The Order of the Emerald Claw seem like terrible villains. While they’re sometimes compared to “The Nazis in Indiana Jones movies,” they don’t have the power base or support that made the Nazis a credible threat. If everyone hates them, how is it that they get away with anything? And what have they actually DONE that’s worse than the Swords of Liberty, anyway? The Kanon take on the Blood of Vol just makes this worse, because by the original 3.5 interpretation they at least had the support of the Blood of Vol religion, while Keith’s take on the Blood of Vol emphasizes that they don’t approve of the extreme actions of the Emerald Claw.
So, there’s a lot to unpack here. First of all, I want to drill down on the narrative purpose of the Order of the Emerald Claw. There are MANY villains to choose from in Eberron. On one side of the spectrum we have the Lords of Dust and the Dreaming Dark. Both of these organizations are extremely powerful. Both have fiendish agents that can pose a challenge even to epic-level characters. Both have vast resources and far-reaching plans, but both are masters of subterfuge. Quori mind seeds and overlord cultists can be found in any organization, often with no obvious indication of their true allegiance. Given this, they are intended to be long-term villains. At low levels, adventurers who clash with them won’t even know what organization they are dealing with; it’s only at higher levels that they will start to realize just how widespread these powers are. Both organizations have plans that could transform Khorvaire itself. And in both cases, even once adventurers know that they are dealing with, they are SO vast that you can’t expect to bring them down in a single fight. On a fundamental level, players can’t hope to DESTROY the Lords of Dust; they can only hope to kick the can down the road, stopping their current plans and forcing them to return to their schemes for another century.
For a second tier of villain, you can bring in Dragonmarked Houses or nations themselves. These forces aren’t otherworldly, and their motives often aren’t mysterious; but because of their vast support it can be difficult for adventurers to oppose them. And in the case of nations, their motives may not be evil. If the Royal Eyes of Aundair are trying to obtain a magical weapon to help Aundair win the Next War, it’s entirely conceivable that there might be a wizard among the adventurers who studied at Arcanix and who actually thinks Aundair SHOULD win the Next War. These forces DO have vast support and thousands of people who believe that their actions are justified, and adventurers may need to think about the consequences of choosing a side. And likewise, adventurers likely can’t expect that through their actions they will destroy House Deneith or the nation of Aundair.
But perhaps you’re just starting a new campaign. The low level characters aren’t capable of fighting rakshasa. They don’t yet know enough about the world to appreciate the deep schemes of the Dreaming Dark, or the impact of making an enemy of House Deneith. You need a villain that’s easy to understand and who operates on a scale small enough for people to understand. Lucky for you, there are three groups specifically designed for this purpose.
THE AURUM are classic Bond villains. They’re rich and powerful enough to hire thugs or adventurers, but they don’t have the vast resources and international influence of the Dragonmarked Houses. Their goals are PERSONAL and SELFISH. The average Aurum Concordian isn’t trying to RULE THE WORLD; they’re trying to get a particular artifact for their collection, or to crush a business rival, or to simply increase their own wealth. Their motives are easy to understand. They have enough power to make life difficult for adventurers, but they aren’t ancient immortals or as well connected as Dragonmarked barons; if the players make an implacable enemy of a Concordian, they can simple go to a new city for a while. In short, the Aurum are EASY and OBVIOUS villains: people with enough power to either threaten low level adventurers or to hire them, but intentionally NOT as powerful as Dragonmarked Houses, let alone the Lords of Dust. WITH THAT BEING SAID… If the adventurers love the Aurum and you WANT to have that low-level villain evolve into a greater threat over time, you can choose to engage the Cabinet of Shadows, revealing that the Aurum ISN’T just a collection of wealthy narcissists and DOES have a greater agenda. But that’s simply an option; MOST concordians aren’t part of the Cabinet, and their actions and motives can be as shallow as you want.
THE CULTS OF THE DRAGON BELOW are irrational and can appear ANYWHERE. They aren’t a vast, monolithic force; they are a myriad of small cells, and each one is driven by its own unique visions. Even two cults tied to the same daelkyr may have no awareness of or connection to one another. Their goals can be as grand or as focused as the story requires, and could be as simple as a handful of murder-sacrifices or as grand as a ritual that could destroy a city. But as every cell IS unique, they are a force whose goals are typically easily understood and that can be completely defeated. Defeating the Transcendent Flesh sect in Wroat doesn’t defeat DYRRN, but that particular cult can be conclusively eliminated. Again, in comparison to the Dreaming Dark or the Lords of Dust, you can think of them as “Monster of the Week” villains; their schemes AREN’T necessarily part of some vast grand scheme, they HAVEN’T anticipated your interference; and if you defeat them today, this particular cult WON’T be back to cause trouble. On the other hand, if you WANT that long term threat to evolve over the campaign, the daelkyr play the same role here that the Shadow Cabinet does for the Aurum. In fighting the cults, low-level adventurers will come to learn about the daelkyr, who are a greater threat that may challenge them at higher levels—but that doesn’t change the fact that they have conclusively triumphed over THIS ONE CULT.
THE ORDER OF THE EMERALD CLAW are classic pulp villains. When they are described as “Nazis in Indiana Jones Movies” the emphasis is on IN MOVIES, not “historical Nazis.” I think a better comparison is Cobra Command from the GI Joe franchise. The Emerald Claw doesn’t have the support of any nation. There is nothing sympathetic about its agenda. The Emerald Claw serves a narcissistic lich who is willing to drown innocents in blood if it helps her get the power she seeks. And like the Cults, the Emerald Claw is a “Monster of the Week” villain. Its schemes are focussed and often exactly what they appear. Its minions can come in all levels of power; a group of 1st level adventurers can face a changeling necromancer who’s just PRETENDING to be a vampire and his squad of goons, while a group of 10th level adventurers can face a squad of ACTUAL vampires. You could use the Emerald Claw as villains in a single adventure and then never use them again, or you can use them as recurring villains, until the adventurers ultimately find a way to destroy Lady Illmarrow herself… because unlike The Dreaming Dark, the Lords of Dust, or even a dragonmarked house, it’s plausible that a group of adventurers COULD defeat Lady Illmarrow and truly destroy the Order of the Emerald Claw. The Emerald Claw is a FINITE villain, whose goals are petty and focused. And in specifically comparing it to the Swords of Liberty, the point is that the Swords of Liberty may use violent methods, but they have a rational goal; they want to affect political change. We never expect players to have any question that opposing the Emerald Claw is the right thing to do, any more than GI Joe will ever say “Huh, Cobra might actually have a good point” or than Indiana Jones will say “Maybe we SHOULD give the Nazis the Ark of the Covenant this time.”
So focusing specifically on the Emerald Claw, it’s INTENTIONAL that everyone hates them, that they don’t have the support of nations, that they can’t field an army. They are a terrorist force that can appear anywhere to cause chaos, but they DON’T have the power to, for example, conquer a nation (or even a large city). If you oppose them, YOU aren’t making an enemy of a nation or choosing a side in the Next War.
As for “What have they done that’s so evil,” what do you WANT them to have done? The point is that they are a terrorist organization that uses necromancy as a weapon. Using my OWN campaign as an example, I recently ran a campaign set in Callestan that involved the Emerald Claw…
- In the first session, an agent of the Emerald Claw paid a PC courier to carry a time-locked bag bag of holding to a crowded tavern, thinking they were going to meet a client. Instead, the bag opened and turned out to be full of hostile skeletons, and the PCs had to protect the patrons from these undead.
- Next, a friend of the adventurers was infected with a zombie virus set to trigger when the victim entered a micro-manifest zone tied to Mabar, which turned out to be in a local dreamlily den. The adventurers were able to contain the outbreak, but they couldn’t save everyone—and there was no saving their friend.
- Next, the Emerald Claw used the micro-Mabar zone to throw a few blocks of Callestan into the Hinterlands of the Endless Night; the players had to find a way to escape, also openly clashing with agents of the Claw for the first time.
The point is that these acts were all SMALL SCALE. The Emerald Claw was testing necromantic weapons on a captive populace that no one (aside from the PCs) cared about. The EC could well be planning to unleash these techniques on a larger target—spreading a contagious zombie virus across Sharn itself—but the adventurers were dealing with a small, localized problem. And ultimately, they could locate and defeat the necromancer responsible for these tragedies. It could be that that necromancer WOULD return in a future adventure in a new undead form—with greater powers to challenge the more powerful player characters—but the adventurers could absolutely wipe out that CELL and feel a legitimate sense of triumph, which can be more difficult when dealing with the Lords of Dust and their far-reaching schemes.
But patriotism… OK, but haven’t we said that many of the soldiers of the Emerald Claw are Karrnathi patriots? Indeed… Karrnathi patriots who want the Queen of the Dead to take over Karrnath and then lead it to conquer Khorvaire. These “patriots” are extremists whose goals aren’t supposed to be sympathetic. This isn’t like the Swords of Liberty, where you might introduce a cell leader whose actions are driven by the cruel actions of a local noble who tormented their vassals. Likewise, if you WANT some shades of gray with your necromancy, you can use a Blood of Vol sect who AREN’T tied to the Emerald Claw, and who may have legitimate grievances. Whether or not they are driven by patriotism, Emerald Claw agents ultimately want the living people of Khorvaire to be ground under the skeletal bootheel of the Queen of the Dead; this isn’t supposed to be some kind of rational “OK, maybe they’re got a point here” situation. THIS is why kanon divorces them from the Blood of Vol; because as a faith, the Blood of Vol has many shades of gray and sympathetic aspects, while the Emerald Claw is supposed to be an absolute evil.
But Erandis is a tragic figure… Certainly! I’ve explored this in a number of other articles. But her personal tragedy isn’t supposed to justify the horrors she inflicts in pursuit of her goals. Again, from a design perspective, the Emerald Claw are supposed to be absolute villains; the players are never expect to say “Wait, we shouldn’t fight them until we know more.” While the personal tragedy of Erandis helps to explain how she went down this dark path, she still went down that path. What suggested with the saga of the Queen of the Dead is the possibility that if she achieves her goal and truly ascends, that she could BECOME a benevolent entity and perhaps even feel remorse for her actions, but that’s supposed to be a wacky twist, not a justification for the terrors she inflicted on innocents in her quest.
So the Emerald Claw aren’t SUPPOSED to be the most powerful or nefarious villains of the setting; on the contrary, they are specifically useful BECAUSE they operate on a small scale, with actions that are typically both clearly reprehensible (starting a zombie outbreak in an innocent neighborhood) and small enough that they can be dealt with by a party of adventurers. They’re an opening act who can appear any time you need a quick and easy villain and who help prepare the players to take on the REAL villains of the campaign, whose schemes are more subtle and far-reaching. Likewise, all of these three groups—the Aurum, the Cults of the Dragon Below, the Emerald Claw—could themselves turn out to be unwitting tools of the Lords of Dust!
Were all of the original members Karrnathi knights or have there been supporters and laymen members from its creation?
The organization takes its name from the Seeker chivalric order that served in the war, and uses the reputation of that original order to present its members as Karrnathi patriots opposing the weak leadership of Kaius III. But from the very beginning, the actual members of that order were only a fraction (albeit an elite core) of the new Order of the Emerald Claw. Lady Illmarrow had been building her power for centuries, and the Emerald Claw is just a convenient rallying point for her forces… and remember that Illmarrow herself isn’t a Seeker of the Divinity Within! So from the very begining, Illmarrow’s operatives included undead lieutenants and retainers from her domain in Farlnen, along with thugs recruited From Lhazaar Seeker offshoots… reinforced with Karrns angry about Kaius’s peace initiative and lured by dreams of power in the new Empire of the Queen of the Dead. Essentially, there ARE misguided Karrnathi patriots and Seekers in the Order, including original members of the Chivalric Order. But many of its members—especially in its inner circle—seek only personal power in the service of Lady Illmarrow and have no interest in Karrnath or the Divinity Within. The cause of Karrnathi patriotism is a convenient figurehead that lets the order APPEAR to have a legitimate political motive, but they ultimately serve only the Queen of the Dead.
Would you run a campaign of emerald claw player characters fighting Kaius since he is not a real patriot nor a real bov believer?
Now, I wouldn’t. When I want to run a story that’s about patriotic Seekers whofeel betrayed by Kaius, I use the Order of the Ebon Skull—another Seeker chivalric order that was disbanded. These are my go-to group to explore anyone with legitimate grievances who are actually trying to make Karrnath a better place and to help Seekers. From a design perspective, the Emerald Claw isn’t SUPPOSED to have this sort of depth. It’s a front that has been entirely corrupted to serve the purposes of Lady Illmarrow, who is neither a Karrnathi patriot nor a believer in the Divinity Within, and anyone who serves her is either a willing tool or a dupe.
With that said, I ran a campaign in which one of the PCs WAS a paladin of the Blood of Vol who had been trained by Lady Illmarrow and who specifically wanted to bring down Kaius because he’s not a real patriot or a real BoV believer. But from the very beginning the PLAYER knew that his character was a dupe being used as a tool by Illmarrow. His whole idea for his story arc was that if he succeeded in bringing down Kaius he’d REALIZE he’d made a terrible mistake and would ultimately have to battle Illmarrow and the Emerald Claw. So the character wasn’t somehow proving that the Emerald Claw wasn’t so bad; the player KNEW the character was a fool and a tool, but wanted that revelation and redemption to be part of his story arc.
For Emerald Claw members who know that the order is loaded by Vol, what are their motivations?
Forget the name “Vol” for a moment. Most members of the Order of the Emerald Claw know that their order is led by Lady Illmarrow, the infamous lich also known as the Queen of the Dead. Some believe that Illmarrow will take over Karrnath and then lead Karrnath to conquer Khorvaire. They want this because they believe their leaders are weak and because they believe that they will hold positions of power in this future empire of the undead. Many others don’t care about Karrnath or the Blood of Vol, and are interested PURELY in the personal power they can gain. Some are necromancers who yearn for the arcane secrets Illmarrow can teach them. Others simply hunger for the power and immortality of the vampire or the death knight. Their motivations aren’t supposed to be sympathetic; again, if I want a complex story, I’ll use the Ebon Skull. So if your brother has joined the Emerald Claw, it means your brother dreams of living in a world ruled by a ruthless lich-queen and is willing to kill innocents to make it come to pass. Maybe he hates life. Maybe he thinks mortal rulers are weak and misguided. Maybe he wants revenge on someone. But again, if he’s joined the Emerald Claw, it’s because he is willing to kill innocents so a ruthless lich-queen might someday rule the world.
Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters, who keep this blog going!