the infrastructure as a network for her agenda?

First of all, you might be interesting in this RPG.Net thread on “What’s Erandis Vol been doing for 3,000 years?” But a catch here is that like the line of Vol itself, the Bloodsails don’t make a religion out of undeath; they consider it to be a science. Per Dragon 410, Bloodsail priests “shape their divine magic from the raw energy of Mabar.” They respect the line of Vol as essentially the greatest scientists who unlocked the secrets of Mabaran necromancy, but they respect them for their accomplishments as much as their blood. The Grim Lord Varonaen, who found a way to make the sunless isle bloom, is just as worthy of reverence as Lady Illmarrow. As for Erandis herself, this is essentially the society she grew up in. Her parents didn’t consider themselves to be gods. Now, they told her that SHE had the potential to achieve divinity, but that’s a unique thing and on top of that, she can’t touch that power. So she’s OK using the power she has as a member of the Grim to serve her agenda. Should she finally manage to unlock her TRUE power, well, that’s a question for the future.

You say that Vol doesn’t claim to be the head of the Blood of Vol since she doesn’t want the Undying Court pursuing her. She choose instead to be called the Queen of Death and being known as a wise and very powerful Lich. Isn’t that enough for the Undying Court? They hunt undead. There is a cult that openly cooperate with undead and a very powerful lich. Isn’t already a target? 

OK, there’s a whole lot of elements to unpack here.

  • Don’t overestimate the power of the Undying Court. They wield divine power in Aerenal. They can defend Aerenal from draconic attack… but we’ve specifically called out that they couldn’t retaliate against Argonnessen, because their power is limited to Aerenal. Beyond Aerenal, their power is limited to that of their divine agents – clerics and paladins – who are no more inherently powerful that clerics and paladins of any other religion, such as, say, the Blood of Vol. The elite agents of the Aereni Deathguard are good at what they do. But they’re not epic level. And beyond that, if they are acting in Khorvaire they are agents of a foreign power conducting military operations in another nation – which has all the potential issues of a nation in our world sending assassins to kill an enemy. So: The Deathguard is powerful, yes. But it’s not all-powerful.
  • In life, Erandis Vol wasn’t a powerful wizard. She was a young half-dragon, and she was killed by the forces of the Undying Court. Her mother secretly resurrected her as a lich, using all the power she and Erandis’ father (an epic-level green dragon) had at their disposal to shield their daughter from divination. So: The Undying Court doesn’t believe that anyone escaped the destruction of the line of Vol. They aren’t specifically LOOKING for Erandis, and even if they were, they wouldn’t be looking for a powerful lich wizard; she’s become a powerful lich wizard over the last few thousand years.
  • The faith of the Blood of Vol first appeared over a thousand years ago. You can be sure the Undying Court thoroughly checked it out and confirmed that the only connection to Vol was the name.
  • The Blood of Vol produces undead champions. This is a known thing. The Deathguard will destroy them when possible, which is why there’s not a lot of them. But as noted above, it’s not a trivial thing.
  • The Queen of Death is the leader of the modern Order of the Emerald Claw. She assumed leadership of it less than ten years ago. As far as Aerenal is concerned, she’s just one more undead champion, like many they’ve seen over the years. Something to deal with if there’s an opportunity, but not a reason to unleash everything at their disposal or risk war with Khorvaire. She possesses epic-level shielding against divination. Her followers don’t know her location or true identity. But the Deathguard is good at what they do, and if they dig deep enough, perhaps they CAN discover the identity of the Queen of Death: She’s Lady Illmarrow of Farlnen. She is a Grim Lord of the Bloodsail Principality, an enclave founded by elves who accepted exile following the Blood of Vol, and whose leaders are powerful undead. So: She’s a powerful lich wizard in a place with the largest number of lich wizards in Eberron. She has a legitimate identity and history in that place. And it’s a place that even the Deathguard would tread lightly… and technically, a place where the Undying Court gave these undead elves license to be.

So: all undead champions of the Blood of Vol could be considered targets of opportunity for the Aereni Deathguard – beings they’d destroy if there’s an easy chance. But as it stands, the Queen of Death has done nothing requiring greater action. If they knew she was Erandis, there stands the risk that they would unleash all power at their disposal to deal with her, regardless of the consequences to Khorvaire or Aerenal. But at the moment, she’s a Bloodsail lord allied with an extremist sect of a faith that’s been around for centuries. These are both things that have happened before and don’t require any extreme action.

Also: how many very powerful lich wizards can exist in Eberron? Can’t the prophetic Undying Court just… hem… GUESS?

There’s not a lot of them, to be sure. But the Bloodsail Principality may well have the largest number of them in one place in Eberron. And again, Erandis wasn’t a powerful wizard in life; she came by her lichdom in an unusual way, and mastered magic after the fact. So “powerful lich” doesn’t automatically equal “survivor of the line of Vol.”

Plus they had thousands of years for just finding a phylactery. Maybe for some reason connected to the prophecy they DON’T WANT to stop her?

It’s quite possible, though to me that would be a motivation for the Chamber to leave her alone. With that said, looking the the Undying Court, they haven’t been looking for a phylactery because they had no reason to believe that there was a surviving Vol lich. With that said, this brings up an interesting point. Erandis is a highly unusual lich. She didn’t choose to become a lich; it was done to her. Her mother was determined to do everything possible to protect her child. Usually, a lich regenerates next to their phylactery. In MY Eberron, Erandis regenerates in a random location unrelated to her phylactery, which is in turn shielded by epic defenses against divination. The upshot of this: Erandis herself doesn’t know where her phylactery is. In my Eberron, there have been times early in her existence when she has tried to destroy herself, but she can’t. Not something you have to do, but the point being that not even she knows where or what it is.

By rules vampires are ALWAYS evil. So: are they still the same person they where in life? If a paladin of Vol turns vampire changes his personality? Became a black guard? And how a living paladin of Vol react to these changes?

While alignment restrictions are looser in Eberron, one place where I maintain them is when alignment is enforced by magic. And it’s a good question to ask, because in my opinion the alignment change forced by lycanthropy DOES dramatically alter the victim’s personality. So I’m fine with the idea that vampires become evil… but at this point it’s vital for you to understand how define evil in Eberron, as laid out in this previous post. Evil doesn’t mean you suddenly start murdering children. It means you could start murdering children and not feel remorse. It reflects a lack of empathy and compassion for others, an ability to harm others without remorse. In the case of a vampire, I feel that this is driven by a few factors.

  • Aside from blood, a vampire is sustained by the negative energy of Mabar – an alien plane that consumes life. This is the source of a vampire’s hunger to consume both blood and life energy, and it does change the vampire increasingly over time.
  • Likewise, vampires are made to be predators. They are made to charm and deceive, to hunt and consume. The powers of the vampire come with inhuman instincts that erode their previous nature. They simply can’t feel compassion for others as they once did: they can approve of the concept intellectually, but they don’t FEEL it the way they did before. It’s the way that being a sociopath can be a chemical thing as opposed to learned behavior.

First off, this is why vampires AREN’T the preferred choice for undead champions. Mummies don’t have alignment alteration and don’t need to prey on others as vampires do; they aren’t predators by nature. Thus, the high priest Malevenor is a mummy, not a vampire. But with that said, in Eberron evil characters CAN do good. King Kaius is pushing for peace. You can have an evil paladin of the Silver Flame. So the paladin of the Blood of Vol doesn’t HAVE to become a blackguard when they become a vampire. They COULD – or in 5E terms, they could change their Oath to reflect their nature – but they don’t have to. A vampire champion could still devote his existence to protecting Seekers and seek do serve the greater good. But he’ll find it easier and easier to kill those who oppose him without feeling any remorse, to torture someone to get information when such an act would have seemed repugnant in his warmer days, and so on. Essentially, Eberron is a world in which an evil character can still be a hero – but he’ll find it easier to do bad things in pursuit of that noble cause.

Considering the views the BoV has on undeadhood, and the value of the living, does this also apply the the karnathi skeletons and zombies? You mentioned that while intelligent they do not recall their life before death. Going by their 3.5 stat block their int and wis are completely average but they have a Cha of 1. does this mean they have a complete lack of personality, simply emodying the stereotypical “good soldier” if so I’m curious how their “always evil” alignment plays out?

The principle of the Karrnathi undead is that they are intelligent but not in any way human. They all possess identical skills and by default cannot advance, which is to say that unlike warforged, they can’t learn. The most detailed canon description of the Karrnathi undead comes from Dungeon 195, which notes:

Fear, hunger, and exhaustion are alien to them… One of the few limitations of the undead derives from their utter lack of mercy or compassion. Left on its own, a Karrnathi skeleton will slaughter all opposing forces—soldiers, civilians, even children…  the Kind fears that the undead aren’t animated by the soul of Karrnath, but rather by an aspect of Mabar itself—that the combat styles of the undead might be those of the dark angels of Mabar. Over the years, he has felt a certain malevolence in his skeletal creations that he can’t explain, not to mention their love of slaughter. He has also considered the possibility that they are touched by the spirits of the Qabalrin ancestors of Lady Vol. 

Now: you can always make exceptions to these rules. By default, Karrnathi undead can’t advance. However, I’ve MADE Karrnathi undead with a higher level of skill and with a more distinct (even if still inhuman) personality. So you can certainly create such unique beings if you choose. But looking to the rank and file of the Karrnathi undead, they are intelligent but entirely inhuman. Where each warforged is an individual capable of learning, evolving, and feeling, Karrnathi undead are largely identical sociopaths. This is why I’ve said you couldn’t use them as farmers; they hunger for battle, and would eventually end up killing a stablehand. So when Kaius agreed to seal the bulk of his undead forces below Atur, in part this was a friendly gesture to the other nations… but surely there was an element of him being nervous about leaving the undead standing around when they have nothing to kill.

So who was Erandis in life? 

There’s no canon answer to this, and it’s really a question of what do you want the answer to be? For me, a true answer to this and to the other related questions would require a serious examination of the culture that surrounded the line of Vol. The Bloodsail Principality is an example of the culture that evolved from this, but we haven’t established if they shared most of the same culture and values as the Aereni, or if they were as different from the Aereni as the Tairnadal are. Without a clear understanding of that culture, it’s impossible to say what her life was like. But if you assume some general similarity to the Aereni there’s a few things you can extrapolate.

  • All the Elven cultures are tied to a respect for the great souls of the past, and developing ways to save the great souls of the future. Lineage and history are important, and you are expected to DO something with your life – whether that’s to emulate the deeds of your ancestors or to master (and potentially exceed) their accomplishments. Erandis would surely have grown up knowing that she represents the pinnacle of her family’s work, and that it was her duty to live up to their expectations. Essentially: a “normal childhood” for an elf on Aerenal means something entirely different than what we think of as a “normal childhood”, at it’s going to involve concentrated study in the history of your line and the arts they perfected.
  • Erandis was a half-dragon produced in a secret breeding project with the potential to alter the world. Her existence was probably a secret, so to the degree that elven children run around and play games, she wouldn’t have been running around with them. However, she was part of a breeding program, which to me suggests that she did have siblings; she was simply the only one to manifest the apex mark.
  • My thought is that the war began the day Erandis fully manifested her mark – nothing Vol could do could hide that from Argonnessen. So Erandis had her mark for a period of time, but it’s a form of the mark that had never existed before and she didn’t have time to unlock its power before she was killed.
  • Given all that: I’ve suggested that she was probably around a 6th level wizard when she died. Given the general power level of Eberron, that’s an amazing degree of skill to possess as an adolescent.

So: my PERSONAL belief at this moment (because it might completely change, should I do a more in-depth exploration of the Vol culture) is that Erandis grew up in isolation, surrounded by attendants, tutors, and her siblings. I expect that it was a highly competitive environment – almost Ender’s Game level – as the tutors sought both to determine if any of the subjects possessed the apex mark and to prepare them to use it if they did. So I think you were combining intense necromantic study and competition (again, producing an adolescent 6th level wizard) with trials similar to the Test of Siberys. With all that said, I think there would have been intense focus on the fact that these children were the legacy of the line of Vol and the next generation of elven heroes. They weren’t raised to be weapons; they were raised to be Vol’s answer to the Undying Court. They were raised to be the god-heroes of ages to come. We’ve also established that Erandis’s mother truly loved her. Now, we don’t know how much sentimentality they actually expressed, but I think Erandis knew her parents and knew that they loved her – and that this was part of her drive to succeed – to make them proud.

And then, alone among her siblings, she DOES succeed. She manifests the apex mark. But she dies before she can master it, and her entire culture is wiped out. So again, to me her story is one of maddening tragedy – of having come within inches of a glorious destiny and fulfilling the dreams of her line, only to fail and carry the physical mark of that failure on her skin, the mark she can never unlock.

As a side note: She didn’t get to play with all the girls and boys. But she was a necromantic prodigy and even before she manifested the apex mark she may have displayed unnatural potential. Which is to say that I think even as a child, many of her friends and some of her teachers were dead – she probably spent a lot of time talking with ghosts.

How does a mummy like Malevanor become a spellcasting cleric of the Blood of Vol? If faith is required to cast clerical spells and the tenets of the faith of the Blood of Vol state that such power comes from the Divinity Within and undead are effectively cut off from that, wouldn’t a priest who became undead lose faith in his ability to cast spells?

It’s an excellent point, and why Erandis and Demise are arcane casters, not divine. But there are two ways to justify undead wielding divine power in the BoV, depending on which seems more convenient for the story of your campaign.

The easy version is to say that yes: Malevanor has no divine spark to draw on, but instead he draws on the undeveloped divinity of the faithful he serves. Essentially, the shepherd draws power from his flock. The power still comes from the Divinity Within, but he’s drawing on YOUR Divinity, not his own.

The more convoluted path comes back to the Sacrament of Blood, mentioned earlier: the Seeker practice of communally donating blood for the benefit of undead champions. While this has obvious direct value for vampires, it’s possible that a mummy like Malevanor could also drink blood: it doesn’t provide him with sustenance, but he then draws on the divine spark of the blood in his system. What’s interesting about this is that it makes the blood of the faithful a valuable commodity to more than just vampires – and also means that if Malevanor was cut off from his supply, his divine power would dwindle.

All religions do charity work right? Would the blood of Vol care for a Vampire that was not connected to their religion? For example, someone is turned vampire against their will and is abandoned by their family/group/religion, and resists giving in to the urges of his/hers new instincts, would the seekers care about this person?

It would depend on the Seekers in question. A few observations:

  • Priests of the Blood of Vol are generally very familiar with undead. They understand the needs of vampires better than almost anyone. However, as mentioned above they don’t inherently equate “undead” with “worthy of reverence.” They know ghouls are a threat and excel at dealing with them. They know vampires can be allies or predators, and they’ll deal harshly with predatory vampires. So they could help, but they’re also well-versed in what it would take to simply destroy this rogue vampire.
  • As noted in the previous examples, the Sacrament of Blood is a precious resource. The BoV limits the number of blood-dependent undead it intentionally creates because it has a limited ability to support them. The blood it takes to support this vampire could go to a true champion of the faith.
  • Given that, the situation is no different than if the person in question was simply suffering from a mundane disease. Is the compassion of the priest or community sufficient to cause them to share their limited resources with a stranger? Or do they feel the need to put the needs of their own community first?

The upshot is that it would depend on the state of the community (can they afford to spare the blood?), the demeanor of the vampire (are they at least friendly towards the Seekers, or are they behaving in an actively hostile or predatory fashion?), and the alignment of the priest. An evil cleric would say that the foolish mistakes of outsiders aren’t their concern, and they might actually try to destroy the vampire just to keep it from becoming a threat. A neutral cleric would likely help but would demand something in return; the vampire needs to perform some positive service for the community, or to take time to listen to Seeker doctrine in the hopes they might choose to become a champion of the faith. And a good priest would try to help them because it’s the right thing to do, and because they appreciate the vampire’s desire not to become a predator – though again, they’d likely use this as an opportunity to try to draw the vampire into the faith.

What would the Apex Mark of Death look like?

It’s not something I’ve ever thought about, and not something I’m prepared to give a concrete answer to without further contemplation. But looking at the factors in my mind: It is a form of the Mark of Death – an evolution beyond Siberys, but NOT an entirely new type of Mark. Therefore, I would say that it would have a clear resemblance to the true dragonmarks in general and the Mark of Death specifically. As I mentioned previously, the marks can always be identified: the Siberys Mark has the “nucleus” image of the core mark in the heart of all the widespread lines.

Speaking entirely personally, my vision has always been that it covered her body, like a Siberys mark. So, how is it DIFFERENT from a Siberys mark? What clearly marks it as something grander? Well, my answer would be to say that it extends beyond her body – that she anchors the mark, but that its power reaches into the world. We’ve seen this sort of thing before with the aberrant mark of the Son of Khyber in the novel of the same name and the Living Dragonmark feat, illustrated below.

If you go with this idea, when she was alive and empowered the Mark could literally have surrounded her. It was asked if this would be painful: I don’t see why. Aberrant marks can be painful, but the true Dragonmark is a more harmonious thing. As such, this could be another element of tragedy for Erandis. When her mark fully manifested, it surrounded her. It could be that she could hear it, feel reality in new ways through it, but again… she couldn’t quite UNDERSTAND it or control it. Then she was killed, and NOW the mark is simply dead lines on withered flesh. She knows what it was and what it could be, and knows it is lost.

I suspect a lot of them haven’t thought about the potential problems getting rid of death on a COSMIC level would introduce because of that narrow idea of what constitutes “death”. Makes me suspect there’s room for the story of a struggle against well-intentioned but misguided Seekers who have a potentially functional plan for destroying death… not thinking about how horribly that would screw up the natural world.

That’s definitely a story you could explore. With that said, it’s pretty easy to see that removing the concept of death from our world without any other changes would cause all sorts of disasters. And it’s important to understand that a farmer who follows the Blood of Vol doesn’t want to be an immortal farmer. The principle of the Blood of Vol is that we are all caterpillars, clinging to the branch of a tree. Given enough time, we can undergo a chrysalis and become butterflies – at which point we leave the branch and experience the existence in a new way. When you fully unlock the Divinity Within, you won’t just be a person with magic powers; you will ascend to an entirely different level of existence. The core belief of the Blood of Vol is that mortality means that we end up dying as caterpillars… and that death is final and absolute, condemning our divine spark to dissolution in Dolurrh and oblivion.

So: the BoV doesn’t want a world of immortal caterpillars. They want to end suffering – to eliminate plague and famine – and they want everyone to have lives long enough that they can achieve their potential, unlocking their divinity and moving on to the next stage of existence. In their perfect world, people will be born and they will leave existence: but they leave existence because they move on to something better, not because they die and are extinguished.

A few thoughts tied to this:

  • It is POSSIBLE for people to unlock the Divinity Within and move on without breaking the who cycle for everyone. So selfish Seekers this is all they want to do: achieve personal ascension, with no concern for others. But there are surely BoV “saints” who ARE believed to have ascended and to exist in a higher form already; we just want to make that possible for everyone.
  • Tying to the point that most BoV followers consider the “Vol” in the Blood of Vol to be the original Seeker who discovered the Divinity Within: there’s no issue with this clashing with the true history of the line of Vol. Elves live a long time and thus HAVE more time to try to unlock the Divinity Within. Hearing the true history of the line of Vol, a Seeker would say “So, it’s a family of elves who was studying necromancy? Clearly, the Vol WE reference was a member of that family who discovered the Divinity Within as part of that work.” Essentially, they don’t know WHICH member of the family it was, but there’s nothing problematic about the idea that a long-lived Elven necromancer might have stumbled upon this secret and accomplished something the rest of his family didn’t follow up on.
  • Honestly, I think Seeker sages pity the elves. They have the right idea and they have such long lives they ought to be able to accomplish it. But looking to the Undying Court, they tie themselves to this world – when someone who unlocks the Divinity Within should ascend to something BETTER than this world.

So: You definitely could have fun with a story about Seekers who literally just remove death from a particular area. But for most Seekers it’s not about achieving immortality in this world; it’s about an end to suffering and having as much time as you need to unlock the DW and move on to the next level of existence.

Dragonmarks: The Mourning and the Dread

Last Friday I wrote about Manifestations of the Dread. That article focuses on my new RPG Phoenix: Dawn Command, but Eberron players and DMs may find another use for this material, because the effects of the Dread aren’t entirely dissimilar to one of the defining elements of Eberron: The Mourning.

The world of Phoenix: Dawn Command is dealing with an unfolding supernatural threat. The Dread can strike anywhere in the known world, and it takes many forms. The dead rise to prey on the living. The laws of nature are broken. Communities fall prey to mass hysteria, or to malevolent spirits banished long ago that have now returned. Essentially, the entire world of Phoenix is slowly becoming the Mournland… but it’s happening piece by piece.

By contrast, the Mourning happened suddenly and is contained. It consumed the nation of Cyre… and then stopped expanding. Fear of the Mourning is what brought about the end of the Last War. No one knows what caused the Mourning, and until there is an answer, people are afraid to keep fighting… because one possibility is that it was the extensive use of war magic that triggered the Mourning, and that continued conflict could cause it to expand.

Where the Dread is scattered, the effects of the Mourning are contained in a particular region, the Mournland. This area is enclosed by mist: a wall of fog that rises over a hundred feet in height and that covers the entire region from above, preventing direct sunlight and any form of observation. Combined with the considerable danger involved in exploring the Mournland, the result is that very little is known about the region. Everyone knows that it has been transformed, and that living creatures caught in the Mourning were either killed or transformed. Stories say that wounds don’t heal in the Mournland, that dead bodies don’t decompose and that there are battlefields where blood still seeps from the wounds of the fallen. War spells have taken on a life of their own, and massive crabs cover their shells with corpses.

From a design perspective, the Mourning serves a number of purposes. It provides a central mystery. It’s a foundation for the cold war. But beyond that, it takes a region that’s been civilized for centuries and turns it into the world’s biggest dungeon. On some level it’s hard to justify wild monsters and mysteries in Galifar; why weren’t they dealt with by the heroes of previous ages? But the Mourning is a NEW problem. And aside from the things that can be found in its borders, the things that leave the Mournland — both living and otherwise — can be a source of adventure.

With this in mind, my vision of the Mournland was always that it is unpredictable. No one rule should apply to the entire thing. The idea that corpses don’t decay and that wounds won’t heal is an iconic image and may be true in much of the Mournland. But for every village filled with perfectly preserved corpses, you might find another where everything organic has been disintegrated or turned to glass, or a village where animated skeletons carry out a pantomime of their former lives. Some of these things are dangerous, like the shard storm Thorn encounters in the ruins of Ascalin in The Fading Dream. But others may just be strange, and this is where last Friday’s article comes into play. All the things I’ve suggested as manifestations of the Dread could also be symptoms of the Mourning.

For a DM, the value of this variety is the ability to spawn a multitude of unique adventures. The Mournland is the size of an entire nation, filled with cities, villages, fortresses, forgeholds and more… and each one the adventurers visit may present new threats. And rather than having to justify why an ancient ruin is full of treasure, the Mournland holds treasures because until four years ago, it was a prosperous nation. Cyre was the seat of House Cannith, and if you want to find powerful magic, where better to look than a Cannith forgehold? And aside from purely material wealth, the Mournland holds religious relics, sentimental keepsakes, the secret strategic plans of Cyre’s military, and anything else once of value… any of which could be reason for an adventure.

As a player, the Mourning can provide you with a wealth of story hooks. If you’re Cyran, how did you survive the Mourning? Did you just barely escape, or were you away when it struck? Who did you lose to the Mourning, and have you ever wondered if they might still be alive beyond the mists? Is there anything you lost that you’d like to regain, whether of actual value or purely sentimental? Did you lose your extended family, or are they now refugees – and if the latter, where are they? Beyond this, most people lost in the Mourning were killed or lost… but perhaps you were affected by it but survived. Here’s just a few ways you could be affected.

  • Cosmetic Transformation. Your skin or hair might have an unusual color or texture. Perhaps you lost an eye, and your remaining eye glows when you are angry. Maybe your hair is alive; you can’t control it, but is slowly moves of its own accord. These things don’t have any mechanical effect, but can add color to a character. And because they’re so rare and unique, they don’t carry the immediate stigma of an aberrant mark; they’re just strange. 
  • Exotic Race. In one 4E campaign I played a character who was mechanically a deva. But I said he was a normal Cyran peasant who’d been caught in the Mourning, and who was now channeling hundreds of ghosts of others who’d died in the Mourning. The deva is defined by having memories of a thousand lives; in my case, these were the memories of other people, all being channeled through me. You could take a similar approach to any unusual race that you don’t want to fit into the world on a large scale. Tabaxi could have an entire civilization in Xen’drik… or, you might say that Tabaxi are shifters who were caught in the Mourning and transformed, and there’s only around a dozen of you in Khorvaire.
  • Mechanical Powers. My deva character was technically an avenger, but I explained his powers as coming from the spirits he channeled as opposed to divine devotion. City of Stormreach presents the Storm Hammers, a gang made up of Mourning survivors who have manifested unnatural abilities; mechanically they’re sorcerers, warlocks, and barbarians, but the concept is that these are dark gifts of the Mourning as opposed to learned skills. You could similarly explain your class abilities as being tied to the Mourning. Or for a less extreme effect, 5E includes the Magical Initiate feat, which grants use of two cantrips and one spell; this is certainly sufficient to reflect a strange gift of the Mourning. If you go this route, the next question is how this manifests. My deva’s powers were the work of the spirits for which he served as an anchor. The Storm Hammers draw their powers from a dark source, possibly the power of the Mourning itself — and this connection may be driving them mad. Perhaps you were in a Cannith forgehold when the Mourning struck and a bundle of wands fused with your left arm; you channel your magic through the wand-tips protruding from your stump. Or you could have been fused with a demon, an agent of the Lords of Dust that happened to be in the area; as your character level increases you can access to more of the fiend’s powers, but are you also becoming a demon?

SO, CAN YOU TELL US WHAT CAUSED THE MOURNING? 

If I don’t address this, I’m sure someone will ask, so let’s get it out of the way now. I can tell you some things that could have caused the Mourning…

  • The Ashbound and the Children of Winter are on the right track: The Mourning was the natural consequence of the extensive use of magic during the Last War. Ending the war has temporarily stopped it, but the Children of Winter believe that the damage cannot be healed: the only way the world can be restored is to go through the winter to reach the spring that lies beyond. If they are correct, the Mourning will eventually spread until it covers the world. But perhaps they’re mistaken, and there’s a way the damage can be undone… but it would still mean that the people of Khorvaire would have to be careful about overuse of magic in the future.
  • House Cannith was developing a weapon. Something went disastrously wrong. Questions that remain: could this weapon be restored or duplicated? Do any of the current Cannith leaders know about this project? Presuming the forgehold developing it was in Cyre, what happens if the Lord of Blades or someone else discovers it?
  • One of the Overlords of the First Age was bound beneath Cyre. Due to the machinations of the Lords of Dust, the fiend was partially released. The Mourning is a reflection of its influence. At the moment it is building its strength; there is one more step that is required to fully release it. If that occurs, its power – and the Mournland – would spread.
  • The Lord of Blades was behind the Mourning, an attack targeted against the heart of House Cannith. This may have used an epic artifact or eldritch machine — which could potentially still be tied to an Overlord or to the Daelkyr. Generating the Mourning drained the weapon of power… but the Lord of Blades is working to restore its power.
  • The Mourning was actually caused by dragons of the Chamber, as part of a necessary chain of events to prevent the release of an Overlord — for sake of argument, let’s say Tiamat. The Mourning can be reversed, but reversing it will unleash Tiamat, who will corrupt Argonnessen, and set into motion an epic conflict with the dragons.
  • In The Fading Dream, the Eladrin present a theory of what caused the Mourning and how it could be reversed. I won’t spoil it here, but hey, it’s possible.

That’s just off the top of my head. OK, you may say, these things could have caused the Mourning… but what didI don’t know. In MY campaigns I’ve never felt a need to solve the mystery. What I like about the Mourning is the effect it has on the world: driving the cold war between the nations, holding the Last War at bay, creating a giant dungeon in the middle of things. If the mystery of the Mourning is solved, one way or another, it paves the way for the Last War to start anew. That’s not a story I’ve wanted to explore… so I’ve left in unsolved. Which means that I’ve never needed to choose between the host of possibilities. If I decided to tell that story, I’d pick one. But as it stands, I’m happy leaving it as an enigma.

That’s all I have time for, but let me know if you have questions about the Mourning and the Mournland… and share your favorite answers for the Mourning or manifestations of the Mournland!

Phoenix Friday: Manifestations of The Dread

It’s Phoenix Friday! If you haven’t seen it yet, check out our new website for Phoenix: Dawn Command. We’ve just submitted the test run of our first Phoenix expansion – we’ll have more news on that soon.  Meanwhile, I’d like to take a moment to talk about the force that threatens the world of Phoenix… The Dread. 

The Dread began slowly. Over the course of months, stories began circulating around the Empire. People murmured of savage beasts attacking travelers on the road, and caravans disappearing. There were reports of sudden plagues and strange weather. But these tales weren’t taken too seriously…until 591 IC, when the Bone Legion sacked the city of Westergate and began its inexorable march along the Summer Shore. Without the Phoenixes, news traveled slowly across the Empire. By the time the Emperor heard about the fall of Westergate, there was another, closer catastrophe: The town of Dulacia had fallen to the Chant, a form of infectious madness. It was at this point that the enemy was given a name. The Emperor assured the people that the Dread now gripping the Empire would not last, that order would soon be restored.

Thus began three years of escalating terror. The Imperial Army has done its best, but mortals cannot face these threats. The Army has been powerless to stop the advance of the Bones along the Summer Shore. When a town falls to the Chant, all anyone can do is ensure the curse spreads no further. Fortified cities provide shelter against many threats, and refugees have flooded the largest cities…but many manifestations of the Dread can strike anywhere. The Emperor has done his best to give the people hope, but in truth, there’s little he can do…and in their hearts, the people know it.

The most critical point in understanding this threat is that The Dread is a name the people have given to this wave of horrors. It gives the sense that they are facing a single foe that could potentially be engaged. But the Dread is anything but monolithic. Is the Chant related to the Bones? Do either of them have anything to do with the reports of Fallen activity in the north, or skinchangers in the Grimwald? No one knows. While missions in Phoenix often involve battling some manifestation of the Dread, investigation is equally important; the long-term goal is to unravel the mystery, not simply to kill a few monsters. The Chant is a contagious curse: someone starts chanting and attacking the people around them. Suddenly others are chanting and fighting. Within hours it can engulf a city. But… how does it spread? Are mortals afflicted when they touch chanters, or is just hearing them enough to spread the curse? Is there a way to cure those afflicted without killing them? Beyond that, how and why does it begin… and what does it have to do with the Bones, or other major manifestations? If you encounter a Chant outbreak in a village, containing it is a start… but uncovering the answers to these questions is the real challenge.

What does this mean for Players?

You become a Phoenix by dying, making your way through the Crucible, and returning to fight the Dread. In thinking about how you died and what drove you to come back, consider if you encountered the Dread — and if it was the Dread that killed you. What manifestation did you encounter? Was it your first interaction with the Dread, or had you dealt with other aspects of it? How will you react if you encounter it again? If you were killed during a Chant outbreak, are you terrified of the Chant, or are you determined to find a cure? And as you face the Dread in play, think about how your character conceives of it. Do you believe the Dread is a single force that can be fought, or do you think it’s the end of days? Are you shaken by the things you’ve seen, or does it just fuel your conviction to somehow bring an end to it?

What does it mean for GMs?

Whether you’re developing your own stories or using the mission arc in the basic set, keep the scope of the Dread in mind. The Bones and the Chant are major threats. But the Dread manifests in hundreds of lesser ways, and part of what’s terrifying about it is that no one knows where it will manifest or what form it will take. It’s as if nightmares are bleeding through into the world. Not every manifestation is deadly or even dangerous. But they are happening with increasing frequency and that is part of the fear that grips the Empire: dealing with a seemingly endless parade of terrors, never knowing what will come next.

Lesser Manifestations of the Dread

The Chant, the Bones, the Fallen Folk — these are major manifestations that can threaten cities. But not every face of the Dread is so epic in scope. Here’s a list of a few lesser manifestation of the Dread. If you’re a marshal, this might give you some ideas to add color to a scene or an interlude; if you’re a player, perhaps one of these could fit into your backstory.

  • Unnatural Weather. It’s summer, and the Phoenixes are approaching a village in one of the green valleys of Ilona when the snow begins to fall. The chill could soon prove deadly to mortals… and are there strange shapes out there, obscured by the fallen snow? Whether it’s a freak blizzard, rain of blood, a fog that won’t lift, unnatural heat or devastating storms, the Dread can create any sort of localized weather you can imagine.
  • Blighted Crops. An unnatural blizzard could ruin crops, posing a threat of famine and ensuing panic and chaos. Plants could grow, but in unusual forms. What will happen if anyone (human or animal) eats this strange fruit? Crops could appear normal, but be tainted and cause hallucinations in those who come into contact with them… or simply become incredibly toxic. Or perhaps the fruit of a plant bleeds when you cut or bite into it, and the plants scream in pain when cut.
  • Afflicted Animals. The Dread can turn wild beasts into monsters, transforming them into fearsome and unnatural forms. Animals – even herbivores – could begin craving blood or meat. Animals could be warped in ways that don’t make them a threat, but simply disturbing: loss of all hair; twisted limbs; animals with no eyes, who somehow still seem to be able to see; strange coloration; beasts that speak or sing in a language no one knows, but that don’t respond to attempts at communication. Maggots could spontaneously manifest, or hordes of vermin or insects could be inexplicably drawn to locations. Non-migratory animals could nonetheless migrate in large numbers. Phoenixes could come upon hundreds of dead animals of a particular species, all of which apparently dropped dead in an instant. What does it mean?
  • The Dead Rise. The Bones are the corpses of warriors who have risen to continue the battles they fought in life. The Bone Legion in the south is the most visible manifestation, but Bones can rise anywhere there’s been great violence. Bones don’t have to be human; the core set includes the Carrion Birds, and you could easily have other animals. These things are challenges to be fought, but death can be broken in ways that are eerie as opposed to deadly. Imaging a pack of ghostly wolves – entirely insubstantial – that stalk travelers but can’t actually touch or be touched by them. Ghosts of lost loved ones could dog the steps of a Phoenix, or you might have a town where such spirits haunt the inhabitants… or perhaps they just scream and wail. Phoenixes might come upon a farm whose inhabitants were killed by a plague… but their corpses continue their daily tasks, mechanically going through the motions. On a less direct level, strange footprints or handprints could appear with no explanation. Menacing graffiti could appear on walls. The haunting spirits could be known to the locals, or they could be from a distant past and be angry about the strangers in their homes.
  • Mass HysteriaEven without supernatural influence, people are terrified of the Dread. This is exacerbated by the fact that many people have been driven from their homes. There is panic, scarcity of resources, anger and suspicion that turns people against one another. Add the unnatural influence of the Dread to the mix, and things get worse. People could be haunted by terrible nightmares — threatening visions of a possible future, images of betrayal by friends or neighbors, or bizarre dreams depicting alien worlds. Large groups could be afflicted with collective amnesia… or perhaps their bodies are seized by hostile spirits for brief periods, and they can’t remember what happened while they were possessed. Groups could be gripped by burning anger, crippling despair, or deep ennui. People could find themselves speaking in languages they don’t understand, suddenly unable to communicate with one another. Can the Phoenixes calm those afflicted? Is this the work of spirits that can be exorcised, or something else?
  • Breaking Natural Laws. Be it on a small or large scale, the Dread can simply break the way the world works. Reflections or shadows threaten those who cast them. In a particular body of water, nothing will float. In a particular region, wounds won’t close… or perhaps people die, but their bodies won’t rot. Glass dissolves into sand. Water turns into acid. There’s a smell of rot in the air, though there’s no source. When people breathe, the exhale smoke or foul odors. Combustion won’t occur in a village; candles and hearths alike are cold, casting the people into darkness.

These things may not have a direct effect on the action of the game. They aren’t as dramatic as a pack of hungry Skinchangers or the arrival of the Harvester of Fear. But details like these can add interesting flavor to a scene, and emphasize the fact that the Dread is entirely unpredictable… you never know what’s going to happen next, and we don’t know why all these things are happening now.

if you have questions about Phoenix or the Dread — or favorite supernatural disturbances of your own — add them in the comments!

Dragonmarks: Origin Stories

Recently I made a post about developing origin stories for my new RPG Phoenix: Dawn CommandIn Phoenix, the PCs aren’t casual adventurers; their world is facing a mysterious and terrible threat, and the narrative is about fighting that Dread and trying to unravel its mysteries. As such it’s vital for every character to establish what they are fighting for. Further, the protagonists of Phoenix have died and returned imbued with new skill and supernatural power, and the type of Phoenix you become is determined by the nature of your death and the lessons that you learned… so it’s important to think about who your character was before they became a hero, and exactly how they died.

In Phoenix, this is a cornerstone of the story that drives the campaign. In Eberron — or D&D in general — that’s not always the case. If you know you’re just doing a straight-up dungeon crawl, it may be that the only thing that really matters is your statistics. But even so, what I love about RPGs — as player or GM — is the fact that we’re building a story together. And I want my character to be someone whose story I’d like to know. I could be a 1st level human fighter — done. Or I could be a dragonmarked heir who broke ties with his house to fight for Cyre, because he truly believed their cause was just and the Sovereigns were on their side. Now the war is over, and the Mourning shattered his faith and destroyed everything he loved. Will he try to get back into his house? Will he seek out Prince Oargev and fight on behalf of the Cyran people? Will he find his faith again in a divine revelation, and take levels of paladin or cleric? Will he be approached by the Twelve to become part of a secret group of excoriates doing deniable missions for the houses, or uncover a Quori infestation that’s taken over his old family? I don’t know. But I’d love to see any of those stories play out. And even if we DO just go on a few dungeon crawls, I still feel like this is a character and not just a set of numbers.

If I want a campaign with a clear focus, I’ll often talk to the players and encourage them to come up with a shared character concept that gives them a clear connection from the start and defines the direction of the campaign. Perhaps they’re all members of the Boromar Clan. Or they’re all agents of the Royal Eyes. Or they’re a Valenar warband. Or they all fought for Cyre in the Last War. Or they own an airship. Everyone understands the core story — “We’re all secret agents” — and they should come up with a concept that fits that.

But sometimes it’s more fun to have everyone come up with a unique character that doesn’t have any pre-existing connection and to have the campaign be what brings them together, and that’s what I’d like to explore now… when you’re making a character on your own, but want to develop a compelling story.

Eberron gives a number of handles for you to latch on to. The Last War is one of the easy ones. The war only ended two years ago. If you have the skills of a player character, you’re a capable person… so did you fight in the war? If so, who did you fight for? What did you do? How do you feel about the outcome? If you didn’t fight in the war, why not? What did you do instead? Did you oppose the war or simply find a different path? Personally, I often choose Cyre as a nation for my PCs because the concept of having lost everything is a strong foundation for why a person would become an adventurer. They have no home to return to; everything they once had is gone. So why not seek their fortune in an unconventional manner? On the other hand, there’s ways to do this with any nation. Consider…

  • I fought for Karrnath during the last War. But I’m a follower of the Blood of Vol, and King Kaius betrayed us. Now my friends and family are pariahs in my homeland. I’m equally angry at Kaius for turning on us and on the Order of the Emerald Claw for taking actions that turn the world against us… and if I every have the chance, I’ll make sure that both Kaius and the Emerald Claw pay for what they’ve done.
  • I fought for Thrane during the Last War, as a paladin of the Silver Flame. I love my home and my family, but far too often my duties as a soldier seemed to be at odds with what the Voice of the Flame tells me is right.  I fear that ruling Thrane distracts the Church from its true mission and invites corruption, and I want to protect the innocent – all innocents – from supernatural evil, not serve the cause of one nation over others. So I have struck out on my own, following the Flame as I hear it.
  • I fought for Aundair in the Last War, as youngest son of a noble family of wizards. My parents urged me to stay in the army; there can be no true justice in the world until Galifar is restored. But I know that I will never reach my potential studying with military preceptors. Beyond that, I feel that if Aundair is to triumph in the next war, it needs more than just well-trained wizards. It needs to unravel the mystery of the Mourning. It needs to learn the epic magics of the giants and the dragons. I have left my nation in pursuit of power, but it is always a part of me and I will return.
  • I fought for Breland during the Last War. I’m proud of what I did, but I was looking forward to coming home and hanging up my sword for good. Instead I returned to find my family and friends (being extorted by the corrupt watch/murdered by Daask/squeezed by the Twelve/consumed by a Cult of the Dragon Below/haunted by an ancient curse). I may not serve the crown any more, but it looks like my war has just begun.

When developing a character on your own, it’s important to remember that you will be part of a group. So however powerful and compelling your personal story is, it has to be something that can accommodate other stories. If your backstory is I must get to Thronehold to stop the second Mourning, it’s hard to explain why you’d take a break from that quest to help a friend or investigate a murder. While with the examples above, the goals are long-term as opposed to being urgent. The Karrn generally hates Kaius and the Order of the Emerald Claw, which gives the DM two hooks they could use… but he doesn’t have a specific Emerald Claw plot he has to deal with RIGHT NOW. The Aundairian wants to uncover magical secrets, so any story that could justifiably include an opportunity to learn something new will be of interest… and if nothing like that shows up, there’s no reason she can’t do something else while waiting for the next opportunity. You want a backstory that can add a sense of depth to any situation — not one that’s entirely reliant on the whole group embracing your personal story.

The Last War is one easy source of character hooks. The Dragonmarked Houses are another. Here’s a few ideas off the top of my head:

  • You’re a dragonmarked heir working as an agent of your house. You have a patron in the house who may offer you advice or assignments.
  • You’re an excoriate unjustly banished from your house and you want to find a way to clear your name.
  • Your parents were excoriates. As a foundling, you have to decide if you want to return to the house… and is there a mystery to solve or a feud to settle involving your parents’ excoriation?
  • Your parents were remarkable artificers who made a breakthrough and then were mysteriously killed/vanished/were ruined. You believe House Cannith was responsible and have sworn to take vengeance on the house. Are you correct? Or might you uncover some deeper truth as the campaign goes on? This same premise could be translated to any house; just change the occupation to match the house’s sphere.

In the recent Phoenix post I presented a number of more exotic backstories. Even these can be adapted to Eberron if you use some imagination.

  • The Ship’s Cat is the idea of an unnaturally talented child. Personally, I am a strong advocate of changing the flavor of mechanical elements to fit the needs of a story. In this example, I’d be open to the idea of letting the player use the mechanical statistics of a halfling, even though for other purposes (including Dragonmarks) we’d consider the character to be human.
  • The Adventuring Archaeologist doesn’t require any unusual mechanics, but it is also about the story… the idea that the character is driven to uncover some of the secrets of the world. In this case, I’d advise picking a mystery that’s big enough that it doesn’t have to be solved all at once. For example, you could be intrigued by planar incursions, wanting to investigate the Xoriat incursion that destroyed the Empire of Dhakaan; the Quori-Giant Conflict; and along the way, perhaps you will discover evidence of previously unknown planar incursions, either something that happened in the past or an incursion that’s about to happen. Or perhaps you want to uncover magical secrets, looking for forgotten lore of the Culsir, the Qabalrin, or even the dragons themselves.
  • The Old Soldier is a concept closely tied to Phoenix: a hero of a previous age who has returned to accomplish a task in the present day. But there’s a few ways to explore the same idea in Eberron. The article Dolurrh’s Dawn presents an entire village of reincarnated legends. You could be a creation of Mordain the Fleshweaver or House Vadalis — you have the appearance of the legend, but are you truly the hero reborn or are you some sort of trick? Alternately, the Watchful Rest is a sect that maintains that Aureon and the Keeper preserve great souls from Dolurrh so they can be reborn when needed… could this be your story? Obviously it may be odd if you’re starting at a low level when you were once a hero… but this can still be justified as your full memories not having been instantly restored.
  • The Bad Dog is a bigger challenge. Equipment isn’t important in Phoenix, so the idea of playing a talking dog doesn’t create as many challenges as it does in D&D. With that said, you could certainly play an animal reincarnated into human form. The question then is who performed the spell. Were you the companion of a lone druid, who may have died themselves? Or do you have a connection to one of the druidic sects? Like playing a warforged, an animal reincarnated into human form is an interesting opportunity to explore what it means to be human.

I have a lot of fun building backgrounds with my players for their characters, and I always try to encourage them to develop a story or even run through character background quizzes if they are stuck.

Presenting concrete questions is a good way to help players who don’t know where to begin. Phoenix has a list of basic questions people answer as part of character generation. When I do one-shots, I often present people with multiple-choice questionnaires to give them a quick jump into the world; you can see an example of this in this set of pregens for Phoenix.

Recently I have started a roleplay exercise where in between sessions we will ask background questions that may not come up in game, but help shape the character. The goblin PC might hail from Darguun, but how does he feel that his parents were Cyran? The old orc Gatekeeper lived a full life before he ever left the Marches, so does he see his children or have they grown into adventurers of their own?

This is an excellent approach. When a campaign just begins, people don’t know who their characters are, and trying to nail down this level of detail is simply going to be overwhelming. But as the players become more familiar with their characters, it can be be a lot of fun to explore further during downtime. In Phoenix we encourage players to talk about what happens between missions – Interludes – during these “offline” times.

Do you have any suggestions for characters from lands outside of the Five Nations such as Xen’drik natives coming to Khorvaire, or ways for a Seren to get pulled into the Last War?

It’s a pretty broad question – “Xen’drik natives” covers a lot of ground. But focusing on the Seren, with answers that could apply to some Xen’drik backgrounds…

  • Following a personal divine vision
  • Sent by tribal leader/mystic/dragon to accomplish a quest
  • Driven by insatiable curiosity; you want to see the entire world.
  • Exiled from your tribe for a crime (was this justified, or are they innocent?)
  • Seeking vengeance on foreigner who came to your land and did something terrible; realizes it will take a long time to find this person and to gain the power/allies needed to defeat them, but starting that journey.
  • Same as above, but consider that “a foreigner” could be “a Dragonmarked house” – you’re going to bring down an organization that has done you wrong (better match for Xen’drik than Seren, but still).
  • A foreigner lived among your people. Depending on race, they could have been one of your parents, or could have been your mentor or best friend. Following your death you have traveled to their land to find the truth to their stories/finish the quest they never completed/avenge them/carry out their dying wish.

I used a variation of that last one with the Ghaash’kala half-orc paladin I played in the last 5E Eberron campaign I was in; my father was a paladin from Thrane who came to the Demon Wastes & lived among the Ghaash’kala, dying long before I ever knew him; in the campaign, I was dispatched to the green lands with my father’s sword with a specific mission (protect one of the other PCs, a mysterious reincarnation of Jaela Daeran – long story) but I personally wanted to learn more about my father and why he’d left his homeland.

As for what could draw them into the Last War? Mercenary work. Friendship — fighting to protect their best friend, even though they know nothing of the politics of the war. A vendetta against an enemy commander; they don’t care about the war, they were just hoping to get close enough to kill the commander. Testing the skills of these foreign soldiers, while honing their own.

If you have any questions — or if you’d like to share your own favorite origin story — post them below!

Phoenix Friday: New Website!

It’s Phoenix Friday, and to celebrate we’re unveiling our new website for Phoenix: Dawn Command. In addition to providing a portal to purchase the game, this will be our nexus for information and support, including downloads and videos. Please take a look and share it with anyone who might be interested!

This is a major milestone for me and for Twogether Studios. We’re a small company and Phoenix is our first product, but we’ve got big plans for what we want to do for Phoenix. I’m currently working on a new mission arc, and we’ve got a number of things in development — including an easy solution for groups that want to play with five or six players. With that said, the more people who know about Phoenix, the more we’ll be able to do for it. If you’ve played it and enjoy it, please help spread the word. If you haven’t played it and you have questions, ask in the comments below. And if you’re planning to run Phoenix at a convention, let me know so Twogether Studios can send you some swag!

Thanks to everyone who’s joined me on the journey to this point. Join me next Friday as I delve deeper into the mystery of the Dread!

 

Phoenix Friday: Origin Stories

Welcome to the second installment of Phoenix Friday! Every week in June I’m going to be posting material for my new RPG, Phoenix: Dawn Command. Phoenix is now available for sale, either from Amazon or directly from me through Twogetherstudios.com. If you have any questions about Phoenix, please post them in the comments below. If you’d like to see Phoenix in play, you can check out the livestream PDC game on the Saving Throw network — the final episode of Season Two will be streaming Saturday, Jun 10th at 12:30 PM Pacific Time! 

Phoenix: Dawn Command is a war story. Your world is under attack by a host of supernatural terrors. The dead prey upon the living. Ghosts howl with the wind. Skinchangers and stranger beasts lurk in the wilds. Entire cities have been lost to a chant that turns those who hear it into killers. As the game begins, we know we are at war with the Dread, but we know almost nothing about it. Why are these things happening? How are they related to one another? Can they be stopped, and if so how?

As a Phoenix, your character is someone who died and was given the chance to return to life with the power to fight the Dread. But that power didn’t come easily; you went through spiritual and physical trials to earn the right to return as a Phoenix. So when you are making a character, there are questions we want to answer.

  • Who were you in your first life? How did you die, and how long were you in the Crucible before you were reborn as a Phoenix?
  • What are you fighting for? What gave you the strength to overcome the trials of the Crucible?
  • What do you have left in the world? Do you have relatives or descendants? The town you grew up in, or failing that, a homeland? What do you care about?

In some RPGs, these things don’t really matter. But Phoenix is a game where you may be called upon to lay down your life — more than once — for the things you care about, and it’s going to be a much more satisfying experience if you actually care about something. With that said, this is a tall order to drop on a beginning player who knows nothing about the setting. What concepts are even possible? Where could they be from?

If you want a quick start, you can download a wing of pregenerated characters from the Twogether Studios website. Meanwhile, here’s a set of backgrounds that explore some of the more exotic possibilities of the setting. As a Phoenix, you might have been a child; a former Emperor; or even a very bad dog. These ideas are intended to be inspiration — showing what’s possible within the setting. If one of your players would like to play one of these characters, that’s great. But they could also take a piece of the idea and change it. Perhaps they like the Old Soldier, but they want to have fought alongside the Phoenixes in the Civil War instead of having opposed them. Or they like the basic concept of the Ship’s Cat, but want to be Bitter instead of Forceful. That’s great! The goal of these pieces is to give you an idea of what’s possible; what you do with them is entirely up to you. And if you don’t use any of these ideas, you might want to use them as members of the Rival Wing, as described on page 145 of Guidelines for the Newly Inducted Marshal

 

THE SHIP’S CAT: FORCEFUL

What’s over there?”

To be clear: you weren’t an actual cat. But you were born on a ship. Your people — the Wynderi — are the best sailors in the known world. Your family believe that the land first rose from the water, and that some day the waters will rise and reclaim the land. As a result, they sought to spend as much time on the open water as possible, and you almost never set foot on solid land. They called you the Ship’s Cat because you were small and endlessly curious. You were always climbing in the rigging and looking for new things on the horizon, and whenever you encountered another ship you’d sneak aboard and poke around. As it turned out, your parents’ conviction that it was safe on the water was misplaced. One day you were beset by fog. A new ship closed with you, and you naturally boarded and began to poke around. You were surprised by the rotting wood and torn sails, and too late you realized that it was a ghost ship crewed by corpses. The ghostly sailors pursued you, and you tried to get to the rigging and make it back to your ship, but you weren’t quite fast enough; the moldy ropes slipped through your fingers, and you’ve blocked out the details of what happened next. But instead of dying, you found yourself in the Crucible, with the promise of endless adventures ahead. Your optimism and your curiosity carried you through the trials, and now you’re back in the world and faster than ever. You’re on a grand adventure, and you’re going to stop the Dread and save the world.

You died as a child, and while you spent what seemed like years in the Crucible, you still maintain the essential optimism, curiosity and enthusiasm that you had in your first life. You spent your life on a boat, and now you’re getting to explore the entire world! However grim and horrifying a situation is, you’re always looking at the bright side of it. You’ve never seen a swamp before! Or a hungry ghost! What’s it going to do? Why? You want to help people — you’re a hero, and that’s exciting — but you also are just thrilled to be out in the world and on an amazing adventure.

  • You’ve blocked out exactly what happened when you died. You don’t actually remember if your family escaped or if they were killed by the ghost ship. Your life is full of new adventures and there’s a lot of distractions and things you have to deal with right now. Are you excited when you see Wynderi? Do you want to find out if your family are OK? Or are you intentionally trying to ignore the Wynderi to avoid thinking about your family?
  • Everything is new to you. You’ve never been in a big city or a forest. You’ve never fought a werewolf. It’s all extremely exciting. You generally look for the best in everything, as reflected by the Never Gives Up suggested Trait… but at the same time, you’re not an idiot and you’re not going to try to hug a zombie. Probably.
  • As a Forceful, your greatest strength is your speed and mobility. You hate to stand still, and you’re always looking for the next interesting thing. You want to be a hero, so try not to cause too much trouble for the rest of the wing with this — but what happens if you poke that thing over there?  

Suggested Traits: Crude But Effective, Small & Quick, Never Gives Up, Untouchable

 

ADVENTURING ARCHAEOLOGIST: SHROUDED

“That belongs in a museum!”

You’re one of the Shadovar. Your people were driven from their homeland centuries ago, before the first Phoenixes formed the Empire, and today they are nomads who travel from place to place. Superstitious people accused the Shadovar of being necromancers who traffic with the spirits of the dead, and there is some truth to this; there are skilled mediums among your people. But this is simply because you choose to honor the dead, because if you preserve the memory of those who have come before you, they never truly die. For you, this principle applies to the past as a whole. You’re intrigued by the heroes of the Empire — both the Phoenixes who founded it and the humans who took it from them. You’re equally fascinated by the cultures that existed before the Empire. And most of all, you’re fascinated by the Old Kingdoms — civilizations so old that we don’t even know if their people were even human. There are a only a handful of ruins and relics of Old Kingdoms still in existence, and they are often imbued with tremendous magical power. You believe it’s possible that the Imperial Flame itself — the force that empowers all Phoenixes — could be a relic of the Old Kingdoms. You love exploring these mysteries. And the Dread is the greatest mystery of all! It began three years ago… what caused it? How are the various manifestations of the Dread related? Is there a purpose to the Dread beyond simply destruction?

You died pursuing these questions, and you refused to remain dead while this mystery threatens to destroy all that you love. You were a great scholar in your first life, and you used your time in the Crucible to hone your skills even further. If you use the suggested Traits, Seen This Before and Brilliant Deduction may reflect your experiences in your first life, but it could also tie to your extensive training in the Crucible. You may not have actually seen this before, but you read an account of it in the endless library in your Crucible; and your brilliant deductions about the Dread may be tied to your extensive research between lives.

  • Your primary concern is unraveling the mystery of the Dread — and in so doing, saving the entire Empire. With that said, superstitious people have always blamed the Shadovar for trouble, and in the present day there are many who think the Shadovar are tied to the Dread. Do you want to help the Shadovar, if you can?
  • Is your family still alive? The Shadovar are traveling people, so even if they are alive you have no idea where they might be right now. But are they important to you? If so, which living family member is most important to you?
  • You are fascinated by history. What period of history intrigues you the most: the golden age of the Empire? The time of the first Phoenixes? The first known human civilizations — the time before the Shadovar were driven from their homeland? Or the mysterious Old Kingdoms, about which almost nothing is known?
  • You died pursuing secrets. What was it you were trying to discover? Were you killed by a manifestation of the Dread — undead soldiers, a terrible curse — or did you die in a more mundane way?
  • As a Phoenix you will be fighting to protect people from the manifestations of the Dread. But you want to always be looking for answers. You’re never content just to stop a threat; you want to know why it happened and how it relates to the Dread as a whole. And meanwhile, keep an eye out for other interesting connections to history!

Suggested Traits: Brilliant Deduction, Makes It Look Easy, Seen This Before, Superhuman Reflexes

 

OLD SOLDIER: DURANT

“I built this Empire, and I won’t let it fall.”

Two centuries ago, a civil war split the Empire. The first Phoenixes had formed the Empire by conquest and forced its people to join together. While that may have served a greater good, in time the people grew weary of being ruled by immortal overlords. Humanist forces challenged the Phoenixes, and after a long and bitter war the Phoenixes stood down, turning control of the Empire over to humanity. The first Emperor was Mikan Dolanti of the Dol Talu — your family. You were a general in the civil war, and your military expertise helped usher in the golden age of humanity. You clung to life for as long as you could, and after your death you lingered in the Crucible… until you eventually felt the suffering of your people. You fought your way through the trials and now you have returned as a Phoenix yourself. But you will never be a tyrant. In your first life you saved the Empire from a supernatural threat; as a Phoenix, you’ll do it again.

You’re from Ilona, and as far as you’re concerned it embodies all that is good in the Empire. It’s a place of fertile fields and green valleys. Its cities are havens for culture and education. Ilona is sustained by the noble houses of the Talu, and your house — the Dol Talu — is the noblest of all. Almost two hundred years have passed since your death, and while you care deeply about the Empire, the modern world may be strange to you. Consider the following…

  • What was your exact position in your family? You served as a general in the war, but did you hold a high place after the war? One possibility to consider: you could actually be Mikan Dolanti, the first mortal emperor. It would be up to you to decide whether you announced that or kept it hidden; as a Phoenix, everything about your appearance (even gender) can change upon rebirth, so it wouldn’t necessarily be obvious that you were the first emperor.
  • Are you an idealist who truly cares about the entire Empire? Or are you primarily concerned with protecting your family — which includes the current Emperor?
  • You’ve been dead for two hundred years. Setting aside the Dread: Are you happy with the state of the modern world? Are you thrilled with everything your descendants have accomplished, or are you a curmudgeon who feels that everything was better in your day?
  • You fought against the first Phoenixes after they became tyrants. You are now part of Dawn Command, but in addition to saving the Empire from the Dread, you’ll want to make sure that these new Phoenixes don’t abuse their power.
  • You were a great military leader in your life. If you use the suggested Traits, this is what Noble and Commander reflect; you can give bonuses to your allies by offering strategic guidance.

Suggested Traits: Noble, Commander, Seasoned Veteran, Superhuman Strength

 

WARLOCK: ELEMENTAL

“Heed my words, spirits of the Dusk, and let your flames consume my enemies!”

You were born in a crumbling farm on the barren plains of Skavia. Your family was poor and struggled to survive, though in the distance you could see the great bastion city filled with the rich and powerful. When you were young, a mysterious masked figure stepped out of the shadows and told you that it could change your family’s lot and give them wealth and comfort… but you would have to perform a service in the future, with no questions asked. You agreed, and the very next day a messenger arrived. Your mother, it turned out, was heir to a fortune; you moved to the Bastion city and lived there in comfort. As you grew older you learned about the Fallen Folk, the enigmatic spirits that lingered in the shadows of your homeland. In the past, warlocks gained great power by bargaining with the Fallen. But the first Phoenixes banished the Fallen Folk when they established the Empire. By all accounts, the Fallen were just a myth, and any interaction with them forbidden. Needless to say, you were fascinated. You studied the legends and learned the basics of Duskcraft. Most of the spells you found no longer worked, as the Fallen were banished and bound in Dusk, but the potential was intriguing.

When the Dread began, you were fascinated and concerned. Before you could delve too deeply, your masked benefactor returned. It told you that it was time for you to make good on your promise. You were to leap to your death from the top of a high tower. But the Fallen Prince promised that you would not die; you would have the chance to be reborn, imbued with great power. You could use that power to fight the Dread, and to save the world… but in the process, you must help the Fallen Folk return to the Daylit World. Most Fallen aren’t evil, or so your benefactor says; they wish to be free from their prison, and to help your people once again. Your patron promised to protect your family from the Dread if you honored your arrangement; and it pledged to destroy both you and your family should you refuse. It was your duty to die, and so you did.

As an Elemental Phoenix, your powers are tied to your studies of Duskcraft. You learned about the art of fireshaping in your mortal life, but it is only as a Phoenix that the flames began answering your call. Your astonishing luck reflects minor Fallen helping you when you are in need, and your Charming trait reflects the beguiling power of the Fallen. All this power is a great gift that can help you protect those in need. But will you honor your pledge? As you fight the Dread, will you also seek to restore the Fallen and bring them back to the Daylit World?

  • Your bargain with the Fallen gave you the power you need to try to save your world. But how do you feel about it? Are you reluctantly going along with this because it’s what you need to do to protect your family? Are you excited about the idea of bringing back the Fallen Folk because of the power they could give you… do you hope to save the Empire so that you can rule it? Or are you hoping to find a way to renege on the deal and banish the Fallen you’ve been bargaining with?
  • What do you know about your Fallen patron? What does it look like? Sound like? Is this reflected in your Elemental powers at all? Are the flames you conjure normal flames, or are they an unusual color? Are they flames at all, or are you actually conjuring lesser Fallen spirits that attack your foes and then vanish? Is your patron a spirit known in popular stories, or has it hidden its identity from you?
  • Your Fallen patron is protecting your family, and has promised to destroy them if you betray the Fallen. How big is your family? Who’s your favorite relative, and why?
  • Skavi warlocks traditionally wore half-masks covering their lower faces. Do you wear such a mask? If so, what’s the design?

Suggested Traits:  Astonishing Luck, Charming, Master Plan, Warlock

 

BAD DOG: BITTER

“I’m going to chew you up and spit you out.”

Once upon a time, you were a good dog. You lived in the swampy Fens with a big family and you loved them very much. Then one day bad things came out of the water. They smelled rotten and sour, and though you bit them and fought them they crushed you and killed the people you loved. As you died you were consumed with anguish and loss… and filled with hatred for the things that killed your people. And somehow, that hatred carried you into the Crucible. Somehow you knew that if you fought long enough and hard enough you could return with the power to destroy the things that hurt your family. Finally you made your way through the big fire and into the world. Along the way you’ve learned many things. You’ve learned how to speak as people speak. You’ve learned that you have a new pack, or “wing” as they call it, that will help you take revenge. You aren’t going back to fight the specific things that killed your family — not yet — but you will hunt down these bad things wherever they appear and you will make them pay.

You’re a dog who has somehow returned as a Phoenix, something that’s never happened before. The Fens have stories of remarkable bond beasts, and perhaps such a creature was in your lineage. Nonetheless, here you are. Your intelligence has been enhanced in the process of becoming a Phoenix, and you are as smart as any human; you also have the power of speech. Your exact appearance is up to you — you could resemble a domestic hound, or you could be a enormous wolf with coal-black fur and burning eyes — but you are huge, strong, and you have a collar made from Pyrean steel; this is your talon, and marks you as a Phoenix. Your appearance is largely defined by the way you see yourself, and when you die and are reborn you could chose to be reborn in a humanoid form — whether as a werewolf-like hybrid, or in a purely human form. For now, you don’t have hands… but you don’t need weapons to fight, and your strength is sufficient to overwhelm most enemies.

  • The wing is your pack. Is it important to you to be the alpha? If not, you may want to pick a member of the wing who takes the place of your lost family for you… whatever else happens, you are fighting to protect that character.
  • You have intelligence on par with a human, but you’re not human. Many aspects of Imperial civilization make no sense to you, and you may interpret the actions of strangers in ways that fit the logic of a dog.  
  • Do you have the excited enthusiasm of a happy dog? Or are you entirely consumed by your quest for revenge on the Dread?
  • Do you want to be human (which could eventually lead to assuming a human form upon rebirth)? Or do you consider the canine form and life to be superior to that of humanity?

Suggested Traits: Hunter, Vengeful, Terrifying, Too Big To Fail

 

GODSPEAKER: DEVOTED

“Let the Merciful Mother ease your pain.”

You were born into the Myr Talu, one of the noble families of Empire — though admittedly, you’re one of the noble families of the Fens, so your people are princes of the backwater swamp. Nonetheless, you were born into wealth and luxury, and you lived as hedonistic a life as was possible in the Fens. You had a lot of good times. And then something unexpected happened. You were having a mushroom party with your friends — there’s a lot of mushrooms in the Fens — when a pack of twisted beasts came crawling out of the water. You’re not sure what came over you — something in the mushrooms, perhaps? — but you ordered your friends to run and charged the beasts yourself. You were torn apart, but you bought enough time for the others to reach the boat and escape. And instead of just dying, you found yourself in the Crucible… and you weren’t alone. Your ancestors founded the Myr Talu using the power of their House Gods — mighty spirits that bound themselves to your bloodline. The House Gods were banished to the Dusk in the first days of the Empire… but now you found yourself face to face with the gods of your people, and they told you that you have a destiny to fulfil. The Dread threatens to wipe out the Myr Talu and all the people of the Empire. They will not allow that to happen, and since they cannot return to the Daylit World, you must be their hand.

You’re not the smartest person in the room. But your gods can offer your guidance, and if you use the suggested Traits, this is what Extensive Training and Smartest Person In The Room represent; when you need to do something beyond your personal talents, you can draw on the Myr gods for inspiration. Beyond this, you can channel their power to inspire others; this is reflected by your Inspiring trait and by the Core Devoted Lesson that allows you to add your cards to the spreads of your allies. When you use this ability, call on one of your gods… “Merciful Mother, give my friend the strength she needs to survive this.” Existing Myr Gods include Myr, the Bringer of Fortune, chief goddess and general source of prosperity and wisdom; Taeloch, the Serpent in the Water, the aggressive bringer of justice; and Lassia, the Merciful Mother; but you can expand this pantheon if you have an idea for a particular god that can expand the pantheon. At the moment, the gods are imprisoned in the Dusk; while they have great potential power, at the moment they can only affect the world by acting through you.

  • What is your relationship with the gods? You were a slacker in your youth. Has this divine revelation inspired you and made you yearn to be the best person you can be? Or are you still somewhat reluctant, a hero only because the gods constantly drive you and demand that you be better than you are? Do you praise your gods, or do you consider them to be annoying aunts and uncles?
  • Do you have a special relationship with one god in particular, or do you interact with them all as a group?
  • Most Phoenixes don’t interact with gods in the Crucible: they only interact with the spirit of a previous Phoenix. Are you very open about your relationship with the divine, or do you keep it secret? It was the first Phoenixes who banished your gods to the Dusk, when your ancestors abused their power; some might fear that your gods are in league with the Dread.
  • Your family, the Myr Talu, were the leaders of the southern Fens and the protectors of its people. The Dread has overrun the Fens and the Myr Talu have been driven from their homes. The gods have urged you to work with Dawn Command; defeating the Dread is the only way to save the Fens. But do you yearn to know if your family has survived? Do you want to help your scattered people? Or are you solely concerned with your divine mission?

Suggested Traits: Extensive Training, Inspiring, Misspent Youth, Smartest Person In The Room

That’s all for this week! Post questions —or YOUR character concepts — below!

Dragonmarks: Fens and Marches

Last week I posted my first Imperial Dispatch article, delving more deeply into the world of Phoenix: Dawn Command. While I can’t create new material for Eberron, I want to look at what the Fens have to offer if you’re running an Eberron campaign.

The Fens are a region of deep swamp. The exist on the fringes of Ilona, one of the most civilized regions of the world; while they have cultural ties to Ilona, they are generally thought to be backwards. There are two distinct subcultures within the Fens; the Myrai seek to live in harmony with nature, while the Barochai see the natural world as something to be brought to heel and exploited. The noble families of both subcultures derived power from their House Gods, powerful spirits that took mortal avatars within their houses; many lesser families had bond beasts, animals serving as hosts for spirits. Both types of spirits were banished centuries ago when the first Phoenixes came to power, but their cultural influence remains. Meanwhile, in the present day dark powers are at work. Restless dead rise in the shadows. Corrupted bond-spirits merge with beasts and produce twisted monstrosities. And new creatures never seen before are appearing, as if the world itself is trying to make something that can survive the Dread. The greatest city of the southern Fens has been lost, and the Myrai people of the south seek shelter in the Barochai communities.

The Shadow Marches are the simplest match in Eberron. They too are a swampy region whose inhabitants are often considered backward; a region with two distinct traditions rooted in a past conflict, where cults still cling to those ancient traditions. For purposes of this conversion, I’m going to match the Myrai to tribal orcs that generally adhere to the traditions of the Gatekeepers, while the Barochai are a closer match to the blended clans – and especially to House Tharashk itself, as the Barochai are focused on industry and wringing a profit from nature. So I’ll be referring the Myrai as “the tribes” and Barochai as “the clans.”

We’ve never delved too deeply into the environment of the Marches, beyond “swamp.” As such, you could easily incorporate the most distinct physical feature of the Fens into the Shadow Marches. These are the Titans: trees which once grew up to a mile in height, but which were struck down in some ancient cataclysm. Their wood is infused with magic that prevents decay. So although the trees are long dead, but they form the physical foundation of the swamps. If you embrace this idea, the clans and House Tharashk carve their cities into the stumps and trunks of the Titans, while the tribes generally live atop them or make use of natural cracks and crevasses in the surface of a Titan. Both groups harvest lumber from the Titans, though the tribes approach this in a more industrial manner; this process is more akin to quarrying stone than the work of the traditional lumberjack. In d20 terms, the wood of a Titan would generally be considered to be Densewood, with veins which if harvested and treated properly can yield Bronzewood (both materials described on page 120 of the 3.5 Eberron Campaign Setting). In canon Eberron these rare woods come from the forests of Aerenal, but it’s not particularly unbalancing to give these resources to the Shadow Marches… and it justifies Gatekeepers having ancient bronzewood weapons and armor dating back to the Xoriat incursion. While you could make this one of House Tharashk’s industries, I’d be inclined to have Tharashk keep its focus on finding rarer things. Densewood-grade lumber could be an industry that the clans focused on before the rise of Tharashk, while Tharashk uses the Mark of Finding to locate the rarer veins of Bronzewood.

Aside from creating an additional industry for the Marches, this has a few effects.

  • The clans live in fortified communities, carved into the natural shelter of the Titans. Tribes or more isolated families will live atop Titan trunks or in natural “caves.”
  • The people of the region use wood for things that would be made from stone or steel in other places. If a building isn’t carved into a trunk or stump, it will be made from wooden blocks. Wooden spears are very common — used both for defense and as walking staffs — and knives and swords are typically made of Bronzewood.
  • The fallen Titans create a network of islands in the swampy morass. In heavily trafficked areas, bridges connect these islands; beyond this people generally use small boats to get from place to place.
  • The Titans add a vertical aspect to the landscape, especially as people generally live atop them or in their trunks. Bear in mind that the Titans fell thousands of years ago, and many have layers of soil and vegetation that have built up on their trunks.
  • In the Marches/Fens, the Titans have all fallen. However, in Eberron it is possible that living Titans can still be found. The most logical location for this would be the so-called Towering Wood in the Eldeen Reaches. You’d have to decide if the trees of the Towering Wood are full-sized Titans, or perhaps a similar but smaller variant. If you do have Titans, the next question is if one could be awakened. A human is essentially an ant to a Titan, which would make interaction with a Titan difficult. Even speak with plants might not bridge that vast difference of scale; if the Titan noticed the druid they could understand them, but they are still a tiny speck with a tiny voice. Given this, it could be interesting to have a single awakened Titan that’s wandering around the Reaches. Humans have no way to speak with it, but if necessarily Oalian himself might be able to communicate with it.

So to begin with, blending the Fens with the Marches adds an interesting physical element to the Marches in the form of the Titans. The city of Baroch is a fortress carved into the trunk of a Titan. You could use this concept to reimagine Zarash’ak, Tharashk’s capital city; or you could imagine Zarash’ak as a city suspended between a number of Titan stumps.

The Fens are defined by their relationship to the House Gods and bond beasts. While these things don’t exist in Eberron, some of the ideas are still relevant. The Myrai have some easy overlap with those who follow the Gatekeeper traditions… while the Cults of the Dragon Below could pick up the idea of the cults of Zaria or Taeloch. Bear in mind that there’s nothing saying that the members of a Cult of the Dragon Below couldn’t be vigilantes who are actually fighting evil people; it’s simply that they’re doing so because they believe a divine force is telling them to act. The Cults aren’t always evil; they’re just crazy. Meanwhile, you could explore the concept of bond beasts in Eberron. This could easily be a tribal tradition involving animals awakened by Gatekeeper druids; having each major tribal family have its own talking beast could add interesting culture for PCs who leave the cities and deal with the tribes.

With all that said, the Fens are shaped by their current troubles. This is tied to The Dread, the supernatural threat that is the foundation of the story of Phoenix: Dawn Command: a pervasive wave of terrors manifesting across the known world, with no clear rhyme or reason. if you wanted to explore this in the Marches, here’s some easy ways to adapt the threats of Phoenix.

  • The Bones are the corpses of dead soldiers, risen to continue the wars they fought long ago. In the Shadow Marches, these could be the corpses of the early Dragon Below cultists who fought for the Daelkyr in the Xoriat incursion. Alternately, you could have the bones of ancient Gatekeepers and Dhakaani goblins; even though they fought the Daelkyr in the past, that was long before humans, half-orcs, or other common races came to the Marches, and the Bones see all such creatures as invaders. Depending on the level of the PCs, you could use stats for Karrnathi undead for these Bones; with that said, the Bones use the tactics and techniques they used in life, and Gatekeeper Bones would employ druidic magic (perhaps twisted to add flavor).
  • The Fens are dealing with creatures warped by corrupted bond-spirits. This is an easy analogue to an increased surge in aberrations manifesting throughout the Marches, and you could decide whether these aberrations are “naturally” occurring, or if this is about mundane creatures being twisted into aberrations… which certainly was the hallmark of the Daelkyr back in the day.

The current situation in the Fens is driven by the mysterious loss of the great city of Myrn and by the idea that the Myrai are being driven north into the Barochai communities, which is causing overcrowding and tension. If you want to explore this idea, the concept would be that a surge in the appearance of undead and aberrations are driving the tribes to seek shelter in the clan communities. While Tharashk has some roots in the tribes and would likely show some sympathy for their plight, most of the clans consider the tribes to be willfully backwards and wouldn’t be happy with this surge of refugees, especially if people are worried about this rising supernatural threat. And what exactly is causing it? It is a resurgent Daelkyr, which is likely what the Gatekeepers would assume? Or could it be an Overlord rising — a twist that the aberration-focused Gatekeepers might not be prepared for? Either way, this could make an interesting saga for the PCs, especially if one of the PCs has roots in the region; cant they figure out what is behind this rising power before the Shadow Marches are consumed by darkness?

Now let’s look at a few questions…

Would the Titans be naturally occurring behemoths in the Marches, or would their growth be the result of Manifest Zones from ages past?

In Phoenix the idea is that the Titans are organic relics of the Old Kingdoms, and were brought down in the cataclysm that ended those civilizations. In Eberron, I’d mirror this with the story that the Titans were created by Eberron herself when the world was first formed and were brought down during the apocalyptic battles of the Age of Demons. Perhaps it’s literally true, or perhaps the first Titans were the product of a particularly powerful coterminous period/manifest zone interaction with Lamannia… or the work of an Overlord or similar benevolent spirit in the first age of the world. But to me, the idea of the Titans is that all that is left are their corpses. If you were to add them to the Towering Woods, I’d still consider the idea that those are smaller cousins, maybe a thousand feet in height – still huge, but leaving the idea of the Titans as something truly primordial.

Do you have any ideas beyond serpents and alligators (crocodiles?) that could be used as bond animals for a particular tribe? Or any animals added to the gleaner list for the Shadow Marches region?

Wolves, deer, raccoons, bears, beavers, muskrats, and various sorts of birds can all be found in swamps, and you can easily adapt such creatures to a fantasy environment (start with crayfish, end with a chuul) and that’s not including creatures that humanity could have brought over from Sarlona. In the Fens I’ve added the idea of the Fen-Cat, and the idea that humanity brought various sorts of dogs into the Fens with them. But there’s a fairly wide range of swamplife to choose from.

There really isn’t a physical border between Droaam and the Shadow Marches. Presumably the Daughters have their reasons for not invading, but I doubt the people of the Marches know what those reasons are. Have any arrangements been made between both nations?

There’s a number of factors here.

  • Droaam has only been a nation for a decade. The work the Daughters have done to unify the warlords and disparate elements is impressive, but they’ve still never fielded a true army and are working on maintaining discipline and order within their own borders.
  • House Tharashk is the greatest single power in the Shadow Marches. They already have close ties with Droaam, and this is important to Droaam because it’s their one channel for peaceful communication and integration with the Thronehold nations; while for Tharashk, Droaam is a source of a unique resource (monstrous mercenaries).
  • The Shadow Marches are an inhospitable environment with a very diffuse population that knows the environment better than anyone in Droaam. And it’s an environment that may be filled with hostile aberrations.

The critical point: What does Droaam have to gain from conquering the Shadow Marches? They’d get control of its resources, but in the process they’d shatter their ties with Tharashk and make an enemy of the Twelve, which would severely curtail any possibility of peaceful expansion of power into the Five Nations. As a side note, the Marcher orcs were never conquered by the Dhakaani Empire because the Marches had nothing that would make the difficulty of the conquest and occupation worth the trouble of doing it.

Are there still Daelkyr ruins in the Shadow Marches? What does Daelkyr architecture look like?

When the Daelkyr first came to Eberron, they established themselves in Khyber. No one knows exactly when they arrived, for they certainly spent a period of time capturing and altering local creatures to create their armies before unleashing those forces on Dhakaan. But from the start, they struck from the depths. One reason they were easily sealed in Khyber is that for the most part they were already there; the Gatekeepers simply bound them in the depths.

So the Daelkyr didn’t build cities on the surface; where they had strongholds above ground, they were existing structures that they captured. As far as “ruins” go, these would generally appear to be ruins from the original culture, and the differences would be things you’d only spot on closer examination (and largely relate to what unpleasant creatures or magical effects might linger in such places, as opposed to physical architecture).

As for what Daelkyr structures in Khyber look like, they are like the Daelkyr themselves: deeply alien and often inexplicable. In my opinion, they would also be extremely unique; there’s no one Daelkyr style. The halls of Dyrrn the Corruptor might have the biomechanical look of HR Giger. Belashyrra’s citadel could be a massive gibbering creature — a living fortress, every surface festooned with eyes. Orlaask’s fortress is inside a massive gargoyle that wanders the depths of Khyber. Whatever the appearance, the design should feel illogical. You might have a spiral corridor that corkscrews into a dead end, stalactite-like structures that project from the walls for no apparent reason, pools of luminescent liquid scattered around. These things may all have practical value – but if so, it shouldn’t be immediately clear to the human observer.

Almost nobody knows of the Daelkyr invasion. Is that right?

The Xoriat incursion predates human arrival on Khorvaire by thousands of years, and as noted above didn’t leave a lot of obvious physical remnants on the surface (aside from fallen Dhakaani cities). When humans arrived, most assumed that the Goblin civilization had collapsed in civil war, which was partially true; others assumed that the Dhakaani ruins were obviously too advanced to be associated with goblins, and were the work of some other advanced race. In the present day, the people of the Shadow Marches are familiar with stories of the Daelkyr and the ancient incursion, and scholars across Khorvaire are familiar with the theory, but most of the people of the Five Nations know nothing about it.

If you have questions or ideas, post them below!

 

Imperial Dispatches: The Fens

Over the last three years I’ve developed Phoenix: Dawn Command with my friend Dan Garrison. This fantasy RPG is now available, and in the weeks and months ahead we’re going to be producing new material for Phoenix. I’ll keep you posted about the availability of new missions and cards. In the meantime, I’m going to be posting a variety of Phoenix material here. This is the first installment of Imperial Dispatches. This series will delve deeper into the world of Phoenix, providing insights for players and GMs alike; GM-only tips for using the Fens can be found here. I hope that this material may prove useful even if you’re not playing Phoenix, and you can find ideas for adapting the Fens to Eberron here.

Without further ado, let’s explore to the Daylit World…

You live in a sunlit valley, surrounded by butterflies and songbirds. You think that the world is a good place, and you don’t understand how the terror that haunts you now could possibly exist.

My family lives in the bones of giants, and we scrape those bones to earn our bread. We tell our children stories of the sun, for they have yet to see it with their own eyes. And we warn them not to stray too far from the paths, lest they be consumed. This Dread is new to you, but I have lived with it all my life. And I will drive it back to the shadows where it belongs.

The Fens are a marshy peninsula in southern Ilona. Sunlight struggles to penetrate the dense canopy, and venomous reptiles and blind leeches flourish in the shadowy swampland. But the most remarkable feature of the Fens are the Titans. These are ancient trees, stretching over a mile into the sky… at least, back when any of them were standing. The Titans fell before humanity settled in the Fens. No one knows what brought them down, but their stumps are jagged and suggest tremendous force. It’s been thousands of years since they fell, yet the Titans remain. Some primal magic infuses their wood, preserving them from the ravages of time and the elements.

The fallen Titans form the foundation of the Fens, forming a stable platform in the otherwise inhospitable swamp. The Fenfolk have raised villages on the stumps of the Titans, and the great city of Baroch is carved into the largest Titan in the Fens. Over the centuries vegetation has taken root on the trunks of Titans, and Fenfolk tend gardens on the trunks even while they carve lumber from elsewhere on the same tree. Titan wood is a valuable commodity, prized across the Empire for its durability. The Fens are also home to leeches with remarkable medicinal properties; Fen leeches cleanse infected wounds and help calm patients. Despite these precious resources, few people choose to immigrate to the Fens. It’s dark, dank, and filled with dangerous creatures. The Fenfolk are generally seen as backwards and ignorant.

So what drew people to the Fens in the first place? Another rare resource: gods. In the days before the Empire, the Talu families of Ilona maintained their rule through the power of their House Gods. These powerful spirits were bound to both location and bloodline, and an enterprising group of scholars theorized that the key to gaining power was to find spirits that had yet to bond to any bloodline… which meant searching in the least hospitable lands that they could find. They found what they were searching for in the Fens. The greatest of these became the House Gods of the Bar Talu and the Myr Talu. But even beyond this, the settlers found there were many lesser spirits in this land. These spirits bond to living creatures, enhancing their power and strength. This was one of the dangers of living in the Fens, as these bond-spirits produced unnaturally fierce beasts in the wilds. But occasionally one of these spirits could be drawn to aid a family, binding to a hound, cat, or snake that would assist its keepers. The Talu families wielded the greatest power, but lesser folk took pride in the spirits that bonded with their lines.

When the first Phoenixes conquered Ilona, the Fens were the last region to surrender. Between their knowledge of the environment and the power of their gods and bond-beasts, the Fenfolk were difficult to dislodge. Ultimately the Devoted Legion broke the power of the House Gods and banished the bond-spirits, and the Fenfolk were forced into the new Empire. But they never embraced its ways. The House Gods may have been trapped in the Dusk, but many Fen families held to their old traditions, offering sacrifices to the gods and honoring their bond-beasts. The Fens were one of the strongholds of the Humanists before and during the Civil War, and they rejoiced when Justice finally fell. Given this, the actual rise of the human imperium was something of a disappointment. Many Fenfolk dreamed that the downfall of the Phoenixes would mean the restoration of their gods and spirits. As is, most see the human Emperor as little better than the Phoenixes… Just more arrogant people from soft green lands telling them what to do. Cults of Baroch and Myrn flourished, preachers swearing that the time was nigh when the spirits would return to the people. Instead of this — and some wonder, could it be because of it? — the Dread came. The Dread has indeed brought bond-spirits back to the Fens, but they have been twisted by the darkness. Rather than being loyal guardians of the people, these spirits turn the creatures they bond with into savage monstrosities. The great city of Myrn was brought down by warped beasts. The dead have risen from the depths of the swamps to prey on their descendants. And some say nature itself is fighting back against the Dread. Whatever the truth, most of the Fens have fallen. Baroch is the last great stronghold, with a few stumptowns remaining in its orbit.

GEOGRAPHY

The true foundation of the Fens are the roots of the Titans, now supplemented by mangroves and other wetland vegetation. Rivers and streams wind through mazes of tangled vines and branches. These are punctuated by the fallen Titans and their jagged stumps, which can have a diameter of up a third of a mile. The Titans add a vertical element to the landscape; many are overgrown with lesser vegetation, cracks or gaps in a broken trunk can serve the same roles as caves in stone; many creatures make their lairs on or in the Titans. The people of the northern fens generally make their homes in stumptowns, densely packed fortress-villages built onto or carved into the stumps of the Titans. To the south, the Fenfolk lived in more broadly dispersed towns… which may be one reason they fell more quickly to the Dread.

There is one main road that runs through the Fens, with titanwood bridges providing passage across the rivers and through the worst of the mires. But the simplest way to get around in the Fens is by boat, and every community has a collection of small boats available.

CULTURE

The Fens are part of Ilona, and Ilonan culture can still be seen in the Fens. The Talu families form the core of the major communities, and even those who live far from the great cities consider themselves to be tenants of one of the great lines.

The Barochai

The Barochai are the people of the northern fens, aligned with the Bar Talu. Baroch is the name both of the greatest of their House Gods and of the fortress city that serves as their seat of power. The Barochai are lumber miners, and they see the Fens as an enemy to be tamed and used. They live in stumptowns, densely populated communities carved into the stumps of Titans. The Barochai are grim and stoic people; they believe that everything worth having must be fought for, and that the world is always waiting for you to let down your guard. Yet if presented with the opportunity to live in a more pleasant land, a Barochai would scoff at the idea. Everything worth having must be fought for, but it’s the fight that makes it worth having; the plenty of the green lands makes the people weak and complacent. Given this, the Barochai have largely taken the Dread in stride; the world has always been against them, and they will simply continue to fight.

While there is a general sense of cultural unity, Barochai generally put their own families ahead of their community; charity and compassion for others aren’t as important as ensuring the survival of one’s own kin. Every major Bar family has a bond-beast that serves as the heraldic symbol for the family, and that is often the source of the family name. This doesn’t reflect any sort of harmony with nature; the Barochai earned the allegiance of their bond-spirits through strength, bending the spirits to their will. While the bond-spirits were banished centuries ago, families still keep mundane animals of the same type as their bond spirits as symbolic representatives. There are many stories of Fen cults who perform sinister rituals and even human sacrifice in order to strengthen their bond-spirits or call on the favor of other spirits of the Fens, but most of these stories are exaggerated.

The Bar Talu rule the northern Fens, and every stumptown is built around a Talu keep. They enforce justice, and while they generally abide by the letter of Imperial law, justice is swift and harsh. The Barochai respect strength, and they fear military leader Jonan Baragius… and they expect no less from the man they believe can protect them from the dangers of the Fens. Even in the face of the Dread, most of the Barochai aren’t looking for Phoenixes to save them; they believe Baragius will keep them safe.

The Bar Talu are based in the city of Baroch, a sprawling fortress carved into the trunk of the largest Titan yet to be discovered. It has spread throughout the trunk of the ancient tree, and towers rise up from the swamp around it. Baroch bears the scars of many sieges, and so far it has survived the predations of the Dread. It’s also the trade hub for the Fens, and has always supported a transient population of farmers, fisherfolk and leech-harvesters bringing goods that the Bar Talu deliver to the rest of the Empire. This transient population has swelled dramatically with refugees from the south, along with northerners who fear that their stumptowns offer insufficient shelter from the Dread. This crowding is a source of growing tension, and many northerners feel that the Myrai should be driven out of the city and left to fend for themselves.

The Myrai

The Myrai are the people of the southern fens, aligned with the Myr Talu. Myr is the chief House Goddess, and the city of Myrn is her seat of power. The Myrai are primarily fisherfolk, farmers, and leech-harvesters, and they ask Myr for good fortune and bountiful harvests. Legend has it that when the House Gods were banished, Myr remained by tying her spirit to a vast water serpent. The Myrai say the divine serpent sleeps in the deep waters where no Phoenix can find her, but even in her slumber she hears the prayers of her people. The Dread and the loss of Myrn has certainly shaken this faith, but many maintain that the serpent will soon wake from her slumber, and Myr will rise to save her people.

The city of Myrn was the seat of the Myr Talu and the largest city in the Fens — not so well fortified as Baroch, but spread across a wider area. It was renowned for Myr’s Fountain; built by the goddess in the days before the Empire, the waters of this well have remarkable restorative properties. Myrn was the center for the fishing industry and for leechcraft and healing, or at least it was until the city was lost to the Dread one year ago. Some say that it was overrun by a horde of twisted creatures; others say that a curse fell upon the city and turned its people into warped monsters. So far there are no known survivors of the fall of Myrn, and the exact details and fate of the city remain a mystery. The Dread has spread throughout the southern Fens, and the Myrai have been driven north where they are seeking shelter in the stumptowns of the Barochai.

Where the Barochai see the Fens as an enemy to be defeated and brought to heel, the Myrai seek to live in harmony with their environment. Their villages are generally spread out across Titan trunks instead of being carved into the wood. They’re at home on the rivers and farming fingal gardens, and take care not to over-fish a region. They take pride in their long-banished bond spirits, but they see these spirits as allies whose loyalty was won by their ancestors, not beings forced into service. The Myrai have a strong sense of community that goes beyond family, and this has helped them in their recent exodus; most Myrai will do what they can to help anyone in need, though some limit this compassion to other Myrai. There are stories of cults among the Myrai, who have also sought to call back the spirits of the Fens. However, such cults are rarely violent, and are more about continuing ancient rites that are supposed to strengthen the spirits and preserve the balance of Dusk and Daylight.

More than any other Talu lines, the Myr Talu always sought to aid their tenant families and put the overall good of the region ahead of their personal wealth and power. The leaders of the house were lost in the fall of Myrn and the survivors are scattered with the other Myrai refugees, though many continue to act as community leaders. Vesta Myrasa guides a large group of refugees in Baroch and seeks to mediate disputes with angry Barochai; meanwhile, Valius Myragi negotiates with the Bar Talu, trying to convince the nobles of the north to show compassion for the refugees.

IF YOU’RE FROM THE FENS…

  • Where are you from? Were your roots in Myrn or Baroch? Did you harvest lumber or work on the water? Do you view the natural world as an ally or an enemy?
  • What’s your connection to the Talu? Were you a noble, directly tied to the Bar Talu or the Myr Talu? Were you a member of a lesser branch of the family? Were you a simple tenant, and if so did you respect your ruling house or despise it? Or were you independent, a farmer living far from any town or a fisher who called a boat home?
  • Do you respect any of the House Gods? A few of the House Gods are described below, and you can develop others. While the House Gods were banished in the Conquest, many in the Fens still respect the old ways and gods. Do you believe you have a connection to one of the gods? How does this affect you?
  • Did your family have a bond beast? Even if the spirit was banished long ago, a bond beast reflects the values and history of a family. Did your family have a bond beast? What was it, and what does it mean to you?
  • How do you feel about the Empire and the Phoenixes? The Fenfolk were the last Ilonans to be conquered and the first to rebel, and many have little love for Emperor Dolanti. Do you believe in the Empire and want to restore it, or are you only concerned with protecting the Fens? Likewise, in all the Empire it’s hard to find a place with less love for the Phoenixes. How did you feel about Phoenixes in your first life, and has that changed since your rebirth? You wouldn’t have made it through the Crucible if you weren’t willing to work with Dawn Command and to fight the Dread… but have you embraced the Phoenix cause, or do you go along with it because you believe it’s the only real chance to defeat the Dread?
  • What do you miss? Fen cooking involves a lot of fish and fungus, along with eels and leeches. The thick canopy of the Fens filters out much of the sunlight, and bright days and broad fields are equally unnatural for you. Serpents, hounds, and swamp-cats are all common pets, and a few Fenfolk keep lizards. In the Fens you’re never far from water, though that comes in the form of shallow pools and rivers as opposed to the vast sweep of the Inner Sea.

HOUSE GODS AND BOND BEASTS

In the days before the Empire, the Talu families of Ilona ruled through the transcendent power of their House Gods. The House Gods are spirits possessing tremendous magical power, but unlike the Fallen Folk of Skavia they cannot manifest on their own. In order to interact with the world they require mortal hosts – children from their Talu lines. The hosts are still mortal, and when a host dies or becomes unsuitable the spirit moves to a new host. For centuries the House Gods were the champions of the Talu lines. During the Conquest, the Devoted Legion perfected a ritual for exorcising and banishing the House Gods. It has been centuries since a House God has manifested in the Daylit World, but with the rise of the Dread the walls between the world and the Dusk are growing thin and it’s possible a House God could return. More information about the House Gods and their capabilities can be found on page 205 of the Guidelines for the Newly Inducted Marshal.

Each of the Fen Talu had about six gods in their pantheons. While the gods could only affect the world through their avatars, the Talu encouraged their tenants to think of their gods as all-seeing and capable of affecting any action within their sphere. Many tenant families pledged loyalty to a particular house god, and believe that the god still watches over them or guides them today, even though it has been centuries since any of the gods have manifested.

Bond beasts are a lesser form of the bond-spirits. Instead of merging with a human, a bound beast is a spirit that inhabits the body of a particular type of animal. In many ways, bond beasts served as the House Gods of the tenant families that possessed them. According to legends, some bond beasts were fully sentient and could advise and guide their family. Others were simple paragon examples of their type. The Orlan Hound was an unnaturally large and powerful dog, and whenever the Hound was slain a new one would take its place.  

Here are a few notable House Gods and bond beasts from the history of the Fens, but as Marshal or player you can expand this list to meet the needs of your story.

Barochai House Gods

  • Baroch, The Bringer of Fire. Chief god of the Bar Talu, said to have carved the foundations of the city that bears his name. He rewards innovation and industry, granting strength to those who make sacrifices in the name of progress. His name comes the principle that one must burn wood to release fire; one must be willing to pay the cost of progress.
  • Xaria, The Huntress in Shadow. Where Baroch encourages his followers to bend wood and stone to their will, Xaria teaches them to bring down the beasts of the wild. She is also the chief war goddess of the Bar Talu, though she advocates victory through stealth and guile; it’s said that her cult of assassins still operates in the shadows of the Fens.
  • Seval, The Keeper of the Forge. While Seval is another industrious Barochai god, he focuses on defense of the homestead — on making any sacrifice necessary to protect your hearth and family — which plays to the isolationist element of the Barochai character.

Myr House Gods

  • Myr, Bringer of Fortune. The primary goddess of the Myr Talu, she is responsible for all the bounty that comes from the waters — fish for food, leeches for health — and in general for restoration, fertility and health. She is a merciful goddess who shares her bounty with those suffering from hardship.
  • Taeloch, The Serpent in the Water. Taeloch ensures that justice is done, especially to those who prey on the weak or helpless. Taeloch’s punishments often involve drowning, either literally for those whose crimes call for execution or simulated as a form of discipline. A cult of Taeloch might take vigilante action against those who wrong Myrai refugees.
  • Lassia, The Merciful Mother. A lesser Myrai goddess, Lassia oversees healers and midwives. She inspires healers to find new solutions to difficult problems, and provides safe and painless births. With that said, she is a goddess of the Fens, and the Fens are a harsh land; part of her portfolio is granting a merciful and painless death to ease the suffering of those she cannot heal.

Bond Beasts

  • The Orlan Hound. This mighty beast was the guardian of a Barochai tenant family. Once the spirit took hold of the hound, it grew to the size of a pony. While the hound couldn’t speak, it could sniff out any deception. The last incarnation of the Orlan Hound was slain by a Durant Phoenix during the Conquest.
  • Salassa. This bond beast took the form of a small serpent, and was noted for its wisdom instead of its might. It coiled around the neck of the head of its family and would whisper secrets and advice into the bearer’s ear, warning them of deception and dangers. Salassa could detect lies, and while she protected her family from those who would deceive them, she also demanded that they live an honest life; in her last incarnation, she throttled her bearer when he betrayed his family for personal gain.
  • The Count of Shadows. The Fens are home to wildcats with mottled black fur that renders them almost invisible in the shadows. The Count of Shadows was such a cat, and it claimed to know all things seen by every cat in the Fens. The Count advised its family, guiding them through cunning schemes that could bring them great fortune if they were willing to take the associated risks. It’s said that during the Conquest, the Count faced off against a Shrouded Phoenix. Some say the Phoenix killed the cat; others say that the Phoenix helped it escaped, in exchange for the Count’s pledge to aid all future incarnations of the Phoenix.

POINTS OF INTEREST

Baroch and Myrn are the largest cities in the Fens. There are a host of smaller communities — the densely populated stumptowns of the Barochai and the smaller farming villages of the south. Here are a few other locations familiar to every denizen of the Fens.

The Bloody Mire. This is one of the largest areas of pure swamp, with no Titans providing a foundation for structures. The greatest Talu victory in the Conquest came when a joint effort by Myr and Bar drove Imperial forces into the mire. Both sides suffered terrible losses in the conflict, and it’s said that the area is still stained with the blood of the fallen… though in fact, it’s microorganism that gives the shallow waters the distinct crimson coloring. The Bloody Mire has important symbolic value for the Fenfolk, but even before the Dread it’s always been said to be a haven for hungry ghosts and forlorn spirits; most Fenfolk appreciate the idea of the Mire, but keep their distance. Should the Dread take root in the region, the Bloody Mire is a likely source for Bones and other restless dead.

The Deadfall. Typically the Titans are widespread, and it’s rare to find two in contact. The Deadfall is formed from five fallen trees. Over the course of thousands of years, layers of vegetation and sediment have formed a maze of passages between the trees. The Deadfall has always been close to the Dusk, and in the past families would travel to the Deadfall to try to earn or claim the favor of a bond beast. The Devoted Legion placed wards in the region, but the Deadfall is still a favored gathering place for Fenfolk who hold to the old ways. With the Dread, it’s possible that the bond-spirits have returned… though who can say what this means?

Deep Wells. For the most part, the waters of the Fens are relatively shallow. However, there are a few places where the waters deep… so deep that the Fenfolk say these wells have no bottom. Legend maintains that the deep wells are home to massive water serpents and other monsters. There are legends of such creatures, but none have been seen in living memory and most maintain that these are merely stories.

Sentinel Holt. The Titans were all felled long ago… all save one. The Sentinel is a tree that towers over the region; over a mile in height, it stretches high above the canopy around it. The Myrai established a community on the tree, making their homes on its vast branches and knots. There’s been no contact with Sentinel Holt since the Dread overtook the southern Fens, but it’s possible that the tree-folk have been able to hold out against the Dread and are in need of assistance…

TITAN WOOD

The Titans are an important resource in the Fens. The wood of these ancient trees is infused with magic that gives them the general strength and durability of stone or even steel. Beyond using Titanwood to construct their homes, the people of the Fens use this wood for many things that would be made of other materials elsewhere in the Empire. Weapons and armor are a notable example. Knives, swords and shields are generally made from Titanwood. Short spears are common within the Fens, used both for protection and as useful walking staves. Titanwood is general very resistant to flame, but if prepared and treated properly can burn — even then, a Titanwood block can burn for days. All of these things make Titanwood a useful commodity beyond the Fens, and the major industry of the Barochai. Harvesting Titanwood is more akin to quarrying stone than to the work of a traditional lumberjack; blocks are removed from the vast trunks of the Titans, and shaped into the forms that will prove most useful in the world beyond. In general, when dealing with the Fens stop any time you’re dealing with something that would normally be made of metal or stone and consider if it could be made from wood, and how that would change the flavor.

Follow this link if you’re a Marshal looking for ideas about how to use the Fens in your campaign. If you’re playing Phoenix and would prefer to be surprised, you might want to stop here. If you have questions about Phoenix or the Fens, ask below!

Dragonmarks: Drow

These… they aren’t the elves you know from Khorvaire. Thousands of years ago, the elves fought the giants that ruled this land. Giant wizards captured elves and experimented on them, created their own soldiers to go places the giants could not. It’s said that they wove dark magic into the elven form, and that these are the result. The first elves call them the drow. 

Lakashtai, The Shattered Land

The conflict with Dal Quor weakened the giants of Xen’drik. In the centuries that followed, the elves rose up against the giants. In the early days of that conflict, the mages of the Sulat League created a new breed of elf. With perfect darkvision and a natural resistance to magic, the Drow were natural predators indoctrinated from birth to prey upon the rebel elves. At first the Drow were myths, spirits of the night that struck without warning and left no survivors. Even after the truth was revealed, the Drow remained a deadly threat throughout the rebellion. When Argonnessen crushed the civilizations of the giants, the Drow were caught in the destruction. Three primary cultures emerged from this time of chaos.

The bulk of the Drow are Vulkoori. Their ancestors took refuge in the deep jungles of Xen’drik and developed their own traditions. They are a primitive tribal culture; many focus their devotion on the scorpion spirit Vulkoor, while others revere a pantheon of primal spirits. Some tribes pursue an endless vendetta against the giants, taking vengeance against their ancient oppressors. Others are simply concerned with survival.

A smaller faction held to the traditions of their creators. These Sulatar held onto some of the techniques and artifacts of the Sulat giants, notably techniques involving the binding of fire elementals.

A third group fled underground, taking refuge in Khyber. There they found a source of dark power and bound their clan to it, drawing strength from this mysterious Umbra. These Umbragen are the most advanced of the Drow cultures, but they are locked in a conflict with the horrors of Khyber and they are slowly losing that war.

All of these cultures tend towards xenophobia and isolation. Explorers and the settlers of Stormreach have encountered the Vulkoori, but they know little about them. Few know the Sulatar or Umbragen exist… though an early encounter with the Sulatar may have provided the Zil with the inspiration that produced their elemental binding techniques.

Each of the Drow cultures serves a different purpose, both for players and gamemasters.

  • Vulkoori Drow can be an ally or a threat for characters exploring Xen’drik. They are resistant to the Traveller’s Curse, which makes them valuable guides for adventuring parties; however, most see the people of Khorvaire as outsiders and looters who have no place in Xen’drik. As a player character, a Vulkoori Drow is an opportunity to play an exotic primitive cast into an alien culture. Xu’sasar in The Dreaming Dark novels is a Vulkoori Drow, though from the pantheistic Qaltiar tradition.
  • The Umbragen are in many ways the closest to the Drow people are familiar with from other settings. They are an advanced subterranean culture centered around a dark power, and they are cruel and ruthless. They are driven by their bitter struggle with the Daelkyr, and this can make them a useful enemy-of-my-enemy; alternately, their quest for the power they need to defeat the Daelkyr could make them a threat to the people of the surface, as the Umbragen will sacrifice anything in pursuit of victory. An Umbragen PC could be an exile who turned on the dark traditions of their people, or a hero seeking the power to save them. Where the Vulkoori is a primitive, for the Umbragen Khorvaire is itself a primitive backwater.
  • The Sulatar aren’t as primitive as the Vulkoori, but neither are they as powerful or malevolent as the Umbragen. They can easily be found as the guardians of giant relics or ruins, and they know secrets about the past that have been forgotten by the others.

What would you like to know about the Drow of Eberron?

How would each of the citizens of the Five Nations see a Drow?

The inhabitants of Stormreach are familiar with Drow, and there are a handful of Drow and half-Drow that have been assimilated into the general population. As a result, people in Sharn and to a lesser extent other Brelish port cities will be somewhat familiar with them; even if they’ve never seen one, they’ve possibly heard stories.

Beyond that, I don’t particularly think the reaction is going to vary by nation; a Drow would be equally unusual anywhere in Khorvaire. With that said, Eberron is a world in which people deal with a wide variety of races (Elves, dwarves, gnomes, halflings, and even goblins) casually and are aware that they could bump into a lizardfolk or a gnoll; as unusual as a Drow is, it’s hardly the strangest thing you might see on the street. What I think the most likely reaction would be is the assumption that the Drow is some sort of one-off mutation of a normal elf. Consider the origin of planetouched Tieflings I’ve discussed earlier – perhaps this is what happens to an elf conceived when Mabar is coterminous? Or perhaps they were exposed to the Mourning? Or they’re part of a Vadalis magebreeding experiment? So: a curiosity to be sure, and not immediately seen as representative of a foreign culture. But I think less threatening than a hobgoblin or dragonborn — so more intriguing than shocking. But as always, go with what best fits your story.

Why did you decide to make Eberron Drow focus on scorpion icons instead of the classic spider icons?

The basic principle is that the traditional Drow association with spiders is tied to a specific culture and to Lolth, a fiend not present by default in the cosmology of Eberron. Vulkoor provides an iconic focus for those who wish it. Beyond this, it does speak to a different culture. The spider is defined by its web, and Lolth’s Drow are subtle and treacherous; the Drow of Vulkoor are more direct predators. It also fits their tribal and often nomadic nature, as the mother scorpion carries her young on her back.

With that said: Personally, I’ve never particularly liked a solitary focus on Vulkoor. My first opportunity to deal with the Drow in depth came when I wrote my novel The Shattered Land. Here I introduced the Qaltiar as a culture who respect the Scorpion, but also revere other primal animistic spirits: the Shifting Panther (displacer beast), the Tlixin Bird, and a host of other totems… and the Sulatar, a Drow culture that has nothing to do with arachnids.  So you it’s up to you whether you run with purely scorpion-focused Vulkoori, or the broader primal Qaltiar.

Where is it in canon that you speak of the Umbragen?

The Umbragen are mentioned in almost all canon sources that deal with Drow. They’re covered in most detail in Dragon 330, which included a detailed look at their culture and racial feats. However, they’re also described on page 52 of Secrets of Xen’drik, page 124 of City of Stormreach, and page 198 of the 4E Eberron Campaign Guide. To be clear, while I’ve said that they are the closest analogue to the Drow of other settings – being a culturally “evil” civilization that lives underground – they are a unique culture and due to their bond to the Umbra, not entirely Drow.

I’m a bit surprised, however, when you say that “for the Umbragen Khorvaire is itself a primitive backwater.” Could you please expend your thoughts about what, according to you, make the Umbragen so superior?

I may have chosen my words poorly, but it’s a difficult concept to distill. There are two things that distinctly distinguish the Umbragen from the civilization of the Five Nations. The Umbragen are less industrial than the Five Nations, to be certain. However, they are distinctly more magical. In my opinion, the typical Umbragen – regardless of whether they’re a soldier, a mystic researcher, a mushroom farmer or a smith – is likely to have at least one level of warlock or soulknife. Half of their government – the Vault of Shadows – is dedicated to mystical research for the benefit of their civilization. Combine this with the fact that they live in the shadow of the Qabalrin, an elvish civilization whose mystic advances matched those of the giants of Xen’drik. So they are used to a far greater degree of casual magic in the world, and the idea that the farmer over there is literally just a farmer – that he can’t conjure a blade of shadows or kill an enemy with a thought – makes him seem pathetic. Add to this the fact that the Umbragen have been at war with Khyber for as long as they can remember: a constant struggle with the terrors of the deep. So again, to them Khorvaire feels soft and weak. They whine about their losses in the Last War? They clearly know nothing of loss or struggle.

Again: taken as a whole, the Five Nations are more advanced as a civilization. The Umbragen have nothing on par with the systems of transit, communication or mass production that are part of daily life in the Five Nations. But the Umbragen are also from a smaller civilization and thus an Umbragen visitor wouldn’t immediately appreciate those things; and besides, if you need to communicate with someone far away, just speak to an Umbral sage who can send a message through the shadows.

With that said, something like Sharn should still be impressive to an Umbragen; the question is whether they’d acknowledge that. The Umbragen also tend to be aggressive and predatory, so a general attitude of “Your civilization is weaker than mine” is good for instilling fear in possible rivals.

How do the different elves view the Xen’Drik Drow and Umbragen and vice versa?

Both sides retain the most basic knowledge of the origins of their people — that they were bitter enemies in the ancient war. The elves of Khorvaire know the Drow as evil servants of the giants, while the Drow know the elves as the rebels whose foolish pride led to the destruction of Xen’drik. With that said, that conflict occurred more than twenty thousand years ago, before the modern civilizations of either elves or Drow existed. The Drow are all isolationists and know next to nothing about the modern elves, and the elves are only aware of the Vulkoori, who they consider to be the savage remnants of their ancient foes. So if a Drow came to Aerenal today, they’d be seen more as a curiosity than a bitter enemy.

With that said, the Tairnadal are deeply concerned with the history of their patron ancestors. Many of those ancestors were champions in the uprising against the giants — meaning that they fought the Drow. Such a Tairnadal might be quite excited to have an opportunity to fight one of these ancient foes.

It’s worth noting that the Qaltiar — a Vulkoori subculture — are Drow who themselves rebelled against the giants. They may still blame the elves for starting the apocalypse that destroyed Xen’drik, but they would be less hostile than others.

Are there any undying Drow or Umbragen? COULD there be? 
Are there any? None that we’ve established in canon. Could there be? Sure. Becoming Deathless has nothing to do with being an elf; it requires specific rituals and access to enormous amounts of positive energy, drawn both directly through Irian manifest zones and indirectly through the reverence of descendants. So it’s unlikely that there are any Deathless Drow in Xen’drik, because they don’t have the manifest zones or knowledge of the rituals (which took thousands of years of work in Aerenal to perfect). But if you wanted some renegade Drow (perhaps some of the original progenitors of the Qaltiar) to have joined the Aereni in the exodus, sure, there could be Deathless Drow.