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!

Dragonmarks: Warlocks

Given that it’s my Patreon patrons who make it possible for me to spend time on this site, I thought I’d take some time to write about someone else who relies on patrons… Warlocks. With that said, I am working on articles about Phoenix: Dawn Command and the 5E campaign I’m running in Q’barra, and you’ll see these soon. But for now, let’s talk about warlocks.

The basic concept of the warlock is an arcane spellcaster who gets their power from a bargain with some sort of patron. However, at the end of the day this is like the idea that the bard is a musician: it’s a cosmetic detail that doesn’t actually factor into the mechanics of the class. Yes, the warlock gets a “pact boon” and gets different abilities based on the nature of their patron. But there are no hard mechanical effects tied to their relationship with their patron. There’s nothing concrete like “You must perform a service for your patron to regain your spell slots” or any concrete statement that a warlock could lose their powers based on annoying their patron. What’s said instead is that the relationship between the warlock and patron is something that should be established between the player and the DM. It can drive adventures if that’s something you both want, or it could “consist of small favors you can do entirely between adventures.” Your patron could communicate with you directly or very indirectly. And once you accept the possibility of a friendly patron who communicates indirectly and doesn’t require you to do anything in an adventure, it’s a very small step to acknowledging that you don’t actually need a patron at all. A warlock’s patron is an excellent story hook that gives the player and DM something interesting to work with. But it’s possible to come up with an equally interesting story for a warlock that doesn’t involve a patron. In this article I’m going to talk about both approaches… starting by exploring things you can do with patrons, and then looking at warlocks who go it alone.

PATRONAGE

If you embrace the basic story, the warlock is someone who gains their powers through their relationship with an outside source. A warlock doesn’t have to have any understanding of arcane science, and they don’t have to be tied to a mystical bloodline; they can be someone who has stumbled into power or earned it through a clever bargain. And while there’s no mechanical basis for a warlock to be stripped of their abilities or denied new powers when they level, as long as both player and DM agree, you can always add this; the question of what you’re willing to do for your power can be an excellent foundation for roleplaying. And even losing your powers can be a great story… as long as you’re excited about that story and have a clear means to resolve it. Let’s look at a few ways you could handle patrons.

The Classic Patron

The standard story is that you’ve got a patron who provides you with power in exchange for you acting as their agent in the world. Perhaps you’re entirely happy with that concept, and just want a few ideas for forces in Eberron that can fill that role. Here’s a few thoughts.

  • Fey Patrons. You have made a bargain with one of the Archfey of Thelanis. I discuss the Fey at length in this post, and the critical point is that each Archfey has a story… and that story will likely tie to the services they expect you to perform. Do they seek revenge? To find a lost lover or a stolen treasure? To be freed from a curse? To spread winter over the land or to save a lost soul? A secondary question is whether your patron is in Thelanis or whether they are actually in Eberron. The 4E Eberron Campaign Guide introduces the idea of the Feyspires, Fey cities that have been trapped in Khorvaire. If your patron rules one of these cities, their needs may be more grounded in the material world.
  • Fiendish Patrons. There’s endless possibilities here. You could have a connection to an Overlord, or one of the powerful Lords of Dust; bear in mind that based on the nature of the Prophecy, a Lord of Dust may want to accomplish things that are actually benevolent in the short term in pursuit of the release of their Overlord. You could have a bargain with a powerful spirit of the outer planes – a fiend of Fernia or Shavarath. Or you could drop the fiendish aspect and say that your patron is an epic dragon; your flames aren’t hellfire, they’re dragon-fire.
  • The Great Old One. The Daelkyr are the easy choice here, but not the only one. The powers of a GOO Warlock are tied to telepathy and madness, and a powerful Quori could serve this role. Perhaps they claim to be a rebel, like those who formed the Kalashtar… do you believe them?
  • The Celestial. The Silver Flame is an easy option, but also a very abstract one. The Silver Flame is a radiant power source, but it’s not generally something you bargain with. If you want to keep that aspect, you could choose a powerful outsider from one of the planes of light. As an elf or even a half-elf, your patron could be a powerful member of the Undying Court – perhaps even a personal ancestor. As a half-elf on this path, it could be interesting to say that you are one of the last of your bloodline; thin as the connection is, you are the only living descendant of this councilor, and this is the foundation of your bond.
  • The Undying. This is an equally valid path for a Deathless Councilor. A stranger option would be Erandis Vol, or an ancient Qabalrin lich entombed in Xen’drik and not yet known in the wider world.
  • Hexblades. If you embrace the idea of a weapon as your patron, Eberron doesn’t have a lot of established options, but it’s easy enough to come up with some. A blade forged in the Age of Demons, infused with the power of a bound fiend. A weapon crafted in the Age of Giants that still holds the soul of an ancient titan. A dagger crafted by Sora Kell that holds a fragment of her spirit. A sword you found in Cyre, infused with the spirits of hundreds who died in the Mourning. The main questions are who created it and what it wants.

Many of these are dark powers. How could you be working for an Overlord or a Daelkyr? In the following sections I’ll talk about the possibility of opposing your patron. But the other point is that you could serve an evil patron with the understanding between you that there are lines you won’t cross. In particular, you could be a weapon in a war between two equally evil forces… a feud between Daelkyr or different prakhutu within the Lords of Dust. I had just such a warlock as a PC in one of my campaigns; he served an Overlord, but with the understanding that give gave him the power to protect the world from the other Overlords… and if one of them was going to end up being released, at least his one would just enslave everyone instead of killing them or driving them mad. Justifying an alliance with an evil force – whether to fight something even worse or because you believe you can use the power for good – can be a very interesting foundation for a character.

The Mysterious Patron

In the 5E Eberron game I’ve just launched, Emmett is a scion of a merchant family with a minor talent for magic (as reflected by the Magic Initiate feat). Bored with his family’s life, he stole a heirloom wand from the vault. Using the wand he found he had access to greater power. When he was injured in a friendly (nonlethal) duel, the wand lashed out and killed his opponent… the first manifestation of his Hellish Rebuke spell. Emmett was forced to flee. He disposed of the wand… and it returned to him. He doesn’t know why the wand has chosen him. He doesn’t know what it wants. But he has begun to master its powers, and he’s going to see where this path leads.

Mechanically, Emmett is a hexblade warlock. His “patron” is the Ebon Wand that he carries. But as the campaign begins, Emmett knows nothing about the wand. So far it hasn’t communicated with him. He doesn’t know what powers he might unlock; he just knows he’s become a better duelist, with a knack for spotting a weakness in his foes (as represented by Hex and Hexblade’s Curse). One thing Emmett’s player and I have agreed upon is that I can choose to trigger his powers involuntarily… that the wand might choose to perform another Hellish Rebuke on someone who harms Emmett, or Hex someone who for some reason vexes the wand, even if Emmett doesn’t choose this action. And the understanding between us is that over time, Emmett will learn more about the wand and what it wants. Maybe it will some day speak to him; maybe not. It could be that he will simply learn it’s purpose, and that things will go better for him if he makes that purpose his own. What we have established is that the wand can’t be stolen from him, that if it is lost it will always return. He knows he can’t lose his powers (even if he wants to); it’s simply that he also doesn’t completely control them.

This is an easy option for a hexblade, but it can work with any patron idea. A warlock may have always had mystical gifts, never knowing their source. Now those powers are growing… and now they may learn that these powers come with a price. Perhaps the warlock’s parents bargained with an archfey or fiend; the PC possesses powers because of this deal, but doesn’t know what their parents promised in exchange. Perhaps the warlock survived the Mourning and now seems to be channeling its power… but what does that mean? In such a campaign, uncovering the identity of the patron and the details of the bargain provide the same sort of story hooks you’d normally get from serving the patron.

The Enemy Patron

Normally a warlock’s abilities are gifts freely given by the patron. But what if this power has been stolen from the patron? As a fiendish warlock you could have found a way to tap the powers of an imprisoned Overlord… and it could even be that by using its power in this way you are delaying its release. Or a Great Old One warlock could have an involuntary connection to a Daelkyr. Belashyrra is using you as one of its eyes in this world, but that connection gives you the ability to draw on its power and visions of other schemes it has afoot. Instead of the Patron giving you tasks to perform, your connection to the patron gives you glimpses of schemes you could foil, if you’re willing to take the time.

DITCHING THE PATRON

The idea of a warlock gaining their powers from an ongoing partnership with a powerful being is an option… but you can keep the mechanical abilities of the Warlock and reflavor them in other ways. The point here is that you will pick a patron and pact… but work with your DM to agree on changes to how these cosmetically manifest. In theory you have a Book of Shadows that grants you access to additional cantrips. But in your case it could be a wand, or a charm, or a special toolkit. Consider the following “patrons”.

  • Dragonmarks. Typically, the powers of a Dragonmark are largely constructive instead of destructive. A warlock could have learned to tap this power in a deeper and more aggressive way. Storm is an easy option for this, and you could take the Fiendish patron and shift anything tied to fire to inflict lightning or thunder damage instead as a way to reflect this. There’s many warlock abilities that work well with the Mark of Shadows… deception, illusion, consuming darkness. This could be reflected with a Fey patron, simply reflavored so your abilities to teleport and charm are tied your manipulation of shadow and enchantment. A question is whether you’re an elite agent of your house, or if you’re a rogue who’s discovered ways to tap the mark the House love to unravel.
  • Aberrant Dragonmarks. Even simpler and applicable for almost any “Patron,” as aberrant dragonmarks are generally destructive and don’t follow a particular theme… and it’s beleived that powerful aberrant marks are beginning to appear. You are the heir of Tarkanan and the Lady of the Plague… will you use your powers to help other aberrants, or solely for your own good?
  • Artificer. As a final version of the artificer is still being worked out, in the interim you can actually make an offense-oriented artificer using the warlock. Cosmetically, all of your spells and incantations come from magic items that you create; it’s simply that if it comes to it, you can jury-rig an eldritch blast wand from a piece of wire and some lint. I played a warlock artificer who had a Hawkeye-style hand crossbow with different bolts representing his different cantrips and offensive spells. You’ll want to be proficient in Arcana, and taking the incantation that lets you detect magic at will can help with this
  • Spy. A Fey Warlock is an excellent model for an elite member of the Royal Eyes of Aundair – a spy who uses arcane magic to accomplish their goals. The right invocations can let you disguise self at will and disappear into shadows, and between backgrounds and invocations you can get an excellent set of skills for subterfuge. Between your cantrips and limited spell slots, you can follow the path of the assassin (powerful but limited use offensive magic) or rely more on illusion and enchantment. A Hexblade can be a good model for an Aundairian duelist.
  • Vessel. This is a twist on the enemy patron, with the idea that a spirit has been unwillingly bound to you – that you are a living prison for a powerful rakshasa or Fey. Your powers are a manifestation of the spirit inside you, and the more you use them the more they will grow… but is there the risk that the spirit could escape? Meanwhile, allies of the prisoner could seek you out and try to kill you in order to release the spirit within.

I’m out of time, so I’ll stop here for now. But there are many more ways you could take a ronin warlock. Perhaps you were born in a manifest zone and your powers are tied to your plane. Perhaps they are connected to the Mourning. Maybe you’re a follower of the Blood of Vol, and your powers are the manifestation of your own divine spark (an interesting way to deal with Celestial or Undying). The critical point is not to let the concept hold you back. The patron is a tool for creating a compelling story. But you can always follow a different path!

Q&A

Does it seem reasonable, along the vein of the enemy patron, to form a pact against the will of a patron?

Certainly, and that’s exactly what I was suggesting with the idea of the enemy Overlord. It could be that you are stealing the power; in that case, a question is whether the “Patron” is aware of it, or if you’re doing it covertly and could be in trouble if they figure it out. I also just added a “Vessel” option to the No-Patron section that could work for this.

For those forces like the Undying Court who are capable of “creating” warlocks is the process difficult/draining or does the candidate need to be exceptional in some way?

To me, it’s simply logic; if it’s easy and free, there should be Warlocks everywhere. The fact that there aren’t – at least in my Eberron – means that there are limitations. Personally, I’d be inclined to say that the answer is “both.” There needs to be something exceptional about the candidate, whether it’s bloodline or talent; and there’s a limit to what the patron can support. But that likely depends on the patron.

Sort of a cross question with the sorcerer, would a casting class skinned to a dragonmark represent a stronger or more developed mark?

When I use an expanded dragonmark as an explanation for sorcerer or warlock powers, I say that it reflects a deeper connection to the mark than most people ever develop — not necessarily a larger mark. They have found a way to use the mark as a lens for arcane energy, and most heirs can’t manage it. So if I was using a system that had a concrete progression system I wouldn’t require a Dragonmarked warlock to have a larger mark. However, if I’m using a system that DOESN’T have a clear progression for dragonmarks – such as 4E – then I might say that the dragonmark grows a bit with every level the character gains.

How would you use the Daughters of Sora Kell as a patron, either collectively or individually?

I suggested Sora Kell as a patron; I’m not sure I’d want to use her daughters. Sora Maenya is too bound to the physical world; I could see her training martial adepts, but I don’t see her granting arcane power. Sora Katra… I could see her doing it, but in my campaign I don’t see her empowering an agent like that and then just letting them roam free; she’s got so many concrete schemes in the works, and I would expect that being her warlock would be a full-time job, not a casual thing you’d do on top of a career as an adventure. On the other hand, Sora Teraza could definitely work. No one knows the extent of her powers. Her motives are mysterious and her actions don’t always benefit Droaam. She could definitely pick an agent and give them occasional directives with no clear explanation for her actions. Personally, I’d make her a Great Old One patron who provides the Book pact.

Given the name of the game, could you see a dragon as a proper patron for a warlock? What would it take for a dragon to empower a humanoid in such a way?

Sure; I suggest this at the end of the “Fiendish Patrons” section above. This isn’t something a normal dragon could do, but if you posit an ancient, epic level dragon from Argonnessen – a deep student of the Prophecy with access to eldritch machines – I think they could definitely serve as a patron. The question is whether the warlock’s power is actually coming directly from the dragon, or whether — and this is the approach I would take — the dragon is simply showing the warlock how to connect to a source of arcane power. This could even be a way to double up on your explanations. Looking to the “Vessel” idea I suggest for “No Patrons”, I could see the idea of an epic dragon binding a demon into a mortal’s body and then teaching the mortal how to tap into its powers. So the dragon is the PC’s patron and mentor, but the POWER comes from within them.

What might be some motivations for an epic level dragon to empower a warlock like that?

Off the top of my head…

  • The Draconic Prophecy is a matrix of if-then statements that can set the path of the future. This dragon could be working to lock in a particular prophetic path – which involves particular actions on the part of the PC.
  • The dragon doesn’t have a specific agenda, but they are concerned about the actions of the Lords of Dust in Khorvaire; they want a human agent who isn’t on the radar of the fiends to investigate and foil their plans.
  • It’s an experiment. Perhaps they just have a fiend they need to bind SOMEWHERE and they want to try their bind-it-to-a-human ritual… and once it’s done, they are curious to watch the warlock and see what happens. or perhaps it’s literally a lab rabbit situation; they ultimately want to use this ritual on dragons, but they’re trying it on humans first to make sure it’s not dangerous.

Are warlocks accepted in the magical colleges like Arcanix and Morgrave, or are they outside of arcane academia?

That would entirely depend on the warlock’s personal story. A warlock doesn’t need magical training. They don’t have to have proficiency/training arcana or spellcraft. If you take the Fiendish Vessel warlock I present above and set them alongside a Fey-bargain warlock, they literally have nothing in common… so it’s not like you’d have a generic “Warlock” class. On the other hand, I’m sure that there are people who study the science of pact magic, and if a warlock has Arcana training they could have worked in such an environment. And taking the idea of the warlock-as-spy as I suggest above, that could definitely be a concrete path of arcane training that you could learn at Arcanix. So in short; could there be warlocks at Arcanix? Sure. Is there a place for EVERY warlock at Arcanix? No.

Do you see the Dhakaani as having a warlock tradition? 

No. We’ve established that arcane magic wasn’t a strength of the empire and that their main traditions were bards and a form of artificer. However, the fact that there wasn’t a tradition doesn’t prevent there from being warlocks, because to my mind warlocks are highly individualistic. If you are using patrons, then the fact that person A can become a warlock doesn’t mean that warlock B could as well. For example: Dhakaani can create artifacts. Perhaps the great dirge singer Jhazaal Dhakaan bound the spirit of the greatest hero of the empire to a greatsword (or spiked chain) and whoever bears the sword can channel his power. This is a foundation for a hexblade warlock… but there can only ever be one at a time because there’s only one sword. So: there’s an example of a Dhakaani warlock – but that doesn’t mean they have an established tradition within the culture.

What about the dwarves of the Mror Holds? 

Same thing. I don’t see an established tradition of warlocks as part of their culture. But I can imagine a hexblade warrior carrying a blade forged in the Lost Kingdom, or a Aurum Concordian willing to pay any price for power who makes deals with fiends.

How about warlocks among the Valenar? …I can envision a case where you have a Valenar warlock whose “patron” is the ancestral spirit. 

It’s certainly an idea a character could explore, but it’s not the direction I’d personally encourage… for the same reason I’d have a Celestial warlock tied to the Sovereign Host have an angel as their patron instead of a Sovereign. I see the relationship between the ancestors and the Valenar as being very similar to the Kalashtar and their quori. The spirit is connected to (and sustained by) multiple hosts. It provides subtle, almost instinctual guidance, but the Valenar has to find their own path towards it; they can’t have a direct conversation and be told what to do. And two Valenar with the same patron can argue about who has done a better job of emulating their ancestor. So wouldn’t have the warlock’s patron be the ancestor; I’d make the patron be in some way tied to emulating the ancestor. For example…

  • A Hexblade warlock carries the sentient blade once wielded by their ancestor. Can they fully master its power and unlock its secrets?
  • A Fey warlock serves the same Archfey their ancestor served. In the course of this service, will they learn secrets about their ancestor that have been lost to history? Or might they discover that the Archfey was responsible for the death of their ancestor – and if so, will they find a way to destroy their patron to avenge their ancestor, even if they risk losing their power?

If you have additional questions or ideas about warlocks, post them below!

Manifest Zone: Changelings, Shifters and Lycanthropes

I take part in a monthly Eberron podcast called Manifest ZoneThe latest episode explores changelings and shifters, with a related discussion of lycanthropes. This post is a chance to dig deeper into these subjects, so if you have questions, ask them in the comments. As always, these are my personal opinions – unless called out as such, this material is not canon and may contradict canon material.

SHIFTERS

Is the connection with nature of shifters different from orcs one?

I don’t think that orcs have a strong connection to nature. I feel that they are very primal creatures, driven by strong emotion and passion. The disciplined hobgoblin is naturally inclined to be a fighter; the wild orc makes a better barbarian. This makes them well suited towards the primal classes… but it makes them equally well suited to divine classes that embrace passionate beliefs. The Ghaash’kala paladin is just as logical a path for an orc as the Gatekeeper druid.

Looking to a shifter, I wouldn’t say that they have a connection with nature. But what they have is an animalistic side — instincts and behaviors that reflect their bestial aspect. And as opposed to the broad passion of the orc, this is something that is unique for every shifter — broadly defined by shifter type, but then further defined by their personal experience with it.

What is the key point when you play a shifter? Is there anything that they see in a completely different way from humans?

When I make a shifter, my core question is their animal affinity. I consider each shifter to have a connection to a certain type of animal, as reflected by their shifting ability. Think of it as a totem spirit that provides them with instincts and emotions. Unlike lycanthropes, this is not an overwhelming urge, and the intensity of these instincts varies my shifter. So if you take two longtooth shifters and say that they’re both lupine in nature… you have have one that has very strong wolflike tendancies, and the other who works as a blacksmith and just occasionally snarls when he gets angry. So the question to me is what is their animal nature and then how strongly does it influence them? Once you’ve made that decision, consider the animal and think about what traits would bleed over to the shifter and what that might mean.

Bear in mind that this is more mental than physical. Shifters share a common genotype, and when people see them, they are always recognized as shifters regardless of their shift type. A razorclaw shifter with feline tendencies may have features that are distinctly feline for a shifter, but you’d never mistake her for a tabaxi.

Do you see any tradition for classes that are not typically cool for shifters like shifter bards, sorcerers, warlocks or paladins?

I don’t see shifters as locked into any particular class. The wild shifters of the Eldeen Reaches might be more inclined towards primal paths… but that’s as much about their environment as their race. A shifter born in a city or raised among humans will adapt to that environment. One of the iconic 3.5 Eberron characters – seen on the covers of the ECS and Player’s Guide to Eberron – is the shifter wizard Baristi. To me, the question isn’t “Is it weird for a shifter to be a wizard”, it’s “Why did she become a wizard and how is she different from a human or elvish wizard?” She has feline characteristics, and if I were playing Baristi I’d highlight her boundless curiosity. She’s a brilliant wizard, but she’s always interested in learning something new or doing the thing she’s not supposed to do. Other fictional shifters include the inquisitve Zaehr and the fighter Geth. So again, I’ve never seen shifters as tied to any one path.

With that said, you could certainly play with shifter nature when developing a character and class. A shifter barbarian could reflavor their “rage” as being another form of shifting, assuming a more powerful form. A shifter druid could downplay any connection to a druidic order and play up her abilities as a form of shapeshifting mastery. A shifter monk could justify their improved speed, AC and unarmed damage as being tied to their shifting as opposed to martial arts; if you modified the monk path, this would be a reasonable way to create a weretouched master.

Looking to bard or warlock, I don’t see why either class has to be reflavored to connect it to a shifter. Bard is a logical path even for Eldeen shifters; add a lupine aspect and it’s about the drive to unite their pack. And a shifter is just as capable of following the warlock’s path as any other sentient being. Following the myth that the first shifters were blessed by Olarune, I could see a shifter fey pact warlock whose patron claims to be the Moon Queen or something similar.

CHANGELINGS

How malleable is age to a Changeling? Can a changeling kid pass as an adult (at least, until they start speaking)? Can an elder changeling pass as a nimble teenager and ignore the aging effects on his/her muscles?

By default, the effect of changeling shapeshifting is cosmetic. A changeling can make themselves appear more muscular, but this doesn’t change their Strength score. They can’t use their shapeshifting to heal a wound. So can a changeling appear to be older or younger? Absolutely. Does this actually remove the effects of aging? No. That elder changeling can appear to be young… but if they’ve lost Dexterity due to the effects of aging, they don’t get the Dexterity back.

Do you have any non-traditional ideas for Changeling classes? I feel like they’re typecast as Rogues, but lack good alternatives.

There’s two questions here: what’s optimal from a mechanical standpoint, and what’s got the best flavor. The mechanical question depends on what edition you’re using. In 3.5, changelings have no ability score modifiers and so they’re equally good at all things. I almost ran a campaign in which all the characters were going to be changelings, as a sort of fantasy Mission: Impossible where every session the party would be undercover in different roles. In 4E and with the current UA rules for Changelings, they have a bonus to Dexterity and Charisma.

So: in two of three editions, changelings have an edge with Charisma. Beyond that, as a changeling I prefer to wear light or no armor so that it’s easy for me to change my clothes; wearing plate armor significantly limits what I can do with my shapeshifting. Likewise, I like classes that don’t rely on large weapons. If I’m carrying a two-handed sword, it’s going to spoil things when I try to pose as a schoolteacher. What does this lead to?

Monk. This is an excellent choice both mechanically and practically. Dexterity is useful for a monk. They don’t need armor or weapons, making it easy to accommodate any disguise. From a flavor standpoint, you can present yourself as a martial artist… but you could just as easily say that you are a physical adept who has learned to weaponize your shapeshifting. Your unarmed defense could be based on actually toughening your skin and bones. Your unarmed damage can reflect hardening your fists. If I were doing a 5E Eberron book, I’d consider a subclass for monk that reflects combat shapeshifting… among other things, allowing you to choose whether your unarmed strike deals piercing, bludgeoning or slashing damage. This is definitely appropriate for the skindancers of Droaam or other changelings pursuing the idea of the doppelganger.

Bard. In my recent Dragonmark on Changelings I present the idea that tribal changelings have an oral storytelling tradition, along with the concept of personas as shared stories. Other articles have discussed the idea of Droaam’s skindancers, who work shapeshifting into artistic performance. So there’s two backstories for a changeling bard. On the other hand, in the recent CCD20 game I ran, I had a changeling bard where I reflavored Bardic Inspiration and magic as telepathic abilities, tied to telepathic “doppelganger” abilities. Story aside, Charisma and Dexterity are both good choices for bards, and a bard’s use of spells and light armor facilitates shapeshifting.

Druids and Barbarians. In another Eberron campaign I actually explored the idea that changelings were the original lycanthropes… combining shapeshifting with a connection to primal spirits. A changeling doesn’t have a bonus to Strength, but if you want to play an unarmored barbarian that works well… and you can present the “rage” as actually assuming a unique battle form. It’s a very different sort of flavor, but I think that exploring the primal aspect of shapeshifting can be interesting.

Warlocks and Sorcerers. Dexterity is always useful for lightly armored characters, and Charisma is key for both of these classes. Personally I prefer warlock to sorcerer. I’m used fey-pact changeling warlocks a number of times; it lets you really play up the idea of the changeling who lives between the two realms. I also did a changeling infernal warlock as a sort of pulp hero, a twist on The Shadow using eldritch blasts instead of handguns. No one knows that playboy Veldan ir’Tain is secretly THE SPECTRE!

I’m going to stop there, but really, almost any class can work. I had a player in one of my campaigns play a changeling cleric of the Silver Flame; it wasn’t an optimal use of the race, but he had fun with it.

How do you not make a Changeling villain not totally OP? In my current campaign I’m running, the PCs encountered a rival scholar who takes more of the “Belloq” attitude towards recovering ancient Xen’Drik artifacts. My fear now is that a Changeling is going to be a bit too difficult for them to catch because he can change into different forms.

Bear in mind that this issue isn’t unique to changelings; you have the same problem with anyone who owns a hat of disguise, or a 2nd level warlock with mask of many faces. And these two individuals are actually LESS limited than a changeling, as the changeling can’t shift their gear with them. The simplest way to limit this – if you’re trying to give your players a chance – is to have things that they can’t change. Do they have a distinctive magic item that they’d be loath to part with? Are they carrying the large, bulky gold idol? This allows Perception or Investigation to notice the piece of gear on top of the standard of Insight vs Deception to see through the disguise. With that said, do you NEED the players to catch this villain? Recurring villains are something we specifically advocate in Eberron. Is there any problem with HAVING the villain escape a time or two before they figure out that they can spot him because he’s always got that distinctive magic rod? If it is absolutely vital to the story for the villain to be caught, is there a reason they have to be a changeling instead of a human?

You’ve mentioned a few times about your changeling character Tel, and how her personas Max and Bronson and the others were shifted into depending on what the situation calls for. My question is how did you handle actually changing into them? If you were currently Max and suddenly a fight broke out, shifting into Bronson is gonna let the whole world know you’re a changeling. And while that might be okay with some road bandits, that’s not always something you can afford to let loose. Did you just try to find a way to make Max useful or something else?

This question refers to the idea of Personas, something I presented in this previous article about changelings. A persona serves two purposes. First, personas are well-established identities that have roots in different locations. The dwarf Bronson is an established figure in the underworld of Sharn, and has been so for longer than my changeling character has been alive; she inherited Bronson from another changeling, and benefits from his established reputation. Second, a persona is a mental focusing tool for the changeling using it – a way of thinking that helps in the pursuit of a particular action. Bronson is cruel and tough, and exceptionally skill with Intimidation. When Max wants to threaten someone, she wants to be Bronson.

With that said, there is a critical point here; Personas have no actual mechanical effect. The core character has the Intimidate skill, and COULD Initimidate in any form. It’s simply that it doesn’t come naturally to the generally good-hearted Max, who would rather employ Persuasion. But if it was absolutely necessary she COULD, and it’s not that it would destroy her perceived identity; she’d just handle that intimidation in a different way than Bronson would. Likewise, Bronson would rather intimidate than persuade, but he could persuade if he wanted, just like any mean dwarf could try to soften his tone; but he’d try and take this approach in a way that seems organic for the character.

This is equally true for combat. Bronson LIKES to fight. Max does not. But Max carries a rapier and knows how to use it. What my character sheet said was “She’s prepared to fight, but doesn’t enjoy it, especially if it comes to killing; she prefers to leave bloodletting to Bronson and Meriwether.” If Max knows there’s going to be a fight in advance – if we’re heading into a bar in Lower Dura and we expect it to get rough – she’ll switch into Bronson ahead of time. But if she goes as Max and a fight starts, she definitely wouldn’t switch into Bronson on the spot, ESPECIALLY in Sharn where Bronson is known best. The damage she’d do to the persona is far more serious than having to fight as Max.

With that said, if there’s an easy way TO change she might take it. She’s a rogue; if she went into hiding, she might switch and have Bronson appear, observing that he’s just shown up and nobody is gonna hurt his friends. Note that Max never hid the fact that she was a changeling from her allies; so THEY aren’t saying “Why does this Bronson guy keep showing up?” Note that Max had shiftweave with a different outfit for each persona.

Beyond this, Max was a persona without a strong established reputation, so it was OK for HER to be known as a changeling. So every now and then, SHE would do something like throw an enemy off balance by changing her face to something they cared about, or something like that. But she wouldn’t do that if she was Bronson or Merriwether. FINALLY: It’s important to note that not every face has to be a persona. A persona is a TOOL: Max could still become a random city guard if that was useful, and drop that identity the moment it’s convenient. Using a Persona is a responsibility because you have to preserve and protect the story of the persona. But you can also just make up a new face on the spot.

LYCANTHROPES

Prior to the Last War, the Lycanthropic Purge is one of the most significant military engagements in the history of Galifar. My old Dragonshard article on Lycanthropes and the Purge is a canon source of information about this event. Often people misinterpret the Lycanthropic Purge as being an unjust persecution… that the Church of the Silver Flame ruthlessly hunted down innocent lycanthropes that were minding their own business. This wasn’t the idea at all.

When we were first working on Eberron, D&D was using the third edition rules. Under third edition rules, lycanthropy works like this.

  • Lycanthropes can be afflicted (contracted the curse) or natural (born to lycanthrope parents). Under 3E rules, both afflicted and natural lycanthropes can pass the curse to others with their attacks.
  • When an afflicted lycanthrope is under the effect of the curse, their alignment changes… but more than that, they follow an extreme form of that alignment. Evil lycanthropes are specifically called out as being murderers who delight in preying on their family and friends. Even good lycanthropes will leave their friends behind to live solitary lives in the wild. Lycanthropy isn’t a power-up. It’s never something you WANT to happen to you. It is a curse. At best it will destroy your personality; at worst, it will turn you into a predator who will turn on the people you once loved. Behavior varies by lycanthropic type — wererats are more sly and communal than wild wereboars — but an evil lycanthrope is simply never someone you want to have around.
  • Setting all other factors aside, a lycanthrope possesses DR 10/silver. This makes them all but immune to the attacks of a typical first level commoner or warrior, which is the bulk of the population of Eberron. So even a first level commoner as a werewolf is a deadly foe for the typical village militia, unless they are equipped with silver weapons.

When I looked at that first point, I realized that lycanthropy has the potential for exponential expansion. One werewolf infects two people. If this process continues, within five cycles of infection we have 243 werewolves. Eberron is further complicated by the number of moons, meaning that a full moon is a very common event, ramping up the impact of the affliction and the time it takes for a victim to fall prey to its full effects. Curing lycanthropy can only be performed under certain circumstances, requires you to capture the lycanthrope you’re trying to cure; requires the victim to succeed at a DC 20 Will save (not trivial), and requires the spellpower of a 5th level cleric. That’s within the scope of Eberron’s “wide magic”, but we do specifically call out that most priests are not clerics; full clerics are rare and remarkable. So if you’ve got 243 angry werewolves on your hands, the idea that you’re going to be able to subdue them all and cure them is fairly unlikely.

So I look at this and saw the potential for a werewolf apocalypse, every bit as terrifying as 28 Days Later or The Walking Dead. The only thing holding this in check would be the idea that lycanthropes wouldn’t coordinate and would have a natural impulse to kill their victims in order to prevent spreading the affliction and drawing attention… that lycanthropes might themselves act to prevent an apocalypse. Nonetheless, it seemed logical that a civilized nation would seek to eliminate this deadly affliction. The idea of the Silver Flame eliminating lycanthropy wasn’t something we saw as the Salem Witch Trials; it was more akin to wiping out smallpox, if smallpox turned people into murderers.

But as we were writing, a magical thing occurred: D&D advanced to 3.5, and the rules had one detail that must have seemed trivial to a designer: afflicted lycanthropes couldn’t spread the affliction. It’s a smart decision that eliminates the threat of the werewolf apocalypse… but suddenly the Purge seemed unnecessary. So, we decided that history literally mirrored reality: The curse had changed. At the time of the Purge, it became more virulent. Some power was at work… a daelkyr? An Overlord? The Prophecy? Whatever it was, the Purge was precipitated by the threat of a werewolf apocalypse… and in the aftermath of the Purge, the power of the curse was weakened and afflicted victims could no longer spread the curse.

But, guess what? Fifth edition changed it back. Under 5E rules, any lycanthrope can spread the affliction. It maintains the idea that lycanthropy is a bad thing — that “most lycanthropes become evil, opportunistic creatures that prey on the weak.” So… what does that mean for us? For me, I will continue to have history mirror the changes in editions. In the time of the Purge, lycanthropy was virulent and could be easily spread. The Templars broke the power of the curse and for nearly two centuries it has been less of a threat. But now, the power is growing again. It’s just like aberrant dragonmarks: they’ve been in decline ever since the War of the Mark… but now there’s a new surge in Aberrant numbers and power. Why? That’s up to you. It could be the work of an Overlord that is once again breaking from its bonds. It could be based on the number of lycanthropes in the world. It could be a Daelkyr. Or any other idea that suits you. The funny thing is that I present this very idea in my novel The Queen of Stone, which is set in 999 YK… so apparently I can predict the future of D&D!

So here’s the quick overview of the Lycanthropic Purge.

  • Lycanthropes have been present throughout the history of Galifar. However, they rarely acted in any sort of coordinated fashion; afflicted lycanthropes couldn’t spread the curse; and natural lycanthropes would generally avoid spreading the curse. They were dangerous monsters and something that templars or paladins of Dol Arrah would deal with, but not perceived as any sort of massive threat… more of a bogeyman and reason to stay out of wild areas.
  • Around the Ninth Century, there was a shift in Lycanthropic behavior. Packs of werewolves began coordinating attacks. Eldeen wolves began raiding Aundair, and wererats established warrens beneath the cities of western Aundair. More victims were left alive and afflicted. While terror spread among the common folk of western Aundair, the nobles largely dismissed the claims.
  • Sages in the Church of the Silver Flame confirmed that afflicted lycanthropes could now spread the curse. They realized that the raids and urban actions might not be as random as they appeared – that this could be the groundwork and preparations for a serious large-scale assault. Combined with the risk of exponential expansion, this was a potential threat to human civilization.
  • Templars were dispatched to Aundair, and fears were confirmed; there were more lycanthropes than anyone guessed, and they were better organized than had been seen in the past. What followed was a brutal guerrilla war; the templars had numbers and discipline, but they were fighting unpredictable and extremely powerful foe that could hide in plain sight and turn an ally into an enemy with a single bite. Thousands of Aundairians and templars died in these struggles. Cunning lycanthropes intentionally sowed suspicions and fomented conflict between templars and shifters, resulting in thousands of additional innocent deaths.
  • The precise details of the war aren’t chronicled in canon and likely aren’t known to the general public. I expect it happened in waves, with periods where the templars thought the threat had finally been contained… only to have a new resurgence in a few years. Again, canon doesn’t state what drove the power of the lycanthropes. Whatever it was – demon, daelkyr, shaman – the templars finally broke it. Afflicted lycanthropes could no longer spread the curse, and all lycanthropes were freed from whatever overarching influence had been driving their aggression.
  • While the threat was largely neutralized at this point, people didn’t know that. There’d been ups and downs before. Beyond this, the Aundairian people had suffered through decades of terror and they wanted revenge. This is the point at which the Purge shifted from being a truly heroic struggle and became something more like a witch hunt, with mobs seeking to root out any possible lingering lycanthropes. Tensions with shifters continued to escalate as bloodthirsty mobs sought outlets for their fear and anger. A critical point here is that at this point, most of the aggressors were no longer Thrane templars. The primary instigators were Aundairians who had adopted the ways of the Silver Flame over the course of the Purge. For these new believers, the Silver Flame wasn’t just about defense; it was a weapon and a tool for revenge. This is the origin of the sect known as the Pure Flame, and its extremist ways can be seen in priests like Archbishop Dariznu of Thaliost, noted for burning enemies alive.

The take-away here is that the Purge began as a truly heroic struggle against a deadly foe, and the actions of the templars may have saved Galifar from collapsing into a feral savagery. But it ended in vicious persecution that left deep scars between the shifters, the church, and the people of Aundair. And now, it may be happening again.

I thought Eberron wasn’t limited by the usual alignment rules. So… are werewolves always evil? 

Eberron generally doesn’t restrict the alignment of intelligent creatures… unless that alignment is enforced by magic. Werewolves don’t choose to be evil; they are victims of a curse that transforms them into brutal killers. That’s the inherent idea of lycanthrope, and something we wanted to maintain. What we have suggested is that lycanthropic alignment is tied to strain, not animal form. That is to say: a werewolf COULD be good or evil… but when an evil werewolf bites someone they become an evil werewolf, while the good werewolf will create good werewolves.

With that said, the critical point here is to understand that Alignment means something very different for a lycanthrope than it does for a human. Lycanthropy is NOT in any way a natural affliction. Wolves are not murderous killers who prey on their friends. But evil werewolves are. The way I reconcile this is that lycanthropy is about how humans and demi-humans perceive the animal. An EVIL lycanthrope embodies our fears of the animal. The evil werewolf isn’t based on actual lupine behavior; it’s based on our FEARS of the predator lurking in the shadows, waiting to snatch anyone who strays from the pack or goes into the forest alone. A GOOD lycanthrope can embody more noble traits we associate with the animal – the pack loyalty of the wolf, for example. But again, either way the alignment is an extreme, unnatural compulsion. If you’re an evil person and you become an evil lycanthrope, your personality is still completely transformed. You are driven by primal and magical impulses and instincts. And again, if you’re a good lycanthrope you aren’t going to just continue with your normal life; you will feel the call to flee to the wilds, to throw off the trappings of civilization and hunt with your pack. Never forget: lycanthropy is a curse, not a blessing. Good lycanthropes could be valuable and loyal allies; but that doesn’t mean that you want your character to become one.

The side effect here is that there’s MORE evil lycanthropes than good lycanthropes, because evil lycanthropes engage in aggressive behavior likely to spread the curse. Good lycanthropes are likely to primarily be natural lycanthropes who avoid preying on innocents and spreading their affliction. Again, even “good” lycanthropy destroys the personality of the victim and turns them into something else; it’s not something you want to do to an innocent. So when most people think of lycanthropes, they’re thinking of the evil ones.

With all of this said: I do feel that these dramatic magical instincts are more limited in natural lycanthropes. An afflicted werewolf will be overwhelmed by the power of the curse. A natural werewolf is born with it and grows with it. An evil natural werewolf is still filled with cruel, predatory instincts and they cannot change that; they can’t become good, because they are still shaped by magical forces. But they can resist the urge to turn on allies and murder friends. You should never be fully comfortable around an evil lycanthrope, but naturals are safer than the afflicted.

You mentioned that due to late Silver flame persecution shifters would dislike Lycans as well. What would their mindset be on a Weretouched Master?

I don’t think shifters inherently dislike lycanthropes: I think they dislike evil lycanthropes, because anyone in their right mind is going to dislike them; why would you welcome a creature that takes pleasure in preying on even friends and family into your fold? Evil lycanthropes are monsters, magically driven to prey the innocent. But shifters would be more aware of the fact that there are good lycanthropes. And they’d also know that weretouched masters AREN’T touched by the curse.

A critical point here: we often say that shifters are “thin-blooded lycanthropes.” In my opinion, most shifters believe that the reverse is true. They believe that shifters predate lycanthropes  that the first lycanthropes were shifters blessed with greater powers, and that this gift was corrupted to become the curse as it exists today.

So shifters don’t hate the CONCEPT of lycanthropes or fear the weretouched master. But they have a clearer concept of the true nature of the curse, and the fact that an evil lycanthrope is — through no fault of their own — a monster. Again, the idea is that the tension between shifters and the church is a tragedy because they could have worked together… but hidden lycanthropes actively worked to foment conflict between them.

You mention the chance that a Daelkyr was involved with lycanthropy. Do you have any canon Daelkyr that you think is suitable for that role?

Personally, I’d use Dyrrn the Corruptor. A contagious magical curse that transforms good people into monsters based on other peoples’ fears is certainly Dyrrn’s style.

I don’t see much inherent difference between the shapeshifting of a natural lycanthrope, and the stony gaze of a medusa or the cry of a harpy. All of these are inborn magical powers that COULD be used for evil, but what’s the creative decision behind making one of these an uncontrollable curse, and the other a gift?

Now, everything in Eberron is a choice. It’s perfectly fine to handle things in a different way than I do. But addressing the question of why I handle it the way I do, it’s because I find it makes it a more compelling story. D&D has a host of natural shapeshifters and half-human hybrids. I enjoy monsters that aren’t simply furry humans – that are truly alien in their outset. In looking at lycanthropes, I enjoy the following things…

  • No matter how human they look, they are fundamentally inhuman, shaped by forces beyond their control. An evil lycanthrope is supernaturally shaped to be a ruthless predator. An afflicted lycanthrope cannot resist these impulses; they are so powerful that even the most noble person can be transformed into a vicious killer. A natural lycanthrope can resist those raw urges, but they are still there. They are always a part of them; the evil lycanthrope is always a predator, and everything around it is prey. Look to Zaeurl in The Queen of Stone. She’s not savage; she’s a brilliant tactician who’s serving the Daughters to advance the interests of her pack. But she’s also not human. She is a ruthless killer, the embodiment of our fears of what lurks in the forest. She can understand the concept of mercy, but she cannot feel it.
  • By contrast, the medusa is a natural creature. It possesses a magical gift… but that gift doesn’t change the way it thinks in a way it can’t control. And the medusa also can’t bite you and turn you into a medusa. Which ties to the idea that the werewolf’s powers aren’t natural. The werewolf is a vessel for a power it can never fully control… and if it bites you, that power will change you. A werewolf is tied to something bigger that we don’t understand; a harpy or a medusa has no such ties to a corrupting magical force.
  • Tied to this: I like that Eberron is unpredictable. And even here, we say that you can have a good werewolf. But again, that werewolf is compelled to be good. Because there are times when I LIKE that pure, inhuman alignment-shifting force. There’s times when I want the demon, or the idea again that even the most noble person can be stripped of their humanity by the curse and turned into a monster. The fact that the lycanthrope can hide among use is what makes that even more terrifying; it looks like us, but it’s an alien, terrifying predator.

With all that said, I like the idea that lycanthropy has been corrupted – that it was originally a pure primal gift that – whether by an Overlord or Daelkyr – has been transformed into something that turns innocents into weapons. I like the idea that even the good lycanthrope is shaped by a force they can’t control and has to be careful lest they infect others. And I like the idea that a weretouched master PC, or a druid PC, could try to uncover the root of that corruption and find the way to end the curse.

But back to the main question, I make the werewolf different from the harpy or the medusa because I WANT it to be different from the harpy or the medusa. If a want a bestial humanoid that blends human intellect and animal instincts with no bias to good or evil, I’ll use a gnoll. When I use a lycanthrope I want that idea of something shaped by an unnatural force – a monster that can appear as human or animal, but isn’t truly either of those.  I want the shifter to feel pity for the evil werewolf, not kinship.

However, I just don’t feel like even the “natural” form of it should always be portrayed as a curse. Affliction is a horrific experience, and every system emphasizes that. The afflicted with no recourse for help is a pitiable (and scary) creature indeed. But I also like the idea of a community of good (or neutral) lycanthropes seeking out their afflicted brethren with the aim of helping them adapt to their new form rather than seeking a cure.

Well, first off I’ve been emphasizing evil lycanthropes because they are the scary ones. But as I’ve said, you can have good (or neutral) strains of lycanthropes — and in Eberron, these can be any time of lycanthrope. You could have a warren of good-aligned wererats, or a pack of good-aligned werewolves. The critical point is that even good-aligned werewolves are still afflicted with a curse. Their behavior is still dictated by powerful urges and instincts related to their animal forms. Just as the “evil” of a lycanthrope means something narrow and extreme, “good” doesn’t just mean that the lycanthrope becomes a nicer person. A good lycanthrope is compelled to take to the wilds, and will have a very difficult and uncomfortable time living in a city. They will feel a bond to their pack and to protect their lands… yes, they will protect innocents in that place, but they are still driven to protect that place. When the full moon comes and the curse takes over, you WILL lose control; you won’t murder, but you’ll flee to the woods to run with your pack. It may not make you a monster, but it will still override and ultimately destroy the person you were before. That’s why I still call it a curse. It won’t kill you and it won’t make you a killer. But it will change you in ways you cannot control… and it will make you a carrier whose bite can change others.

So you can definitely have a pack of good lycanthropes who seek both to avoid afflicting others and who help those who become afflicted. Shifters would likely welcome such lycanthropes, though the wolves would rather run with their pack that dwell with shifters. But that doesn’t change the basic nature of the affliction or mean that you should welcome the opportunity to become a good lycanthrope.

Would it be reasonable to have a few clans of them on Lammania, either because they fled to the plane of unbridled nature before the corruption happened, or because the corruption was cleansed from them living there for many generations?

Sure, I’d definitely support either of those ideas. If I was making a “pure” lycanthrope I’d start by saying that they don’t afflict at all; they are only natural. Their condition isn’t a weapon that destroys the victim’s personality; it’s their natural state.  At the same time, I’ve personally included clans of EVIL lycanthropes in Lamannia as well. And again, these are natural lycanthropes who are very comfortable with their nature and aren’t slaves to it… but they are still ruthless predators embodying our fears.

Lycanthropes as described here seem to be very primal in nature, almost wild in transformation whether in evil or good forms. How might the curse’s psychological effect work with a group like Stormreach’s Bilge Rats and the Circle of Plague with their organized structure and more human goals of controlling crime in a city.

For me, the answer is simple: Wererats. As I suggested above, my thought is that the curse changes you to reflect how people feel about the animal – embodying their fears if it’s an evil strain, or the perceived nobler qualities if it’s good. For most lycanthropes, this is going to involve a drive to be in the wild. Wererats are the exception. We don’t think about rats living in the forest; we think of them lurking in the shadows of the city, seizing opportunities. We don’t think of the rat as a vicious predator; we think of it as a sneak and a schemer, sowing disease and stealing things left unguarded. In my opinion the wererat is driven to cities, and supernaturally driven to find a warren and a band of rats to work with. That drive to control crime in Stormreach isn’t a “human goal”; the impulses enforced by the curse are to undermine and prey upon the people of the city. An evil wererat is just as much a ruthless killer as an evil werewolf, but they are about calculated murder and mayhem. In the past they are presented as lawful evil, and that speaks to the urge to work with a warren and to undermine in a systematic way. But again, the noble paladin who’s afflicted with the wererat curse will become a ruthless schemer prepared to murder any time it suits their goals. It’s not natural or human; they are driven to scheme in the shadows. With that in mind, wererats are definitely creatures I can see engaging in systematic infection, capturing useful people and afflicting them to bring them into the warren. During the Purge I call out the idea that while werewolves were raiding in the wilds, wererats were infiltrating cities and towns. And in my mind it’s the wererats who worked to sow violence between shifters and templars, because that sort of sneaky turn-my-enemies-against-each-other is exactly what I expect from cunning wererats. They don’t care that this will result in hundreds of innocent deaths; it’s an expedient way to weaken two enemies.

Random point: I wrote a sourcebook on wererats a little before Eberron happened (so this isn’t written for Eberron).

With that said, in Eberron you could have a warren of good-aligned wererats. I’d still have them drawn to cities and to work together in a warren, and inclined towards subterfuge rather than direct action; but they could serve as protectors of the city, the same way that a werebear is traditionally a protector of the wilds.

One thought I tend to like concerning the Purge is that while on one hand, taking direct and strong action was necessary at the time… on the other, having that action be completely violent without a serious effort to seek a cure, or spare and contain any lycanthropes (good-aligned ones, perhaps) for such a purpose, was an extreme urged by the Shadow in the Flame.

Absolutely. First off, that’s absolutely the idea of the Shadow in the Flame — urging good people to do bad things and drawing out their worst impulses. With that said, in my mind there were certainly people during the Purge who were TRYING to find a cure and to prevent unnecessary casualties. The point for me is that it was a brutal conflict filled with fear and paranoia… that people were legitimately terrified of the ‘thrope threat. So if you have the child who’s been afflicted, SOMEONE would be shouting that you can’t possibly kill this innocent, that there has to be a better way – and someone else shouting that there’s no time, that if she turns she could kill us all, that it’s got to be done. This is exactly the sort of thing I see during the Purge: not simple, not controlled, but a time where people are terrified and afraid that their neighbors could be wererats and wolves could burst from the woods at any moment. I do think it’s important to differentiate between the typical PC interaction with lycanthropes and the experience of the Aundairian peasant. PCs are powerful individuals and if you’ve got a cleric in the party they can probably cure the werewolf themselves. If I’m the Aundiarian peasant, then that child COULD easily kill me if she turns, and I may have never even met a cleric capable of performing a cure. So I see the pleading parents begging with the mob to help their child, and I see the terrified mob unwilling to take the chance. It’s NOT the right thing. It’s not fair or just. But it’s the kind of tragedy that can happen in those times – and the environment in which the Shadow in the Flame thrives.

Would an evil person bitten by a good-aligned werewolf suddenly acquire the need to live up to positive elements associated with wolves (loyalty, camaraderie, honour, courage, protection)?

The principle is correct: an evil person afflicted by a good lycanthrope becomes good. They’ll have a supernatural compulsion to protect the other members of their pack and to fight dark things that threaten their territory. But this isn’t a mild, subtle change to their personality. It is a dramatic shift. They don’t just become nicer; they are compelled to abandon their past life and to go to the wilds, to leave old acquaintances behind and run with a wolf pack. This is why I call it a curse even when it makes someone good: because it destroys the person they once were. If you’re bitten by an evil wererat, you don’t simply become evil; you are compelled to join the warren, and that new loyalty overrides your previous life. My point is that yes: good lycanthropy will turn an evil person into a good one. But this isn’t a glorious cure for evil that we should be actively trying to spread, because it turns you into a good werewolf; you will still be shaped by primal impulses and instincts. If everyone in Aundair became good werewolves, civilization as we know it would collapse.

As I understand it, a natural lycanthrope born to a neutral-good strain would be unable to become evil under normal circumstances Is that correct?

Correct. Their alignment is unnaturally enforced. As a natural lycanthrope they could moderate those impulses and be less driven to extremes than an afflicted lycanthrope, but the impulses are still there.

If werewolves are associated more with the wolves of stories than with the actual animals, do they belong more to Thelanis (the realm of stories) than to Lamannia, where many of them fled after the Purge?

There is no canon origin for lycanthropy. In this Dragonshard I describe a shifter legend…

The moon Olarune sought to create guardians who could protect the world of nature; reaching down from the sky, she touched a handful of chosen shifters, granting them the power to fully assume animal form. But the moonspeakers say that a thirteenth spirit is in the sky — a dark moon that hides its face from the world. This darkness corrupted Olarune’s gift, infecting many of her chosen with madness and evil.

Is this legend based on reality? If so, who is “Olarune” and what is “the Darkness”? It could be that both Olarune and the Darkness are archfey and that the origins of lycanthropes are tied to Thelanis. Or it could be that Olarune was an aspect of Eberron and that the darkness was an Overlord. It could be that “Olarune” was simply a source of primal magic within Eberron tapped by shifter druids… and Dyrrn the Corruptor warped it. So the lycanthropes fled to Lamannia because there was a passage, and because they found an environment that could support them. But that doesn’t mean they are innately tied to it.

Is it conceivable that an established werewolf family (such as my branch of Vadalis) would be good, but infect people introduced to the clan (for mariage, for instance), so long as those people are willing and receive support and training?

Sure! With that said, in MY Eberron it would be unusual for a family of werewolves to be able to do something like run a business, because their primal instincts would always be pushing them to run to the wilds. However, if any house could pull this off it would be Vadalis. I could even see a case being made that their Mark of Making allows them to “control the beast within” – mitigating those primal impulses. But I do think it would be a hard transition for people introduced to the clan.

Are lycanthropes exclusive to the Eldeen, or just more concentrated there? Karrnath also gives of a vibe that would suit lycanthropes, but there is no mention of the crusade ever going there. What about the Tashana Tundra, the homeland of the shifters?

Lycanthropes aren’t exclusive to the Eldeen. But dangerous lycanthropes have ALWAYS been hunted by the Silver Flame and paladins of Dol Arrah. And wererats aside, most lycanthropes are uncomfortable in urban environments. So sure, there may have been werewolves in Thrane, but if they killed someone, the church would deal with them. The Eldeen is a place that appealed to the wild instincts of lycanthropes and that could support large numbers of them… and where those numbers could grow without being noticed by the outside world. So sure, you could have werewolves in the wilds of Karrnath, if you’re looking for a Ravenloft vibe; the fact that the Silver Flame is weak there would help explain why they haven’t been hunted down.

As for the Tashana Tundra, to me that’s going to be tied to your explanation for lycanthropy. I personally say that it started on Khorvaire. It’s spread of Stormreach, at least – but I haven’t put it in Sarlona.

Would you give lycanthropes access to shifter feats and classes (such as the moonspeaker)?

Shifter feats seems reasonable. As for the Moonspeaker, that depends. For a good lycanthrope. probably. For an evil lycanthrope I’d be inclined to say that whatever bond they might have had to such a natural force has been corrupted and that they shouldn’t be access that power; I might create a different druidic path specifically for evil lycanthropes.

Do the lycanthropes who fled to Lammania still carry the virulent curse? Their descendants or original hosts in the case of longer lived like dwarves and elves?

There’s no canon answer to this, because there’s no canon explanation for why the curse became virulent and why it weakened. In The Queen of Stone I present the idea that it’s based on the NUMBER of lycanthropes, and that once that number dropped below a certain level it weakened the influence of the Overlord. Using that explanation there’s no difference between those in Lamannia and those in Eberron; the curse is exactly the same, and it’s just that the worst parts of it don’t trigger until the population reaches a threshold.

How old is the curse of lycanthropy in Eberron? Did giants suffer from its affliction? 

There’s no canon answer to this, and it depends on the story you want to tell. If an Overlord is responsible, then I would expect the curse to have been around since the Age of Demons and for there to have been afflicted giants. On the other hand, if it’s the work of Dyrrn the Corruptor, it’s only been around for eight thousand years and has nothing to do with the giants. So it’s a question of what story you want to tell in your campaign, and the logical consequences of that decision.

WHY NOT BECOME A LYCANTHROPE?

In conclusion, I want to touch on a critical point – why I keep harping on the fact that lycanthropy is a curse. Set all flavor aside and mechanically, being a lycanthrope is awesome. You get damage resistance, improved abilities and senses, the power to assume an animal form. It’s easy to pass on to others. Which means that if there was no downside we should all be doing it. If you could be a werewolf and still continue your normal life… why WOULDN’T you become a werewolf?

This is why Eberron – and third edition D&D, back in the day – emphasizes the extreme downside of being a lycanthrope: the idea that it utterly destroys the person you once were, and forces you on a path of extreme behavior. Third edition rules emphasized that even good lycanthropes would abandon their friends and civilization. When you become a good-aligned werebear, you may look like the person you once were, but mentally you aren’t. If the people of Aundair all became good werebears, civilization as we know it would collapse as they all abandoned cities for the wilds. Consider that most editions of D&D – including 5E – emphasize that when the character is fully under the influence of the curse they should be played as an NPC… because they aren’t the person they were before the curse.

So: I relentlessly beat the drum of how terrible the curse is because Eberron is a place where we embrace magic in a logical manner… and if lycanthropy DIDN’T have massive drawbacks, logically it is a thing that everyone should embrace. So there HAS to be a downside to even good-aligned lycanthropy that justifies people rejecting it and treating it as a curse instead of a blessing. In my case, I emphasize that it’s that mental transformation… that once your friend becomes a werewolf, regardless of whether he’s good or evil, he’s not your friend anymore; he’s an alien being in your friend’s body. You don’t want to become a lycanthrope because when you finally succumb, it will destroy the person you were. But that’s me. And even in my Eberron I can see druids seeking to cure the corruption that makes it a curse, or even House Vadalis seeking to mimic the effects without the downsides.

In Queen of Stone, you refer to a rakshasa Overlord known by its epithet “The Wild Heart”, and its speaker, Drulkalatar Atesh, the Feral Hand. I was wondering whether you have anything more you can share about this pair.

Novels aren’t canon, of course. But it is canon that SOMETHING caused the surge in the virulence of lycanthropy that triggered the Purge, and that SOMETHING dramatically changed as a result of the Purge and broke the power of the curse. The Queen of Stone proposes that all of these can be tied to the Overlord known as the Wild Heart – that it touched the world through lycanthropes, that the more of them there were, the more its power and influence grew, until it fully controlled them and could turn them all to evil. The defeat of the Wild Heart broke the power of the curse for a time – but that required a dramatic reduction in the number of lycanthropes. So again, the farther the curse spreads, the stronger the Wild Heart becomes.

No other details have ever been provided about the Wild Heart, and its name is not known. The point to me is that like lycanthropes, there’s nothing natural about the Wild Heart. What it embodies is mortal FEARS of the natural world. Again, it doesn’t reflect the actual, natural behavior of the wolf; it reflects the fears of the humans huddling around the fire, imagining the bloodthirsty beasts lurking in the shadows around them. And it then turns natural creatures into these monsters. So rather than being revered by druids, I’d see it as being despised by druids as a force that corrupts the natural order… though with that said, a group of mad druids who embraced the Wild Heart would be a sound Cult of the Dragon Below.

As for its connections to Dral Khatuur… she’s called out as having little to do with the others. Both reflect negative versions of nature, but I see the Wild Heart as being more focused on beasts than on weather; Dral Khatuur is the Killing Cold, and she will kill the minions of the Wild Heart just as happily as she will humans. There are also other Overlords that have some overlap in their spheres; it’s not quite as clean as a divine pantheon where a deity has absolute authority over a domain.

Beyond that, I have NOT established all the concrete details. Did the Templars learn of the Wild Heart? Was it the minions of the Silver Flame who defeated the Feral Hand in the past and broke the power of the curse? Or might it have been shifters, druids or a band of heroes, who won the most crucial victory without the Templars ever even knowing it happened?

Well, I just spent way more time on lycanthropes than I expected to – but I’m happy to answer questions about Shifters and Changelings! Post your questions below!

Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters, who make this blog possible. I’ve got articles about classes, my current 5E Eberron campaign, and Phoenix Dawn Command in the works!

Dragonmarks: The Fighter

It’s 2018, and what better way to start the new year than by continuing the series of articles I began in 2017? I’m currently running a 5E Eberron campaign, and that means I’m digging more deeply into 5E and how it works with Eberron. As a result, I’m going through each class and considering how it fits into the setting, along with the new options from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. So far I’ve looked at the Bard and the Barbarian, and in this article I want to think about the Fighter.

Let’s start with a basic point: just as most priests aren’t clerics, most soldiers aren’t fighters. Eberron is based on the idea that PC classes represent exceptional skill – that even at low levels, a player character is remarkable because of that. In the original 3.5 Campaign Setting, most soldiers were warriors – possessing proficiency with martial weapons and armor, but lacking the unique abilities of a fighter. 5E doesn’t have NPC classes as such; it’s up to the DM to decide what traits to apply to an NPC. The Fighting Style ability is a logical thing for any warrior that has a specialty; if a soldier is called an “archer,” it’s reasonable to give them the benefits of the Archery fighting style. I could also see adding a feat to represent further specialization. As noted in a previous article, many Aundairian soldiers might be Wand Adepts, while a Thrane archer might be a Sharpshooter and a Karrnathi knight could be a Heavy Armor Master.

So what are the unique aspects of the Fighter – the traits not possessed by the common warrior?

  • Second Wind. You can regain hit points in the middle of battle. Is this sheer physical toughness? Mental discipline that lets you ignore pain? Or something else?
  • Action Surge. You can take an extra action when you need it most. Is this due to remarkable reflexes? Combination moves tied to your particular style? A surge of morale?
  • Martial Archetype. Each archetype provides its own set of unique skills, each supporting a different story.
  • Feats and Ability Scores. A warrior might get a single feat to reflect specialization, but a fighter gets more Ability Score Improvements than any other class… which translates to more feats if you’re using them.

So: You’re a fighter, someone possessing exceptional martial skills. Where did you acquire these skills? What did you do with them before you became an adventurer? This is especially important in Eberron because as of 998 YK, the world is barely out of a bitter, all-consuming war. What was your role in the conflict? Consider the following questions.

  • Did you fight in the Last War? 
  • If so, in what capacity? Did you serve in the army of one of the Five Nations, and if so, which one? Were you a mercenary, and if so did you serve House Deneith directly or work with a smaller independent company?
  • If so, why are you no longer serving? If you take the Soldier or Noble background you may have left honorably and still have recognized rank; otherwise, you may have left dishonorably, whether this was justified or not. Perhaps you disobeyed orders to protect innocents – something that cost you your rank, but may have left you as a Folk Hero. Perhaps you discovered corruption in the ranks, and deserted in disgust… or perhaps you were framed by your corrupt commander, blamed for the crimes of others. Or perhaps you were a soldier of Cyre, and no longer have a nation to serve.
  • If you didn’t fight in the Last War, why didn’t you put your remarkable skills to good use? Perhaps you were fighting your own war on the mean streets of Sharn as an enforcer for a gang or as a member of the city watch. Maybe you ignored the war, pursuing opportunities as a settler in Q’barra or Stormreach. Or maybe your duty took you in a different direction, as you trained for a specific mission.

Essentially, if you’re a fighter you likely learned your skills by fighting. What was that conflict, and why have you left it behind for the life of an adventurer? Or are you somehow still pursuing that original path as an adventurer?

Now, let’s take a look at the different Martial Archetypes and different ways you could take them. If you’re starting at first level, of course, you won’t have a Martial Archetype right away. But if you know the archetype you want to take, you can still develop your backstory with that archetype in mind.

Champion

In many ways Champion is the simplest archetype: it simply makes you good at fighting. Combine Soldier and Champion and you might have been an elite warrior on the front lines of the Last War. Blend Criminal and Champion if you want to be a gang enforcer who’s looking to do more with your life.

Generally speaking, the Champion reflects martial skill. But consider a few alternatives.

  • Revenant Blade. If you’re playing a Valenar fighter, your abilities can reflect martial excellence… but they could also reflect the guidance of your patron ancestor. When you take your Second Wind it’s your ancestor giving you strength and encouragement. Your Action Surge is your ancestor guiding you in a perfect action. Your Improved Critical likewise reflects this guidance. This idea could apply to any archetype, and there’s no mechanical difference; it’s just up to you to describe these benefits as the voice of your Ancestor… and it’s up to the DM whether to do more with that, perhaps granting you visions that guide you on the path to adventure.
  • Warforged Champion. Your abilities could be the result of design as opposed to training. When you engage Second Wind, you are triggering swift healing enchantments. Action Surge is a form of overdrive, temporarily pushing beyond your limits. If you take the Heavy Armor Master feat, that could reflect your actually growing thicker armor plates. Again, mechanically there’s no difference here; it’s a matter of how you think about your abilities.

Battle Master

The flavor of Battle Master really depends on the maneuvers you choose. Combine the Noble or Soldier background with Commander’s Strike and Rally and you have a sound basis for serving as an officer in the Last War. On the other hand, you could blend Entertainer with Feinting Attack and Disarming Strike to reflect a career as an swashbuckling duelist, renowned for your showmanship in battle (a path that could also work for a College of Swords bard). Karrnathi soldiers might be known for Menacing Attack, while Aundairians might prefer lighter armor and Evasive Footwork. This is another easy path for a Valenar revenant, with your chosen maneuvers reflecting the specialties of your patron ancestor.

Eldritch Knight

Arcane magic forms the foundation of Aundair’s military strategy, and this is an easy path for the Knights Phantom of Aundair. But they weren’t the only Eldritch Knights in the war. In Karrnath, the knights of the Ebon Skull blended swordplay with necromantic magic. And House Cannith could easily have experimented with warforged designed to supplement martial skill with arcane power. I could also imagine a Greensinger champion who studies the arts of war in Thelanis. For me, a critical question with an Eldritch Knight is who teaches you. Do you suddenly learn the arts of magic spontaneously? Or do you have a mentor – whether an old soldier, a fey knight, or even an elderly artificer who helps your warforged Eldritch Knight unlock its arcane potential?

Arcane Archer

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything presents this as an Elvish tradition, and it certainly works as a Tairnadal technique. But there’s no reason this archetype has to be Elvish… or even arcane. Archery is a devotional practice of followers of the Silver Flame, and Thrane was renowned for its archers during the Last War. The Silver Bows could be an elite order of templars who infuse their weapons with the power of the Flame. If you take this route, Arcane Archer Lore should provide proficiency with the Religion skill and the Thaumaturgy cantrip. All other abilities remain the same; just bear in mind that the Archer of the Flame is charging their arrows with devotion instead of arcane power, and that their mystical bolts are wreathed in silver flame. If you take the Soldier background, you could be an active agent of the Church, with your Military Rank being recognized by any who follow the Flame.

The Nature/Druidcraft approach is well suited to warriors of the Eldeen Reaches. You could be a serious Warden of the Woods or a carefree Greensinger, blending primal magic and martial skill. It could even be a specialty of the elite hunters of House Tharashk, with the seeking arrow drawing on the power of the Mark of Finding.

What about Aundair? Personally, I prefer to keep “Arcane Archer” as a Thrane archetype, and to have Aundairians focus on the Eldritch Knight. We’ve called out Thrane as the preeminent archers in the Five Nations, and this supports that; meanwhile, I see Aundair as placing a greater emphasis on the use of wands and offensive cantrips than on archery, even arcane archery. But I could see a fighter/rogue tradition using the arcane version… perhaps developed by House Thuranni, perhaps by the Dark Lanterns or Royal Eyes.

Cavalier

The Cavalier is an easy path for the Valenar, who are known as the finest cavalry forces in Khorvaire. But there’s other cavaliers of note. Talenta halflings may not fit the typical image of the knight, but a bold warrior with a close bond with his clawfoot could definitely follow this path. Within the Five Nations I personally see the Karrns as having the strongest chivalric tradition, but I could see cavaliers tied to any of the Five Nations. Setting aside the cavalry aspect and focusing on the Cavalier’s talent for defending others, this is also a plausible path for a champion of House Deneith.

Samurai

There’s no culture in Eberron that is a simple match to feudal Japan. But here again the issue is to ignore the name and look at the mechanical elements that define the archetype: a talent for Persuasion and courtly manners; proficiency with Wisdom saving throws; and most notably, Fighting Spirit – a surge of temporary hit points accompanied by advantage on an attack role. Here’s a few ways I could interpret those abilities…

  • A Karrnathi chivalric order. The “fighting spirit” is a literal spirit conjured to guide and protect the knight.
  • The gift of an Archfey of Thelanis; the warrior who swears allegiance to the Prince of Swords can call on his favor on the battlefield or in the court.
  • As suggested above, a Tairnadal could call on their patron ancestor for guidance and strength.

Random Ideas

Setting aside specific archetypes, here’s a few ideas for fighters I might play…

  • The Fallen Paladin. Once I believed in the righteousness of the Sovereigns. Once I believed I had a calling. Then I discovered the web of lies surrounding the people I’d trusted and realized the terrible things I’d done in Dol Arrah’s name. The Sovereigns and I… we’re not on speaking terms any more.  Mechanically this character is a fighter, probably a Cavalier or warlord-style Battle Master. But in theory he began as a paladin, who lost his divine powers when he lost his faith. Now he’s just trying to find his way on the mean streets. He’s got a good heart; it’s just been shaken by failure and betrayal. Think Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly. Can he regain his faith in himself and humanity over the course of the campaign? If so, might return to a divine path? For a background, I’m probably do Criminal or Mercenary Veteran with the idea that he’s been doing grunt work in the underworld… but there’s many backgrounds that could work here.
  • The Survivor. You used to be the sheriff of a small town… a town that was wiped out by war criminals/Droaam raiders/brigands. You’re not going to rest until you’ve avenged your fallen family and friends… and you’re looking for a posse who will help you get the job done. This is a character with a very specific story to tell, and I’d want to run it past the DM before I dove into it. There’s a number of ways it could run. As written, you could be a “Soldier” (a recognized law enforcer) seeking vengeance against a specific villain, something that could potentially drive low-level adventures. On the other hand, the target could be something too powerful to easily face. You’re a Karrnathi Noble/Cavalier, whose family was scapegoated by Kaius and brought down in disgrace; now you’re determined to bring down Kaius himself. You’re a Cyran folk hero whose village was destroyed in the Mourning, and you’re going to find out who was responsible for that devastation. But at the end of the day… you’re a fighter with a mission.

That’s all I have time for now, but share your ideas and questions below! As always, thanks to my Patreon supporters, who make this blog possible.

Making Games In 2017

It can take a long time to make a game. I’ve released three new games this year, but I’ve been working on some of these for many years now. I want to take a quick look back over the things I’ve released in 2017 and plans for the year ahead.

Phoenix: Dawn Command

Dan Garrison and I have been working on P:DC for the last four years, and finally released it at the end of 2016. Phoenix is a card-based RPG that I think of as a blend of Gloom and Eberron – a traditional RPG, but one that uses cards instead of dice, encourages storytelling, and in which you ultimately want your character to die… because in Phoenix, death is what makes you stronger.

During 2017 I was tied up with my other games, and I didn’t have a lot of time to support Phoenix. But I still love the game, and I have a lot of plans for doing more with in in 2018. If you’d like to know more (or to get a copy of the game!) go to the website!

Illimat

In 2015, The Decemberists presented me with a mysterious board and a challenge. Could I make it into a game? Could that game feel as though it could be a hundred years old and simply forgotten? Illimat is the result of that challenge. It draws on the mechanics of classic card games, while the rotating illimat in the center of the board adds a dynamic twist. I’m thrilled with how it came out, and can’t wait to share it with more people in 2018. You can find out more about Illimat or acquire the game at the official website. You can also learn more about the game – including how I’d work it into Eberron – in this previous post.

Action Cats!

Action Cats began as a lark — something I designed to play with friends, with no real plans beyond that. But the more people we played it with, the more fun we had with it… and eventually we decided to share it with the rest of the world.

Action Cats is a simple game with a familiar format. The judge looks at a picture of a cat and gives the cat a name. Each of the other players combines two cards in their hands to create a story about the cat, and presents the story to the judge. Aside from the fact that it’s filled with cats, the primary thing that differentiates it from other games of this type is that it’s about storytelling. The cards from your hand form the foundation of a story. But it’s up to you to elaborate on that story, adding as much as you wish. Why are the stakes so high? Why is this cat wearing a hat? Only you know the answer. You can find out more about Action Cats or order the game at the official website!

Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Card Game

This isn’t a game for everyone. If you don’t know anything about Scott Pilgrim, the whole concept of the game – building a better life while fighting giant robots, ninjas, and awkward conversations – may not make any sense to you. If you ARE familiar with Scott Pilgrim but haven’t played many games before, you might find this has a bit of a learning curve. But if you ARE familiar with Scott Pilgrim and you’re comfortable with deckbuilders, then this is the game for you. I’m very happy with the way that this captures the flavor of the Scott Pilgrim universe. The goal of the game is to get your $#!7 together – to deal with your drama, sort out your relationships, finally get off of your parents’ house and get your band on the radio or finally get a job. You can do all of this through hard work… or through gratuitous and random videogame violence. Trying to get a new apartment? A good work ethic will let you buy one… but because of the double-sided cards, you can also flip the apartment over and beat up the Evil Landlord with a few fancy combo moves. It does a lot of interesting things and I’m happy with the flavor of it… but it’s not for everybody.

And What About Eberron? 

Thanks to the support of my awesome Patreon backers, I’ve been able to spend a little more time on this website. Over the course of the year I’ve posted articles on a host of topics, including…

I’ve also been part of the Manifest Zone podcast, and helped run a game for CCD20. What happens next? I wish I could tell you! I’ve always believed that Eberron will come to 5E, and I still believe that – but I don’t know exactly when that will happen. I’m running a 5E Eberron campaign of my own, which has got me working on all sorts of conversions and digging deeper into the setting. We’ll see if 2018 brings any news!

Dragonmarks: The Barbarian

The barbarian is a savage warrior from a primitive culture, who relies on pure rage or primal magic to overwhelm foes. Or so they are generally depicted. But as with all classes, you can use the mechanics of the barbarian to represent a wide variety of stories. In this post I’ll look at how the barbarian fits into Eberron, and present some alternate ideas for barbarian characters that could fit into any campaign.

ACTUAL BARBARIANS

Sometimes you just want to be an actual barbarian, and Eberron has a number of options that fill this need. Bear in mind that just as every priest isn’t a cleric, not ever warrior from a savage culture is a barbarian; classed barbarians would typically be elite warriors and champions.

  • Talenta Halflings. That’s right: our iconic barbarian is a halfling. This Dragonshard calls out the fact that “The Talenta druid believes that her ancestors are all around her, affecting every aspect of life“… which makes Xanathar’s Path of the Ancestral Guardian an easy option for a Talenta halfling. But I can also see a pint-sized Berserker, or a Totem Warrior with the totems renamed… the Eagle becomes the Glidewing, the Wolf becomes the Clawfoot, the Bear can be the Threehorn.
  • The Carrion Tribes. The people of the Demon Wastes are savage killers bound to fiendish Overlords. For a PC, the main question is why you broke with your tribe and left the Wastes. The simple answer is the Drizzt approach: you had a revelation that now sets you in opposition to your ancestors and their demonic patrons. Perhaps you were going to be sacrificed because you have the potential to shift the Prophecy in a way that harms the Lords of Dust – and now you seek to discover how to bring that destiny about. An interesting possibility here is that your “Rage” could actually be drawing on the power of your Overlord. You could be bound to Rak Tulkhesh, and that connection still gives you power in battle… even as you oppose his plans. If your rage has such a supernatural element, it makes a good justification for Xanathar’s Storm Herald path. Strangely, you could also justify the Zealot path with necrotic damage… with the argument that even though you are drawing on the POWER of an Overlord, you don’t revere them.
  • The Ghaash’kala. The orcs of the Demon Wastes use the power of the Silver Flame to fight the Lords of Dust and the Carrion Tribes. Traditionally this is a case where I’d say “You don’t have to take the barbarian class to be a barbarian”; when I played a Ghaash’kala half-orc, he was a straight-up paladin. The Ghaash’kala certainly have paladins and clerics, but Xanathar’s Zealot path for the barbarian is a way to combine these two things together.
  • The Eldeen Reaches. Barbarians are often presented as a primal path, which is entirely in keeping with the Druidic sects of the Eldeen Reaches. You could definitely find barbarian champions protecting the roving tribes of the Towering Woods. I’ll talk more about shifters in general below. The Totem path is an easy match for any of the Eldeen sects, but I could see Storm Herald or Berserker working just as well. And the Zealot path could actually be an interesting one for a warrior of the Children of Winter – not actually worshipping a god, but channeling the power of life itself in their pursuit of undead and others who violate the natural order.
  • The Shadow Marches. The Marches are split into the largely civilized clans and the more savage tribes, and you could definitely have a tribal warrior who follows a barbaric path. Berserker is an easy choice for the typical half-orc barbarian, but Totem is equally logical for someone who follows the ways of the Gatekeepers.

This is an easy few, but there are definitely other options. Xen’drik, Q’barra, Droaam, the tundras or deserts of Sarlona – there are lots of uncivilized regions a character could come from. With that said, a barbarian doesn’t have to BE a barbarian…

A RAGE BY ANY OTHER NAME

As with the bard, let’s take a moment to look at the concrete mechanical definition of a barbarian.

  • d12 hit die – the best hit points of any class.
  • Proficiency with martial weapons, shields, and light and medium armor… essentially everything except heavy armor.
  • A skill set that certainly skews towards nature (Nature, Survival, Animal Handling)… but that includes the more general Athletics, Intimidation and Perception.
  • A barbarian is a survivor – something reflected by Unarmored Defense, Danger Sense, and Feral Instinct.
  • A barbarian is fast – as reflected by Fast Movement and Feral Instinct.
  • A barbarian can choose to take advantage on their attack rolls, at the cost of providing advantage to enemies that attack them. This is called Reckless Attack – but there’s no reason it can’t be presented as a calculated martial technique.

And finally we have Rage – the heart of the barbarian. But what IS Rage? It’s a state the barbarian enters voluntarily and can end voluntarily as a bonus action. It is tied to combat, ending early if the user doesn’t make an attack or suffer an injury. It provides resistance to damage, advantage on strength checks and saves, and a bonus to damage with melee attacks. But does it have to be “Rage”? The character remains in full control of their actions and can end the state voluntarily; they aren’t somehow clouded by a fog of war. “Rage” is a state of heightened combat ability that can only be maintained for a short time; but if you change the name to Battle Trance or something similar, you can have a very different feel. Back in 3.5 we called out the idea that Dhakaani bugbears were trained as barbarians, but that “Dhakaani barbarians are not stereotypical savages; instead, the barbarian class represents a specialized form of combat training, with the Rage ability reflecting a consciously cultivated state of battle fury.” A similar approach is suggested for the Droranath dwarves of the Mror Holds: civilized warriors who cultivate battle-rage as a weapon. Both of these examples still present it as “fury” – but there’s no reason it has to involve anger. It’s a short period where you can do more damage in melee combat and resist physical injury, along with special abilities related to your path. Let’s look at a few more variations of the barbarian.

HACKING THE SHIFTER

At the moment there isn’t a strong conversion of the Shifter in 5E. But what defined the Shifter of 3.5? Well, depending on your subtype, you got a temporary boost to your abilities that could only be maintained for a short period of time, along with traits like fast movement and tough hide. If you’re willing to simply ignore defined race and class and to call your rage “shifting”, you can make characters that FEEL like shifter champions by combining different base races with the barbarian.

Beasthide Shifter: Combine half-orc and Bear Totem barbarian. You’re strong, durable, and when you shift you’re extremely resistant to damage.

Longstrider Shifter: Combine wood elf and Eagle Totem barbarian. You’re extremely fast, and when you shift you’re faster still. You can slip into the shadows of the forest with ease. And yes, there’s some elf traits that don’t make sense – but you can interpret elven trance as “light sleeper”, saying that the shifter does sleep but will always awaken should there be any threat.

Certainly, this isn’t a long-term solution to the lack of shifter statistics… but in the short term, it works surprisingly well. We used this approach in the first 5E Eberron campaign I played in, and over the course of seven levels of play it held up just fine.

THE REVENANT BLADE

The Tairnadal believe that their ancestors work through them. The Revenant Blade specializes in channeling the spirit of their patron ancestor. Set aside all the preconceptions of the barbarian and consider it as an elite Tairnadal soldier: lightly armored, blindingly fast and comfortable in the wilds (with a wood elf base and fast movement, a base speed of 45 and able to hide in natural environs). Their high hit points reflect exceptional skill as opposed to sheer physical durability. And their “rage” is about channeling the spirit of their ancestor and letting it guide them; let’s call it Revenant Trance. For such a warrior, their resistance to damage while “raging” doesn’t reflect physical durability, but rather a preternatural ability to avoid damage. The additional damage while raging reflects absolute precision. While Ancestral Guardian might seem like a logical path for such a barbarian, that path deals with spirits that manifest BEYOND the character. Personally I think the Berserker path is a good one, just with all the effects recolored. Frenzy reflects the amazing martial abilities of the guiding spirit, with the exhaustion that follows reflecting the difficulty of channeling the spirit; Mindless Rage – which simply protects from charm and fear – reflects the patron ancestor shielding the Revenant.

One could reasonably ask “If the damage bonus from rage is about precision rather than force, shouldn’t they be able to use it with a bow?” It’s a reasonable question. But the whole point of the ancestral guidance is that it only lets you do what the ANCESTOR excelled at. This idea is based on the premise that the ancestor in question was an exceptional melee combatant with a fighting style that placed offense ahead of their own safety (explaining the “Reckless Attack” ability). The character can USE a bow… but it’s not what their patron specialized in, and thus, they gain no special benefit when they use it during their Revenant Trance.

WARFORGED JUGGERNAUT

Barbarian can also be an interesting choice for a warforged… a skirmisher designed to hit fast and hard, who can temporarily go into an overdrive mode when things are at their worst. Given the concept of a warforged as an innately magical being, I can imagine the warforged physically transforming in “rage” mode – with the resistance to damage being reflected either by ablative plating generated on the spot or by a temporary hardening of all surfaces. Personally I lean towards the Berserker model for this style of warforged, but you could reflavor Totem to reflect design as opposed to spiritual interaction. Another interesting option is to take the warforged Zealot Barbarian as a warforged built to channel the power of the Silver Flame. As a side note, in the Shadows of Stormreach story I wrote for D&D Online, I envisioned the warforged Spike as a barbarian.

HAUNTED

I just made a barbarian for a charity livestream I’m on this weekend. Max is an orphaned urchin who grew up in a bad part of a big city. His father was a blacksmith, and Max believes that his father’s spirit is still with him, strengthening and advising him. To start off, this justifies a scrawny teenager with a Strength of 16; he doesn’t LOOK strong, but something gives him the strength to wield his giant maul. His Danger Sense reflects the guidance of the spirit… and his “Rage” is about letting the spirit take over and guide his actions. I went with Berserker as my path for the simplicity of it, and because I like leaving it as a mystery whether he actually IS haunted; perhaps he’s just crazy, or perhaps he’ll discover that the spirit he thinks is his father is something else. However, if I fully embraced this idea I could see running with Ancestral Guardian and having the spirits in question be the spirits of his immediate family; nothing says that Ancestral Guardian has to be an ancient tradition.

LYRANDAR LIGHTNING BLADE

The barbarian shuns heavy armor, and has excellent unarmored defense. Combine this with the speed and reflexes of the barbarian – Fast Movement, Danger Sense, Feral Instinct – and you can imagine a swashbuckler who relies on precision instead of force. In this case, Reckless Attack again becomes a conscious style that favors offense over defense as opposed to sheer wildness. I tie this to Lyrandar because it fits with the idea of the Storm Herald path… specifically the Sea path, which ties to lightning and water. In this case I envision a Lyrandar heir who enters a battle trance using the Mark of Storm. Given that the Storm Herald suggests an ongoing storm around them, you could see the physical damage resistance as being winds that deflect incoming blows. If I was going to CHANGE rules, I’d shift the Rage Damage bonus to be lightning damage and potentially switch the Strength-related bonuses to be Dexterity related – making this a path for a finesse-driven swashbuckler who might have no Strength to speak of – but that’s not an absolute requirement to make the idea work. Obviously this is awkward when, y’know, we don’t have rules for Dragonmarks – but the point of the Lyrandar Storm Sorcerer or Barbarian is that you can use the class abilities as a way to imply the presence of the Dragonmark even if you DON’T have rules for using it on its own. Alternately, you could drop the Dragonmark entirely, shift the Storm Herald focus to Fire, and imagine an Aundairian Flame Blade — a variation of the Knight Arcane focusing on martial prowess with a touch of fire. Unarmored Defense could be flavored as a form of Mage Armor instead of pure physical toughness, with the powers of the Storm Herald being ultimately arcane in nature.

BLADES OF FURY

Rather than being the product of a civilization, the abilities of the barbarian could stem from literal madness. Either the Cults of the Dragon Below or a deep faith in The Fury could lead to ecstatic battle-rage. Depending on which path you’re taking, things like Danger Sense and Feral Instinct could be flavored as being deeply attuned to primal instinct (through the Fury) or the same, but flavored in madness (“The little man on my shoulder told me to dodge, so I did.”). Berserker is an easy path for follow, but you could also reflavor Storm Herald’s Fire path to inflict psychic damage, suggesting a character in the midst of a psychic maelstrom.

I’m going to stop here, but please share your thoughts, questions and ideas about ways to use the barbarian! And as always: Nothing here is canon in any way, and thank you to my Patreon backers, who make this blog possible!

Q&A

There is a old RTS videogame set in Eberron. In that game the basic infantry units are Silver Flame dwarven berserkers that use their religious conviction as fury.

I almost mentioned these dwarves in the original post, but they’re so obscure I skipped them. But since you brought them up… The game in question is called Dragonshard. The dwarves are the Hammerfist Dwarves, a clan that lives in isolation in the Demon Wastes, fighting the Carrion Tribes and the Demons and sustained by the power of an Irian manifest zone. Where the Ghaash’kala guard the Labyrinth, the Hammerfist Dwarves are deep in the Wastes. Like the Ghost Guardians, they oppose the darkness – but they have little contact with the Ghaash’kala.

Now: in Dragonshard the dwarves are serving with the Order of the Flame – the “Good Guy” faction – but they are not followers of the Silver Flame. Instead, they follow a tradition that runs parallel to the Undying Court of the Aereni: They have Deathless. It’s established that what you need to create Deathless is a strong manifest zone to Irian and deep devotion of a group of people. They have both in the Demon Wastes, and this has let them create their own tiny Undying Court; this is reflected by the other Dwarven unit in the game, the Deathless Guardian.

So the Hammerfist Dwarves do call on their faith when they fight, and this is about as easy a justification for a Path of the Zealot barbarian that one could ask for. On the other hand, because they are all about revering their ancestors and drawing on their undying power, the Path of the Ancestral Guardian is equally logical for them.

Dragonmarks: The Bard

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything came out recently. I want to share my thoughts on how to incorporate its new options into Eberron and at the gaming table in general… but as I started working on this, I realized that instead of just talking about the new Xanathar’s subclasses, I want to take a broader look at the classes of Fifth Edition in general and how I’d use them. So without further ado… let’s talk about BARDS.

As presented in 5E, the bard is “an inspiring magician whose power echoes the song of creation.” The PHB entry describes the bard as “a master of song, speech, and all the magic they contain.” There’s many ways to develop the idea of the performer whose work inspires listeners…

  • House Phiarlan’s Five Demesnes are the most formal bardic order in Khorvaire, and fit the structure of colleges quite well. The Demesne of Memory teaches the techniques of the College of Lore. The Demesne of Song is tied to the College of Glamour. The Demesne of Motion can be tied to the College of Swords. And the Demesne of Shadow can be tied to the College of Whispers. Note that members of any race can study with Phiarlan – though they have to have exceptional talent to earn a place in one of the Demesnes.
  • The Dirge Singers of Dhakaan primarily fall under Lore, though battlefield bards might follow Valor. I could see a particular Kech that follows Whispers, but the Duur’kala are primarily leaders; those who whisper instead of sing would be a rare few.
  • The Greensinger druids blend fey bardic traditions with their druidic magic. Glamour is an easy choice for a Greensinger bard, but I could also see Swords as the teachings of Thelanian knights.
  • Tairnadal society revolves around the heroes of the past, and the bards who tell their tales play a vital role among the Valenar. Most take to the battlefield and follow the path of Valor or Swords, inspiring through deed as well as word. It’s possible that a Tairnadal bard bridges the gap between arcane and divine; the spells and Inspiration of a Valenar bard could involve directly channeling the favor or a patron ancestor. For a PC, a critical question is why such a bard would leave their warband… but perhaps the ancestors have laid a strange path before you.

All of these are examples of inspiring entertainers. But a bard doesn’t have to be a BARD. A class is a set of mechanics, allowing a character to do certain things. These mechanics are the bones, but I’ve always believed that the flavor that’s attached to them can and should be adjusted to fit the story of a particular character.

So let’s look at the bare bones of the bard. Mechanically, what defines a bard?

  • Proficiency with light armor, simple weapons, and a few others… the hand crossbow, rapier and longsword. More of a duelist or swashbuckler than a soldier.
  • Excellent skill selection, along with Jack of All Trades and Expertise. A bard can be good at ANYTHING; they don’t have to use their Expertise on skills related to performance.
  • “Bardic Inspiration” – The ability to enhance the rolls of others.
  • Spellcasting – Flexible arcane spellcasting with a focus on enchantment, divination and illusion… along with a touch of healing.

Generally, both inspiration and bardic magic are presented as performance. The PHB says that Bardic Inspiration inspires others “through stirring words or music.” But the critical effect is that the bard can use it on one creature within 60 feet that can hear the bard – and that the benefit must be used in the next ten minutes. As long as those conditions are met, does it matter if cosmetically this benefit involves a song or speech? Or could it be that the character just gives really good advice? Does the magic have to be a performance, or can it just represent training in a particular set of arcane skills? Consider a few different ways to present a bard.

THE SPY

Background: Charlatan

Skills: Deception (B), Insight, Investigation, Persuasion, Sleight of Hand (B)

Important Spells: Friends, Message, Charm Person, Disguise Self, Detect Thoughts

Rogues are often seen as the go-to path for spies, but in a world where arcane magic is a recognized tools, spells can be far more useful than a sneak attack. If you need your spy to stab someone in the back or to dodge a fireball you want a rogue – but if you’re looking for a charming envoy who can pluck secrets from someone’s thoughts and share that information with a whispered message, a bard may be what you’re looking for. This is an excellent path for a PC who’s trained with the Trust or the Royal Eyes of Aundair… and even in the Thorn of Breland novels, we have a Dark Lantern who makes good use of Disguise Self. In these cases, as a DM I might allow the player to exchange the three musical instrument proficiencies that come with being a bard for a single proficiency with Thieves’ Tools (or they could take the Criminal background instead of the Charlatan). On the other hand, a Phiarlan or Thuranni spy USES those performance abilities as part of a cover for their spying. Either the Criminal or Charlatan background has other useful features for a spy – the false identity of the charlatan is a well established cover, while criminal contacts can easily be shifted to reflect contacts with your agency.

For a spy, Bardic Inspiration can reflect secrets – something useful you’ve noticed about a target. The spy/bard provides the beneficiary with a useful piece of information, and within the next ten minutes the target can make use of that secret to gain an advantage. Personally, I wouldn’t specify the secret until it is used… and I’d have the person benefiting from it explain what it was and how it helped. In other words, the spy says “I’m using inspiration on Bob.” Three rounds later Bob is attacking a guard and wants to add the inspiration die to his attack roll. At that point he says “Keith told me about this guy! He’s got a war wound and can’t block properly with his left arm.” Again, not knowing WHAT you’ll use the inspiration for, I can’t define the secret right away – but we establish that I’ve told you SOMETHING useful.

Looking to Colleges, there’s a few options. The College of Lore is an easy choice; a spy can use more skills (say, Stealth, Perception, and a knowledge skill of some sort); Cutting Words reflects your own ability to benefit from the secrets you’ve observed; and the ability to choose a few spells from any class list definitely provides useful options. On the other hand, the College of Whispers is good for a spy with a touch of darker magic… and is something I could definitely use for a disturbing Trust agent or a Thuranni assassin.

THE WANDSLINGER

Background: Criminal

Skills: Acrobatics, Deception (B), Perception, Sleight of Hand, Stealth (B)

Important Spells: Friends, Charm Person, Disguise Self

The Wandslinger is a scoundrel – a gambler and duelist, a literally charming troublemaker. Were I making this character, I’d make them a human from Aundair and use the variant human rules to take the Magic Initiate feat, selecting a pair of offensive cantrips to use in battle… thus justifying the name, as I’d have a few fine wands as arcane foci. A high elf could also do this with their racial cantrip. But the basic point of the character is to be a scoundrel in a society where magic is on the table – someone who can get out of trouble with a smile and a cast of Friends… even if they’ve got an angry mob coming after them when the spell wears off. You could get some of the same mileage with an Arcane Trickster rogue, but you’d have to wait a few levels to get there… and the rogue is defined by that sneak attack. This Wandslinger is about charm and charisma, preferring to talk their way throw a situation and only drawing wands  and unleashing firebolts if there’s no other option. Any College could work, but I do like the flare of the College of Swords for this character. When they use Bardic Inspiration on others, it would be along the lines of general encouragement and charisma; the optimism and confidence of the Wandslinger is infectious, together you can find a way to beat the odds.

THE SUPERSTAR

Background: Entertainer

Skills: Acrobatics (B), Deception, Insight, Performance (B), Persuasion

Important Spells: Prestidigitation, Illusion, Enthrall

In Khorvaire, magic is a tool used for warfare, healing… and entertainment. Phiarlan and Thuranni are well known for weaving illusion into their performances, but you don’t have to be an elf to get in on this act. If you follow this path, you aren’t simply a wandering minstrel; you’re an entertainer who’s built up a reputation for your amazing performances. You may know Dancing Lights, Minor Illusion, Silent Image, Faerie Fire, and Prestidigitation – because you use these spells as part of your performances. You CAN use Faerie Fire to outline an enemy in battle – but you use it to light up yourself during a performance. You might use Disguise Self for quick changes during a show, or Charm Person to deal with troublesome fans. Acrobatics may reflects actual tumbling or a remarkable talent for dance. When it comes to College, you’re all about Xanathar’s College of Glamour. It’s not that you are calling on fey powers… it’s that you are literally that good.

With the Superstar, the question is going to be why are you an adventurer? You could make a decent living on stage, and likely you already have. Do you have a literal quest to pursue – a mystical instrument you’re trying to find, or a family mystery you’re trying to unravel? Is your adventuring career a publicity stunt? Have you tired of the spotlight and you’re trying to do something meaningful with your life? Whatever the answer, you should definitely establish your previous life, as people will definitely recognize you and want you to perform!

THE MEDDLING KID

Background: Urchin

Skills: Acrobatics, Deception, Perception, Sleight of Hand (B), Stealth (B)

Important Spells: Blade Ward, Heroism, Hideous Laughter, True Strike, Vicious Mockery

In the original proposal for Eberron I explored the idea of a class called “the Journeyman.” The idea for this was the character who has no place being an adventurer… who somehow survives dangerous situations through sheer luck. There’s many ways you could go with this. You could take the Guild Artisan background and be a chronicler for the Sharn Inquisitive who wants to report the stories of REAL adventurers. You could go with Folk Hero and be everybody’s favorite bartender who got swept along with the adventurers after your bar burnt down. Or you could go the route I’m suggesting here: A character who is mechanically a halfling bard (small, fearless and lucky), but who for flavor purposes I’m describing as a human child who just has more luck than anyone deserves. They grew up on the streets of Sharn and they know their way around a big city… but they’ve still got no business being an adventurer.

Like the Revenant Blade, this is a case where I’m bending things quite a bit. First of all, while this character’s spells can BE magical effects – which is to say, they won’t work in an antimagic zone, they can be counterspelled, etc – the idea is that the character doesn’t actually KNOW magic. Rather, they are just favored by the Prophecy or similarly touched by a benign force and things just go their way… and they can share this luck with others. When they use an effect like Bardic Inspiration, True Strike or Heroism, they aren’t consciously casting a spell; they’re literally just saying something like “You can do this, Jo! I believe in you!” and it works. When they use Vicious Mockery or Hideous Laughter, they are literally just viciously mocking the target… but that insult really stings! If I was playing this character, I wouldn’t even carry a weapon; I’d rely entirely on cantrips and magic in combat, unleashing stinging insults, being surprisingly charming, and helping my friends with my ridiculous luck.

Meddling Kid or Journeyman, this isn’t a sort of character that works in every campaign. You have to have a group of players willing to bend logic a little, to accept that idea that when Little Billy casts as spell, he isn’t actually casting a spell. You have to figure out why a party of adventurers would let this character tag along. For all these reasons this sort of character often works best in a one-shot. On the other hand, if you do run with this, you have the interesting opportunity for the character to literally grow as the campaign progresses… to start off being represented as a “halfling” bard and then to evolve into a human of another class, losing their crazy luck as they grow into their actual skills.

You get the idea. The mastermind whose “inspiration” is about executing an excellent plan. The Medani detective who uses a little magic to help in their investigations (and Khoravar bards get a lot of skills to work with!), whose inspiration comes from Sherlock-style deductions about an attack or target. The chronicler who adventures to report on the greatest stories in Khorvaire… and whose inspiration comes from things they’ve seen on their journeys or facts they’ve learned. “Trust me, if he tries to charm you, just start humming!”

I could go on, but hopefully this gets the point across while also suggesting ways to use the new colleges from Xanathar’s Guide. Stretch the idea of the class, and think about the story you want it to have.

What have you done with bards in your campaign? Share your thoughts and questions below!

How would you set up an all-bard one shot adventure in Eberron?

It’s easier to do than with most classes because the bard is an inherently flexible class. You can have five bards with different skills sets and specialties – a Swords bard focused on melee combat, a Lore bard who’s got Medicine and healing magic, a Glamour bard who specializes in enchantment and manipulation. Part of the question is how you justify the team, and whether they consider themselves to be “bards” – or if they are spies, meddling kids (Really Stranger Things), or what have you. If I was making a one shot, I’d make the characters an elite Phiarlan team trained in the different demesnes. That way you could combine their artistic talents with the actual mission. They’re performing at an Aundairian diplomatic reception, but the REAL job is to rob Queen Aurala!