Dragonmarks: Firearms in Eberron

There are a few questions I’ve been asked time and again over the years, and one of those came up again just recently: How do firearms fit into Eberron? There’s a number of different gunpowder related classes and rules out in the world; Unearthed Arcana even included a version of the artificer with a Gunsmith archetype. So, how do firearms fit into the setting?

The short and simple answer is they don’t. From the very beginning, Eberron was designed as a setting where arcane magic was the foundation of civilization. The core idea is that in Eberron people wouldn’t pursue the development of firearms and gunpowder, because they have a different tool for creating explosions and hurting people at a distance… so they’d refine that magical tool instead of pursuing something entirely different.

But… isn’t another core principle of Eberron If it exists in D&D, there’s a place for it in Eberron? So: there’s a gunslinger class and I’ve got a player who really wants to use it… what do I do with it?

In any situation like this, the most critical question is: WHY do you want to add this thing into Eberron? What is the story you are trying to tell, and do you need to change the world to tell it? Does your story absolutely require the existence of some form of gunpowder analogue… or could you take the same basic idea and reflavor it to work using magical principles instead of gunpowder?

The Wandslinger

The basic principle of Eberron is that people are finding ways to solve the problems we’ve solved with technology by using magic. Instead of using telegraphs or cell phones, they have speaking stones and sending. Thus, the idea that’s most in keeping with the setting is to develop a magical analogue to the firearm. Wands, staves, and rods are tools that can hold and channel mystical power. In third edition, it wasn’t feasible to use wands as personal sidearms; they were too expensive and also entirely disposable, and it was hard to imagine a unit of soldiers equipped with such a tool. But we took steps towards this by introducing the eternal wand, which had fewer restrictions on who could use it and which recharged every day. While statistics were never presented for it, in my novels I also presented the idea of the siege staff, Khorvaire’s answer to artillery. The idea’s simple: if a wand holds a little power and a staff can hold greater power, then a staff made from a tree trunk could hold greater power still, dramatically amplifying the range and radius of a spell effect to fill the same role as cannons in our world.

The later editions of D&D have made casual combat magic easier to use. In fifth edition, a wand is an arcane focus that costs a fraction of the price of a longbow. Such a wand has no inherent power of its own; it channels the power of a spellcaster. Meanwhile, the Magic Initiate feat establishes the idea that you don’t need to be a wizard or warlock to know a cantrip or two. So in the Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron we embrace this idea and suggest that over the course of the Last War the nations began training elite arcaneers—essentially, soldiers who gain the Magic Initiate feat and can perform simple combat magic. Because NPCs don’t need to follow exactly the same rules as player characters, I suggest that wandslingers typically only know offensive cantrips (spells that require an attack roll or saving throw), and further that the typical wandslinger needs an arcane focus to perform their magic. Essentially, for a player character a wand is an optional tool; for a wandslinger, it’s a requirement. This is intended both to emphasize that player characters are remarkable, but also to establish that in this world arcane focuses are important tools—that there’s a form of science at work here, and that the “wand technology” is significant.

There’s a few issues with arcane focuses replacing firearms. One of the obvious ones is range: a fire bolt has a range of 120 feet, while a bow can hit an enemy up to 600 feet away; don’t we need a solution that can match that? There’s also the issue that only spellcasters can use the wand, so wouldn’t we have an answer that anyone can use? Addressing the second point first, we do have a solution anyone can use: a bow or crossbow. And anyone CAN learn to use a wand… if they put in the time. Again, the core idea of Eberron is that the magic used by a magewright or a wandslinger is a form of science. Different people may have a special aptitude to different types of spells, just as in our world some people have a talent for a certain type of instrument while others just aren’t very musical. But anyone CAN learn to play an instrument… and in Eberron, anyone could learn to use a wand. On the other hand, they could also put that time and energy into mastering another skill. So Aundair’s elite infantry may be made up of wandslingers, who have the equivalent of Magic Initiate; while Thrane’s elite archers have the equivalent of the Sharpshooter feat, reflecting their specialized training.

So: a basic principle of Eberron’s widespread magic is that many magical tools do have a living component. A siege staff requires a trained person to operate it. And this is why crossbows and arbalests DO still have a place in the world. But remember that here too, these tools can be enhanced by magic. If an Aereni ship uses an arbalest, the bolts could easily be explosive; we’ve also mentioned livewood bolts bound to a dryad, allowing the dryad to manifest on the ship struck by the bolt. Rather than saying “An arbalest is inferior to a cannon, they’d have to have developed cannons,” consider the ways that you could magically enhance an arbalest to match the capabilities of a cannon… even if, like the livewood arbalest, the actual results are very different.

Still, there’s a few valid points. Range is a significant limitation for the battlefield wandslinger. And another thing that bothers me is that in fifth edition there’s no difference between the arcane focuses. Wand, staff, orb… it’s a purely cosmetic choice with no practical effect. Given the idea that these things are tools, I wanted the choice of focus to matter. The Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron includes one set of rules. Here’s a summary of what I’m playing with now. The staff rules are new and largely untested, which is why they aren’t in the WGtE, but you could try them out if your players and DMs agree.

  • A wand, crystal, or orb is used in one hand. This has no inherent impact unless you’re using a special focus (imbued wood, orb of shielding, etc).
  • A rod can be used with one or two hands. If it is used with two hands, the range of any offensive cantrip you cast is increased by 50%. Using a two handed arcane focus meets the somatic requirements of a spell.
  • A staff requires two hands. When casting an offensive cantrip, the standard range is the listed range for the cantrip, but the staff provides a long range equal to four times the listed range: so when using a staff, fire bolt has a standard range of 120 feet and a long range of 480 feet. When casting an offensive cantrip beyond normal range, you have disadvantage on the attack roll and the target has advantage on the saving throw. Using a two handed arcane focus meets the somatic requirements of a spell.

The goal here is to present the wand as a sidearm—short range, easily concealable—with the staff as the analogue to the rifle. A team of Aundairian arcaneers equipped with staves can’t quite match the range of Aundairian archers, but they can come close… and of course the staff doesn’t require ammunition and the damage scales with the user’s skill. Note that these rules specifically apply to “offensive cantrips”—cantrips requiring an attack roll or saving throw. The staff increases the range of fire bolt, but it doesn’t quadruple the range of message.

The basic principle here is simple: rather than say “A cantrip is inferior to a gun, so people would develop guns,” consider how magic might evolve to fill the same niche. We need to kill someone from farther away? Let’s see if we can increase the range of the spell by making a longer wand (IE, a staff). Want a silencer? Perhaps you can buy a ring that goes around the end of a wand or staff and reduces the obvious discharge. Explore magical solutions. With that said, bear in mind that part of presenting magic as a form of science is that magic has the same limitations as science, one of which is that progress comes slowly. Within current lore the idea is that the techniques of the wandslinger only developed over the last thirty years. People are actively working to improve these things and to make better focus items.

So, the first question is whether it’s possible to just reflavor whatever class or element is calling for guns to use a magical alternative. Currently I’m running a campaign in Q’barra that has the flavor of a fantasy western, and so far, I’ve been very happy with how the wandslinging rules fill the gap for firearms. The sheriff relies on sword and bow; the warlock’s a fancy wandslinger with a brace of imbued-wood wands; the innkeeper has a rod behind the bar in case of trouble.

Goblin Gunslingers

So: I would just reflavor a gunslinger class to use wands. But perhaps that doesn’t work. Maybe the mechanics don’t make sense with a wand, or maybe the DM or player really, really wants something that functions more like an actual gunpowder weapon.

There’s a place for everything in Eberron; you just have to find it. If I had a player who really, really wanted to be a gunslinger, I wouldn’t solve this problem by giving firearms to House Cannith or the Five Nations. The core idea is that the Five Nations solve their problems by using arcane magic, not technology. But… what about a society that DOESN’T possess arcane magic? An advanced, militaristic civilization already renowned for its metallurgy and smithing techniques—a civilization that is thus perfecting the mundane arts of war? Those of you who know the setting well may already have guessed who I’m talking about: the goblinoid Heirs of Dhakaan.

Now: I’m not suggesting that the goblins of Darguun—the Ghaal’dar—have guns. And I’m not saying that the Dhakaani had firearms when they fought the Daelkyr. The Heirs of Dhakaan have been in subterranean isolation for thousands of years, and I’m suggesting that some of their clans may have developed this technology during that time. The Kech Volaar study arcane magic, and thus they wouldn’t have firearms. The Kech Sharaat pride themselves on their mastery of melee combat. So I’d introduce the Kech Hashrach, a clan that has developed firearms and artillery. I’d want them to be as surprising and as threatening to Darguun as to the Five Nations, and present this as an entirely alien form of technology—a path of science others haven’t explored at all. Essentially, in clashing with the Kech Hashrach there would be a chance to explore the conflict between magic and technology. So going back to the player character who wants to be a gunslinger, I’d figure out a way that they could have acquired their tools from the Kech Hashrach. Could they have been a slave who learned the ways of the gun before escaping? Would the player be interested in having ties to the clan—in having somehow earned their respect and been inducted into the Kech? Or might they simply have befriended an old goblin sharpshooter who taught them her secrets? Essentially, I’m fine with a single player character having an exotic weapon, but I’d play up the idea that it IS exotic… and that the Cannith artificer doesn’t get why you’re messing around with dangerous explosives when the basic arcane formulas for pyrotechnic magic are well established and quite safe.

Elemental Weapons

If you don’t like the Dhakaani, there’s another path that we’ve mentioned but never fully explored: Elemental weapons. The gnomes of Zilargo are noted for their skill with alchemy and for elemental binding, and we specifically call out that they provided Breland with “elemental weaponry” during the Last War… but we’ve never explained exactly what this is. One possibility is to play up the alchemical side and explore explosive technology. Another is to focus more on the idea of bound elementals; but this would be a way to create a fire-based weapon that’s distinct from a wand.

I don’t have time to explore this concept in detail here, but it’s a path that would allow you to create a sidearm or form of artillery that isn’t based on direct spellcasting, while still engaging with in-world lore. And I could certainly imagine interesting ways to make it distinct from mundane firearms. Imagine a form of canon that fires globes containing small fire elementals; when the weapon strikes, it doesn’t just explode, it unleashes the fire elemental in the midst of your enemies.

Giving this to the Zil and Breland is also another way to differentiate between nations and to shift the power dynamic from the houses. Aundair might have the finest wandslingers, and House Cannith might be the primary source for arcane weapons of mass destruction. But the Zil could be providing Breland with a form of weaponry none of the other nations use… and the Kech Hashach could be emerging from the depths of Khyber with yet another form of unfamiliar weaponry.

So: I personally focus on using magic in place of firearms, but here’s a few alternatives to consider. Have you used firearms in your Eberron? Have you tried out the wandslinger? Share your thoughts below!


What class would you use as a wandslinger?

Anyone who can cast an offensive arcane cantrip COULD be a wandslinger. It’s largely a question of style. Your wizard can cast fire bolt. Does he take pride in this? Does he carry a fine wand of Fernian ash on his hip, or a battleworn rod over his shoulder? Or is he a scholar who KNOWS the words to produce fire, but prefers only to use them as a last resort? Essentially: does the character use offensive cantrips? If so, do they use an arcane focus more often than not? If so, do they take some pride in this? If so, that character’s a wandslinger. It doesn’t matter if they’re a sorcerer, wizard, warlock, bard, or just anyone who’s taken Magic Initiate. And again, with NPCs they generally aren’t any class at all; the ONLY magic a typical arcaneer knows is the battle magic they channel through their foci.

Now, there is something I always wanted to ask Keith ever since he first talked about wandslingers, how common were they in the Last War? And how common are they in post-war Khorvaire? Could you be mugged by a thug with a wand in a dark alley?

The short answer is “They’re as rare or as common as you want them to be in your story.” In my Eberron Aundair fielded the first elite arcaneer units in the last 30 years of the war, and they’ve become more common since then. Today I think wand use is common in Aundair, rare in Thrane, and uncommon everywhere else—which is to say, everyone is familiar with the concept of it, people know a wandslinger when they see one, but the city watch are still using crossbows. In my Q’barra campaign, the sheriff uses a bow, but when the slick Tharashk operatives showed up in town, two of them were wandslingers… and again, the innkeeper keeps a rod over the bar. Essentially, wandslinging is definitely new… but sure, you could be mugged by a thug with a wand. But again: in your campaign, it’s as common as you want it to be.