The Raven Queen in Eberron

The Raven Queen is trapped by her fascination with the past. She sits in her fortress, amidst all the memories of the world, looking at the ones that please her the most as though they were glittering jewels. 

—From Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes

The Raven Queen was introduced in 4th edition Dungeons&Dragons. In her original form she’s a mortal who attained godhood after death. She’s the goddess of death, but specifically she’s a psychopomp—her role is to safeguard the soul’s passage to its final destination. She is also presented as a goddess of fate and winter. Her tenets include the idea that death is the natural end of life and that her followers should bring down the proud who cast off the chains of fate. So: She’s a shadowy goddess of death, but presented in a positive light—and specifically being opposed to Orcus and the undead. She’s also presented as being able to spare worthy mortals from death if they will perform services for her.

Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes brings her to 5th edition, and in the process changes up her story. In 5th edition, she was originally an elf queen, a contemporary of Lolth and Corellon. She sought to attain godhood and in the process was pulled into the Shadowfell with her followers. She became an “entity composed of symbols, images, and perceptions.” She sustains herself by drawing on mortal memories, and thus created her Fortress of Memories. Those who go to her realm are “transported to a strange fairy tale world pulled from their experiences, filled with metaphors, parables, and allegories.” People might seek her out to free themselves from a dark past; to learn the secrets of the dead; or to find answers that only she possesses.

In both incarnations, she is served by the shadar-kai. In 5th edition, these servants are immortal; if they die, she will cloak them in new bodies to return to her service. She sends them out to uncover secrets or memories the Queen wishes to acquire.

So: we have a goddess of natural death who despises undead and seeks to safeguard soles and the natural course of fate. We have an Elven keeper of secrets who collects tragic memories. Both dwell in the Shadowfell, have shadowy servants, and may deal with mortals. How does this translate to Eberron?

Lest it go without saying, Eberron doesn’t have incarnate gods. So we know one thing she’s NOT, and that’s a god. She is a powerful extraplanar entity who can serve as a patron for warlocks. Perhaps it’s even possible for a cleric or paladin to gain power in her service, but if so, the power isn’t coming from her directly; it’s power gained in service to her ideals.

There’s a lot of different ways you could go with this. Here’s a few quick takes.

THELANIS. The archfey of Thelanis embody epic faerie tales, and that’s explicitly what the 5E version of the Raven Queen is: a fairy tale about a queen who sought power, was consumed by shadows, and now feeds on tragedy. It’s a simple matter to take her exactly as presented in MToF and simply place her Fortress of Memories in a shadowy layer of Thelanis. In this case, the shadar-kai are essentially immortal fey spirits temporarily housed in mortal forms to play their role in her story. She continues to seek memories and tragedy because that’s her story; it’s simply the case that when you deal with her, you want to think of her as a character in a faerie tale, to bear in mind that her goals and the logic driving her actions aren’t the same as those of mortals. If you want to follow this path, I’d check out my post on Thelanis. Note that this doesn’t incorporate any of the “Goddess of Death” aspect.

MABAR. In my article on Mabar I discuss the idea that realms are consumed by the Endless Night. The MToF story of the Raven Queen fits that idea well; it’s a tale of a mighty queen who seeks godhood and is consumed by her hubris, dragging herself and her followers into shadows from where she continues to feed on tragedy. You could certainly make the Raven Queen the ruler of a domain within Mabar. However, if this is the case, it would definitely play to presenting her as a more sinister and dangerous figure as opposed to being a possible ally or patron.

DOLURRH. The basic principle of Dolurrh is that it draws in the spirits of the dead and consumes their memories, leaving behind only forlorn shades. Most of the major religions assert that this is a side effect: that the memories aren’t being LOST, but rather they’re transitioning to a higher form of existence… either bonding with the Silver Flame or reaching the realm of the Sovereigns. Nonetheless, memories are lost. You could combine the two approaches and say that the Raven Queen is a powerful being who dwells in Dolurrh and saves the memories of the dead from being lost. This plays to the idea of people seeking her out to learn long-lost secrets from the memories of the dead. It also fits with the idea that she could restore ancient champions to life—that she preserves their spirits from the dissolution of Dolurrh so they can potentially be restored at a future time. This also fits with the idea that she could offer resurrection to a dead player character in exchange for their services in the mortal world, or that her shadar-kai are spirits restored to mortal bodies. In my mind, this is the best way to combine the two versions of her: she is a powerful entity who works to preserve the natural order of Dolurrh, encourages the natural cycle of death and despises undead, yet who also preserves the memories of the dead and could grant resurrection.

THE CHILDREN OF WINTER. If you work with the idea that “death is the natural end of life,” the Raven Queen could be the patron of the Children of Winter. This likely works best if she’s tied to Dolurrh, but it could work with any option. This would justify mixing a few warlocks among the druids and rangers.

ELVEN ORIGINS. Playing off the idea that she is connected to the history of the elves; that she hates those who defy fate; and that she collects memories, there’s another interesting path you could take: she could oppose the elves of Aerenal and Valenar. The elves seek to preserve their greatest souls from being lost to Dolurrh. The Raven Queen could seek the downfall of Tairnadal champions in order to claim the spirits of the patron ancestors they are sustaining; she could also oppose the Undying Court and its agents.

GUARDIAN OF FATE. In Eberron, fate is determined by the Draconic Prophecy. One option is to say that the Raven Queen knows the path the Prophecy is supposed to follow. When forces on Eberron—the Lords of Dust, the Chamber, the Undying Court—seek to change that path, the Raven Queen seeks to set things right, either using shadar-kai or pushing player characters onto the right path.

All of these are valid options, and you can mix and match them: She rules a layer of Mabar, but she was once an elf queen and seeks to destroy the Undying Court. She’s a power in Dolurrh and served by the Children of Winter. But there’s a final option that’s MY personal favorite, as it brings a number of different ideas together: tragic Elven backstory, mortal who’s become a godlike being, guardian of the natural cycle of death, mysterious motives and ties to fate, specific tie to Eberron. And that’s ERANDIS VOL.

THE ONCE AND FUTURE QUEEN OF DEATH

Erandis Vol was the product of experiments conducted by dragons and elves, experiments designed to produce a godlike being with power over death. But she was killed before she could unlock the powers of her apex dragonmark. She was brought back as a lich, but as an undead being she can’t access the power of her dragonmark and achieve her destiny. Her phylactery is hidden even from her; she can’t truly die, even if she wants to. For thousands of years she has tried to achieve her destiny. She’s done terrible things in pursuit of this goal. She raised ann army of undead champions and fanatics. Perhaps she’s gone mad. But at the heart, she’s trying to achieve her destiny: to become the Queen of Death.

One option is to say that there IS no Raven Queen… yet. Erandis is trying to BECOME the Raven Queen. But if it was me? I’d push things one level further. I’d use the Dolurrh version of the Raven Queen: the enigmatic spirit who preserves the experiences of the dead in her Fortress of Memories, who has the ability to catch the spirits of the dead and restore them if they serve her. This Raven Queen can be a mysterious ally for the PCs. She despises undead and those who seek to cheat and manipulate fate. She can point the PCs in directions that bring them into conflict with the Emerald Claw. And yet, even if they fight the Emerald Claw, these battles might also push Erandis towards her goals. On the surface, it seems like the Raven Queen and Erandis are the bitterest enemies, opposed in every way. But in fact, Erandis IS the Raven Queen… or will be. The process of ascension isn’t a simply thing; it transcends our normal understanding of time and reality. The Raven Queen has dwelt in her Fortress of Memories for eons: but at the same time, she is Erandis, and she still has to ascend. So the ascended Erandis despised the actions of the lich and helps those who oppose her; and yet, she also has to ensure that the ascension takes place.

Simple, right? And you can easily add the Raven Queen hating the Undying Court into that mix: not only do they defy the natural order of life and death, they also killed her family and HER, back when she was mortal.

So: there’s my thoughts on the Raven Queen in Eberron. Any questions?

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Q&A

If one were to utilize the Crucible from Phoenix (specifically the Dhakaani Phoenix strike force version) in Eberron as well, how might the Raven Queen tie in to the Crucible?

If you’re adapting Phoenix to Eberron, you could certainly present the Raven Queen as being the force that created the Crucibles — saving spirits from the dissolution of Dolurrh so they can return as champions. In a sense, this mirrors the 5E concept of the shadar-kai, with the added ideas that power grows with each reincarnation and that they only get seven lives. The main question is how the Phoenixes interact with the Raven Queen. Traditionally, the only being a Phoenix interacts with in the Crucible is their mentor, the spirit of a prior Phoenix of their school. If you chose, you could say that ever mentor is in fact an aspect of the Raven Queen herself.

In Phoenix itself, you don’t have elves or gods. Personally, I’d make the Raven Queen one of the Fallen Folk — a Faeda spirit created to preserve the memories of the dead. Over the ages, she’s built her fortress of memories in the Deep Dusk, and could be a source of information or guidance for Phoenixes.

Sorcerers and Manifestations of Magic!

Sorcerers carry a magical birthright conferred upon them by an exotic bloodline, some otherworldly influence, or exposure to unknown cosmic forces. One can’t study sorcery as one learns a language, any more than one can learn to live a legendary life. No one chooses sorcery; the power chooses the sorcerer.

— 5E Player’s Handbook

Wizards and artificers approach magic as a science. A warlock makes a bargain to gain arcane power. Magic is part of a sorcerer. It’s possible to inherit such power, but as the PHB suggests, it could just as easily be something entirely unique to the character. Later in this article I’ll discuss sorcerous origins tied to Eberron. But first, let’s consider what magic means for a sorcerer.

Manifestations of Magic

You’re a sorcerer. Your magic is a part of you. But it is still arcane magic… and at the end of the day, when you use that power you are still casting a spell. Unless you use the Subtle Spell metamagic feature, your sorcerer spells require all the same components—verbal, somatic, and material—as when a wizard casts that spell. In some ways this seems to clash with the whole idea of being a sorcerer. If your ability to cast a fireball comes from your draconic heritage, why do you still need to speak a word of power and throw a ball of bat guano to make it work?

One way to think about this is that arcane magic is a science… that as a sorcerer, the principles of magic come to you by instinct, but you ARE still casting a spell in the same way that a wizard is. But this doesn’t work with a lot of different character concepts. So let’s take a look at each of the different sorts of components and think about what they may mean for a sorcerer.

Verbal Components

Verbal components require the character to make a sound. Per the PHB a “particular combination of sounds, with specific pitch and resonance, sets the threads of magic in motion.” In my mind, a verbal component needs to be clearly connected to a casting oa spell: it can’t be something that could be mistaken for conversation. With that said, I feel that the exact form can vary from class to class and character to character. For example, I could see any of the following as being verbal components for a fireball.

  • A forceful phrase (“Consuming flames!”) in a variant of Abyssal or Draconic. The words feel hot in the ears of anyone who hears them. While this is in a language, it’s the thought behind it that triggers this searing effect; you don’t actually burn people or convey this power when casually speaking in Draconic.
  • A series of syllables that might feel like they’re based on Abyssal, Draconic, Giant, or Elvish (“Talash zash harkala!”), but that don’t form any actual words in those languages. This is the “machine code” of reality, triggering access to the forces the wizard channels in the rest of the spells.
  • An invocation of specific forces that will be channeled to power the spell. A divine caster might specifically call on an individual (“Dol Arrah, let your searing light lay my enemies low!”), while an arcane caster might invoke a power source, such as one of the eternal firepits of Fernia or the blade storms of Shavarath. On the other hand, a Warlock could specifically call on their patron by name.
  • A straightforward but clear description of the effect you are trying to create (“Let my fiery lash burn you to ash!”).
  • A bard might sing a song to cast a spell—but as with the first example, the song should feel clearly magical (unless Subtle Spell is used). As the words are spoken they might take shape in the air, or echo in the ears, or otherwise feel like there is a power behind them.
  • This would be a place to work in naming. Perhaps your sorcerer innately sees the true names of things, and you call out that name and an effect.

The point being: You could be syllables infused with arcane might to channel power into your spell. You could be naming powerful entities or cosmic forces whose power produces your effect. You could simply describe exactly what you want to have happen to your victims, essentially making a demand the universe will obey. But whatever it is, if you’re casting spells with verbal components, you’re producing sounds that are clearly tied to the magical effects you produce… so what are those sounds?

Somatic Components

Somatic components are gestures involved with the spell. Per the PHB, the most critical detail is that “the caster must have a free hand to perform these gestures.” Like verbal components, a requirement I apply is that it must be obvious that the hand gestures are tied to the spell. Someone watching you understands that there is a purpose to your gestures and that if they immobilized you, you would stop. So what forms can somatic gestures take?

  • As a wizard, you could follow the model of the recent Doctor Strange—tracing patterns of energy in the air, essentially drawing glyphs or writing out an arcane formula.
  • Taking away the lightshow, it can still be about precise hand and finger movements that trigger and focus mystical energy.
  • On the other hand, you could combine both these things without any finesse. You need a free hand and it needs to be clear that you’re using that hand to cast a spell. You could simply conjure a ball of fire that you physically throw at your enemy… or dramatically point at them, at which point the fireball emerges from your palm.
  • Another option is the Harry Potter approach: the wand. According to the PHB, the hand you use to access an arcane focus can be the same hand you use to perform somatic components. To me, this implies that my gestures could simply be some fancy wand-work. Again, the critical things are that it requires a hand and that it’s clear I’m using that hand to cast a spell.
  • If someone’s playing a warforged sorcerer, I’d be fine with them stating “Activate artillery mode” (verbal component) and turning their hand into a cannon (somatic component)—as long as it’s understood that they require freedom of movement to do this.

So again: the point is that you require a free hand and that it is obvious to an observer that you’re using that hand to produce a magical effect. But as long as those two conditions are met, you’ve got some room to move.

Material Components

Material components fall back into the realm of “If my sorcerer isn’t performing magic like a wizard, while do I still need a ball of bat guano to cast my spell?” Once again, it’s worth taking a moment to think about the impact of material components. Free material components—like the ball of guano—are primarily important because they can be taken away. If you’re trapped in a cell, whether you’re a sorcerer or a wizard, there’s an easy way for them to stop you from casting a fireball. Expensive material components—like the 100 gp pearl required to cast identify—prevent you from casting the spell casually, especially at low levels.

Starting with free components, it’s worth noting that you can ignore free components if you are holding a spellcasting focus (holy symbol, wand, rod, orb, etc) or if you have a component pouch. Personally, if these conditions are met, I’m entirely fine with a player either defining a unique arcane focus or changing what’s IN the component pouch. So looking at examples…

  • A component pouch is a great way to define a unified set of components that fit your presentation of magic. Perhaps you perform sympathetic magic, creating a model of your victim and the effect you’re producing. Maybe you have a set of crystals, and you combine the crystals in different ways for different effects (“Fireball? I’ll need a sliver of Fernian basalt amplified with the Irianic lens”). Perhaps you literally assemble a wand tied to the specific effect you want to produce. If you want to get weird about it, you could have a component pouch full of liquids… you assemble a one-use potion from the pouch, drink it (somatic component) and then belch out the spell effect (verbal component). As a warforged sorcerer, I could have a pouch filled with little mini-wands that I attach to my hand. The critical point here is that the component pouch is a set of tools: what do your tools look like?
  • A spellcasting focus needs to cost between 5-25 GP to replace. It needs to be something that is clearly associated with the spell when it is cast. It can’t be used for another purpose (IE it can’t be a useable weapon unless your class gives you that option) and it requires a free hand to use. But personally, as long as all those conditions are met, I’m fine with that being unique to the character. A few exotic ideas for a spellcasting focus…
    • The rune-engraved skull of an ancestor. This could be a wand carved from an ancestor’s bone, or something similar.
    • The polished horn of a beast—either something I hunted and killed, or a creature that was close to me. A Talenta caster could use the fang of a former dinosaur mount.
    • An exotic mask I hold in front of my face.
    • A strange machine I’ve assembled myself.

With any unique or exotic focus, there’s two critical questions. How can you replace it? If you lose your grandfather’s skull, how do you get a new one? Normally, a player can simply go to the store in a big city and buy a new focus, so the point to me is that I’d allow a player with time and money to replace a lost focus, regardless of the form. Perhaps you can perform a ritual that reconstitutes your grandfather’s skull—it’s just that the ritual takes components that cost 10 gp, the same cost as buying a wand. Second: can you perform magic using the standard components? Normally, a wizard can use a wand or component pouch to cast a fireball, but if they lose the focus, they can whip up a ball of bat guano. Can use use guano in an emergency?

The final topic is expensive components. Chromatic orb requires a diamond worth 50 gp. It doesn’t matter what kind of a caster you are, you need that diamond. Personally, the only thing I generally care about is the cost. I’m fine with the idea that chromatic orb requires a unique focus that costs 50 gp and is only used for this one spell, but I don’t personally care if it’s something that is likewise unique to the way your character performs magic. Likewise, in my Eberron, Eberron dragonshards can take the place of any expensive component. Whether it’s the 5,000 gp cost of resurrection or the 100 gp cost of identify, that amount of refined dragonshards will do the trick; this emphasizes the idea that dragonshards are the basic fuel of the magical economy. The only reason I’d restrict a spell to a concretely specific component is if I want to play up a particular region or individual as having a monopoly on that resource… if diamonds are consistently a thing, who has the diamonds? In Eberron, this is the role of Eberron dragonshards, which is why Q’barra and House Tharashk are important.

In Conclusion…

So putting all of this together, the question is: whether you’re a wizard or a sorcerer, what form does your magic take? Does your sorcerer have a magic musket with components they swap out (IE, exotic component pouch)? Do you carry around your grandfather’s skull (focus), hold it up (somatic) and ask it to produce magical effects (verbal)? Do you have henna tattoos (focus, as long as they can be removed) that you trace with a finger (somatic) while reciting words you learned in a dream (verbal)? If your power comes from exposure to the Mourning, do you wave (somatic) a piece of your house from Cyre (focus) while calling out the names of your friends who died (verbal)? You can have a unique style… but  you need to figure out how it meets the requirements of casting a spell.

Sorcerers in Eberron

So: this is an article about sorcerers, remember? While the previous section could apply to all sorts of casters, the point is to think about how your sorcerous origin is reflected in the way that you cast magic. With that said, I’m just going to dive in and look at some possible ways to justify sorcerers in Eberron.

Child of Khyber

Sorcerous Origin: Any

Aberrant dragonmarks are an unpredictable and dangerous form of dragonmark. For many centuries the aberrant marks that have been seen have been limited in power… but in the days of the War of the Mark, the Children of Khyber wielded marks that could destroy cities. You could justify your sorcerous powers as being tied to an aberrant dragonmark, with that mark growing in both size and power as your level increases.

Now: aberrant dragonmarks are specifically called out as being dangerous—channeling destructive or aggressive powers. This is your character, so this is a limitation you’re applying to yourself; but if you want to fit the IDEA of the mark, you should limit your spell selection to powers that fit this vision. You could play a divine soul as a character with an aberrant mark, but if so, you shouldn’t be using it to produce healing effects. One way to handle this is to suggest that you are essentially a crappy wizard or magewright who ALSO has an aberrant mark. So your one or two NON-aggressive spells are the spells you cast in a traditional arcane manner… and the aggressive spells are the ones tied to your mark. This also ties to the idea that an aberrant dragonmark is supposed to be a burden to its bearer, either mentally or physically. The mark could cause you pain every time you use it. It could be an effort for you to contain its power and to keep from accidentally hurting the people around you. It could whisper to you. None of these things have concrete mechanical effects; this is all about flavor and how you choose to present it. You are amazingly tough and focused and you overcome these things; but if it’s an aberrant mark, you want to keep the story idea that it is a burden.

Aberrant marks take many forms, as long as they are aggressive in nature. As a result, you could tie this to any sorcerous origin. If you justify your draconic bloodline with an aberrant mark, you aren’t ACTUALLY descended from a dragon… and the effects of your draconic bloodline could take other forms. Draconic bloodline provides you with high AC and resistance to a particular damage type. It could be that your mark actually acts as armor and absorbs the damage; the mark could even extend from your body in the form of wings. But it could also be that the mark is mutating your body in a disturbing way.

The secondary issue here is components. Your power is supposedly coming from your mark… and yet, you still need those components! One approach is to say that your mark extends to one of your hands, and you have to point that hand at the target to perform somatic components. For material components, you could use a “crystal” arcane focus—in your case, a Khyber dragonshard that amplifies the power of the mark. Which just leaves verbal components. Perhaps you shout arcane syllables that come to your mind unbidden. Perhaps you have to tell the mark what you want it to do. The critical point is it needs to be clear that you have to be able to speak, and that your words are tied to the effect.

Divine Soul

Sorcerous Origin: Divine Soul (duh)

A divine soul casts clerical magic as a sorcerer. What does that mean? Well, first of all, it doesn’t HAVE to be connected to a divine source. It could simply be that you have an aberrant dragonmark that produces traditionally clerical effects, or that you have an exceptional Mark of Healing; these are covered by my other suggestions.

But what if you DO have a connection to a divine power source? What does that mean? How does it work?

There’s a few paths I could see. First of all, the idea in Eberron is that we don’t know for certain that the gods exist. But we know that divine power sources exist. And people do have divine visions and such. So: as a divine soul, you have a connection to a divine power source. One option is that you’re hacking this power. You don’t BELIEVE in the religion; you’ve just figured out how to use arcane techniques to connect to the Undying Court or the Silver Flame and draw on its power. The power is unquestionably there, and it’s not like your using a bit of it will somehow drain the Silver Flame. Such a character could be a bit of a smug jerk—in your face, people of faith! The question would be how people OF that faith would feel about you. Your actions might not actually threaten to drain with Undying Court of its power, but that won’t stop the Deathguard from kicking your @$$ if they ever come across you.

A second path is that you have faith, you simply don’t know the rituals normally associated with it. You have connected to the Silver Flame in a weird and unique way, but you still understand what the Silver Flame is all about. You acknowledge it as the source of your power and invoke it in your verbal components, and you may use a holy symbol as your spellcasting focus. You’re NOT a cleric, but you are a person of faith.

A path that lies between these is that of the chosen one. You know nothing about the divine. You don’t know where your powers come from. And yet, you have visions that are driving you on your quest. The power has chosen YOU… but you don’t know why. Imagine your power comes from the Silver Flame. You don’t know this. You don’t believe in the Flame. But you have visions of yourself fighting supernatural evil. Perhaps a couatl whispers to you. Essentially, the Flame believes in YOU, and seems to have a purpose for you. Will you discover faith along the way? Or are you just a vessel? In this case, verbal and somatic components could be confused invocation (“Um, strange power, can you help my friend?”), or it could be that they come to you instinctively; you never know what you’re going to say when you open your mouth, but the words just come out.

Draconic Bloodline

Sorcerous Origin: Draconic Bloodline (duh)

So what if you WANT a draconic bloodline? There’s nothing wrong with that; dragons exist in Eberron and are a source of powerful magic. In standard Eberron, draconic bloodlines aren’t a defined thing. The primary magical bloodlines in the world are the Dragonmarked Houses. But there’s a few ways to do it. Perhaps you are part of a noble house that claims draconic heritage; I’d just be inclined to say that it’s very rare for a member of the family do develop powers beyond those of a first or second level sorcerer. Perhaps you’re a first generation draconic bloodline; which of your parents was a dragon, and what does it mean? Or perhaps you’re not LITERALLY descended from dragons, but rather the result of a Vadalis experiment that attempted to infuse humans with dragon’s blood. Are you the only success out of this program, or are there a number of dragon-blood super-soldiers out in the world? Are you working with House Vadalis, or are you a fugitive?

As a dragon-blooded sorcerer, you still run into the “What does my magic look like?” question. When you perform verbal components, do you instinctively speak draconic words of power? Or is it that the magic is in your blood, and you’ve jury-rigged some sort of spell system that lets you unleash it?

Dragonmarked

Sorcerous Origin: Divine Soul, Storm Sorcery, Shadow Magic

Along the same lines as an aberrant mark, if you’re of the proper race and bloodline to have a dragonmark, you can say that your unusually strong connection to your dragonmark is the source of your sorcerous abilities. Essentially, it’s clear that you have the potential to develop a Siberys Dragonmark, but rather than it manifesting all at once, it is emerging over time.  A halfling divine soul with healing abilities could attribute the power to the Mark of Healing; a Phiarlan or Thuranni elf could have access to shadow magic; a Lyrandar heir could be a storm sorcerer. Like the Child of Khyber, you’re entirely on the honor system to choose spells that make sense with your mark. Or, like I suggest for the Child of Khyber, you could present yourself as a minor wizard or general sorcerer who ALSO has a powerful mark—so the spells that don’t fit with your Dragonmark are tied to this secondary path. A Siberys dragonshard would be a logical spellcasting focus, but you could also have an object that incorporates a Siberys shard—a tool designed by your house to channel this sort of power.

Mad Artificer

Sorcerous Origin: Any

Like a wizard, an artificer approaches magic in a scientific manner. But what if they didn’t? What if they create magic items that should never actually work, yet somehow do? The point with this character would be to present all of their magic as coming from strange devices that they create. From a mechanical perspective, they’d have a component pouch—but that pouch would be filled with lint, shards of broken glass, and so on. Part of the concept—what differentiates this character from an actual artificer—is for their explanations of their magic to make no sense. “We just saw three doves in the sky. So if I pour the yoke of this dove egg on this magnifying lens, it will triple its ability to focus the light of the sun and create a deadly beam of heat. Simplicity itself!”

The mad artificer could follow any path, representing their “arcane field of study.” A draconic bloodline sorcerer who follows this path would “artifice” as an explanation for the benefits of the class. Their natural armor could be the result of mystical tattoos that channel a low-grade repulsion field; their dragon wings would be an Icarus-like set of artifical wings.  

Manifest Magic

Sorcerous Origin: Any

Manifest zones are places where the energies of the planes flow into Eberron. A character born in a manifest zone could justify their magical abilities as being based on an innate bond to that plane. A character with an innate connection to Mabar could possess shadow magic. Irian could grant the powers of a divine soul. Kythri or Thelanis could be a source of wild magic. As with other examples, you’d either need to voluntarily limit your magic to powers tied to your plane of choice, or come up with an explanation for where your other spells come from. Alternately, you could play a character who’s found a way to channel the energies of different planes—a form of the mad artificer, using spells that open up temporary portals to the planes you need. This would fit with the idea of verbal components calling out specific sources of extraplanar power, or material components tied to artifacts from the planes in question.

Mournborn

Sorcerous Origin: Any

In the City of Stormreach sourcebook we present a gang of people who survived the Mourning and emerged with strange arcane powers. While you could use this as the explanation for any sort of ability, it’s generally tied to the idea of disturbing abilities, not unlike the Child of Khyber. It could be that the Mourning is now a part of you, and you unleash its powers on your enemies. A Mourborn sorcerer with a “draconic bloodline” could be twisted into a monstrous shape. Or it could be that your magic has a secondary connection to the Mourning: you were the only survivor of your family, and now the spirits of those slain in the Mourning cling to you… demanding vengeance, but granting you the power you need to take that vengeance. This could be the sorcerer whose material focus is the bones of fallen friends, whose verbal components involve calling on them for aid.

Other

This is a deep as I can go in the time I have available, but there’s many other possibilities.

  • The warforged created as a “walking wand.”
  • A changeling who weaves glyphs and mystic sigils into their skin.
  • A Vadalis experiment, magebred to harness mystical power.
  • A creation of the daelkyr.
  • An Aundairian duelist who specializes in wandcraft

… and so on!

Q&A

I recall that in the Eberron setting dragons do not mingle freely with mortals. There’s the entire tragedy with Erandis Vol’s parents marking her status as a half dragon something unique. So how is draconic ancestry justified for a PC? Wouldn’t the dragons of Argonessen have hunted down their entire bloodline ages ago? 

The line of Vol wasn’t exterminated because of half-dragons; it was exterminated because Erandis Vol developed an apex Dragonmark, something that was likely only possible because she was a half-dragon.

The issue with dragons not mingling freely with normal races is because in a dragon you have a being that can live for thousands of years, who possesses tremendous physical and magical power and a civilization that is tens of thousands years old and has a deeper understanding of reality than most races… and then you have a human. Humans and other standard races are literally like housepets to dragons: The don’t live very long, they aren’t as smart as we are, it’s kind of cute when they act like they think they’re dragons. You might feel affection for one, but the idea of actually producing some sort of CHILD with one is simply bizarre. It’s not that the child has to be hunted down; it’s a question of WHO WOULD DO THAT? The only particularly logical reason is if it’s necessary to pursue a particular path of the Prophecy, or to achieve a specific end that absolutely requires it—both of which were the case with Erandis Vol.

So on the one hand, I suggest that you might have first-generation dragonic heritage; this would mean that you were created for a specific reason, and your draconic parent likely has an agenda involving you. On the other hand, I suggested that you might be part of a family that claims to have draconic heritage; odds are good that they’re mistaken. Either way, it definitely wouldn’t be a common thing, but neither is it something requiring immediate extermination.

Also, how common is it for celestials to mingle with humanoids in Eberron? Is it common (or at least, known to be possible) for a divine soul sorcerer to obtain their powers from celestial ancestry?

It depends what you mean by “mingle.” Celestials almost never casually interact with mortals. When they are encountered, it’s worth noting that immortals in Eberron don’t reproduce; there’s a finite number of them, and when one dies, the energy reforms to create a replacement. So if you’re suggesting that a celestial sires a child, it would be very unusual. On the other hand, what I suggested with aasimars is that the mortal is touched by or connected to an immortal. So the divine soul wouldn’t literally be the physical child of an immortal, but if there was a purpose for it, some celestial could have marked the child in the womb, or even worked magic to cause it to be born.  But again, such things are extremely rare.

Do you consider spells to be discrete things that can be recognized? Like if an Aberrant Marked Sorcerer uses Burning Hands and a classically trained wizard cast the same spell would trained observers know they were both using “Burning Hands as isolated by Bob the Pyromaniac in year 1082…” or would they just notice bursts of flame that are superficially similar?

It’s a little hard to say. I would allow an observer trained in Arcana an opportunity to identify the spell being cast (“That’s burning hands“). But no, they aren’t doing the same thing. If a divine soul tied to the Silver Flame casts burning hands, I’d probably make the flames silvery. If an Child of Khyber does it, they might actually project dragonmark-like tendrils of energy from their skin… even if I said those tendrils inflicted fire damage. Meanwhile, I’d personally allow a Storm Sorcerer to learn a version of burning hands that inflicts lightning damage instead of fire damage, but otherwise behaves the same. So the common spells are essentially benchmarks of common effects that can be produced with magical energy, and what the Arcana check ACTUALLY tells you is “They just generated a 15-foot cone of fire, inflicting a base of 3d6 damage.”

So it’s not that the spell is literally recognized because it’s the exact same spell; it’s that the trained observer can identify and evaluate the effects. With that said, an Arcana expert could potentially identify the technique—so “That’s burning hands, and they learned it from the Arcane Congress” or “That’s burning hands, but they’ve got no magical technique whatsoever; they’re just ripping open a portal to Fernia and spilling it out.”

To elaborate a little on my question about spells as discrete things, I meant along the lines of Burning Hands being like electron energy levels, a basic part of reality, or like steel, contingent convergences of simpler natural principles.

Good way to distinguish! To me it’s like steel. We recognize the end result, but they’re achieving it in different ways with a range of cosmetic effects.

Do you see Dragons, and other “natural sorcerers” as all being the same where their magic is concerned? At least along species lines.

If a species possesses natural sorcery—like 3.5 dragons, who universally gain sorcerer ability over time—then I usually depict that as taking the same form. So you wouldn’t have one dragon who’s a divine soul and another one with “draconic ancestry.” With that said, some 3.5 dragons have class levels in addition to their natural powers. And if you had another species with innate sorcerer levels I might present that in a different way.

What have YOU done with sorcerers or arcane components? If you have questions or ideas, share them below. As always, thanks to my Patreon backers, who make this website possible!

Dragonmarks: Halflings

Halflings have a variety of compelling roles in Eberron. At the same time, they are shrouded in mystery. Where did halflings come from? How do the subraces of Fifth Edition map to their roles in Eberron? Here’s my thoughts on the matter. As always, these are my personal thoughts, and may contradict canon sources; notably, my thoughts on subraces are certainly at odds with the Player’s Guide to Eberron.

WHAT’S A HALFLING?

In dealing with any nonhuman race, one of the first questions to ask is how are they different from humans? How is a halfling rogue fundamentally different from a human rogue? What does it mean to be a halfling?

At the end of the day, halflings are more like humans than most races. They don’t have darkvision. They don’t have inherent mystical abilities like the forest gnomes. They live slightly longer than humans—5E has them live to around 150 years—but that’s not such a dramatic difference that it’s going to shape a culture as it does for the elves. So on a basic, fundamental level, what does it mean to be a halfling and how might this affect you?

The first critical element is sizeHalflings are small. For a Talenta halfling in the Plains, this doesn’t have much impact; you’re the primary humanoid race of your region and what civilization exists is designed to accommodate you. But a halfling in the Five Nations is a small creature in a medium world. Even Ghallanda designs its inns to accommodate medium creatures, though they at least have furniture and a few rooms designed specifically for small creatures. But as a rule, everything around you is annoyingly oversized. While humans are rationally used to dealing with halflings and gnomes, on a subconscious level many are still likely to treat you as children or to dismiss you as a physical threat. How do you react to all these things? Is it a constant source of irritation? Is it something you embrace and use, taking advantage of the human tendency to underestimate you?

Next up is speedDue to their small size, halflings are literally slower than humans (25 ft walking speed). But they are quick, something reflected both by their high Dexterity and the Halfling Nimbleness ability that allows them to pass through the squares of larger creatures. Combine this with the Naturally Stealthy trait of the Lightfoot halfling—which as I note below, is my default halfling—and you have a creature with a natural ability to outmanuever and outwit their enemies. Halflings live in a world of clumsy giants. When it comes to battle, rather than matching strength to strength, halflings are naturally going to lean towards mobility and finesse. Looking to the Talenta Plains, this ties to the fact that they don’t forge heavy armor. Their warriors aren’t plate-armored fighters; they’re rogues, barbarians, and rangers. Skill and speed are important; even the barbarian is going to make use of their fast movement to outmaneuver their foes.

Beyond this you have bravery and luck. How is it that every halfling is lucky? Who can say. Maybe it’s Eberron’s blessing; maybe it’s an aspect of the Prophecy. But it’s there; halflings are luckier than other creatures, and it’s hardly surprising that luck would breed bravery. Despite their small size, halflings tend to be bold and more willing to take chances than creatures of other races. In contrast to the staid hobbits of Tolkein, I generally see halflings as being innately curious and inclined to take chances. But again, this ties to the quick wit mentioned above. Just because a halfling is brave doesn’t mean that they’re stupid. They aren’t oblivious to risk; it’s just that on a fundamental level, they are generally more willing to take risks than members of other species.

SUBRACES

What sort of halflings do you find in the Talenta Plains? My answer is “all of them.” Unless a subrace is concretely distinct from the core race—like drow or duergar—I prefer to use subraces as a reflection of individual aptitude or unique qualities as opposed to linking biology and culture. I’d rather look at the story of a particular character and if it feels like that character should be Lightfoot, then make them Lightfoot regardless of where they are from. So looking at this, what does subrace mean?

  • Lightfoot halflings combine a natural talent for stealth with remarkable charisma. To me, this is the default for Eberron’s halflings. Naturally Stealthy is a boon for a Talenta hunter or a Boromar enforcer, while Charisma serves Ghallanda barkeep and Boromar grifter alike.
  • Stout halflings sacrifice charm and stealth for resilience. I’m happy to simply see this as a possible expression of being a halfling; hunters tend to be more stealthy, while other members of the community are more durable.
  • I see Ghostwise halflings as rare anomalies, a trait that may be as much mystical as biological. The halflings believe that spirits shape the world. In the Plains, a Ghostwise halfling is seen as touched by the spirits, and is likely to become a druid or shaman. In the Five Nations, a Ghostwise halfling would be seen as a curiosity or even a freak.

CHARACTER ROLES

So you’re making a halfling character. Where are you from? What’s your role in the story? What does being a halfling mean for you? Here’s a few ideas.

The Talenta Halfling

The halflings of the Talenta Plains hold to a way of life that has sustained them for thousands of years. Most are content to follow their ancient ways, but the world has been shrinking. Between the stories of the dragonmarked houses, the growth of Q’barra and Valenar, and the general impact of the war, an increasing number of halflings have been drawn into the outside world. Consider the following possibilities…

  • You served as a mercenary scout in the Last War. You’ve stayed with your comrades in arms since then, hoping to find fortune and adventure.
  • Some force—Emerald Claw? Aurum? Lords of Dust?—wiped out your tribe. You have ventured to the Distant Lands to learn more about your foe and to determine how you can take your revenge.
  • The Treaty of Thronehold declared the Talenta Plains a sovereign nation, but this concept is still strange to the people of the Plains. Your tribe has sent you to the Distant Lands to learn more about them and to find allies that can help your tribe and the Plains overall if there is trouble in the days ahead.
  • The spirits have marked you for a purpose. You have visions that guide you. You don’t yet know what they mean, but you know that you have a destiny you must fulfill, and you won’t turn your back on adventure.
  • You’re simply curious. You’ve always wondered what lies beyond the Plains, and you’re on a journey of discovery. You’re thrilled with ANY adventure… and you find adventure in things that others see as quite mundane.

As a Talenta halfling in the Five Nations, you’re a stranger in a strange land. Cities, airships, lightning rails—these are wondrous things, and it’s amazing what the people of these places take for granted. You are also unaccustomed to the myriad laws and customs of these places; your culture is simpler and more open. Outlander and Hermit are both logical backgrounds, reflecting your relative isolation from civilization. Barbarians, rangers, and rogues are all possible paths for Talenta hunters and warriors. Bards exist, entertaining and carrying news between tribes; I see the flamboyant College of Blades as a good path for the Plains. Spiritual leaders tend to be druids or nature clerics; their faith is a blend of ancestor worship and respect for primal spirits, with a layer of the Sovereign Host (notably, Balinor is thought to have been a great Talenta hunter). If you have XGtE, the Circle of the Guardian is a good choice for the druids of the Plains. Otherwise, both the Circle of Land and Moon are perfectly appropriate, with the Land druid caring for the Plains themselves and the Moon druid bonding with its creatures (and reveling in dinosaur shapes!). If you have a dinosaur companion, bear in mind that you believe your spirit is connected to theirs; they aren’t simply a mount, they are the closest thing you have to family in these foreign lands.

The Dragonmarked Halfling

House Jorasco and House Ghallanda are major institutions in the Five Nations. Ghallanda has maintained stronger ties to the Plains than Jorasco, but for the house members who live in the Five Nations, the Plains are more a part of your peoples’ colorful past than something you particularly embrace yourself.

An immediate question to consider is your role in your house. Are you a workin’ stiff—in which case you might that the Guild Artisan or Entertainer background? Or are you a child of a matriarch, or otherwise connected to the heart of the house… making you for all intents and purposes a Noble? Here’s a few random ideas.

  • You’re an heir to one of the wealthiest families in your house. You’ve never had to work for anything in your life, and your family even bought you magic powers from an archfey (you’re not sure exactly how they managed it, but that’s not your concern). Are you slumming with adventurers just to see how the little people live? Or has your family finally cut you off so you will learn to survive on your own? (Archfey Warlock with the Noble background)
  • You’re a healer, with a remarkable connection to the Mark of Healing. You served as a mercenary medic during the Last War, but after all the suffering you saw you couldn’t bear to work only for gold. Now you’re trying to use your abilities to help the innocent—and since you started down the path, your powers have grown. (This character is technically a Life domain Cleric, but they are drawing their spells and powers through their dragonmark instead of through devotion to a deity.)
  • You used to own a nice little inn in Cyre. It might have been lost in the Mourning or just destroyed in the war. Now you’re on the road with a few of the unusual characters who used to hang out in your bar. Perhaps you’re hoping to raise the funds and find the right place to start a new inn. Or perhaps you’re determined to unlock the mystery of the Mourning, or take vengeance on the Karrnathi commander who destroyed your place. (Rogue with the Guild Artisan background)

Incidentally, all of these are characters I’ve seen or used in my own adventures and campaigns.

The Boromar Clan

The Boromar Clan has dominated the criminal underworld of Sharn for centuries. For the most part, Boromar focuses on non-violent crime… theft, smuggling, gambling… but the halflings are willing to get their hands dirty when they have to. And recently, they’ve had to. Refugees from Cyre and the monstrous forces of Daask are shaking up the established order in Sharn, and your family is going to have to fight to hold onto its kingdom. Where do you stand in all of this?

The Boromar Clan is an easy story for any halfling with the Criminal or Charlatan background. The question is if you’re still connected with the Clan, or whether you’ve left that life behind. Either way, do you still have rivals or allies? A close connection with the Clan can be a benefit in Sharn, but a strong Boromar connection can be a curse as well; you may be called upon to do missions for your family, or you may be targeted by Daask or other enemies.

While it’s easy enough to have a single character with a Boromar connection—the equivalent of the classic thief with a tie to a guild—another option for a noir campaign is to have an entire party tied to the Boromar Clan. While halflings are the foundation of the organization, they hire people of any race and background. With that said, it could be interesting to have an all-halfling crew trying to hold a chunk of territory against Daask: a whisper bard as the mastermind, an assassin rogue and a barbarian (or ranger) as the muscle, maybe a dino-wildshaping druid as your eccentric mystical support. If Sharn doesn’t suit you, this same crew could be sent to Stormreach or even Q’barra to spearhead a new operation!

The Five Nations

Not every halfling is an innkeeper or a criminal. Halflings are spread across the Five Nations, and they can follow any path a human might. Your halfling could have studied magic at Arcanix or felt Boldrei’s call to become a cleric. As with most races in Eberron, ultimately culture is more important than species; you can embrace one of the ideas I’ve suggested above, but don’t be limited by them!

ORIGINS

One question that’s come up in the past is where are halflings FROM? Humans come from Sarlona. Dwarves migrated from the Frostfell and had an empire below the surface. Elves started in Xen’drik. What’s the story of halflings?

The short form is that no one knows. The Talenta halflings have primarily relied on oral traditions. Their culture has existed for thousands of years, but there are no concrete records of exactly how it began or what came before. Currently canon leaves this a mystery, and I doubt that’s going to change; as such, if you want the ancient history of the halflings to be a part of your story, it’s something you’ll have to develop. A simple answer is that halflings share a common ancestor with gnomes; perhaps gnomes evolved on a divergent path due to long-term exposure to Thelanian manifest zones, or perhaps gnomes are the descendants of halflings who immigrated TO Thelanis, returning as something entirely new. Or perhaps halflings are simply children of Eberron, created by the Progenitor herself according to a divine plan. In any case, it seems likely that the Talenta halflings have held their land and their traditions for thousands of years. The Player’s Guide to Eberron suggests that chokers are halflings warped by the Daelkyr, which would place the halflings into the Age of Monsters; as noted in previous posts, the Dhakaani had little interest in enslaving other races and would have simply driven the halflings to the edges of the empire. So you can certainly ADD more details—explore epic conflicts with Dhakaani and Dragonborn—but in general, they’ve simply been following the same path throughout history.

Q&A

Are there any strong arcane traditions amongst the Talentans?

It depends how you define “arcane.” The Talenta halflings don’t have a strong inclination towards scientific inquiry, which is reflected by the fact that their culture hasn’t really changed over the course of thousands of years. So I think wizards and artificers are entirely unknown there. Bards definitely have a role in the Plains, but I’d be somewhat inclined to paint their magic as calling on the spirits for favors, or as tricks they’ve learned from the spirits. This is the same path I’d take for an Archfey warlock, which would be the type of warlock that seems most likely in the Plains… though I could see a Celestial warlock who’s found a couatl patron in Krezent. Sorcerers are as possible in the Plains as they are anywhere, but we’ve never talked about powerful lines of sorcerers in Talenta, and I’d consider them to be rare and remarkable; as with the warlock, I could see a divine soul being touched by the power of Krezent.

Have Eberronian halflings ever had wars where they weren’t somehow squashed “because small”? Do you have any ideas for what sorts of tactics they would use?

I don’t think the halflings have every been “squashed.” Largely they’ve chosen to avoid combat; they’re nomadic, and they’re simply moved out of the way of conflict. Looking to the ECS, it notes:

With the coming of the humans and the rise of the Five Nations, the halflings found their territory shrinking as human settlements encroached on the wide-open plains.

It’s not that the halflings were defeated in battle; it’s that they simply moved out of the way of the settlers, eventually discovering that they were running out of space. Which leads to the next section…

At times, the halflings attempted to hold their position and drive the humans away, and a number of bloody battles punctuate the shared history of the two races. In the end, the two races found common ground and eventually discovered a way to peacefully coexist (the Last War not withstanding).

Again: the halflings weren’t defeated. There were bloody battles, and in the end they reached common ground (and notably, the halflings held onto the Talenta Plains). Now, during the Last War, it’s noted that both Karrnath and Cyre began claiming land in the Plains. The ECS says that “the halfling tribes were permitted to wander their ancestral lands as long as they paid tribute to the Galifar king” and for a time they did that. But during the Last War…

With the coming of war, the halfling tribes began to cooperate in unprecedented ways to protect the Plains that all the tribes revered. Warriors of different tribes banded together, repelling invaders from Karrnath and Cyre by using their knowledge of the ways of the Plains to confuse and confound the invaders.

Ultimately the issue of the the Plainsfolk isn’t their small stature; it’s their small NUMBERS and limited military resources. From a strategic perspective they’re guerrilla warriors who will use mobility and knowledge of the region to outmanuever their enemies. But when you set the Talentans against Karrnath, you are essentially talking about the Ewoks fighting the Empire; they don’t have the numbers, the resources, or the martial or arcane discipline that the Karrns have (not to mention undead). The fact that they HAVE won battles against Karrn forces is a testament to their innovation and their guerrilla tactics.

One thing I’d say here: Talenta forces lack the power and discipline of, say, Dhakaani or Valenar—both cultures that are ENTIRELY FOCUSED on martial excellence. However, I would say that the general harsh environment would likely produce a higher than average number of Talentans that have a level of a player character class than you normally see in Eberron. So most Talentan forces will be made of up 1st level rogues, rangers, or barbarians as opposed to warriors or commoners. And you’ll have heroes who are higher level and potentially druids, clerics, or paladins (such as Holy Uldra). So one-on-one, the halflings are probably tougher than the average Brelish soldier – but when it comes to a war, they still lack the numbers and the military/arcane machinery of the Five Nations.

Why have they never been seen as a threat to other nations? Is it their culture and lack of large scale unification, or generic fantasy underestimation by the big folk?

Lack of large scale unification, lack of population, and essentially, lack of any compelling reason to go on the offensive. By their nature, the halflings have always been the stream that flows around obstacles instead of a force that tries to conquer them. I see no problem with presenting legends of a Lathon who DID unite tribes and wreak havoc in a previous age, and these would be stories Holy Uldra would be invoking now as she rallies warriors to her banner; it’s just not something that’s happened any time recently.

Is there much conflict between urban halflings, Talenta halflings and Dragonmarked halflings? And for that matter, between criminal Boromar and other urban halflings? Criminal halflings and the nomads?

In the world itself, these things aren’t so easily divided. Sharn: City of Towers notes that the Boromar Clan still has ties to the Talenta Plains and has a squad of barbarians—the Clawfoots—they use for brute force operations. So you can be sure that there’s Boromars who take pride in their heritage and Plainsfolk proud to work with them, Boromars who think halflings from the Plains are bumpkins, and Talentans who think the Boromars are city slickers who wouldn’t survive a day in the Plains. Likewise there are specific Jorasco and Ghallanda heirs who work closely with the Boromar Clan, and others who despise criminals and anyone who works with them. As for urban halflings, as I’ve said, many will put their national identity before their racial identity. Dragonmarked halflings won’t fault anyone for this; it’s not like they’re inviting unmarked halflings to join their house. Boromar halflings essentially ARE urban halflings, they’ve just formed a common bond. And Talentans might see urban halflings as creeps for abandoning their traditions, or they might not care – it depends on the individual.

What does the Boromar clan of the Talenta plains think of their Sharn counterpart?

I don’t think the Boromars of the Plains have a very clear concept of what Sharn IS, let alone the precise role of the Boromar Clan there. We know that there is some ongoing connection, because of the presence of the Clawfoot enforcers. My guess is that once a year, Saiden Boromar sends a delegation to the Plains with gifts and supplies for the old family; if there’s talented people who want to join the Clawfoots, they travel back with that delegation.

In general I think they understand Sharn to be a tower of the big folk, and the Boromar Clan to be a group of clever hunters who use their wits to profit off the big folk. I’m sure there’s some who think that their city cousins have lost their way and who don’t want their gifts, and others who think it sounds like a grand adventure. This would likely mean that this tribe is one of the best-equipped tribes in the Plains, in terms of forged weapons, armor, potions, and gifts they might receive.

 Is the above statement about “not all halflings being either innkeeps or criminals” a stereotype that has traction in Eberron?

Ghallanda and Jorasco are the PUBLIC face of halflings in the Five Nations; the Boromar Clan (and thus, the criminal stereotype) is specific to Sharn. So “Innkeeps and Healers” for sure, “Criminals” mainly in Breland. Unlike goblins, I don’t think halflings in the Five Nations are broadly forced into criminal paths.

Are some dinosaurs feathered in Khorvaire and if so do the Talenta incorporate these feathers into their dress/ceremonies?

We haven’t seen any in canon artwork, but it seems appropriate – especially given the couatl. And if they ARE feathered, I’d expect those feathers to be used in rituals, yes.

Would a halfling from the Talenta Plains be as capable (from a fluff perspective) of connecting with dinosaurs from Q’Barra, Xen’drik or Argonnessen if raised there?

The bond is a cultural thing, not genetic. If a Talenta halfling went to Q’barra, the same techniques they use to work with dinosaurs in the Plains should work on dinosaurs in Q’barra, and they could form a connection. But a halfling child raised by humans in Stormreach and then dropped in the middle of Xen’drik doesn’t have some sort of innate magical bond; it’s part of Talenta tradition.

My player is planning to open a brothel and I ruled that Ghallanda has control over that, but do they or is that more a Phiarlan/Thuranni entertainment field?

Per canon prostitution has been presented as “legal but shady”, and generally falls into the domain of the underworld, not something that is licensed and sanctioned by a Dragonmarked House. In Sharn, for example, prostitution is primarily the domain of the Tyrants. So I’d say it’s handled on a more local level as opposed to being part of a house guild.

Are there paladin traditions among the Talenta halflings, devoted to Balinor or other sovereigns?

Sure, I think you could find an Oath of the Ancients paladin tied to Balinor in the Plains. But bear in mind that the Talenta tradition maintains that Balinor was a great halfling hunter, so it’s essentially woven together WITH ancestor worship and general veneration of nature spirits.

These questions are about the mask weavers, the Talenta druids. What visages do the masks of the mask weavers tend to reflect? Are there any specific paths for the mask weavers, from the newer editions point? Could a mask weaver also serve as lath?

The masks are spirit masks. They aren’t made to represent a particular creature or totem; they are a vessel for the spirit of the wearer or their mount. As such, I think there is an extreme variety; it is about creating a mask that reflects the spirit of the wearer. Within a particular tribe you’d have a common general style, but the subject of the mask will vary and in many cases will be more abstract than concrete. A spiritual leader could certainly serve as lath; while she’s a cleric, I’ll point out that Uldra is a lath. As for paths, as suggested above, the Circle of the Guardian is a logical path, but Moon or Land can both work.

Can you expand more on the classes and subclasses you think fit Talenta Halflings, and other halflings, like aren’t there Ghallandan assassins? Do you see a place for Talentan Monks, Warlocks (5e needs a “Primal Spirits” style warlock patron), Cavalier Fighters, etc?

The Ghallandan assassins you’re thinking of are the Black Dogs, who specialize in the use of poison (and are covered in Dragonmarked). The short form is that there’s a way to do almost anything. Personally, I DON’T see an order of Talenta monks; like wizards and artificers, to me the monk implies a static development of a tradition that feels at odds with the nomadic lifestyle of the plains. But if I WANTED to play a Talenta monk, I’d 100% introduce the idea of an Open Hand tradition that is all about fighting like a dinosaur. Take this Hammertail Kick, villain!” Looking to Warlocks, I already suggested options for Archfey and Celestial warlocks earlier. Again, this is a way to look at trappings. The Talenta believe that there are spirits in the world, and they may view the fey through that lens; I’ll point to Xu’sasar in Gates of Night, who is perfectly happy to see Vulkoor in Thelanis. The Archfey approach can also be seen as tying to the Talenta love of stories, which also blends with ancestor worship. A SCHOLAR may look at it and say “You’re dealing with some sort of archfey.” A Talenta Warlock may say “I’m talking with the Voice of the Winds, who guided Lathon Jhelan when he needed to fool the scale-king.”

As for others, I don’t really have time to run down every possible subclass. I generally prefer rogue, ranger, and barbarian as Talenta warriors, but if you want a fighter the cavalier definitely makes sense; likewise, you can certainly have a paladin (Ancients seems sound) with a celestial dino-mount. Ultimately, anything is possible; some paths just make more sense than others.

If you have questions or thoughts, share them below! Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters, who make these articles possible.

Dragonmarks: Monks in Eberron

There is a simple truth in Eberron: people can channel powers that bend the laws of reality. Artificers and wizards use scientific methods to harness powers of arcane magic. Clerics and paladins rely on faith and a connection to a higher power. A psion uses the power of their mind, often enhanced by a connection to Xoriat or Dal Quor. Other creatures in the world are inherently magical. The blink dog doesn’t cast a spell; it simply steps through space, defying physics through instinct and biology. The medusa’s gaze, the harpy’s voice; creatures can be magical. The monk lives in the intersection of these things. Beginning with a foundation of strict mental and physical discipline, the monk learns how to channel a force that lets them perform impossible actions… from moving with superhuman speed to striking with fists of fire. Ki is a power the monk finds within, but it is magic all the same. The wizard shapes the energy that is all around; the monk focuses the power that is already within, combining this with martial discipline.

Other the course of thousands of years, many cultures have developed monastic traditions. It’s not a common path in Khorvaire; while the Silver Flame has multiple monastic traditions, the common templar is an armored warrior. But most people have at least heard of monks, and won’t be entirely mystified when they see one.

Here’s a few of the monastic traditions of Eberron!

THE ORDER OF THE BROKEN BLADE

Traditions: Way of the Kensei

Typical Skills: Athletics, Religion

Dol Dorn stands between the treacherous Mockery and the honorable Dol Arrah. He is the Sovereign of the simple warrior, of anyone who pits their strength and skill against another in a fair fight. Legend says that when a soldier was set upon by three ogres who sundered his sword, he called on Dol Dorn for guidance and miraculously slew his foes using only his hands, feet, and the hilt of his broken blade. He founded the order that continues to this day.

The Order of the Broken Blade is a religious order. Its devotees respect all the Sovereigns and honor them in their moments, but it is Dol Dorn who they look to for inspiration. While a Monk of the Broken Blade trains to become a weapon, they also honor the Sovereign of Strength and Steel through mastery of the longsword, and thus follow the Kensai path. The order teaches that their Sovereign speaks to them in battle, and while they learn the basics of their tradition in a monastery, it is only in true combat that they can learn directly from Dol Dorn. As such, monks of the Broken Blade wander Khorvaire in search of worthy struggles. Some followers of the Sovereigns welcome the presence of one of the Broken Blades and may ask the monk to help overcome a threat to their community. Others—especially followers of the Three Faces of War—see the Broken Blades as dangerous loners who are unwilling to work within the greater structure of an army. Dol Dorn is the Sovereign of Strength, and while the monks certainly recognize the value of speed, they are more prone to hone their Athletics than their acrobatic abilities, and they rarely rely on Stealth (that being more a tool of the Mockery).

THE SILVER FORGE

Traditions: Way of the Sun Soul

Typical Skills: Religion, Acrobatics

The Silver Flame empowers all those who would fight to protect the innocent from supernatural evil. The Silver Forge draws on the flame to transform the devotee into a weapon, striking with both fists and bolts of radiant flame. Few people can master this discipline. Devotees of the order typically serve the Church as templars and are recognized for that rank. However, those followers of the Silver Flame who know of the order (Religion check DC 14) will show respect to a student of the Forge.

The Silver Forge is a religious order and its members are charged to use their power to protect the innocent from supernatural evil and to inspire common folk towards virtuous behavior. While there is only a single Silver Forge monastery in Khorvaire, this was originally developed by the Shulassakar and could be encountered in that way. Certainly, a Shulassakar will be impressed by any human who has mastered this path.

Beyond the Silver Forge, there are some exceptional templars who follow the Kensai tradition, focusing on the use of the Longbow. There is also the Order of the Argent Fist, an elite force comprised of monks who have also been called as paladins.

SHADOW DANCERS

Traditions: Way of Shadow, Way of the Drunken Master

Typical Skills: Acrobatics, Stealth

House Phiarlan and House Thuranni walk a line between the role of entertainer and covert operative. There is an ancient path among the Phiarlans that brings both of these together, combining physical grace and performance with deadly martial discipline. When the Mark of Shadows evolved, it was incorporated into this tradition; adherents draw more deeply on their marks than their kin, learning to leap between shadows. When playing such a Shadow Dancer, you might work shadow and illusion into descriptions of your mundane techniques. When you deflect missiles, it may be because your enemy is striking at an illusion as opposed to you deflecting the missile with your hand. Your increased unarmed damage could reflect your crafting talons of shadow as opposed to stronger physical blows. Such things don’t change the way that these abilities FUNCTION, but it adds flavor to your descriptions.

Not all heirs of the house possess the Mark of Shadow, and some who do choose not to use it in this way. There is a separate tradition that focuses on disarming foes with performance, a path reflected by the Way of the Drunken Master. This is in many ways a deadly perfection of the art of the clown, a rolling dance that amuses and entertains while allowing a master to outmanuever baffled enemies.

Both of these are traditions as opposed to orders. They are ancient techniques a modern elf might master, but the tradition is all that binds monks of this path together. Some monks may join the Serpentine Table or serve Thuranni as assassins; others simply find their own way in the world.

THE FLAYED HAND

Traditions: Way of Shadow

Typical Skills: Insight, Stealth

The Mockery is the lord of pain and vengeance, the deceiver who destroys. His monks embrace suffering; through ritual torture, they overcome weakness of body and mind. As part of this training, a monk flays strips of her skin, treating the muscle below with an alchemical substance that toughens it. Once an initiate has learned to endure pain, she is taught to inflict it. The monks of the Flayed Hand are master torturers and deadly warriors. A monk of the Mockery seeks communion with her god through violence and treachery. Many members of the order sell their services as mercenaries and assassins. Others cause pain in more subtle ways by destroying hopes and dreams instead of spilling blood.

Monks of the Flayed Hand are most likely to be found as antagonists. However, there is a critical factor here: the Mockery advocates treachery and terror, but nothing says that these tools can’t be deployed for a good cause. A Flayed Hand monk could be a mysterious figure—never seen without her mask and long gloves—who inflicts pain and terror only on vile and evil people. There’s a touch of Dexter or the general idea of “fighting fire with fire.”

OTHER PATHS

There are many other paths a monk can follow in Eberron, and unfortunately I don’t have time to go into such depth for all of them. But here’s a quick overview of some of these traditions.

  • The Path of Shadows is a Kalashtar technique, a martial discipline that helps focus the mind. Despite the name, it is primarily a physical tradition and lends itself first and foremost to the Way of the Open Hand, though practitioners often train in Stealth and Acrobatics.
  • The Quori Nightmare is another Kalashtar technique, which draws on the quori spirit tied to the Kalashtar to strike at an opponent’s mind. If the DM is willing to adjust classes, you can reflect this by adding Intimidate to the list of monk proficiencies and changing the abilities of the Way of the Sun Soul to inflict psychic damage instead of fire or radiant damage. The special attacks of the Quori Nightmare take the form of a ghostly manifestation of the Quori, striking a foe with tendrils of terror.
  • The Shaarat’Khesh goblins are a Dhakaani order of assassins whose techniques transform a goblin into a deadly weapon. The Shaarat’khesh are ascetics devoted to their traditions and their vows. Most follow the Way of the Open Hand, focusing on the physical arts; however, some may have mastered the more mystical technique of the Way of Shadows. Stealth and Acrobatics are also common among this path, as the goblin favors speed over strength.
  • Claws of Eberron. While primarily a shifter technique, this is a path that can be followed by other races; it is known among the shifter communities of the Eldeen Reaches and sometimes used by the Ashbound. A Claw of Eberron draws on primal strength and instinct. When wielded by a shifter, the increasing unarmed damage reflects a minor physical transformation in battle. A monk of another race could still beneift from such a transformation, growing claws or fangs in a shifter-like fashion… or they could just strike with a feral boost to strength or instinctually find vulnerable points. This is most typically reflected by the Way of the Open Hand, and both Acrobatics and Athletics are common skills.
  • The Tairnadal. The Tairnadal elves devote themselves to martial excellence, working to become avatars of their legendary ancestors. Tairnadal techniques often focus on speed, skill, and precision over force, and there are ancestors who have inspired monastic paths. The Way of the Open Hand and the Path of the Kensei are the most common paths, but Shadow, Four Elements, or even Drunken Master could be justified with a logical story about the ancestor in question.

There are many more possibilities. Aereni monks drawing on the power and techniques of Deathless ancestors. Monks devoted to the Blood of Vol, who draw their Ki from their divinity within. Changeling mourners, who adopt the form of their victims for a day, giving the fallen’s spirit time to peacefully transition. Warforged monks who physically transform their body into weaponry. Beyond this, some of the Dark Lanterns learn the based skills of the monk—rarely harnessing the potential of Ki, but learning the skills that provide a deadly unarmed strike.

That’s all I have time for now, but share your thoughts and questions below! My thanks as always to my Patreon supporters, who keep this blog going.

Q&A

What would you say defines the monk mechanically and what sort monks that aren’t MONKS might you pitch with that mechanical chassis?

Physical abilities—Armor class, unarmed strike damage, speed—that build over time; abilities restricted by use of armor. Different traditions can push the class in different directions; a Kensei uses weapons, a Sun Soul has a ranged attack. Over time, you gain immunity to disease, poison, and age.

The focus on unarmed combat is a pretty specific thing, and it would be weird to ignore it. But that doesn’t have to reflect being part of a martial or monastic tradition. I mentioned a few ideas above, and just didn’t call out that they didn’t have to be tied to monastic traditions. Expanding on these….

  • A warforged whose enhanced abilities reflect physical evolution. Increasing unarmed strike damage would be reflected by evolving weaponry. Ki would reflect internal reserves of energy allowing the warforged to push beyond its limits or to activate embedded enchantments (for Element, Sun Soul, Shadow monks).
  • A follower of the Blood of Vol who’s drawing on their own Divinity Within—reflected by their Ki—to boost their physical abilities. This isn’t about monastic tradition; it’s enhanced speed and reflexes combined with skill at unarmed combat.
  • A Vadalis experiment: a magebred human whose class abilities reflect the ongoing manifestation of their physical evolution. If you’re using the lore from 4E, this character could be part of the program that developed the Mournland Magebred.
  • A creation of the Daelkyr or Mordain the Fleshweaver. Your evolving physical abilities could reflect physical mutation. Your Unarmored Defense could be armored skin, and your increased damage some form of symbiont-like grafted weapon.
  • A gladiator who focuses on martial arts, but isn’t part of a monastic tradition.

Essentially you have someone who can kill with their bare hands and possesses exceptional speed and a limited ability to boost their physical abilities or generate supernatural effects. You simply need something that explains those concepts, but as noted with the magebred human, this doesn’t have to be something that someone else could replicate.

Would Sora Maenya be aware of any ancient or primal paths that might be passed on to her war trolls?

In the past I’ve suggested that Sora Maenya might be the master of the Tiger Claw discipline from the Book of Nine Swords. She could thus be a master of a monastic discipline, but I would likely make it AN ENTIRELY UNIQUE TRADITION — not simply saying she’s an Open Hand monk, but designing a new tradition that someone can ONLY LEARN FROM HER. This could also be reflected by a feat that a monk could only get from training with her.

With that said, I personally WOULDN’T have her war trolls know these techniques. The war trolls are exceptionally disciplined for trolls, but to me the point of Sora Maenya knowing a secret technique is that IT’S SECRET AND AWESOME and that most people just don’t have the talent to master it; if you convince her to train you, you might be the first person in centuries to learn this technique. War trolls are heavily armored and talented for trolls, but I don’t think I’d make them THAT special.

I was wondering if you could touch on the Order of the Radiant Flame, the Brotherhood of the Mystic Fist, and the Long Arm school (and why the Long Arms were persecuted). Or is Long Arm one of the Phiarlan/Thuranni traditions mentioned above?

To be clear: many authors have worked on Eberron and added their own sects and ideas. None of these are things I created, so I can’t tell you what the creator intended. I’m actually embarrassed to say that I DIDN’T think to check the Player’s Guide to Eberron before I wrote this; as I usually say, what I write in these articles is what *I* do, not necessarily canon. I can add a few thoughts:

  • Order of the Radiant Flame. Faiths of Eberron states that the OotRF is a contemplative order that seeks spiritual union with the flame. In mentions that they “ponder the mysteries of the cosmos from their monasteries and shrines” but I don’t feel that this necessarily means they are PC-classed monks; I see “monastaries” in this case as simply being the abode of a community of cloistered faithful. So I would personally say that the Order of the Radiant Flame could involve characters of ANY class — including “classless” NPCs trained in Religion and Arcana, who are contemplating mysteries. I could IMAGINE a PC-class-monk of this order, but I could also see a cleric tied to this order.
  • Brotherhood of the Mystic Fist. The idea of this school is that it focuses on multiclassed sorcerer-monks. It’s mentioned in the PGtE, but they give no indication of its history or location. The idea of a school that seeks to develop “physical skill and arcane potential” suggests Aundair to me, but Aundair leans more towards wizardry than sorcery. So if I were to use this, I might go WAY exotic and say that it’s an old Sarlona technique from pre-Sundering kingdoms, and give them a lone monastery in the Lhazaar Principalities. They’ve preserved their tradition ever since the Sundering; they could be waiting to take vengeance on the Inspired, or for some chosen student to arrive.
  • The Long Arms. Again, this isn’t mine, so I don’t know the original intent. It’s said that they have close ties to Phiarlan, which to me says that it’s either a direct Phiarlan tradition, or that they were licensed performers, which allows this to be a human (or other race) tradition developed more recently. As for why they were persecuted, to me this reads more like a local issue —bandits or a vendetta with a local lord (perhaps a local tyrant being mocked by the troupe) than some sort of massive large-scale persecution. But you can certainly add more depth and scope if you’d like!

In the ECS is there’s is the image of a monk follower of the Mockery… That looks a bit strange thinking that monks have to be lawful. Any thought on that?

We’ve never been too fixated on alignment in Eberron. The order in question is The Flayed Handand I’ve added an entry for them in the main article. But looking to alignment in this case: as I discussed when talking about good and evil, personal alignment is primarily about the manner in which you conduct your affairs, not the end goal. A lawful person can pursue an unlawful act; but they will do so in a disciplined, organized way. Lawful doesn’t mean “obeys the laws” — laws are a cultural construct and one nation’s laws may be abhorrent to someone from another culture. It means that they value structure, tradition, order, discipline, strategy — while a chaotic person is more driven to innovation, personal expression, acting without thinking of the consequences.

In 3.5 monks are lawful because their lives and traditions are extremely structured. They are entirely about mastering an ancient tradition and following an established path. In 5E I’d be happy to abandon this and present a monastic order connected to the Fury that is driven by ecstatic motion and spontaneous action. But I don’t mind the limit on the 3.5 monk. In the case of the Flayed Hand, again, the monks revere a god who encourages treacherous behavior on the battlefield… but that doesn’t mean chaotic behavior. That betrayal will be carefully planned and calculated.. and again, this is tied to tradition and extreme discipline.

What about pacifist monks? I like Mohists and I want to explore moral dilemmas (they are inherent when you teach pacifism during the time of war), counter-siege techniques and the like. Where would you put the Way of Tranquility in Eberron? 

First of all, I do just want to note that when people in Eberron use the term “monk”, they are generally referring to cloistered ascetics associated with a religious or philosophical tradition—but that very few of these individuals actually have levels in the monk class. It’s the same way that the vast majority of priests in Eberron are not clerics. There are surely monasteries tied to every religion in Eberron and every deity in the host. Aureon has monasteries where monks transcribe ancient tomes of law and contemplate mysteries of arcane law. But these monks AREN’T martial artists who can kill people with their bare hands. So my first point is that there are SURELY pacifist monks in Eberron… but most of those pacifist monks, being pacifists, aren’t actually trained in deadly arts of unarmed combat.

With that said, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the idea that some ARE. Eberron has been through a century of war, and I think it’s highly plausible to have an order that uses the traditions of the Way of Tranquility to try to intervene and bring an end to conflict when they can. Boldrei is an option for this, as suggested online. But I’d personally call them Syraniansan order that has long contemplated the mysteries of Syrania, which as I note in this article is fundamentally the Plane of Peace. Rather than acting on behalf of a deity, they draw on the power of Syrania (reflected by their supernatural abilities) to enhance their efforts at mediation and conflict resolution.

 My players are about to pass Angwar Keep, which Five Nations (I know you didn’t write it) suggests is inhabited by warforged monks who defected from Cyre, and now serve the Church of the Silver Flame. Any thoughts on what a big group of war-veteran warforged monks would do close to the border of the Mournland?

They’re defending Thrane from threats that emerge from the Mournland, for starters. I’d imagine that they patrol the border of the mists, as well as occupying the fort.

Beyond that, they are contemplating the Flame and their connection. Do they have souls as mortals do? If not, does serving as a vessel of the Flame essentially fill them with a soul? Could they become vessels for couatl spirits or other spirits that have joined with the Flame? Plus, given the whole “no sleep” thing you’ve got 24 hour chants, etc.

How would you deal with a small town in Q’barra where a monk of the Mockery is the spiritual leader of the community? 

This is tied to my idea for a Q’barra Campaign. The point of having a character as the Faith of a town is that the majority of the people in the town share that faith and look to the spiritual leader for guidance. So this is a town founded by people who revere the Mockery. Which means they don’t have to hide their faith… but also, that the way the faith is enacted needs to take the overall good of the community into consideration. So, something like this.

Betrayal is a small mining town on the edge of Hope. It was founded by followers of the Mockery disgusted with the Last War; had one of Jarot’s children simply assassinated the others, Galifar would still stand and innocents would have been spared the losses of the war. This is a faith that has lingered in the shadows in the Five Nations, but in founded their own community in Q’barra the faithful finally had a chance to build a town openly driven by their faith. While many assume that Betrayal is a chaotic place where the strong dominate the weak, Dol Dorn is the Sovereign of Strength; the Mockery teaches how cunning and terror can overcome strength. The leaders of Betrayal have to earn the respect and fear of the community. The Sheriff of Betrayal is there to enforce order… and if anyone thinks they could do a better job, they’re welcome to assassinate the sheriff and take his place. But with that said, the sheriff DOES enforce order. The principle the town was founded on is that *assassination could have prevented the needless death of innocents* in the Last War. This isn’t a place where random violence is encouraged or accepted; if someone does get rowdy in the bar, the bartender will poison their next drink. It’s a place where people are expected to use their cunning to succeed — but to also consider the overall strength of the community. If a miner can salt a claim and trick someone else into paying a foolish price for it, so be it: that’s a legitimately victory of cunning, a lesson taught to the loser. And it can be expected that the loser will take vengeance on the person who tricked them, if they can find a way to do it; but that vengeance should only target the person who harmed them, not bring harm to innocents.

It’s understood that a wronged party will seek vengeance in Betrayal, and as long as that vengeance only targets the wrongdoer that’s accepted. So deception and trickery is accepted, and if you’re smart enough to get away with something, congratulations; if you’re not smart enough to pull it off without the other person realizing what you’ve done, now they are entitled to pursue vengeance. So haggling is a fine art in Betrayal, but no one will BLATANTLY take advantage of others… because such obvious predatory behavior invites retaliation from those who’ve been wronged, and as long as it’s legitimate vengeance, the sheriff will allow it.

Eberron Flashback: Good and Evil

This was the first Eberron article I posted on this site, nearly six years ago. I’m juggling a host of deadlines at the moment and don’t have time to write an entirely new article this week, but this seems like an idea that’s worth revisiting.

Eberron takes a different approach to alignment, dropping the idea that draconic alignment is color coded, that orcs are always evil, or that clerics have to match the alignment of their deity. In designing the setting, how did you end up deciding against alignment constraints?

There’s a place for clear-cut struggles between good and evil, and it’s why we have forces like the Emerald Claw in Eberron. However, in my home games I’ve always preferred to challenge the players to think about their actions – to have things be less clear-cut than “We’re good, they’re evil, beating them up is the right thing to do.” From the start, film noir was called out as a major influence of Eberron, and a noir story relies on a certain level of moral ambiguity and shades of gray. It shouldn’t always be easy to decide who the villain is in a scenario… or if killing the villain will solve a problem.

Beyond this, one of the underlying principles of Eberron is that it is a world in which magic has been incorporated into society. Detect evil exists. In 3.5, paladins can use it at will. Stop and think about that for a moment. If evil was a tangible thing that could be positively identified – and if everyone who was identified as evil was unquestionably a monster with no redeeming features, while everyone who’s good is noble and pure – how would evil still exist? Over the course of two thousand years, wouldn’t we turn to paladins  and alignment-detecting magic to help us identify and weed out the bad apples until we had a healthy tree? Consider our own history of witch-hunts, inquisitions, and the like. If we had an absolute yardstick and if we knew the people who failed the test were truly vile, what would happen over the course of centuries?

Removing alignment completely was never an option. It’s a concrete part of the D&D ruleset. So instead, it was about taking an approach to alignment that could work with the noir story and take into account the existence of paladins and other alignment-linked effects – to justify a world in which good and evil people can work and fight side by side, where the existence of the value that can be identified with detect evil is accepted within society.

There’s four elements to this.

Alignment is a spectrum. Round up ten “evil” people and you’ll find that their behavior and histories are radically different. Consider the following.

  • A sociopathic serial killer who will kill or rob anyone that crosses his path without any hesitation or remorse.
  • A soldier who takes pleasure in torturing citizens of enemy nations – even civilians – but who is willing to lay down his life to protect his own people, and abides by the laws of his homeland.
  • An innkeeper who consistently waters down his ale and pads the bill a little whenever he thinks he can get away with it.
  • A repo man who ruthlessly reclaims goods on behalf of his employer, regardless of the circumstances of his victim and how the loss will affect them.

In my campaign, all four of these people will read as “evil” for purposes of detect evil. They all hurt other people on a regular basis and feel no remorse for their actions. Yet the innkeeper would never actually kill anyone. And the repo man is just doing a job and doing it well; he won’t interfere with anyone who hasn’t defaulted on their payments. In my eyes, one of the key elements of alignment is empathy. All four of these people are capable of performing actions that hurt others without remorse because they don’t empathize with their victims. But again, they vary wildly in the threat they pose to society. The serial killer is a dangerous criminal. The innkeeper is a criminal, but not a violent one. The cruel soldier is a danger to his enemies but protects his own people. The repo man has turned his lack of empathy into a productive tool. All of them are evil, but they are on different points of the spectrum.

Another important example of this for Eberron comes with clerics. Eberron allows clerics to have an alignment that is different from that of their divine power source. But it is again important to realize that an evil cleric of a good faith can mean different things. One evil priest of the Silver Flame may be a hypocrite and liar who is secretly allied with the Lords of Dust or abusing the faith of his followers for personal gain. However, another may be deeply devoted to the faith and willing to lay down his life to protect the innocent from supernatural evil – but he is also willing to regularly engage in ruthless and cruel acts to achieve this. The classic inquisitor falls into this mold. He truly is trying to do what’s best, and in a world where demonic possession is real his harsh methods may be your only hope. But he will torture you for your own good, and feel no sympathy for your pain. This makes him “evil” – yet compared to the first priest, he is truly devout and serving the interests of the church.

Alignment versus Motivation. Alignment reflects the way the character interacts with the world. Empathy is an important factor, along with the degree to which the character is willing to personally engage in immoral actions. But what it doesn’t take into account is the big picture. Let’s take two soldiers. Both joined the Brelish army of their own free will. The “evil” soldier hates the Thranes, and given the chance he will torture and loot. He wears a belt of Thranish ears. Yet he loves his country and will sacrifice his own life to defend it. He’s “evil” because he is willing to carry out those atrocities; but he’d never do such a thing to a Brelish citizen. On the other hand, the “good” soldier will kill Thranes on the battlefield, but will not condone the mistreatment of prisoners or civilians. He hates the war but feels sympathy for the civilians on both sides; he further recognizes that the enemies he fights are just protecting their people, and treats them with respect. Both soldiers have the exact same goal and will fight side by side on the battlefield; alignment simply provides insight into how they may act.

Expanding on this: one of the rulers of the Five Nations is a good-aligned monarch who seeks to restart the Last War. Another is an evil leader who seeks peace. Restarting the war will result in the deaths of tens of thousands of people – how can a “good” monarch support that? Again, in Eberron alignment doesn’t represent someone’s actions on a global scale: it reflects the manner in which they pursue those goals. The good ruler believes that a just war is possible and that a united Khorvaire will prosper under her rule. She won’t condone torture, the mistreatment of civilians, and so on. She will treat her prisoners and emissaries fairly. Of course, her ministers and generals may engage in evil behavior in the name of the war; she will be horrified when she hears of it. Meanwhile, the evil king pursuing peace has a noble goal, but will do absolutely anything to achieve it. Torture? Oppressive martial law? Assassination? Anything. He’d kill members of his own family if he had to. So in both cases, the personal alignment tells you how they conduct their personal affairs, but nothing about the big picture.

People know these things. If a paladin walks into a tavern and scans ten people, he may find that three of them are evil. This doesn’t require any immediate action on his part, and while disappointing it isn’t a surprise. In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda looks at Luke and says “There is much anger in him.” Luke hadn’t done anything bad; but what Yoda could sense was his potential to do evil. That’s what the paladin gets from detect evil. He doesn’t know where you lie on the spectrum. He doesn’t know your motivations. He knows that you lack empathy for others and may be selfish or narcissistic; that you are capable of hurting others without remorse; but he doesn’t know if you have or ever will. This is a key point with the Church of the Silver Flame. They are devoted to fighting supernatural evil: demons, undead, lycanthropy, etc. These are the things to fight with sword and spell. HUMAN evil is something that should be fought with compassion, charity, and guidance. Per Flame creed, you defeat mortal evil by guiding people to the light, not by killing them.

So – once you accept this version of alignment, you can find many jobs in society that are actually better suited to evil people. A repo man who has too much sympathy or empathy for his targets is going to have a difficult time doing his job. A tax collector may be the same way. An evil politican who’s willing to play the game of corruption in order to get things done may actually be the best hope of a city – providing that his motivation is towards the greater good. Knowing someone’s alignment is a piece of a puzzle – but it doesn’t tell you everything and it doesn’t end the story.

One side note: you may look at some of these things and say “I’d probably just make the repo man neutral/unaligned.” And that’s a reasonable approach. With Eberron, I specifically narrowed the spectrum of “neutral” while broadening the spectrum of “evil,” because again, the less concrete evil is the easier it is for it to be incorporated into society. If evil people can contribute to society in a positive way, then knowing someone is evil doesn’t lock in a story… while if only villains are evil, it automatically becomes a villain detector.

A secondary element to all this is fact that in Eberron many creatures that are traditionally bound to a specific alignment aren’t. By and large, creatures with human intelligence are as capable of choosing their own path as humans are. You can have good medusas and evil gold dragons. However, there are exceptions to this rule, and the most notable of these are celestials, fiends, and other spiritual entities. These beings are in essence physical embodiments of ideas. A fiend is evil personified… and as a result, it is both always evil and a much purer evil than you tend to see in mortal creatures; on a scale of one to ten, it goes to eleven. It is possible for the angel to fall or the demon to rise (as shown by the Quori bound to the kalashtar), but in these cases the spirit will typically physically transform to reflect this change. An angel that falls from Syrania will become a fiend or a radiant idol, for example. So when you meet a devil, you can generally be pretty sure it’s lawful evil, because that’s what it means to BE a devil.

It’s 2018. How does this apply to Fifth Edition? 

Fifth Edition is closer to Eberron in a number of ways. The description of clerics places no concrete limit on alignment, and also calls out that clerics are rare and that most priests aren’t clerics — a radical idea when Eberron first presented it. The entry on paladins specifically calls out the idea of a paladin whose alignment is at odds with their oath:

Consider how your alignment colors the way you pursue your holy quest and the manner in which you conduct yourself before gods and mortals. Your oath and alignment might be in harmony, or your oath might represent standards of behavior that you have not yet attained.

Likewise, the detect good & evil spell and the divine sense of the paladin doesn’t actually detect ALIGNMENT; it detects aberrations, celestials, elementals, fey, fiends, and undead. Essentially, it’s the perfect tool for the Silver Flame: it tracks supernatural threats, not mortal behavior. This actually addresses many of the issues called out above, because there is no simple way to alignment-check someone. It also calls out that “Few people are perfectly and consistently faithful to the precepts of their alignment.” And it concretely calls out one of the core principles of Eberron regarding immortals:

Alignment is an essential part of the nature of celestials and fiends. A devil does not choose to be lawful evil, and it doesn’t tend toward lawful evil, but rather it is lawful evil in its essence. If it somehow ceased to be lawful evil, it would cease to be a devil.

Where the two part ways is that core 5E is more comfortable enforcing alignment on mortal creatures. Eberron has always had the principle that immortals have fixed alignment and that creatures such as undead and lycanthropes have alignment set by a supernatural force, but that natural creatures are able to choose their own path. 5E asserts that humans and demi-humans have this choice, but that OTHER races are shaped by gods and lack choice: Most orcs share the violent, savage nature of the orc god, Gruumsh, and are thus inclined toward evil. Even if an orc chooses a good alignment, it struggles against its innate tendencies for its entire life.

You can see my thoughts on orcs in Eberron here. I like calling out that orcs are not human and have a different sort of mindset — having a nature driven to strong passions and emotions — but not one that is inherently driven to evil. To me, this comes back to the story you want to tell. As I’ve said before: in Eberron, the Order of the Emerald Claw exists as the bad guys you know are bad — the force you KNOW you can feel good about fighting. This is what 5E is trying to do here with orcs and evil dragons. I just prefer that when you meet an orc in Eberron, you don’t know if she’s a cruel cultist of the Dragon Below or a noble Gatekeeper Druid.

Anyhow, that’s all for now. Feel free to share your thoughts and questions about alignment in Eberron below! And thanks as always to my Patreon supporters, who keep this blog going!

Q&A

How could a good follower of the Mockery or the Keeper be in Eberron? How could a good adventurer justify following the precepts of the Dark Six?

I have a half-written article about the Dark Six and their role in the setting, and that will delve into this subject in depth. It’s very difficult to have a good-aligned character dedicated specifically to the Mockery, because the Mockery embodies the cruelest aspects of war: deception, terror, dishonorable combat. The Mockery is about victory by any means necessary. But this comes to the conflict between personal alignment and long-term motivation. Someone dedicated to the Mockery should be evil… but they could be fighting for a just cause. When swords are drawn they will behave dishonorably, because they believe the idea of honor in war is stupid. But they may be fighting for the greater good. I’ll call out that one group that includes the worship of the Mockery is a sect called the Three Faces of War, which embraces Dol Arrah, Dol Dorn, and Dol Azur (the Mockery) as the three forces that govern the battlefield, encouraging followers to understand them all.

So essentially: the Dark Six embody frightening and dangerous behaviors: pursuing dark magic, dishonorable conduct on the battlefield, the destructive power of nature, wild emotion and passion, change and chaos, death. But someone can embrace one of these concepts as a positive tool for their community. I’ll get into this more deeply when I write the full article, but I can see heroes and villains tied to any of these concepts.

Why the Blood of Vol is an evil religion in 3.5? In my opinion, it doesn’t have anything inherently evil in its precepts… it´s about protection of the community and unlocking your true potential. That seems pretty neutral to me. In fact, in 4th edition the cult was categorized as unaligned…

In 3.5, every faith has a divine power source. The alignment of the divine power source, among other things, determines whether a cleric turns undead or rebukes them. The Blood of Vol has a friendly relationship with the undead and thus channels negative energy., hence the power source is “evil.” The evil alignment was also a holdover to the idea that “people who associate with undead must be evil.” This reflects the general view of the people of Khorvaire: because the Blood of Vol associates with undead and many of its followers hate the Sovereigns, they must be evil. Ever since the original ECS — in the Sharn sourcebook, Faiths of Eberron, 4E — the Blood of Vol has been presented in a more positive light, clarifying that despite channeling negative energy, the faith itself isn’t inherently evil. I’ve written about this at length in this article.

If Eberron assumes that there may be persons that fail to live up to the ideals of a group or ideology (e.g. as happens with the Silver Flame) or dark sides to good persons/groups and vice versa, what are the dark sides (if any) of the Kalashtar and the gray parts of the inspired. I have the feeling that they are portrayed as archetypes of good and evil aspects, respectively. Am I wrong?

You are in fact wrong. But it’s complicated.

The Inspired are mortal vessels directly possessed by Quori. As a result, you know that the Inspired are evil. However, as noted above, that’s personal alignment – which doesn’t tell you anything about their long-term motivation or the impact of their actions. The Dreaming Dark is an agency that is carrying out an evil agenda, and Inspired agents of the Dreaming Dark are reliably evil. But the majority of the Inspired are ambassadors and administrators maintaining an empire. A typical Inspired overseer feels no empathy for his human subjects and would feel no remorse if he had to slaughter them; but most of the time he DOESN’T have to slaughter them, and furthermore he knows that the best way to help his people accomplish their goals is to keep his subjects content. Subtlety and charisma are the greatest weapons of the Quori; they are masters of propaganda and manipulation, of tricking you into thinking you want to do what they want you to do. Which means that while they may BE evil, most Inspired appear to be benevolent rulers. They provide for the needs of their people. They will not tolerate crime or disobedience, and they will act ruthlessly and swiftly to enforce this. Nonetheless, those Riedrans who are content to follow the path assigned to them needn’t worry about food, shelter, or security. The Inspired see to their needs and protect them.

What this ultimately comes down to is that the Inspired have done a good thing: they have created a stable society whose people by and large need not worry about crime, war, disease, hunger, or even bad dreams. However, they have accomplished this by doing an evil thing – stripping people of freedom and choice. The typical Riedran doesn’t want to BE free of the Inspired… because they’ve created a society where he doesn’t have that choice. On the other hand, a Riedran farmer is likely to live a far more comfortable, stable, and secure life than his counterpart in Breland or Karrnath. So… are the Inspired purely evil? If you destroy them, you’ll throw Riedra into chaos and civil war, unleash famine and plague… is that a good act?

Now let’s look at the kalashtar. The race was created when rebellious Quori of good and neutral alignment fused with human hosts. However, that was well over a thousand years ago. Unlike the Inspired, the kalashtar aren’t directly possessed by their Quori spirits; they are merely influenced by them, and that influence comes through instinct and dream. An Inspired will always match the alignment of its Quori spirit, because it literally IS the Quori spirit. Kalashtar, on the other hand, aren’t required to match the alignment of their Quori. If the alignment of the kalashtar is radically different from that of its bound Quori spirit, it will create emotional dissonance that will result in mental instability or outright madness… but that can still make for a very dangerous villain. This is especially relevant for orphan kalashtar who know little or nothing of the history or origins of their people; the Quori voice is part of what will shape their character, but it’s not alone. This is discussed in more detail in Races of Eberron.

So first of all, you can have literally evil kalashtar. Beyond this: Just as the Church of the Silver Flame and the Blood of Vol have groups of extremists whose actions soil the fundamental principles of their faiths, there are extremists among the kalashtar as well. Overall, the Adaran kalashtar live by principles of patience and perseverance, confident that through their actions they are pushing the cycle closer to the turn of the age and destruction of the Dreaming Dark. Overall, they have avoided acts of aggression against Riedra, not wanting to harm innocents in their struggle with the Dreaming Dark. But there are exceptions. There are atavists who believe that they must take the offensive against il-Lashtavar – even if that means killing or torturing the innocent pawns trapped in the web. They will and should stand out because this behavior is so unlike the kalashtar norm, and it may create mental dissonance. But it’s still there. Beyond this, there are kalashtar who actually envy the immortal Inspired, and want to actually become like the Quori themselves. So in the end you can find darkness among kalashtar – even among the followers of the Path of Light – and there are Inspired whose lives are devoted to ensuring the comfort and survival of civilians.

You speak of good and evil immortals as metaphysical good and evil. But do you see a space for metaphysical neutrality? I think that something like that could be the Inevitables, but they could as well being bad if you depict evil as lack of empathy.

Lack of empathy is described as ONE of the factors for setting alignment; it’s not supposed to be the absolute measure. The article begins by noting that there is a place in Eberron for moral absolutes — the idea that you always know you’re doing the right thing by opposing the Emerald Claw — and this is the role of immortals. They aren’t about shades of grey; they are incarnate symbols of extreme ideas. An evil immortal isn’t just slightly evil — the evil of performing a minor cruel act without empathy — they are dramatically evil.

And bear in mind that even a lawful neutral mortal can assert that the requirements of the law are more important that sympathy for another human; but that’s not JUST driven by a complete lack of feeling for others, it’s that there is another principle that is more important. This is where neutral immortals live: there is a guiding principle that drives them, and this outweighs any consideration of good or evil.

So yes, neutral immortals exist. Especially in Daanvi, Dolurrh and Syrania.

In Shavarath there is a perpetual war between good and evil, law and chaos. But how in this eternal war that nobody can win there is space for angels for being good, for devil for being evil? I even think that they know that no action can end the world and no opponent can be killed.

This is really a question that needs to be answered by an entire post an about Shavarath. But I’ll touch on it at a high level. First of all, the forces that fight the eternal war don’t expect to ever WIN. They believe that outcome of their war — the balance at any given moment between good and evil, law and chaos — is reflected across ALL REALITY. ANY victory or loss — seizing a keep, moving a battle line forward ten feet — will in some way be reflected across all of the planes. So for the archon EVERY victory matters, and the most important thing is to never falter and never let evil gain ground.

Beyond this, what’s been said before is that The three largest forces in Shavarath are an army of Archons, an army of Devils, and an army of Demons. The Archons embody the concept of just battle and war fought for noble reasons. The Devils reflect violence in pursuit of tyranny and power. And the Demons are bloodlust and chaos, random violence and brutality. There’s two things to bear in mind. First, for these immortals acting in a good or evil manner isn’t a choice; it is the only way they know how to act. Again, they are SYMBOLS as much as anything else. But how does this manifest? That brings us to the second point. There are civilians in Shavarath. An archon reflects war fought for just cause, protecting innocents. A demon embodies brutality and cruelty. As a result, there are innocent, noncombatant spirits in Shavarath — because there HAVE to be so that the archons can protect them, the demons can torment them, the devils can enslave them. This goes back to my post about Thelanis: you have the Archfey and greater fey who embody stories, but you also have the lesser beings who act as the set dressing. These beings may be immortal in the sense that if one dies, a new one will eventually appear to take its place… but it won’t be the same spirit. Memory and experience will be lost. The same is true of lesser archons, devils, etc. The mightiest spirits will return with their personality intact, but for lesser immortals, death IS death of your identity; it’s just that you know a new spirit will rise to take your place. So the archon who places itself at risk to save an innocent IS making a noble sacrifice, even if a new archon will always emerge to take its place should it fall.

Beyond that, this is definitely a discussion for an article about Shavarath, so I’m not going to go into further detail on this.

To what extent are quori evil? In some ways the dreaming dark behave as more as LN than LE. They don’t indulge into cruelty, they are just terribly cold, desperate and efficient.

There’s a number of factors here. The first is that the fact that the Quori don’t engage in needless cruelty in Riedra isn’t an act of kindness; it is a calculated form on psychological manipulation, which the Quori excel at. They need a docile population. Rather than enforce their rule with force and terror—things that breed defiance and resistance—they have manipulated their victims into embracing their conquerors. And as others have noted, they did this by inflaming wars, manipulating fears, and utterly destroying a number of cultures. What they’ve done is a trick. They’ve created a cage and convinced their victims that they WANT to be inside it. It’s not kind; it’s just that a prison with golden bars is more effective than one made of barbed wire.

We then come back to one of the main points of this article: That personal alignment may be at odds with the actions a character takesAn evil person can do a good thing. The Quori have created a peaceful society because it serves their purposes; that doesn’t make them good. The Quori are sculptors of nightmare who feed on negative emotions. Tsucora quori feed on mortal fear. Here’s a quote from the 3.5 ECS: When they are not serving in the great cities of their nightmare realm, (tsucora Quori) hunt the dreaming spirits of mortals. Most tsucora are cruel and calculating; they enjoy having power over others. So first of all: the Quori love manipulation and control, and that’s something that comes out in Riedra, even if that manipulation appears to be peaceful. Second, a quori doesn’t HAVE to indulge its appetite for cruelty in the waking world, because any time it goes back to Riedra, it can take a break and torment a few mortal dreamers.

So the quori are definitely embodiments of evil. They love manipulating and tormenting mortals. It’s simply that their long-term goals—ensuring their continued survival—take precedence over indulging their inherent cruelty.

The Age of Demons and You

Everyone in Eberron knows the story of the Progenitor Wyrms. There are a few who believe that these beings were literal dragons who ruled over a civilization we can’t even imagine… that they turned on one another and destroyed all traces of that world in their feud. But the common myth — shared in various forms by almost every culture — paints things in more mythical and metaphorical light. Here’s one version.

The Progenitor Wyrms breathed creation into the void. Siberys breathed fire and kindled the endless flames of Fernia. Khyber’s icy breath formed the frozen depths of Risia. They had new ideas and worked together to give those form. Siberys envisioned a realm of peace, and together they shaped the serene towers of Syrania. Khyber demanded an endless war, and so Shavarath was born. Eventually they made a place where all of these creations could convergence — a realm where there was both life and death, war and peace, darkness and light. And it was in this place that Khyber turned on the others, tearing Siberys to pieces. Eberron grappled with Khyber. She couldn’t defeat her sister, but she caught Khyber in her coils, wrapping around her. Eberron transformed herself into a living prison, becoming the world itself, forever trapping Khyber within the world. Dying Siberys coiled around Eberron, and so it remains today: The Dragon Above, The Dragon Below, and The Dragon Between.

Life was the only prison that could hold Khyber, and so Eberron gave birth to the natural world. The blood of Siberys fell from the sky. Some drops quickened as they fell and became the celestial couatl. Others touched Eberron, and from this union the dragons were formed. Where blood struck ice, a white dragon emerged; where it touched a swamp, a black dragon was born. Thus the dragons are the mightiest creatures of the natural world, imbued with the magic of Siberys and yet still born of Eberron and thus mortal.

Khyber could not escape her prison, but her fury spawned horrors both endless and mortal. The host of fiends rose from the depths and laid claim to Eberron, twisting the natural world and tormenting its creatures. Terror ruled for an unimaginable time. This was the First Age of the world… the Age of Demons.

As I said, this is one version of the Progenitor myth. In some versions, the Progenitors begin as siblings working in harmony. In others, they were always rivals seeking to outdo one another with acts of creation. Some say that the entire act of creation was driven by their pursuit of the Prophecy… and that Khyber killed Siberys in an attempt to harness this power. As a game master it’s up to you to decide if any element of this is true. Did three mighty beings create reality? Were they literally dragons, or unimaginable beings of untold power? Or is this all just a way to explain the world, the ring in the sky, and the darkness below where horrors are born?

Whatever the origin of the world, we haven’t talked much about the Age of Demons. But the legacy of the First Age still haunts the present day. Fiends and dragons spar in the shadows, and the threat of the Overlords is an eternal threat, held at bay by the light of the Silver Flame. But what was the world like in those days, and what would a return of the Overlords actually mean?

About The Overlords…

I’ve covered some of these topics in the past. This post is an extended discussion of the Overlords of the First Age, including a list of known Overlords, the nature of their bonds, and what they might do if released. This post discusses the Demon Wastes and the nature of demonic ruins. Here’s a quick summary of things you should know.

  • The Overlords are immortal fiends with godlike power (equivalent to divine rank 7 in 3.5 terms). At full power, an Overlord exerts influence over a broad region, but this dominion is finite; it might cover a country, but not an entire continent. There were approximately thirty Overlords, and between them they dominated the world. While they have the equivalent of Divine Rank and while I may refer to them as “gods” in this article, they ARE NOT ACTUALLY DEITIES. They cannot grant divine magic, though a devout follower might be able to draw power directly from Khyber as a result of their faith. 
  • The Overlords cannot be permanently destroyed. The couatl sacrificed themselves and fused their celestial energy together to create the Silver Flame, a force capable of binding the Overlords and most of their minions.
  • While most of the fiendish forces were bound with their masters, some slipped through. These beings largely work to release their masters, and they are called The Lords of Dust. They are opposed by the dragons of The Chamber.
  • Each Overlord is bound in a physical vessel, but it is the power of the Silver Flame that keeps them bound. They can only be released if a particular piece of the Draconic Prophecy comes to pass. The Draconic Prophecy is constantly evolving, and so the Chamber and the Lords of Dust study it and seek to manipulate it to achieve their goals.
  • Even while bound, the Overlords still influence the regions around their prisons. Most Overlords are effectively asleep, and this influence is essentially an effect of their dreams. A few — such as Bel Shalor, the Shadow in the Flame — are aware and actively scheming.
  • “Demon” usually refers to a chaotic evil fiend, but it can also be used as a general term for any evil immortal, and this is its context of “The Age of Demons.”

An Age of Demons

The Overlords dominated Eberron for millions of years. They didn’t choose to rule. There wasn’t any sort of organized civilization as we would recognize it. The Overlords didn’t form a government or establish countries. Rather, they shaped reality within their dominions to reflect their nature. The Heart of Winter embodies the killing cold, and bitter ice engulfs any land where she resides. The Rage of War thrives on strife and conflict, and armies clash in his wake. Katashka the Gatekeeper sets the dead against the living. Where the Overlords raised cities, it was because the city was somehow a part of this identity. Rak Tulkhesh might create a fortress simply so it could be besieged. The dark metropolis of Eldrantulku was home to clans and guilds whose endless intrigues reflected their master’s love of betrayal and discord. Mortals caught in the sphere of an Overlord would be swept into these things and forced to play a part in them. But these things didn’t build towards anything. The fortress of Rak Tulkhesh would be forgotten once his attention shifted, replaced with some new battle. We sometimes say that the Overlords had mortal slaves, but this implies an institution of slavery; it’s more accurate to say that all mortals were helpless playthings caught in the dreams of cruel gods.

The Overlords weren’t allies and had no interest in cooperation. When the domains of two overlords overlapped they would clash, and many took great joy in these conflicts. But mortals remained helpless pawns.

We have no records of precisely what creatures existed at that time or how they came to be. The Ghaash’kala orcs and lizardfolk of Q’barra seem to have traditions that can be traced back. Some believe that means these races were widespread. Some say that the orcs were created by demons, that Rak Tulkhesh imbued hobgoblins with his rage and that the Silver Flame redeemed them. The human and demihuman civilizations covered in canon didn’t come into existence for many tens of thousands of years. The dragons were first; then the giants; then the elves and goblins and dwarves. As a DM, feel free to explore this however you see fit. If you wish to add an ancient human civilization that rose and fell while the giants still ruled Xen’drik, go ahead.

The couatl helped mortals resist the influence of the Overlords, and it was this that ultimately allowed a resistance to form — primarily the dragons (themselves imbued with some of the essence of Siberys), but also other mortal species. The Overlords are immortal, and there seemed to be no way to achieve a true victory… until the Prophecy revealed the way that the Overlords could be bound. This led to the couatl sacrifice and the kindling of the Silver Flame. While the Couatl formed the Flame, just as with Tira and Bel Shalor, it took mortal heroes to complete the binding; this is where Ourelonastrix, Dularrahnak and other champions played a crucial role. The Overlords and most of their minions were bound; their works collapsed; and the normal course of history began.

What Does This Mean?

First of all, understanding the nature of the Age of Demons helps understand why the Lords of Dust don’t just take over Khorvaire. They don’t want to rule this pathetic, mundane world. They want to return to a time when their gods walked the world and reality bent to their will. Bear in mind that the Lords of Dust are immortal beings who may have been around for a million years. They aren’t human, and their motives and the way they experience time are unlike those of mortal creatures. They, too, are incarnate ideas. They are for the most part aspects of their master’s domain, and pursuing the release of their master is a natural thing. To be sure, there are a few of the Lords of Dust who want to supplant their Overlords and steal their power… but that sort of behavior would be most common in a servant of someone like Eldrantulku or even Bel Shalor, both of whom embody corruption and betrayal.

It also shows why the Lords of Dust aren’t close allies. The Overlords fought one another more often than not. The Bleak Council of Ashtakala was established to prevent the Lords of Dust from interfering with one another accidentally, and to allow sharing of resources when it is useful. But the key word there is accidentally. The circumstances that will release one Overlord might actively block the release of another; even failing this, two rakshasa might pursue a personal vendetta that goes back long before human civilization.  This post talks more about the Council of Ashtakala, the binding, and the relationships between Overlords.

The Nature of the Binding

The spirit of each Overlord is contained in some sort of vessel. However, it is the Silver Flame that binds the spirit to the vessel. The only way to release an Overlord is to follow a particular path of the Draconic Prophecy. The Lords of Dust seek to drive the world down these paths, while the dragons of the Chamber work to identify and negate Prophetic paths that could release an Overlord. Prophetic paths are very specific; it’s not simply Queen Aurala must die — something a rakshasa could easily do on its own — it’s that The seventh son of the Great Kraken must slay an innocent queen with the Blade of Sorrows, in the belief that doing so will save the world. The rakshasa can’t do this alone. But to make it happen, they need to make sure the following things happen…

  • Aurala becomes Queen.
  • Someone becomes “The Great Kraken” (probably a Lyrandar heir) and has seven sons.
  • That seventh son acquires the Blade of Sorrows.
  • The seventh son is convinced that killing Aurala will save the world, and successfully carries out this assassination.

In setting this up, the Lords of Dust also want to use a light enough touch that they aren’t noticed by the Chamber. The key point here is that a rakshasa may end up helping player characters. They want this Lyrandar heir to become a champion who would try to save the world, and they want him to acquire the mighty Blade of Sorrows. So for a time, the rakshasa would actually be acting as a patron for the group.

Of course, there’s two forces that might interfere: the Chamber and other Lords of Dust. As I mentioned before, the circumstances that release one Overlord might block another; while killing Aurala might release Sul Khatesh, it could be that Tul Oreshka needs Aurala to marry the Seventh Son of the Great Kraken and to have a child who will then be sacrificed. Meanwhile, if dragons of the Chamber identify this particular thread, they will try to find a way to block it… which could range from keeping the Great Kraken from having children, hiding the Blade of Sorrows, or simply killing the Seventh Son. This all ties to the fluid nature of the Prophecy. There are so many possible threads that the Chamber doesn’t know them all — and any time an equation is altered, the Prophecy shifts to account for it. There will ALWAYS be a Prophetic path to release Sul Khatesh. If the Chamber kills the Seventh Son of the Great Kraken, a new path to release will be established… but it will take time for her prakhutu to discover the new path, and it could be decades or centuries before that path can be fulfilled.

So the point here is that the path to releasing an Overlord is generally something that will have been in motion for a long time, and if it connects to player characters, it may involve a series of events: gaining power, killing an enemy, acquiring an artifact, falling in love, etc, etc. If you want quick action, choose a path that can be resolved quickly. If you want things to be more dramatic, let PCs discover that they have a long-term role that has yet to play out. Say two PCs become romantically involved. What happens if they learn that their (as yet unconceived) child is destined to release Rak Tulkhesh?

All of this ties to the idea that the Dragon-Fiend conflict is a long term cold war. It involves the most epic threats to the world… but it’s something that can’t be rushed by demon or dragon, and a struggle that plays out over the course of decades and centuries.

The Fraying of Bonds

RELEASING an Overlord requires the completion of a Prophetic Path. However, there’s a range of options between absolute release and total imprisonment, and this is where Overlords like Rak Tulkhesh and Bel Shalor live.

When the Overlords were first bound, they were in absolute torpor, unaware of their surroundings and influencing the world only incidentally. But each Overlord embodies an idea. when people within a certain vicinity of the Overlord’s prison embody that idea, it strengthens the Overlord. As the Overlord gains strength, it becomes more aware and more able to actively influence events. If this goes far enough, you can even posit a partial release — the Overlord might not be able to exercise its full power, or to venture far from its prison, but it could manifest a physical form and cover a larger radius with its effect. This is what happened with Bel Shalor, who obtained a partial release and exerted influence over Thrane for a year before being rebound by the sacrifice of Tira Miron in what is now Flamekeep. You could even present a story where partially releasing an Overlord and rebinding it is desirable, because its bonds have frayed severely and rebinding it is the only way to strengthen them.

While Bel Shalor remains bound an unable to physically manifest, he has a stronger connection to the Silver Flame and is able to tempt anyone who heres the Voice of the Flame. He doesn’t have actual coercive power (…yet…) but if people fall prey to temptation, that gives him strength and frays his bonds. Likewise, it’s been suggested that Rak Tulkhesh has vessels spread across Khorvaire and that his agents are actively aggession and hatred to strengthen their master. And of course, you could decide that this kind of fraying is all that is required to achieve a partial release, or that this is tied to the Prophetic condition of the bonds. If Rak Tulkhesh requires a specific sort of war to be released, the stronger his influence, the more chance he can help to trigger that war.

Beyond this: what about those vessels? I’ve already said that shattering a vessel doesn’t release the Overlord… it just spreads their influence. So… is that a GOOD thing? Is there any negative to the Overlord? Yes, certainly. The smaller the vessel, the more restricted its influence is in range and effect. An overlord with a singular prison might be bound to a Khyber shard the size of a small whale. This might have a powerful effect across a radius of miles and absolutely overwhelm weak-minded people in its immediate vicinity. By contrast, a shard of Rak Tulkhesh embedded in the hilt of a sword might empower and influence its wielder, and might have a minor effect in their vicinity (encouraging aggression in a 120 radius, say), but it’s not the same. On the other hand, it lets the Rage of War draw strength from a wider area. So breaking up a vessel sacrifices concentrated power for a wider net. If an an Overlord is truly released, its essence will be drawn from all its shards. So it’s not a requirement for its agents to reassemble a shattered prison; if it was, ALL prisons would have been shattered and scattered.

Other Ways To Use This

Obviously the endgame of plots involving the Lords of Dust can generally involve an Overlord. But what else can you do with the Lords of Dust or Overlords that doesn’t involve that epic conflict? Here’s a few points.

Trouble with Vessels. The vessels of the Overlords take many forms. Khyber crystals are common… and if those crystals are shattered, every shard has a link to the Overlord. So you could have a static, immovable prison that influences the region around it. You could have a shard of an Overlord’s vessel embedded into an object — creating a powerful (and potentially useful) item, but one that spreads the Overlord’s influence. A sword bearing a shard of Rak Tulkhesh would surely be powerful in battle… but it might cause conflict to break out in its vicinity, or drive the bearer into a rage. With either static or mobile vessels, you might also say that the influence is amplified under certain circumstances. The effects of Katashka’s vessel might be amplified when Mabar is coterminous, and the sword of Rak Tulkhesh could grow stronger with every battle in which it is used. Consider the ideas of “The Fraying of Bonds”, above. 

A Piece of a Puzzle. Releasing an Overlord is a long term project. PCs could be caught up in an early stage action — rakshasas or their agents seeking to steal an artifact, assassinate someone, manipulate someone. Success or failure won’t obviously alter the fate of the world, because it’s so far down the road… but it gives an immediate action to deal with.

Ancient Feuds. PCs could be caught up in conflict between servants of different Overlords, or even manipulated by one fiend into fighting another.

Spreading Influence. When Lords of Dust aren’t specifically working to release their masters, they may seek to strengthen the Overlord by encouraging the behavior tied to their sphere. Mordakhesh, the speaker of the Rage of War, encourages conflict across Khorvaire. Hektula might (in disguise) spread arcane knowledge — whether aiding an enemy cult or mentoring a player character — because the discovery of arcane secrets forges a bond with Sul Khatesh. Again, this doesn’t enable the RELEASE of the Overlord, but it increases their awareness and ability to affect the world from within their prison.

Active Agents. Setting the Lords of Dust aside, you can have mortals working directly with the Overlords. A barbarian berserker’s rage could come from a bond to Rak Tulkhesh; the fiend grants them great power, but will they some day demand a price? Likewise, Overlords are great patrons for warlocks, and you can find an Overlord for almost any pact. It could be that the Overlord begins with requests that seem harmless — for example, asking the warlock to battle the agents of other Overlords, so hey, they’re just fighting bad guys, right? Or perhaps the warlock believes that THEIR Overlord is actually just misunderstood; Sul Khatesh just wants to share knowledge the Silver Flame seeks to keep from humanity! You can certainly have a story where the longer it goes, the more questionable the requests get… or you could decide that while the Overlord is EVIL, their power can be used to achieve good things. The main thing here is to make sure the player is on board with the direction you’re going in.

Another option is to say that the power of the PC is drawn from the Overlord, meaning that the PC is actively weakening the Overlord by using that power — so the warlock isn’t doing the bidding of the Overlord, they are actually working against them and using their own power to do it. This is back to the Fraying of Bonds. Such a warlock isn’t significantly weakening the full immortal power of the Overlord, they are simply limiting its ability to perceive and influence the world. 

Agents of Darkness

A quick point, but an important one. It may be that you just don’t like rakshasa. That’s fine. Rakshasa are the most common native fiends, and they are well suited to subtle manipulation. But as noted in this article, any sort of fiend can serve an Overlord. And as noted above, you can likewise have mortal agents who are in some way empowered by an Overlord — with or without any sort of connection to the Lords of Dust. Some Overlords are called out as NOT associating with rakshasa; Tiamat and Dral Khatuur are two such fiends.

Good vs Evil

One question has come up a few times, essentially: why are the forces of evil stronger than the forces of good? Why aren’t there benevolent equivalents of the Overlords? If the rakshasa can’t be killed, how come the Couatl were sacrificed?

There’s two basic answers to this — one ground in mythology, and one based on game design.

Mythologically, consider the most basic lesson of the Progenitors. Khyber (immortal evil) treacherously defeated Siberys (immortal good). Eberron (mortal life) contains Khyber and holds it at bay. Siberys is dead, but his gifts — magic — empower the children of Eberron to fight the children of Khyber. The Silver Flame reflects this same metaphor: The couatl sacrificed themselves to create the Silver Flame, and now they can’t fight evil themselves — but through the Silver Flame empowers mortals to fight evil. Eberron is founded on the principle that evil used treachery to gain a strong position, but that mortals can triumph over it.

From a game design standpoint, one of the fundamental principles of Eberron is that it is a world in need of heroes. If everything is in balance — if the forces of good were as strong or stronger than the forces of evil — then heroes wouldn’t be as vital. If a rashasa is doing something evil, a couatl isn’t going to just show up and smite it, because that doesn’t involve YOU. Instead, the Voice of the Flame will give you a vision of the threat and the spirit of a couatl will empower you through divine channeling… but YOU are still the critical component.

So the short form is that we WANTED evil to be stronger than good, because that’s why the world needs YOU. There’s no all-powerful force of good that can solve the problem without you. With that said, the couatl weren’t destroyed. They sacrificed their existence as individuals in order to create a gestalt force of immortal energy with the power to bind ALL THE OVERLORDS. It’s simply that they can’t exercise that power on their own; they need mortals to be their champions. But that force for good is there. Anything that the Overlords can do can be undone by mortal heroes. There’s always hope; it’s just that there’s never an ABSOLUTE victory. There will always be threats for the heroes of the next generation to deal with.

Random Questions

Here’s a few questions that touch on this subject. If you have questions, ask in the comments!

Do the big bads of other settings have a place in eberron? Tiamat, jubilex, demogorgon…

Certainly. If the entity in question has godlike power, the logical approach is to recast it as an Overlord, and this is exactly what was done with Tiamat; see Dragons of Eberron for more information. If the entity is powerful but not THAT powerful — such as Demogorgon — there’s a few options. One is to place them in one of the outer planes, if there’s a good match. Another is to make them lieutenants of an Overlord, because remember, it’s not ALL about rakshasa. Orcus could be the prakutu of Katashka, if that fit your vision of him. The third option is what I suggested for Demogorgon when I converted the Savage Tide adventure path: to make the demon prince ruler of a realm within Khyber itself. As I talk about in this post, my vision is that Khyber is filled with demiplanes, which larger fill the role of layers of the Abyss. So Demogorgon could rule a realm within Khyber. Throughout most of history, he has simply dwelled within his realm — perhaps held in check by the Ghaash’kala or other agents of the Silver Flame. Now something has changed and he is reaching out to affect the mortal world.

Are there any Overlords imprisoned on Sarlona? Any ancient wielders of the Silver Flame (the human equivalent of the Ghaashkala?) Or do the Inspired maintain the barriers themselves?

Yes, there are Overlords in Sarlona. Secrets of Sarlona says  “Scholars sifting the legends of the Age of Fiends believe that three rakshasa rajahs are bound in Sarlona—one within the heart of Korrandar in Adar, one beneath the yuan-ti ruins of Syrkarn, and a third in the Krertok Peninsula of the Tundra.” The ancient human kingdom of Khalesh is presented as having had a bond to the Silver Flame and the Shulassakar; Khalesh fell during the Sundering, but a secret order of adepts might survive. But the Adarans act to contain the fiend in Korrandar, and the Inspired have an elite order known as The Edgewalkers who are trained to deal with this sort of thing.

Are denizens of other planes aware of the Overlords? What effect might a freed Overlord’s influence have on manifest zones, can effects of its dominion bleed through to other planes?

This answer goes both ways. Every plane has powerful entities that could match an Overlord. But these spirits are bound to their planes just as the Overlords are bound to Eberron. A manifest zone would be a beachhead that could give such a bring influence in another plane, but by default, the native powers of the plane will trump interlopers. On Eberron, Tul Oreshka has more power than il-Lashtavar; if Tul Oreshka extended herself into Dal Quor, the Dreaming Dark would put her in her place.

But that’s the default, and as always, the real question here is “What’s the story you want to tell?”

What could be some other ways that the Bleak Council can use the Draconic Prophecy against the Dragons (and all of Eberron as well) ?

The Draconic Prophecy is a series of complex If-Then statements. If (X) happens, (Y) will happen. It can predict the release of an Overlord, the death of an individual, a natural disaster, the rise of a cult, or anything else. If X happens, a massive volcano will detonate in the heart of Argonnessen. If X happens, manifest zones to Syrania will be cut off and the towers of Sharn will collapse. If X happens, an avatar of Tiamat will cause a civil war among the dragons. Generally these are all things that could happen. It’s not that doing the thing suddenly makes a volcano appear in Argonnessen; there’s a dormant volcano already there, and it COULD suddenly become active, but if this path is enacted it WILL happen. You are taking a possible path of the future and locking it in.

Is there any motives other then breaking free that a overlord could have? More concretely, how could a non-evil warlock constructively work with a patron that was revealed to be a overlord (at first seemed to be a elven tairndal ancestor)?

This is covered by my point above. They could be interested in something that will help them break free… in two centuries. Is the PC warlock concerned about helping start a path that won’t be resolved for generations? The could be interested in any sort of action that is logically within their sphere, because this theoretically strengthens them. Or for the simple answer, they could want the PC to fight the agents of other Overlords, enacting some old grudge.

Can you tell us more about Sakinnirot, the Scar that Abides? Any advice on how you can show Sakinnirot’s influence in and around Stormreach?

According to page 157 of City of Stormreach, the Scar That Abides is “patron to all those who plot bloody revenge, reveling in the gratification of a grudge satisfied. Its following is the cult of an injury savored, and wounds of both a physical and spiritual nature are left to fester in its name.” That same page calls out that Sakinnirot enjoys conflict between the Dragonmarked Houses, especially if that conflict ends in violence or ruin. Sakinnirot’s domains are Passion and Destruction.

Sakinnirot is clearly a cousin to Eldrantulku and Bel Shalor, who also specialize in sowing discord. But each are still distinct. Bel Shalor focuses on drawing good people to evil action. Eldrantulku specializes in pure strife and chaos. Sakinnirot is about lingering hate and resentment that builds to destruction… the infection that remains hidden until it is far too late to be cured. So the first and simplest way to reflect Sakinnirot’s influence is an increase in violent vendettas and feuds. This begins with people taking bitter offense at any possible slight, and nursing that hatred until it bursts into a violent flame. This can start small — an increase in murders, an innkeeper poisoning customers because they don’t appreciate her hard work — but it could build to dramatic tensions that threaten the city. Consider a Romeo & Juliet scenario where members of two Dragonmarked houses fall in love, resulting in the death both of the lovers and a few other members of the houses. This leads to further retaliatory measures and murders, which escalates to open, violent conflict between members of those houses, along with demands on other local houses and powers to take sides. It seems ridiculous to throw the city into chaos over such a thing — yet neither side will relinquish their burning hatred for the other. This is one example, but you could likewise see bitter rivalries between the Coin Lords and their followers, or open violence between followers of different religions. We’re back to the convergence of Passion and Destruction… the city becoming a haven for hate in all its forms, passion that leads to destruction.

Should Sakinnirot’s power grow, you could also play up the physical aspect of lingering wounds that won’t heal. Healing magics could begin to falter, initially healing for only half the usual amount… and if the effect continues, possibly failing altogether.

If one was to try to stat out The Scar that Abides, what would you theme his abilities around?

Follow up on the ideas suggested above. Wounds that won’t heal. The ability to amplify existing tensions… if I can identify a grievance between two people, I can use a suggestion effect to amplify this and force them to turn on one another. You can also play up the idea of bloody revenge, saying that Sakinnirot can return any injury done to him with even greater effect. And, of course, you can use the abilities of the Passion and Destruction domains as inspiration. Beyond that, like any Overlord, he’s a being of immense raw power.

In Eberron what is the difference between a Devil, Demon, and Yugoloth?

In many settings these beings are affiliated with a particular plane. In Eberron these classifications are much like “Elf” or “Dwarf” — they inform you about the basic nature of the fiend, but not its CULTURE… which is defined by its plane of origin. As a general rule, demons embody concepts of chaos and evil; devils concepts of law and evil; and yugoloths, just evil. This is discussed further in this post — in short, a devil from Shavarath is above the organized and evil implementation of WAR, while one from Fernia is about FIRE, and one from Khyber might just be about corruption and strife. In Shavarath, you have an endless bitter struggle between devils, demons, archons and more — but the devils of Shavarath don’t care about the demons of Fernia.

How would you Imagine an Eberron Campaign themed around thwarting the LOD to play out, how would you start it off and what direction/ story elements would you introduce to make for an exciting long term campaign?

Laying out an entire campaign arc is the sort of thing I’d want to devote an entire article to. There’s no one simple option. Are you focusing on pulp or noir? Are your players big damn heroes? Are they researchers who dig too deeply? This ties to the fact that the choice of Overlord would have an ENORMOUS effect on the flavor of the campaign. If I choose Rak Tulkhesh as my big bad, then I might have the players be former soldiers and have the campaign focus on their dealing with the scars of the Last War and the tensions that are driving towards a second war. Whereas if my Overlord is Sul Khatesh I’d want a strongly arcane part dealing with new arcane revelations. And if the Overlord is Katashka, I might do something more straightforward like the Age of Worms or a zombie apocalypse. I don’t have time to go into all these sort of options in depth. But the point is to start by choosing your Overlord and to consider: What are the actions that help her followers fray her bonds? What are the visible effects of her greater influence and awareness? What is the nature of her vessel? If it’s singular, where is it? If it’s split, how might the players encounter a fragment of it? If she could be released, what are the Prophetic conditions of her release? 

That last one is a big deal, because it’s something that the players should be driven towards and it’s something they would have to slowly piece together… even if they can’t stop it, the slow revelation of it would be an important part of the campaign. You’d never want to say “Surprise! You released an Overlord!” You’d want to say “Remember how that mysterious old man helped you get the Blade of Sorrows? How you all thought that was a little weird? Now you know why.”

So: I’d want to figure out the Overlord. I’d want to decide how their growing influence would be reflected in the campaign. I’d want to come up with the Prophetic seal and figure out how meeting that condition would be spread across the campaign. I’d want to come up with a “seasonal arc” that the characters are going to deal with at low levels — the Overlord and their Prakhutu may be the big bads, but what’s a compelling storyline — that may or may not have any connection — to start things off? So maybe the early bad guy is going to be ann Aurum greedhead who’s collecting Khyber shards. Eventually it will become an issue that’s he’s stupidly been bringing together shards tied to a particular Overlord. But initially he’s just a low-level bad guy who might start off hiring us to get shards, and who we can then clash with once we discover he’s bad, and that gets us a little ways and a little power before we start to realize there are greater powers at work.

That’s as much as I have time for now, but hopefully you get the idea.

I feel that there are two kind of Overlords: the ones that involve “moral corruption” and the ones that involve physical threats like killing cold. Do you agree that the first one are more interesting for a campaign? How is an Overlord of cold campaign different from one involving the plain of cold? 

There’s a number of different things to unpack here. First: I agree that the more subtle Overlords are generally more interesting for a campaign… but not every Overlord has to be part of a campaign. Dral Khatuur was created for use with a backdrop in the Frostfell, and was intended to justify the powerful magic and supernatural threats that explorers encountered in that place. She wasn’t intended to drive a campaign; she was intended to drive a short, horrific story arc. Thus it helps for the threat she poses to BE more concrete and obvious, because the players don’t have time to be drawn into a larger and more complex storyline. Tied to this, Dral Khatuur is called out as not having a faction among the Lords of Dust. She’s an Overlord, but she serves a different sort of story purpose. Her story included the possibility that if freed, she would reach out to strike Khorvaire or other lands, but that wasn’t the primary context in which she was presented. This same principle holds true of other Overlords. Tul Oreshka, the Voice in the Darkness, is an Overlord I’d be more likely to use as part of a short arc dealing with madness and revelation than as the big bad of an entire campaign. Katashka the Gatekeeper could be the main arc of an entire campaign, but I’d make that campaign about the dead rising to prey on the living, a blend of zombie apocalypse and ghost-story horror… and it would again be far more obvious and physically dangerous than the subtle machinations of Bel Shalor. And yet, that could be a tremendously compelling campaign if the players were in the mood for it.

How is an overlord of cold different from an elemental? And if all it wants is freezing and killing, how does he shows his immense intelligence?

Dral Khatuur isn’t an embodiment of the natural concept of cold. She embodies mortal fear of the cold and the darkness. She is the winter that steals the sun, the terror you feel when you hear the icy wind howling in the night. She can trap the spirits of those she kills; if that icy wind sounds like screaming, it may be the tortured cries of Dral Khatuur’s victims. She can even craft simulacrums of her victims out of frost, and send them back to prey on their friends… so if a comrade of yours disappears for a time in the icy dark and then returns, are you sure that it’s still your friend? In short it’s the same as a lycanthrope; it resembles a natural phenomenon, but it is embodying mortal fears as opposed to an actual, natural concept. This comes back to the fact that Dral Khatuur was designed to drive a suspense/horror story arc as opposed to a long term campaign.

How much is the undying court aware of the Overlords? What do the various groups in Eberron know about this story? I assume the general populace of Khorvaire knows often warped mythology, but do the sages of Arxanix know what rests underneath their island-towers? Does the Library of Korranberg have records on the Age of Demons? What do Phiarlan, Thuranni, and to a lesser extent, Medani know about this? What has the Silver Flame pieced together? Does Dariznu, for instance, know that a shard of Rak Tulkhesh’s essence lies below Thaliost? Do the Carrion Tribes know what exactly they worship?

I’ve lumped these all together, because it all ties together. The basic concept of the Overlords is common knowledge. Followers of the Sovereign Host assert that the Sovereigns defeated mighty demons in the dawn of the world; the Church of the Silver Flame is founded on protecting the world from fiends. So the GENERAL story is common knowledge: there were mighty demons, they were defeated and bound, and there are still lesser fiends out in the world seeking to prey on innocents and free their masters.

Now: the specific names and attributes of those fiends? Where they are bound? Much more obscure. It’s not simply that it’s unknown; it’s that accurate information is buried in massive amounts of inaccurate myths and outright lies. Aside from knowledge just being clouded by time, consider that throughout human history you’ve had agents of the Lords of Dust intentionally spreading misinformation. If Korranberg had a tome that was truly a threat to the Lords of Dust, they’d either have it destroyed or discredited. So this is the point of making a skill check. Say you set the difficulty of a check at 25. That doesn’t mean that if you get a 24 you know NOTHING — it means that you know an assortment of conflicting stories, or slightly inaccurate information.

The basic point here: in my Eberron, the cold war between the dragons and the Lords of Dust is the ultimate high level story. The Dreaming Dark and the Daelkyr have been causing trouble for a few thousand years; the Lords of Dust have been here since the dawn of time. They have literally been pulling the strings of history. The only reason they don’t rule the world is because that would be a boring waste of time. In MY Eberron, this is why I’m going to usually have some OTHER villain in the spotlight. You THINK the bad guy is the Aurum, or the Emerald Claw, or even the Dreaming Dark. It’s only as you work through these battles that you may discover that all of your previous actions — heroic though they were — were all leading down a particular path of the Prophecy.

But beyond all of that, in my Eberron it’s important to me to have the players at the heart of things. Does Dariznu know about Rak Tulkhesh’s influence in Thaliost? Well in MY campaign, either he doesn’t and the players may be able to help things by discovering this… or he knows about it and if someone keeping it secret and using it for his own ends, and the PCs may discover THAT. Same goes for Arcanix and Sul Khatesh. Surely it’s not a coincidence that Arcanix was moved to a location within the influence of the Keeper of Secrets. The question is if it was arranged by a human who hopes to gain arcane knowledge… or if one or more of the masters of Arcanix are agents of Ashtakala. So SOMEONE knows, sure… but I’d make it something the PCs need to discover, not anything like common knowledge.

With that said, I might have SOME locations that have been identified by the Church of the Silver Flame over the years. It’s just back to the core question: will it make a better STORY for the knowledge to be known, or is it more interesting for the players to uncover a secret.

As for the Undying Court, they surely know OF the Overlords. But their power — and interest — is limited beyond Aerenal. I’m sure they are very focused on protecting Aerenal from the Lords of Dust — just as they protect it from Argonnessen. But in my Eberron they aren’t actively out in the world fighting the Lords of Dust… because again, that’s the job of the PCs.

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Lightning Round 2/26/18: Languages, Elementals and Pirates!

I’ve just returned to dry land after organizing gaming on the JoCo Cruise. I’ve got lots of things I need to work on, but I have time to answer a few more questions from the last lightning round. As always, this is what I do in MY Eberron, and may contradict canon material. 

What are your thoughts on extraplanar languages?

The big question I’d start with is how do languages make a game interesting? D&D isn’t a perfect simulation of the real world; it’s a fantasy. We don’t need to have as many languages as we do in our world… just as we have fewer nations that we have in our world. So what is the point of having exotic languages? Do you want PCs to have to hire a local guide or work with a translator? Do you want to have ancient inscriptions that can only be read by a sage? Both of these things are valid, but you can have these with a relatively small number of languages. So I prefer to limit the number of languages I use, but also to play up the idea of regional dialects and slang. Common draws on all of the old languages of pre-Riedran Sarlona, so you can definitely get variation from place to place. When the paladin from Thrane is in a small Karrnathi village, he might have to make an Intelligence check to perfectly understand the conversation of the locals or a Charisma check to communicate clearly… unless, of course, he has a local guide to help out. It allows for the challenge and potential humor of limited communication while still allowing for the possibility of communication with no help. If a character has the Linguist feat or is from the region, I’d allow them to act as that local guide — so we’ve got a little fun flavor because the Karrn PC can joke with the locals at the expense of the Thrane.

With that said… per page 46-47 of the Eberron Campaign Setting, each plane has its own language. There’s Infernal, Risian, and a language called “Daelkyr.” But that’s not how I do things in my campaign… because again, how is it fun? Are your characters supposed to devote one of their limited language slots to the language of Irian? How often is that actually going to be useful? And if no one takes it, do they make a perilous journey to Irian only to find that they can’t speak to any of the inhabitants? Is that fun?

So personally, I do a few things in my campaign. First, most powerful outsiders can essentially activate a tongues effect. If an angel of Syrania wishes to be understood, you simply understand what it is saying. Lesser inhabitants of the plane likely won’t have this ability and will speak the planar language. With that said, I reduce the number of languages in existence, planar and otherwise. In my campaign, I use the following major languages.

  • Common is the shared language of the humans of Khorvaire. Originally people spoke a number of regional languages from Sarlona, but when Galifar was established a single language was set as the Common tongue and use of the others was discouraged; traces of these linger in regional dialects and slang. 
  • Riedran is the dominant language of Sarlona. It was established by the Inspired after they unified Riedra. It is sometimes called Old Common, because there’s a few places in Khorvaire (notably Valenar) where people speak it; but it’s simply a different regional language from the old kingdoms of Sarlona. 
  • Goblin can be considered Dhakaani Common. It spread across Khorvaire during the long reign of the Dhakaani Empire and smothered most existing languages, and it remains the dominant language of the pre-human “monstrous” inhabitants of Khorvaire — goblins, orcs, ogres, gnolls, etc. Many of the inhabitants of Droaam and Darguun don’t speak Common, but they all know Goblin. 
  • Giant can be seen as Xen’drik Common and is understood by most of the civilized peoples of the Shattered Land. This isn’t to say that the bee-people won’t have their own language, but Giant is the recognized trade language. 
  • Draconic is — surprise! — Celestial Common. While it is spoken by dragons, it is also spoken by a majority of celestials (including denizens of Syrania, Irian and Shavarath); most likely the dragons learned it from the couatl. Some scholars call it the language of Siberys, and it also forms the foundation of many systems of arcane incantation;  as a result, many wizards and artificers understand Draconic but never actually speak it.
  • Abyssal can be considered Fiendish Common and is sometimes considered the language of Khyber. It’s spoken by most fiends, including both the rakshasa and the fiends of Mabar and Shavarath. Native aberrations could also speak Abyssal.
  • Undercommon is the language of Xoriat, and is spoken by the Daelkyr and most aberrations that have a connection to Xoriat. Undercommon seems to constantly evolve, but anyone who understands it understands the current form of it. Curiously, this means that ancient inscriptions in Undercommon can actually take on new meanings because of this linguistic evolution.
  • Elven is the language of Thelanis, and in my Eberron it essentially combines traditional Elven and Sylvan; it’s the language of Aerenal, but also spoken by most Fey.

I call these major languages because pretty much anything you meet will speak one of them. In Khorvaire, you can talk to almost anyone using either Common or Goblin. The other languages are regional — and members of those communities will generally either speak Common or Goblin. Such regional languages include Dwarven in the Mror Holds, Halfling in the Talenta Plains, Gnomish in Zilargo, and the tongue of the Gnolls. Speaking one of these languages essentially allows you to have private conversations with a member of that community and can win you some social points… but Mror children learn Common as well as Dwarven, and in many holds Common is the first language used. A mechanical side effect of this is that if a player is making a character who’s biologically of one species but raised in a different culture — IE, a dwarf raised in Zilargo or a halfling from Sharn — I may let them drop their “racial” language for something more common to their background. The Zil Dwarf might know Common and Gnomish, while the Sharn halfling might speak Common and Goblin. As it stands I’ve had the Ghaash’kala orcs speak Goblin… but on consideration, it might make more sense for them to speak Draconic or Abyssal, as they had very little contact with the Dhakaani.

While most creatures respond to one of the common languages, the more obscure languages come up in exploration and adventure. Go exploring the ruins beneath the Mror Holds and you’ll only find Dwarvish (or Undercommon!). You could find an isolated tribe of orcs that still speak the long-dead Orcish tongue. Go to Sarlona and you might find old scrolls written in the lost language of Pyrine, requiring magic to decipher. PCs may not encounter dragons or demons often, but any artifacts or ruins from the Age of Demons will use one of their languages.

And as I mentioned above, I do consider the Quori to have their own language… but Quori immortals definitely fall into the category of “If they want you to understand them, you do.” They may be speaking Quori, but you’ll hear it as the language you know best.

Certain languages, such as Draconic, are usually important for magic. Would you say this is an innate property of the language or a result of early users and traditions?

Consider this: mortal languages were created by mortals. Human developed their own languages over time. The languages of immortals — which per my list include Draconic, Abyssal, Undercommon, Elvish and Quori — are part of the fundamental structure of reality. There wasn’t a time when primitive angels slowly developed language; they were created with inherent knowledge of Draconic, hence some calling it “the tongue of Siberys.” With this in mind, yes: I would say that both Draconic, Elvish and Abyssal are mystically relevant languages. They are often found in systems of mystical incantations because they do have more inherent power than mortal languages.

If the former, might there be useful information about magic or psionics in other languages?

Certainly. As I said, Abyssal and Elvish are equally relevant for arcane magic. I could see both Undercommon and Quori being tied to psionics; Psions might use mantras in one of these languages to focus their thoughts, even if they don’t know that’s what they are using. Xoriat is more connected to the tradition of the Wilder — ecstatic psionic power — while Dal Quor is tied to the more typically disciplined approach of the psion. This also ties to the idea of Undercommon constantly changing. There is something inherently unnatural and supernatural about Undercommonand knowing it changes your brain. 

Do you think that some of the more exotic “racial” languages might offer insight into the psychology of their originators? 

Certainly. I think any mortal language will tell you something about the culture that created it.

What are the moral issues with binding elementals into Khyber dragonshards? How sentient are they?

There’s no easy answers in Eberron. The elemental binders of Zilargo claim that bound elementals are perfectly content; that elementals don’t experience the passage of time the way humans do. All they wish is to express their elemental nature, and that’s what they do through the binding. The Zil argue that elementals don’t even understand that they ARE bound, and that binding elementals is in fact MORE humane than using beasts of burden. An elemental doesn’t feel hunger, exhaustion, or pain; all a fire elemental wants to do is BURN, and it’s just as content to do that in a ring of fire as it is in Fernia.

On the other hand, an Ashbound druid will tell you that this is a fundamental disruption of the natural order. And any random person might say “When a bound elemental is released, it usually goes on a rampage. That means it was unhappy, right?”

Maybe… or maybe not. In my opinion, the “raw” elementals — the “fire elemental” as opposed to the more anthropomorphic salamander, efreeti, or azer — are extremely alien. They don’t experience existence in the same way as creatures of the material plane. They are immortals who exist almost entirely in the moment, making no plans for the future or worrying about the past. My views are pretty close to the description from the 5E Monster Manual: “A wild spirit of elemental force has no desire except to course through the element of its native plane… these elemental spirits have no society or culture, and little sense of being.”

When the fire elemental is released, it usually WILL go on a rampage. Because what it wants more than anything is to burn and to be surrounded by fire… so it will attempt to CREATE as much fire as possible. If it burns your house down, there’s no malice involved; it literally doesn’t understand the concept of a house, or for that matter the concept of YOU.  In my short story “Principles of Fire” one of the characters interrogates a bound air elemental; he advises a colleague that the elemental doesn’t really understand its surroundings, and sees humans as, essentially, blobs of water.

So: there’s no absolute answer. Some people are certain that the elementals are entirely happy, and others are certain that it’s a barbaric and inhumane practice. What I can say is that MOST of the people in the Five Nations don’t think about it at all; to them, it’s no different from yoking an ox or using a bonfire to cook dinner. If you want to create a story based on a radical group that has proof that bound elementals are suffering, create that story. But the default is that there are extreme views on both sides, but that the majority of people just ride the airship without giving a thought to whether the ring has been unjustly imprisoned.

Follow-Up: A question was posed about how this relates to the Power of Purity, a group of Zil binders that seek to understand elementals and to work more closely with them. This still works with what I’ve described here. Elementals ARE sentient. It is possible to communicate with them. They simply are sentient in a very alien way. They have language, but that doesn’t mean they think like we do. In my vision, “raw” elementals generally don’t speak with one another; the elemental languages represent the ability to interface with the elemental and to draw its attention in a way that usually doesn’t happen. An airship pilot needs to interface with and guide an elemental, and a Purity binder does this as well. Most binders DISMISS the need to understand the elemental consciousness; Purity binders feel that truly understanding elementals is the secret to vastly better results. And if you want someone to suddenly reveal that elementals are being tortured and to upset the industry, the Power of Purity would be a good place to start.

Are there any people of color in Eberron? Where?

Sure! They’re everywhere. Humans aren’t native to Khorvaire. They came from Sarlona, which is a land with a range of extreme environments. You have tropical Corvagura, the Sykarn deserts, the Tashana Tundra, temperate Nulakhesh, and more. As humans adapted to these environments, they’d logically develop different pigmentation as we see in our world. Beyond this, I’d imagine that people born in manifest zones might develop pigmentations never seen in our world… fiery Fernians, Lamannians with green hair or skin, and so on. The people who settled Khorvaire came from all these regions, and under unified Galifar they blended and merged. So we’ve also embraced the idea that you can find humans of any color across Khorvaire. Given this sort of diversity, not to mention the many different SPECIES people deal with on a daily basis — Gnolls! Lizardfolk! Elves! — we’ve never presented skin color alone as something that is a source of prejudice in Eberron. Like sexual discrimination, this is another place where we prefer to present the world as we’d like it to be as opposed to trying to present all the flaws of our world. If for some reason you’re looking to have a location that has a population of a particular ethnicity, you can either return to Sarlona or simply assert that this particular community traces its roots back to a particular region and hasn’t had the same degree of integration as most of Khorvaire… such as the ethnic Khunan humans of Valenar.

If airships weren’t an option, how would House Lyrandar transport a large amount of cargo from Sharn to Karrnath? Would they go around the Lhazaar Principalities despite the reputation for piracy, or be more likely to risk the Demon Wastes in spite of a lack of friendly ports and crazy monsters? 

There’s a few issues here: rivers, pirates, and cooperation between houses.

First of all: Rivers. I’m not a cartographer, and I didn’t personally draw all the maps for Eberron. Reviewing them today, I’d say that if I did, I’d add more rivers. Notably, I’d extend the Brey River to connect to the Dagger… which is to say, I’d have the Brey run across Breland, and we just call it “The Dagger” around Sharn. So normally there is a river that crosses through, but it does run along the Mournland now which is a little dangerous. But river barges should be a significant thing.

Second, let’s talk about pirates. The Lhazaar are known to engage in piracy, but they ALSO engage in legitimate merchant trade. And Lyrandar, like any Dragonmarked House, isn’t entirely staffed by members of the family. The ECS notes that “many of the dragonmarked houses and other enterprises hire Lhazaar ships and crews to move cargo from one destination to another…” So many Lyrandar vessels traveling along the east coast ARE Lhazaar — either licensed Lhazaar vessels or elemental galleons with Lhazaar crews. Which is mainly just a point that not all Lhazaar sailors are pirates — and that many of the ships targeted BY piracy are themselves Lhazaar vessels. Beyond this, the answer is simple: be prepared for piracy. A typical licensed vessel may be an easy target, but attacking an elemental galleon is no trivial thing for a mundane pirate; not only is the ship faster than yours, the captain can control the wind. It can be done — but it’s no trivial thing! Likewise, Lyrandar employs privateers — many of them Lhazaar! — to protect their ships. Piracy is a threat in Lhazaar waters or the Thunder Sea, but that doesn’t mean it’s a constant or inescapable thing.

Finally, don’t forget cooperation between houses. The whole point of the Twelve is to find ways for houses to work together and accomplish things none of them could do along. Lyrandar and Orien are in competition, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t cooperate in situations where they both can make a profit. So you will definitely have situations where cargo would be taken upriver by a Lyrandar barge, and then transferred to a Orien caravan or lightning rail to cross a stretch of land.

Eberron is a world where changelings and rakshasa exist. What precautions have people developed to deal with imposters? In 3.5 the spell discern shapechanger from Races of Eberron is a third level sell — do you see this spell existing and being implemented?

We’ve presented Eberron as a world in which rakshasa and dragons DO hide unseen and pull strings. While we added magic items like the Mask of the Misplaced Aura precisely to help deep cover agents avoid True Seeing, the fact that such hidden agents are part of the world implies to me that the ability to detect shapechangers IS NOT a trivial, commonplace thing. I think House Medani has produced a dragonshard focus item that duplicates the effect of discern shapechanger, and you can hire a Medani guardian equipped to watch for shapechangers… but it’s not a trivial thing, and you won’t find such agents in small communities.

With that said, Eberron is also a world in which changelings exist, and people know it. So turn it around to OUR world. We have the ability to test DNA and the like, but such technology isn’t available to the average person on the street. So if you knew shapechangers existed, what would YOU do? First of all, changelings can’t duplicate equipment. So, I suspect many people would have some sort of distinctive item that friends would recognize — a ring, a locket, a pin. Their friends would know this totem item, and if someone behaved strangely, the first thing they’d do is say “Is Johnny wearing his totem ring?” Aside from this, paranoid people might also fact check before they engage in risky behavior. “Where did we last meet?” A group of adventurers might establish code phrases that they regularly drop into conversation. This doesn’t have to be full on spy talk; it can be just as simple as friends having a funny call and response or an elaborate handshake. But if Bob suddenly doesn’t remember the handshake, that’s going to raise suspicions.

With that said, changelings are supposed to be able to deceive people. If society has an ironclad way to spot changelings, what’s the point of playing one? People will have customs that tie to this… but this is where changelings need to use Insight to guess the proper response or Deception to shift suspicion. When you’re trying to break into Dreadhold, you can bet they will have True Seeing and many other magical security systems. But in the village grocery, they aren’t equipped to flawlessly spot your changeling.

I’m confused about how the Galifar succession worked… or rather, how it managed to function for nearly nine hundred years before someone’s dispossessed siblings said “Enough!”

There’s two major factors here. First of all, it’s not like it was a surprise when a new ruler took over, with everyone in suspense about who it would be. The eldest heir would be Prince/ss of Cyre, understood to be heir to the throne. Subsequent siblings would be appointed as the Prince/sses of Breland, Karrnath, Thrane and Aundair, and would take over those roles whenever the current governor passed. If the Cyran heir died, the next eldest would shift up to fill the role; if there weren’t enough heirs to fill the governorships, you’d draw on the extended Wynarn family. So each sibling had an important role… and they weren’t raised to think they had a right to the throne. 

Second: who says it DID function for nine hundred years without incident? We’ve never delved deeply into the history of Galifar. Nine hundred years is a tremendously long time. Overlords have nearly broken free. Dragons have ravaged kingdoms. A false Keeper of the Flame split the faithful. Aundair was threatened by a plague of lycanthropy. And I’m SURE there have been attempted secessions, coups, and all many of usurpations. It’s just that the Last War was the one that finally brought the whole thing down. I’d love to delve more deeply into the history of Galifar when there’s an opportunity.

How many Wynarns are there in Khorvaire today, aside from the current royal families?

I can’t give you a count off the top of my head, but there’s certainly a number of Wynarns in all of the Five Nations. I’ll point out that one of the significant characters in The Queen of Stone is Beren ir’Wynarn, one of Boranel’s cousins.

That’s all for now! Feel free to ask questions below, but I am extremely busy this week and new questions may end up being added to the list for the next lightning round. Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters, who make this blog possible.

Dragonmarks: Lightning Round 2/17/18

I’m going to fall off the grid for a week, and I don’t have time for a well thought out post before I go… so I decided to do a quick lightning round of short-answer Eberron questions before I go! As always, these are just my personal opinions and might contradict canon material. Let’s go!

Are there any Eberron NPCs that are a Keith Baker avatar, or any that you put more of yourself into?

When we created Eberron, we made a conscious choice not to include NPCs like Drizzt or Elminster. Essentially, I want Eberron to be focused on the stories of YOUR characters… not mine. So I didn’t go into it with the idea of creating a personal avatar. With that said, I had to stop and think if there’s an NPC I’m particularly invested in… but really, I like ALL of them. I’m fond of the Daughters of Sora Kell, but I feel equally attached to Oalian, to Aaren d’Cannith, to Sheshka and Steel. I put a piece of myself into anything I make.

What would it take for Droaam to become a legally recognized entity in Khorvaire?

My novel The Queen of Stone posits a summit in Droaam where representatives of the Thronehold nations convene to discuss exactly this, and that’s what it would take: a majority of the Thronehold nations supporting the idea. You can read the novel to see one way that might turn out…

I can’t seem to find any direct interaction between Darguun and Droaam in the source books. How do they view each other?

I don’t see any particular bond between the two nations. It’s not like they’re somehow united because “We’re all monsters.” Medusas, trolls, harpies, werewolves — all of these things are just as frightening to a goblin as to a human. There ARE goblins in Droaam, but they have no common culture with Darguun… in part because the goblins of Droaam have been oppressed by ogres and trolls and other scary monsters for centuries. Add this to the fact that Droaam has only been around for eleven years. One of the main obstacles to Droaam being recognized is getting anyone to believe that it will actually exist ten years from now. Most of the other nations assume it’s going to collapse any day now… and Darguun is no exception to this.

WITH THAT SAID, as with all things in Eberron, the real question is what do you WANT the answer to be? What works for your story? Darguun is a Thronehold nation, but it is on shaky ground itself. Might Haruuc see an alliance with Droaam as strengthening his position? Or conversely, might he feel that Droaam has nothing to offer his people… and that a perceived relationship will actually tarnish his standing with the other Thronehold nations? Might he actually condemn or dismiss Droaam in an effort to avoid being painted as “another monster nation?” And if that were the case, I could easily see Sora Katra making an arrangement with one of Haruuc’s rivals… perhaps instigating a coup in Darguun to bring Katra’s puppet to power.

Meanwhile, what about the Dhakaani? They’d surely see the goblins of Droaam as a tremendous disappointment, fallen even further than the Ghaal’dar. But I still imagine that the Khesh’dar have agents hidden among the goblins of Greywall… waiting to see how the wind will blow.

So: as it stands, Darguun is a Thronehold nation and Droaam is not. There’s no common culture between their goblin populations and thus no concrete connection. Where do you want it to go next?

Can you talk about the shadow in the flame — Bel Shalor — before he/she was imprisoned during the Age of Demons?

Bel Shalor is covered in detail in the 4E Eberron Campaign Guide. He has some overlap with Eldrantulku; both turn allies against one another. But in contrast to the Oathbreaker, the Shadow in the Flame is more about corruption… of the good person convinced to do evil, whether they believe it serves a greater good or whether they are convinced to abandon their ideals. One school of thought suggests that Bel Shalor is the inspiration for the legend of the Shadow; if true, this would mean that Bel Shalor might have taught the dragon Ourelonastrix the ways of magic or even revealed the Prophecy to the first loredrake. If THAT is true, then Bel Shalor might have set in motion the events that resulted in the creation of the Silver Flame and the defeat of the Overlords. But there are also those who believe Bel Shalor’s “defeat” at the hands of Tira Miron may have been planned all along; that being intimately connected to the Silver Flame and able to whisper to all who hear it may have been what Bel Shalor wanted all along.

This ties to the idea that the Overlords aren’t HUMAN. They don’t want the things we want. They embody their ideas and derive joy from DOING what they embody. The Rage of War doesn’t drive conflict because he wants territory; what he wants is war, because that is what he IS. As such, Bel Shalor may be exactly where he wants to be — safely hidden where all assume he is harmless, yet in a position to manipulate and corrupt some of the most noble people in Eberron. Again, it’s entirely possible that Tira’s victory was a trick… and that the true victory will be when a new generation of heroes finds a way to separate Bel Shalor from the Silver Flame and somehow restore his original prison. Perhaps that’s a job for your PCs…

Do you have any ideas, in brief, for what immediate events are likely if the timeline were to advance for a few years?

That’s not a good question for a lightning round. There’s LOTS of things that could happen, and they intersect in many ways. To name just a few: King Boranel dies… does a successor take the throne, or does Breland end the monarchy? This intersects with Droaam: is Droaam recognized as a Thronehold nation, or does it go to war with Breland? When Lhesh Haruuc dies, does Darguun fall into chaos? Does a new leader rise from the Ghaal’dar? Or do the Dhakaani take over, and if so, who becomes their Emperor or Empress? The Valenar want a war… does someone take them up on it? Do the Inspired establish a stronger foothold in Q’barra? What happens with the Mourning… does someone find a way to harness its power, or failing that, to prove it’s no longer a threat? That’s just two minutes of thinking. If I had more time I could raise many more possibilities (we haven’t even touched on the Dragonmarked houses), how they intersect, and what seems most likely to me, but I don’t have that time.

Would Tritons (the 5e race) fit anywhere in Eberron? Would you use them instead of your previous ideas for merfolk, or as something else?

Certainly there’s a place for tritons in Eberron. But I’d want to think carefully about what that place should be. In 5E, tritons are fully amphibious and can live on land indefinitely, which isn’t an option for merfolk or sahuagin; if tritons were as widespread or as ancient as those other two races, I’d expect much more interaction between the surface and the water. Given that, I’d either say that tritons are a recent development or that they limited to a particular area. If they’re few in number they could have been created by Mordain the Fleshweaver or even magebred by House Vadalis – a dramatic breakthrough! If they’re tied to a particular area, it could be that they only breed true in manifest zones tied to Risia or Lamannia. Short form: there’s definitely a place for them, but I’d want to think about it carefully, and wouldn’t just use them in place of merfolk.

I feel like there’s not as much about Halflings as there’s been about elves and gnomes, dwarves, orcs and goblins. 

This is true, and I think it’s a good topic for a full post in the future.

What would be a good way for the Emerald Claw (and Lady Vol) to influence Karrnathi politics in the post war?

One option, off the top of my head: To accuse Kaius of embracing peace when Karrnath could have won the war, and of making too many concessions to the other nations to preserve that peace. Beyond that, back some other warlord as the true worthy ruler of the nation — the person who will sweep aside the nation’s decline under the Wynarns and restore Karrnath to greatness. A question is whether they publicly support the Blood of Vol as a tool that can help towards this goal… or if they play down that connection.

How would a Blood of Vol cleric justify an interaction with actually seeing and interacting with spirits of people they know?

They don’t have to “justify” it. The existence of ghosts or preserved spirits doesn’t violate the ideas of the Blood of Vol. The faith is grounded on the concrete fact that after death, souls are naturally drawn to Dolurrh, where they dissipate. Speak with Dead deals with the residual memories of the deceased and doesn’t change the fact that their spirits are lost. Meanwhile, lingering ghosts are no different from vampires or mummies; it’s great that they’ve managed to avoid dissolution in Dolurrh, but they’ve still lost their blood and divine spark. If the spirit has maintained full consciousness, that’s great! If it’s become some sort of predatory wraith, then the Blood of Vol cleric would be first in line to destroy it to protect the living.

Would a Death Domain Cleric fit in with the Aerenal philosophy?

Not easily, no. The Undying Court is fueled by POSITIVE energy and disapproves of channelling negative energy, which appears to be the focus of the Death Domain cleric. The Deathguard are willing to overlook spellcasters occasionally dabbling in negative necromancy, but a cleric who’s entirely about that doesn’t seem to fit in. It’s a far more logical match for the Bloodsail elves, who are the spiritual descendants of the original line of Vol… or someone who’s following the teachings of the ancient Qabalrin.

Do you think 5e’s magic item system fits Eberron as is or it would need changes? And the way they are bought and sold?

That’s a bigger topic than I can cover here. The short form is that Xanathar’s Guide to Everything goes a long way towards resolving these issues, introducing *A* system for creating magic items and introducing common magic items. It’s a question of defining what magic items fall under Eberron’s “wide magic” umbrella and what should be rare.

In several cases you pointed out that true dragonmarks are constructive rather then destructive. In dragonmarked, however, the jorasco prestige class uses the mark of healing for destructive, killing purposes. Do you feel it as a contradiction? Do you like the idea of that prestige class?

I didn’t create the nosomantic chirugeon, but I have no problem with it. I DID create the black dog, the Ghallanda prestige class that specializes in using the Mark of Hospitality to poison people. The whole point of the prestige classes is that they are people who are learning to use their mark in WAYS THEY AREN’T MEANT TO WORK… and most members of their own houses distrust or despise members of those classes. And again, in Eberron player character classes represent a rare and remarkable level of skill… which means that people with prestige classes are EXCEPTIONALLY rare and remarkable. So again, these classes don’t represent the natural evolution of the mark; they represent people taking a tool designed to do something positive and finding a way to use it as a weapon.

Do your gnomes draw more from 3.5 or 4e? Speaking to their physical appearance and the more explicit fey connection. 

Somewhere in between? I’m fine with the idea that there are gnomes in Thelanis and in some of the Feyspires, but that doesn’t somehow change my view of the evolution of the gnomes of Zilargo (who are noted as existing in a less civilized state during the Dhakaani Empire). So I’m fine with the idea that tens of thousands of years ago a group of gnomes were dropped out of Thelanis for some reason and ended up becoming the gnomes of Eberron. So any connection they might have to Thelanis is so far in the distant past that it has no significant impact on them in the present day… and it’s more an interesting curiosity than relevant to the modern gnome.

As for physical appearance, personally I like the 4E take on gnomes. This image above — Fred Hooper’s work from the Eberron Campaign Guide — is one of my favorite Zil images, doubly so because the woman in red is clearly casting a spell behind HER back.

Do the Quori and/or Dreaming Dark have any fears of the lords of madness or denizens of Xoriat? 

Why wouldn’t they? Immortals don’t necessarily fear death the way mortals do, but anything that can alter their fundamental consciousness or personality is legitimately terrifying. Beyond this, the Quori don’t understand the Daelkyr any more than humanity does… and as Lovecraft says, the greatest fear is fear of the unknown.

How does the Dreaming Dark react to other powerful influences on the world such as the Daelkyr/Cult of Dragon Below or Lords of Dust?

None of the major threats are buddies, which is one of the things that gives players a chance. The Dreaming Dark may not want to directly engage the Daelkyr or the Lords of Dust, but having an Overlord unleashed would certainly wreck al their carefully laid plans. So this is where you could have agents of a villainous force assisting PCs who are fighting against a different villainous force. At the same time, bear in mind that it’s not like they all have perfect awareness of one another. The Dreaming Dark doesn’t have a list of secret agents of the Lords of Dust or vice versa, and generally they WANT to avoid triggering conflict with other great powers when they can.

Would the Swords of Liberty have active campaigns against Cyran refugees in Breland and/or Prince Oargev?

Not defined in canon. It’s definitely a possible storyline for them, but it’s up to you what sort of spin you want to put on them. One possible approach for the Swords of Liberty is that they put democracy first – that they are first and foremost opposed to the feudal system and are interested in toppling monarchies across Khorvaire. In this case they might welcome Cyran refugees to their cause, saying that they are comrades in arms in the struggle to build NEW nations — though they’d definitely be opposed to Oargev, as the last remnant of a corrupt system. On the other hand, you could also choose to make them Brelish supremacists, interested only in perfecting their own nation — in which case they would definitely see Cyran refugees as a threat. Personally I’d do both; say that there’s different cells of the SoL that approach their goals in different ways. Thus you might have players who find they are sympathetic to some of the Swords, while opposing others.

That’s all I have time for! Feel free to post additional questions and thoughts below, but I’ll be off the internet for a week. Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters, who keep this blog going.

On the Edge of Hope: Building a Foundation

One of my resolutions for 2018 is to play more roleplaying games. I’ve been running an 5E D&D campaign in Eberron, and I’m about to start a second one, and I thought I’d share my process as I kick off a new campaign.

In some ways, I approach creating a campaign the same way I’d approach creating a TV series (I imagine). It needs a compelling basic story; a vision for a long-term arc, broken down with smaller “seasonal” arcs; an interesting set of core characters. And most of all, it needs to be compelling and engaging for the audience… which in this case is myself and my players. And like a show, it’s not mine alone. As the DM, I may be the creator of this series… but the players are all part of the writer’s room. They know the audience better than I do, so I want to make sure that I’m drawing on them to build a “series” we all want to be a part of.

The Theme: Hope

When I’m preparing to launch a campaign, I’d usually reach out to the players and discuss different possible paths. Looking back to the TV analogy, I’d pitch a few different show ideas. A spy thriller dealing with the cold war between the Five Nations? Over the top pulp adventure in Xen’drik? A crime drama on the mean streets of Sharn? In this instance, however, I have a specific idea want to explore… and enough players to draw on that I can present the idea and say “Who wants to play in this?”

That idea is a fantasy western, D&D by way of Deadwood and Godless. There’s a place in Eberron for almost anything, and the place for this is Q’barra. Human settlers came to Q’barra to escape the horrors of the Last War, establishing the region of New Galifar. As they laid down roots, they discovered that the region was rich in precious dragonshards… and this drew a host of prospectors hoping to make their fortune. The wild frontier also offers a haven for deserters, war criminals and refugees fleeing the Last War. These people moved beyond New Galifar, establishing a region known simply as Hope.

The idea here is that the “show” is set in a small mining town on the edge of Hope. In many campaigns the player characters are constantly moving from place to place. Here, I want to root the campaign in this one location. The town is going to be another character; I want the players to become invested in the town and its people. I want its success or failure to matter to them. And that means that I need to work closely with them to develop characters that have a reason both to be here and to stay here… and to have a vision of what they want. Again, if we were making a TV show, we’d want to have some idea of the arcs of each main character. What makes them interesting? Why are they here? And what conflicts or drama do they have that we can mine for stories in future episodes?

So I’ve presented the basic idea and have a group of players who want to be a part of it. Here’s what I sent out to those players.

You’ve got a stake in a small shard-mining town in Q’barra, Eberron’s eastern frontier. The campaign is going to be centered on this town; it will serve as a hub and your actions will directly affect the success or failure of the town itself. With that said, it’s important to establish YOUR connection to the town: why you’re here, why you’ll stay if things get hard, what you’re looking for out here. In particular, there’s a few roles that you could take on.

  • Someone needs to be the Law in town – serving the role of sheriff, taking the responsibility of keeping people safe and maintaining order. A fighter or paladin would be the obvious choice here, but this is Eberron; any class could do the job.
  • Someone could be the Faith of the town – the preacher who serves the spiritual needs of the community and aims to keep them on a path. There’s multiple religions in Eberron, but this is a small town… so if one of you takes this role, you’re establishing the dominant faith in the area. Logically this would be a cleric, druid, or paladin.
  • Someone could be the Money… someone with a stake in a local business. Perhaps you’re the owner of the local saloon, or have a mining claim. Note that this doesn’t actually mean you’ll have more money to use; it means you have an economic tie to the success of the town.

Now, you don’t have to take on any of these roles, but if you don’t, someone will. There’s going to be law, and there’s going to be faith; if you don’t fill these spots, I’ll create NPCs who will. So you can be the Law, or you can deal with the Law.

Here’s a few other basic ideas that could fit the campaign, just to help get wheels turning…

  • A warlock, bard or rogue could easily be a gambler, grifter or professional wandslinger – or a bit of all three. Alternately, you could be a legitimate entertainer trying to maintain morale.
  • A wizard or artificer could be a scholar who’s come to this region because of the ancient ruins in the area, or to search for unusual dragonshards. Such a character could also potentially double as a schoolteacher if they felt like it.
  • A ranger or rogue could be a professional bounty hunter, hoping opportunity will wander through town.
  • Any character could be scarred by involvement with the Last War, a bitter conflict that only came to an end two years ago. For the best of reasons, you could be a deserter or accused of war crimes; perhaps you disobeyed orders to protect innocents or killed a corrupt commander.
  • The halflings of the nearby Talenta Plains are a relatively primitive nomadic culture. A halfling ranger, barbarian or druid could have formed a bond to one of the other PCs and followed them to Q’barra.
  • You came to town because of your significant other or your family. Are they still here, or did they tragically die recently? If so, are you on a quest for revenge?

These are just a few ideas; please feel free to come up with completely different thoughts. The main question is what would bring you to a mining town on the edge of the world, and what would keep you there?

Deepwater

I started this off with a basic concept of the town, which has the default name of Deepwater. It’s newly established — less than a year old. It’s on the edge of a small lake, which is both a source of fish and water and tied to streams used by shard miners. The area is a manifest zone to either Thelanis or Lamannia, which is one reason the lake is so fresh and well stocked. I also have the idea that while House Tharashk runs a number of large mining operations, this is an independent town; they sell shards to Tharashk, but Tharashk is going to mainly exist in the shadows as the scary Big Company that might show up to buy everyone out. With that in mind, here’s the three factions I see as making up the population of Deepwater.

  • Dwarves from the Mror Holds. An Aurum concordian has underwritten many of the costs of establishing Deepwater, and these dwarves are working her claims. The dwarvers are miners and masons, working claims and doing much of the work of building the city itself.
  • Refugees from the war. The simplest answer is for these to be Cyrans, but they could be from any nation.
  • Members of a particular religion, interested in establishing a community for members of their faith.

This provides a general concept for the town and the balance of power… but now, as the players start to develop their characters, I marry the two things together. If a player chooses to take on the Faith role, then the religion of their PC defines that religious community. Depending on the character and the religion, the region could have some special significance to the faith. Likewise, the nature of the refugees is something I can adjust to match the background of the characters; if someone has strong ties to the Last War, then the refugees can be from their nation and potentially even include their family or people they served with in the war. Essentially, I’ve got a concrete model for a town… but with a lot of pieces I can flip around to immediately connect with player backgrounds.

Building A Party

Looking at my current run of this scenario, the first place volunteered to be the Faith, and wanted to be a Greensinger. First of all, this cemented the idea that the town was in a manifest zone to Thelanis. The religious members of the community are Greensingers from across the Five Nations, drawn together by their shared faith and a belief that Deepwater is a truly magical place; they look to the PC as their guide and their ambassador to the fey. I’ve introduced the term ‘Singer as a shortened way to refer to the faithful, noting that many of their rituals do involve group singing.

Next up, a player liked the idea of being a recently freed warforged with a tie to the Money. Talking it through, we decided that he’d fought for Cyre and had led a group of refugees to the Mror Holds after the Mourning. There, Londurak — the Aurum concordian — agreed to provide for the refugees, if the PC would agree to be her agent and look after her interests in Deepwater. As a result, his ties are primarily to the Dwarves… and he may have to deal with specific directives from Londurak.

Another player volunteered to be the Law. His idea is that he was a shifter who fought for Cyre in the Last War… and who was disillusioned both with his own actions in the war and with the actions of the nobility and the dragonmarked houses — the greedy and powerful putting their own interests ahead of those of the people. He’s a paladin of the Silver Flame, but the idea is that he doesn’t know it yet. He’s come to Deepwater to help these people prosper and to protect the town, and this new conviction has put him in touch with the Flame… but he’s still finding that out. As a result, he’s given me as the DM control of all of his supernatural paladin abilities. decide when Divine Sense activates, or if this is a moment when his urging his friend to keep it together will trigger Lay On Hands. He’ll figure it out soon enough, but it’s been fun so far. With this in mind, this definitely establishes the refugee community as being from Cyre. It also gives the Law and the warforged a solid connection, though they’ve taken very different paths; the warforged is working for a big industrialist, while the Law is crusading against industrial power.

The remaining three characters included…

  • A Cannith artificer, on the outs with the house (though not actually excoriated) and conducting research. She’s a sage and decided that she maintains the towns’ library, which is to say she has a few books in a closet. We also call her out as acting as a general teacher.
  • A half-orc ranger. He’s a hunter licensed by Tharashk, but also has a distant relationship with the house. He’s a foundling who likes the stories of the house’s origins in the Shadow Marches, but doesn’t see that reflected by the industrial force running mining in Q’barra.
  • A human hexblade warlock. We decided he was from a merchant family in Newthrone, but started running with a bad crowd. He stole an heirloom wand from his family which turned out to have more power and mystery than he bargained for, and this wand is his patron. He killed a noble in Newthrone and is currently on the lam in Hope. He owes a few favors to some bad people, and he’s still figuring out the story of his mysterious wand.

Working On The Town

For the next stage I brought the group together. I explained that the Law, the Faith, and the Money PCs each represented one of the three forces that had brought this town into existence and asked if they had a preferred name for the town; they were happy to leave it as Deepwater. I gave them all an overview of the region and the town, including the critical NPCs I’d created (such as Thorn Velderan, the local Tharashk agent). Then I had each player introduce their character to the group, and as they discussed their characters, I asked them questions about the town. For each character, I asked the player to tell me about a friend or a rival they had in the town; to tell me about a location they were attached to in town; and to tell me something about the local tavern. The Law pointed out that he had a background ability that let him spot the bad apples in a community, so I asked him to tell me about one of those bad apples; we talked that through and established Dwyer, a smuggler and dreamlily dealer in the dwarven community. Meanwhile, I also suggested ties people might have with the NPCs we’d already established. By the time we were done, people felt like they knew this town, and we’d already established some interesting allies and rivals.

What Comes Next…

The next step is to start planning adventures. I’ll talk about that in a future post, but I’ve got a lot of hooks to work with. Q’barra comes with threats of its own, tied to the modern scales and to the mythic history of the region. Will people stumble onto ancient ruins charged with dangerous magic? Will they come into conflict with the lizardfolk… or will they have more problems with the greed of the locals or the threat posed by House Tharashk? The presence of the Greensingers means I’m definitely going to weave Thelanis into the story. Meanwhile, three of the characters have people they’ve sworn to protect. So there’s a lot of toys in the sandbox.

Q&A

A big element of frontier towns is the isolation that makes it a frontier and how groups and individuals compensate… Are there seasonal or manifest zone periods which limit ingress/egress to Deepwater? How frequent are new arrivals? Do people mainly get around by foot, horse, rail, oar, or sail? How strong are any monopolies?

Absolutely. This article mainly focuses on the characters, and next time I’ll talk more about the town. But these are definitely the sort of things you need to know. All of this ties to the basic question of why settle here? What is it that made people choose this particular spot? Is it confirmed mineral wealth, or is it because of the reliable source of food and water? With this being Eberron, a critical question is what magical services are available and what dragonmarked houses are represented? What goods and services are easily available (and from whom), and what is in short supply?

Some of these subjects I called out ahead of time. For example, I told players that there’s no lightning rail and no speaking stone; there’s a Orien coach every week, and if you want to send messages, you send them with the coach. At the same time, I also don’t want to overwhelm players with too much exposition too soon. Just as with a TV show, I want to make sure that I draw the viewers in and reveal critical details over time as opposed to doing a huge info dump from the start. Case in point, the first adventure dealt with an unexpected seasonal effect of the manifest zone — something that will definitely be an ongoing problem for the settlement, and something that helps explain why this nice spot wasn’t already claimed by the scales. Now the players need to actively determine how to deal with it, and how to minimize the impact on the town. Similarly with the factions: I’ve established the three main factions in the town. Some of the player have connections with specific factions. I’ve mentioned critical NPCs tied to them. But I want to take a little time for the players to get to know these groups and people in the context of the story before I play up the conflict between them. I want the players to get to know the old dwarf mason and the ‘Singer who runs the tavern before I set the ‘Singers and dwarves at odds, so the players have a bit of a stronger personal tie to that conflict. But I’ll talk more about that in the future.  

I know that some rpg’s have game mechanics revolving around building, managing, and advancing strongholds and settlements. Some even make it into their own mini game. Did you implement anything like those for this game or do you prefer to keep that sort of thing loose?

Personally, I’m keeping it somewhat loose. I’ll offer the players critical choices: the town is doing well… would you rather see a speaking stone here, or a Jorasco healer? But I haven’t established it as a literal sub-game. In my opinion that really depends on your players. A certain type of player will really enjoy that sort of extra level of game; with my current group I think the higher level approach is the way to go.

It’s hard for me to imagine Western without guns. Did you make any specific effort to cover that gap, treating war wands and such like guns, or is it just sword fights in the streets?

I’m using Wand Adepts, as I described in my previous post; so far I’m pretty happy with the results. Wands follow standard arcane focus rules, and I’m currently playing with rods as two-handed focuses that increase the range of offensive cantrips by 50%… so that gives some of the flavor of pistol versus long gun.

How do you explore the faith of greensingers? 

Thelanis is close to Eberron, and there are many places where it bleeds over into the natural world. I’ve called out before that a dryad isn’t a part of the natural world. The Greensingers disagree. They respect nature — holding to the shared common beliefs of all the druid sects — but they embrace fey magic in their worldview. They don’t WORSHIP the fey; they simply seek to live in harmony with them, to respect their ways and to benefit from an association with them. It’s the classic model of the person who leaves a pair of old shoes on their doorstep with a saucer of milk, hoping some spirit will accept the offering and fix the shoes. Essentially, they believe that the world is a BETTER place when fey magic is a part of it, provided you understand their ways and know how to work with them. So the common Greensinger knows the stories of the fey, the signs of their passage and how to interact with them. They sing songs in Sylvan and celebrate those times when the worlds are close. And — as in this case — they seek out manifest zones and places where the two are close and they can find that magic in the world.

Meanwhile, Greensinger DRUIDS serve as ambassadors between the worlds, and often as agents of specific archfey. So in this case, the player character is bound to an archfey called The Forest Queen. But she balances that against her general duties to the community, which she serves as guide, protector, and ambassador.

So SOME Greensingers act very much as independent operatives. In this case, she’s first and foremost the guide of her community, using her personal ties to the fey for their benefit.

I love D&D, but sometime I feel like a limit the idea of “group”. D&d works better when the players are men on a mission. When they start wanting different things, maybe to the point of potential conflict, It’s not the good system anymore. In that kind of scenarios the apocalypse engine works far better for example.

Different systems definitely specialize in different things. With this campaign the players all agreed that what they wanted to play was D&D. So while I’m adding in this meta-level of the town as a character, it’s still understood that the primary drive of a game session will be the player characters joining together as a group to deal with a threat or to solve a mystery. Where there’s some intentional conflicts that could grow — notably, the warforged’s Aurum boss pushing him in directions the shifter sheriff won’t approve of — the warforged player is already operating on the assumption that this might be something that causes his character to rethink his allegiance and side with the party. Essentially, the players like the idea that there will be some tensions and issues they need to work through — but they are still working on the fundamental concept that events will bond them together as a party of adventurers and as friends. So if trouble arises between the Dwarves and the Greensingers, the players expect that their characters will be working together to try to heal the rift, not that they’ll take sides and fight each other.

So: I absolutely agree that it’s good to know what sort of experience your players are looking for and to consider whether you’re playing the right system to provide that experience. But in this case, people want the core D&D experience; I’m just adding more flavor around that core.

If you have questions or thoughts, post them below! And as always, thanks to my Patreon supporters for keeping this blog going.

Eberron Flashback: Under The Sea

While the sahuagin have been touched on in City of StormreachSecrets of Xen’drik and my novel The Shattered Land, the oceans of Eberron remain shrouded in mystery. With this in mind, I wanted to revisit a post from a few years ago. As always, bear in mind that everything I post here is entirely unofficial and may contradict canon information: this is what I do in my home campaign. With that said…

Are there any aquatic races other than the sahuagin that see non-hostile contact with land-dwellers? I may be doing a pulp game that’s heavier on the Sea Stuff™ than expected, and I imagine the political scene is just as busy below the waves as it is above. Especially curious about kuo-toa and aquatic elves, but anything you have helps.

I don’t believe that any of the aquatic races besides the sahuagin have been mentioned in canon Eberron sources. But I did come up with other ideas when I was developing the world, and I suppose I can mention those briefly. In my original draft I asserted that the two primary undersea races were the sahuagin and the merfolk, with a smaller but critical role for aquatic elves.

In this model, the sahuagin are a largely monolithic culture: a widespread ancient empire older than even Aereni civilization. In this you could see the Deep Ones of H.P. Lovecraft as a model; they worship a deity that others fear (the Devourer), and they have an ancient and sophisticated civilization that is almost entirely unknown to the people of the surface world. While I refer to this as an “empire”, my thought is that its borders have been stable for thousands of year; it’s not an especially aggressive power. With that said, if I was to bring in kuo-toa or locathah, one of the first places I’d be likely to put them is as subject states within the Sahuagin empire.

Now, how’s this work if you want savage or uncivilized sahuagin raiders? Well, while the sahuagin empire might be widespread, there’s always room for barbarians who’ve never embraced it. Furthermore, there’s a lot of room for Lords of Dust / Cult of the Dragon Below action among the sahuagin. Note that per City of Stormreach the sahuagin colonized Stormreach long before humans did, but pulled back after a terrible ancient force corrupted the settlement. You can easily introduce savage bands of sahuagin barbarians (literally) who revere the Overlords of the First Age and seek to restore their dominion.

Let’s move on to the Aquatic Elves. My thought here was that around ten thousand years ago, there was a movement among a number of Aereni lines to colonize the ocean around Aerenal. The original aquatic elves were created through mystical rituals, though they are a self-sustaining race. Thus, there is a significant undersea region around Aerenal that is under Aereni dominion. In my original model the populace was largely comprised of sahuagin, but you could add any other aquatic races you wanted; the main point is that these races adhere to Aereni culture, revering the Undying Court. My assertion was that there remained a long-standing bitter enmity between the Sahuagin Empire and the Aereni Territories. The power of the Undying Court makes it nearly impossible for the sahuagin to reclaim the region… but as that power is geographically limited, the elves can’t extend their dominion further. Thus you have the malenti, sahuagin mystically altered to appear to be aquatic elves; these are covert operatives used in acts of espionage and covert aggression within the Aereni Territories.

The rest of the ocean is dominated by the Merfolk. Where the sahuagin have a vast, monolithic and ancient culture, I’ve always considered the merfolk to be as diverse as humanity and less bound to a single ancient tradition. Thus my original model had multiple merfolk territories and a range of cultures.

In my model, the Sahuagin Empire was concentrated in the Thunder Sea, the region between Khorvaire and Xen’drik; thus you would deal with the sahuagin if you were going from Khorvaire to Xen’drik, and with the merfolk if you were going from Khorvaire to Sarlona. The merfolk are also the dominant race in Lhazaar waters. With that said, the merfolk of the western coast are quite different from those of the eastern coast.

Say you wanted to present sahuagin as a viable character option. Would you have any brief roleplaying tips, suggested classes, and what gods they might worship?
As mentioned about, when I look to a literary analogy for the Imperial sahuagin, I think of the Deep Ones of H.P. Lovecraft. Their god is the Devourer, the embodiment of the destructive power of nature; you see the Devourer’s hand in the tempest and the storm. He is a grim patron who strengthens the faithful through harsh trials; but survive and you will be the shark amongst the prey.
So one part of the Deep One analogy is that their god is a harsh and fearful deity who most people fear. The second is the fact that they are both wise and intelligent; per the 3.5 SRD, a typical sahuagin has an Intelligence of 14 and a Wisdom of 13. In my opinion they have an ancient culture, and have their own traditions of arcane and divine magic. So when it comes to classes, any combination of fighter, cleric and wizard make sense. As they have an affinity both for sharks and for hunting, ranger is another logical choice. From a racial perspective, their only weakness is Charisma… so I don’t see a lot of sahuagin bards or sorcerers.
Looking to roleplaying tips, one start is to look at places the sahuagin are mentioned in canon. Their religion is discussed in City of Stormreach
The doctrine of this sect holds that it was the Devourer alone who defeated the fiends of the first age, and that the force of this battle raised the lands above the sea. The faithful are taught to embrace the fury of nature, preparing for the time when the Devourer will scour the earth and draw all back beneath the waves.
A critical point is the description of the relationship between the sahuagin priests and human followers of the sect…


These priests consider humans to be flawed cousins, stripped of scale and weak of lung, but they pity these humans and consider it an act of charity to help them find the right path.

The key points here is that these Imperial sahuagin who regularly interact with the humans of Stormreach approach them with an attitude of condescension and pity. Compare a typical human to a typical sahuagin. Per the SRD, a sahuagin is superior in every ability score save Charisma; they are smarter, faster and stronger than their human counterparts. The sahuagin has significant natural armor (+5 natural AC bonus) and natural weapons… and again, an average 14 Strength and 14 Intelligence. By comparison, humans are weak, slow-witted and woefully unfit for battle. Add to this the idea that the sahuagin have a remarkable and ancient culture under the waves that humans know nothing about (because your poor little lungs are too weak to endure it… while by contrast, a typical sahuagin can at least survive for 6 hours on land without magical assistance).

So personally, if I was playing an Imperial sahuagin character I’d emphasize the intelligence and ancient culture of the sahuagin and be somewhat arrogant and condescending to my soft-skinned, slow-witted mud-cousins… but that’s me.

Now, two more things you might want to consider. City of Stormreach also notes that “The holy texts speak of devouring the strength of fallen foes…” While this is a metaphor, I have always intended that certain significant sahuagin rituals involve the literal consumption of a thing to gain its strength. My idea of both the malenti and the four-armed sahuagin warriors is that these are accomplished through mystical rituals of devouring… that you become a malenti by consuming an aquatic elf.

With that said, following the model I outlined above, there’s two other paths for sahuagin characters. You could be a sahuagin from the Aereni Territories, who has fully embraced Elven culture and is a loyal servant of the Undying Court. Or you could be a savage sahuagin from beyond the Empire; this would be somewhat analogous to playing an orc cultist of the Dragon Below from the Shadow Marches.

Would you be sympathetic to a little more HPL in allowing “half-sahuagin” (or even half-aquatic elves, come to think of it) to emerge from humans who may or may not know of their ancestry a la “Shadow Over Innsmouth”?

Certainly. I think the most logical path for this would be the malenti. By core rules, malenti are sahuagin that are physically indistinguishable from aquatic elves. It seems reasonable to me to suggest that the offspring of a human and a malenti could produce a creature that appears to be a normal half-elf, but who develops sahuagin traits over time… eventually becoming a full sahuagin. I think you could easily place a village like Innsmouth along the southern coast of Breland.

If you fashion Sahuagin culture as imperial, have you ever given thought or description to the Emperor or Empress? Are they ruled by a singular monarch or a dynasty of imperial mutant families?

Personally, I see it as a dynasty with nobles reigning over different provinces. Incorporating the mutants into this is a very logical step; the four-armed sahuagin could be a particular noble bloodline, with other families having similarly distinctive traits that have simply never been seen by surface-dwellers.

And how many of the themes of Eberron do you think are able to be translated into an under-sea environment? Would you put submarines similar to airships under the sea or have things similar to lightning rails on ocean floors? Could there be aquatic versions of the warforged?

Some of these things already exist. Submersible elemental vessels have appeared in a number of sources, from Grasp of the Emerald Claw to my novel The Fading Dream. Warforged are capable of operating underwater, and The Fading Dream has a Cyran aquatic construct still patrolling the waters around the Mournland.

Looking to the lightning rail, I’m not sure whether you’re asking if humans have created such a thing, or if it might already be in use by aquatic nations. Addressing the first point, I don’t see such a thing happening any time soon… in part because the ocean floor is inhabited, and I don’t see the sahuagin being keen on Orien running a rail through their homeland. As the sahuagin are an ancient and sophisticated culture, they should have their own answers to long-distance transportation and communication, but these could take many forms. They could have harnessed or bred special creatures to assist in transportation… or they may have come up with their own techniques for binding water elementals. As it’s not something that was picked up in canon Eberron, it’s not something I ever explored in great detail.

Are there any long lost civilizations, perhaps currently unheard of in Khorvaire, whose remains are underwater? Apart from giants from Xen’drik, that is.

There certainly could be. In the conversion notes for Lords of Madness I suggest that the aboleths were a civilization that existed during the Age of Demons, so you could easily have ancient aboleth ruins holding remnants of powerful magic… essentially, the undersea equivalent of Ashtakala and the Demon Wastes. Aside from that, this could be an interesting path to take with one of the other aquatic races, such as the Kuo-Toa. Perhaps the Kuo-Toa were once even more widespread and powerful than the Sahuagin, until SOMETHING devastated their civilization; now they are savages and subjects of the other races, and their ancient cities are haunted ruins. If you want to get really crazy, you could have undersea explorers discover a region below the sea that is clearly analogous to the Mournland, suggesting that the ancient Kuo-Toa civilization triggered (and was destroyed by) their own Mourning millennia ago.

Eberron has a lot of interesting features on the maps of its *surface* continents. What sort of variation in environment do you think there would be across the seas and oceans of Eberron?

For a start I’d look to all of the interesting ocean environments that exist in our world, such as the Mariana Trench, the Sargasso Sea and the Great Barrier Reef. From there, I’d consider the fact that there are manifest zones below water as well as on the surface, and manifest zones can create both exotic regions and areas that would lend themselves to colonization or adventure. A manifest zone to Fernia could give you fire underwater, while a manifest zone to Lamannia could be a source of unusually massive sea creatures or dramatic growth of vegetation; I could see a Lamannia zone at the heart of an especially dramatic Sargasso region. Zones to Thelanis would produce regions like the Twilight Desmesne in the Eldeen Reaches, with aquatic fey and water spirits. And so on. Beyond this you could have any number of regions affected by the actions of the ocean inhabitants… such as the idea of a Kuo-Toa Mournland.

How do the Inspired feel about the merfolk or do they even realize they’re there?

I think the existence of a quori client state among the merfolk is a great idea. With that said, I wouldn’t actually connect them directly to the Inspired. The point of quori subversion is to work from within and create a structure within the target culture that supports their rule. So if they conquered Khorvaire, they wouldn’t actually try to impose Riedran culture on it; instead, they’d do something like instigate a brutal civil war that devastates the existing order and then have their own (secretly Inspired) saviors rise up to fix it. That’s how they came to rule Riedra to begin with – the Inspired brought the Sundering to an end. If this sounds like the Last War is a quori plot, it would make a lot of sense; the question is who they would use as puppets in Khorvaire.

So in other words, I think a merfolk-quori state makes perfect sense, but I’d have them be merfolk “guided by the Voice of the Ocean” or something like that… and it would take someone familiar with the Quori to say “Hey, they’re using psionics… I think they’re Inspired!”

Could you elaborate on Sauhagin who are part of Aereni culture? With how tied to ancestors many aspects of that culture are, what are some differences in how Sahaugin experience service to the Undying Court? 

As a question of world design, this is a point where you have to decide if you are creating an idealized world — the way we want things to be — or if you’re going to create a flawed world. Typically, a flawed world presents has more need of adventurers, and that’s the path I followed. So in MY Eberron, things aren’t perfect for the sahuagin of the Aereni Territories. It’s a model of colonization — with the elves justifying their actions out of a need to create a buffer zone for Aerenal — as opposed to enlightened integration. As such, the Aereni sahuagin are taught to respect and serve the Undying Court, which protects them from harm and preserves civilization as we know it… but they are not presented with a path to become deathless themselves. Rather, this is one of the principles the aquatic elves use to justify their rule; they are literally envoys of divine power, and the fact that the deathless are all elves is proof of elven superiority.

Essentially, this is a case where I WANT the adventurers to be creeped out by this society and by the fact that Aerenal condones (or at least ignores) this. I want players to potentially find themselves sympathetic to the Imperial sahuagin and their malenti agents. Following Eberron’s general principle that “the bad guys aren’t always monsters and the monsters aren’t always bad guys,” I like this as a situation where the aquatic elves are in many ways more monstrous that the sahuagin.

Having said that, this is my vision of the society as a whole. It’s also the case that I think the surface civilization largely ignores what’s going on underwater as opposed to explicitly condoning it. So there’s an opportunity for player action to set change in motion… and for the issue to create division within the nation, either above or below. I like the idea that there are sahuagin who have embraced the values of this civilization; sahuagin who despise their elven rulers, and who work with Imperial malenti to undermine them; and sahuagin who are working with sympathetic aquatic elves to create a new united society. And I could see that society splintering off – having a new state formed by aquatic elves and sahuagin seeking to build something together, separate from both Aerenal and the Empire. But I’d prefer to explore that as part of a campaign as opposed to presenting it fully formed.

Is there a cadre of Undying who are aquatic, and if so are any of them Sahaugin?

My thought is that there are a few deathless aquatic elves, and that the governors of the region would be deathless, but that they’re a very small percentage of the Undying Court – just as they’re a small population of elves. And as I said above, my thought is that at the moment there are no sahuagin deathless. But the appearance of a sahuagin deathless could be the spark that sets change in motion!

It has been mentioned that the Dhakaani Empire did not have much in the way of a navy. Were there ever any clashes or agreements between goblin and sahuagin empires?

Do you WANT there to have been? The Age of Monsters lasted for tens of thousands of years. All you need is to come up with a logical explanation. Perhaps a crazy Emperor swore to conquer the oceans and bred legions of Koalinth (that’s aquatic hobgoblins for those not in the know), and fought a campaign that failed miserably and is WHY the Dhakaani weren’t a seafaring nation… because following this failed conflict, the sahuagin would sink any goblin vessels that entered their territory.

Of the surface power groups, who do you think is most likely to be the first to reach out to the underwater nations? Who made deals with the Shargon sahuagin? Galifar, House Lyrandar, House Sivis?

All of the above. Anyone who crosses the Thunder Sea on a regular basis has to deal with the sahuagin. Galifar certainly had an arrangement — though that arrangement was largely establishing a system by which individual captains negotiate passage. So it’s not a formal alliance or especially close bond. Currently the Five Nations are coasting on that casual agreement. If any of them were to want to make a new arrangement it would presumably be Breland, as it shares a border and is responsible for the most sea traffic in the region.

Do you think that the merfolk in the Lhazaar Principalities would agree to being part of the Principalities, in their current state or a unified country?

To me, the question is why. What do they have to gain from it? Sahuagin are at least amphibious. Assuming you’re using traditional merfolk as opposed to tritons, they’re aquatic creatures. In the original Setting Search submission I had three different maps. One was a surface map, with the oceans as vast blue. Another was an aquatic map, in which the land masses were undifferentiated black. Because if you’re casual merfolk, it really makes do difference to you what’s up on the land, because you’re never going to go there. Trade certainly makes sense, but why would a merfolk nomad accustomed to the absolute freedom of the waters bind themselves to the customs of surface-dwelling princes? I’m not saying it’s impossible; I’m just saying that’s the question that needs to be answered to have it make sense. How does it benefit the merfolk to form such an arrangement?

If you incorporate tritons from Volo’s Guide it becomes a different story. It could be very interesting to introduce a clan of tritons who have migrated from the deep sea and who are LOOKING to join a principality — what will the princes offer to earn their fealty, and how will this affect the balance of power? To me, the merfolk are less likely to make such an arrangement because they are entirely bound to the water. Alliances, sure… but formally joining a principality seems less likely to me.

Do you think the Sahuagin Empire has a diplomatic presence on land anywhere?

I’ve always seen Sharn as the primary point of contact. As I’ve said before, my original vision of Sharn included a partially submerged spire in the harbor. With that said, the question is how extensive that contact is… which again should be defined by the type of story you want to tell. Personally, I’m more inclined to say that the Empire largely considers the surface a curiosity and a backwater; the Sharn outpost is about negotiating travel rights, not about deep diplomatic negotiations. The post in Stormreach is essentially a distant foreign mission whose priests feel sorry for the soft-skins. The point here is to leave the sahuagin largely shrouded in mystery so that player characters have a lot of room for discovery. I’d rather have the PCs be the first surface-dwellers to ever visit the Imperial Court than to say that Boranel has a direct line to the Empress. But that’s me; you could certainly posit a closer and more active role if you want to tell a different story.

With that said, I’d question how significant a presence it is. It’s a point of contact for Breland (and previously Galifar) to negotiate passage; but the question is whether they are actually interesting in close contact with humanity or whether they essentially consider Breland a backwater populated by softskinned bumpkins.

How do you separate “negotiating travel rights” to the idea of a least basic “diplomatic negotiations”? It seems to me that the very idea of negotiating travel rights implies a sort of “peer to peer” relationship – the acknowledgement that one deals with another political entity.

Certainly. The point is that the current system was put in place by the founders of Galifar and the Dragonmarked Houses and has been operating for centuries. The first step would be establishing corridors of safe passage, which are maintained by some form of tributary payments. This is the equivalent of a canal: softskin ships are left alone as long as they don’t deviate from this approved corridor. So a casual captain doesn’t even have to negotiate; he just knows that you stay on this course. If for some reason you have to deviate from those paths, you visit the sahuagin representative and present your travel plan; they redirect you as necessary, and charge you a few to outfit you with tokens that will ensure safe passage, or tell you where you’ll have to stop along the way to make those arrangements. Looking to The Shattered Land, it’s established that the sahuagin mark certain points on the surface of the water where ships can call for an envoy or guide to ensure passage between especially hazardous regions.

The critical point is that there was a time when this involved first contact between Galifar and the Empire, when this was a point of tense negotiation. But that was centuries ago, and now it’s the province of the third undersecretary of barbarian affairs. The arrangement is simple: pay your tribute and stick to your approved paths and we won’t destroy your ships. Fail to follow established protocol and we will destroy your ships. This is how things are presented in canon: it’s a well-established and currently stable situation. Could something dramatically shake up that arrangement and require more involved negotiations? Certainly. I’m just saying that this is the sort of thing I’d prefer to make part of a campaign — with the player characters at the heart of the upheaval or playing a critical role in the negotiations.

I’ll also note that this current distant status quo exists because WotC wasn’t interested in developing the undersea civilizations in depth. We know they are there, but we know very little about them. Thus, the status quo exists to justify that distant relationship and degree of mystery. For me, forging a closer relationship requires knowing more about the situation under the sea – the factions, politics, goals; the resources they have and the things they want. That’s something I’d like to explore, but again, it wasn’t in the cards initially – and without having things built out, the distant relationship is what makes the most sense with what’s currently available. Once more information IS available, that’s where I’d personally introduce that information by having a group of PCs get entangled in some aquatic shenanigans — so it’s not simple about dropping new exposition on the world, it’s about it impacting the PCs in a meaningful way.

Post questions or what you’ve done with the oceans of Eberron below!