IFAQ: The Elvish Language

My new book Exploring Eberron is available now on the DM’s Guild. You can find a FAQ about it here. Yesterday I posted an IFAQ about developing languages. In the comments, a question came up about the role of the Elvish language in the world. Since the answers have broader implications on a general philosophy of worldbuilding, I wanted to make it a standalone IFAQ. So…

Elvish is the language of Thelanis. Is that primordially true, i.e. did Elves speak that language prior to their enslavement by the Giants? Also, if Elvish is the language of Thelanis, are Elves born knowing it, or must it be taught to children like any other language?

There are no canon answers to these questions. By the rules of D&D, elves speak Elvish. It’s part of their racial features. There’s no explanation of where the language came from or how they come to learn it. So first, to be clear, everything I’m about to say is what I do IN MY CAMPAIGN. It has no foundation in any canon source, though as far as I know it doesn’t contradict any canon source either; the topic has simply never come up. But if you don’t like it, don’t use it. To me, this is a perfect example of a choice where you need to think about the broader implications—you need to be sure you WANT your story to go down a particular path. So I’ll tell you my answer, but then I want to talk about WHY I’d answer that way.

First: Elvish is the language of Thelanis. That is primordially true. The planes are universal concepts, and their fundamental principles don’t change (setting aside the complications of Dal Quor!). With that said, one of the minor effects of Thelanis is that while you are in Thelanis, you understand Elvish. When you’re wandering through the Endless Weald, you can understand the songs of the dryads singing in the trees; you are part of the story and that means you understand its words. It is only when you and a dryad LEAVE Thelanis that you realize that you can’t understand her any more, and start hearing her words as Elvish instead simply understanding their meaning.

Second: In my Eberron, every elf is born with an innate understanding of the Elvish language. It doesn’t matter if you’re an orphan born in a Sharn gutter or a proud Aereni. You don’t have to be taught; the language a part of you, tied innately to the Fey Ancestry feature. It is impossible to be an elf and NOT understand Elvish.

WHY DO THIS? What appeals to me about this is that in concretely establishes that elves are not human. They aren’t just humans who have pointed ears and live for centuries. They are fundamentally alien beings whose minds do not work the same way as human minds. It further reinforces other things we’ve established about the elf cultures, namely that they are extremely tied to tradition and that they aren’t as innovative as humans. This makes sense if elves have a greater degree of engrained knowledge and instinct than humans. As an elf, you never have to develop a new language. You are born knowing THE LANGUAGE, the language that will allow you to speak to any elf anywhere.

This comes back to one of my basic principles of world building. I like exploring worlds that are unlike our own. To me, it’s fascinating to consider the impact of having a language seared into your brain from the moment of birth. How would that affect the development of culture? It is fundamentally the antithesis of the Babel story—the people of the world are divided by their many languages, but all elves are united by their common tongue.

The original question included this: was Giant the language that the oppressed elves were supposed to use with their overlords, while Elvish was preserved as the language they used among themselves? Absolutely. The giants weren’t going to learn Elvish, so elf servants had to learn at least basic Giant. It’s not that Elvish was preserved, because the elves couldn’t forget it even if they wanted to. But it was unquestionably SUPPRESSED, and elves would be punished for speaking it. But this is also a crucial factor in the eventual uprising. Captives of the giants, descendants of Qabalrin refugees, the unconquered ancestors of the Tairnadal—despite their different cultures and histories, they were united by the Elvish tongue and could always understand one another. Given this, one might well ask what about the Drow? First of all, by the RULES drow speak Elvish. Second, they possess the Fey Ancestry trait. To me, those two facts hold the answer. While altered by the giants, the drow still have their Fey Ancestry, and it is through that ancestry that they know the Elvish language.

This gets to a much deeper and more complicated question: Do the Khoravar (half-elves) innately understand Elvish, or do THEY have to learn it? The reason this is complicated is because it has vast ramifications on the relationship between Khoravar and Elves. We’ve often raised the question can a half-elf become a Tairnadal? Could they join the Undying Court? If all elves innately understand Elvish and Khorvar do NOT understand Elvish, that’s a deep point in favor of the idea that Khorvar are fundamentally not elves… while if they are born with the knowledge of Elvish, that’s a strong argument that they ARE spiritually part of the elf species and COULD connect with Patron Ancestors. PERSONALLY, I would say that Khoravar DO innately know Elvish, for the same reason as drow. Under the rules of 5E, half-elves possess the Fey Ancestry feat and have Elvish as an ingrained language. For me, it’s all about that Fey Ancestry; part of what it means to have Fey Ancestry is to KNOW ELVISH, in the same way that I’ve said that part of being a druid is that you KNOW DRUIDIC. This also explains why the Valenar were so quick to bring in Khoravar administrators; they may not consider them equals, but it’s good to have an administrator who KNOWS THE LANGUAGE. But this is definitely a case where I could see a DM ruling the other way specifically because of how they want to play out that story of the Khoravar who wants to be Tairnadal. We’ve also made a point of saying that many Khoravar communities develop a Khoravar Cant that is a unique blend of Elvish and Common; part of the point of this is that they KNOW Elvish, but they are choosing to speak in a manner that is unique to THEIR people, not simply relying on the language of either parent. Likewise, it adds color to the relationship between Aereni and drow; even though the drow were created to kill elves, they still know the Language.

So this raises another interesting question… what happens when you need a new word? A situation arises where there’s a concept that’s never been expressed in Elvish, or a poet is expressing an entirely new concept. Do they create a new word? If so, wouldn’t they have to teach it to others? Isn’t this exactly how we end up developing unique dialects and new languages? Certainly. But this is where we get back to the point that they’re not human, that they are touched by the Fey, that this is something that fundamentally doesn’t make sense. The poet doesn’t create a new word the way a human poet would. They realize they already know the word, even though it’s never been spoken in Elvish before. And once spoken, every other fey creature also knows that word. Because Elvish isn’t just a mundane, mortal language; it is an immortal, magical language. An elf knows Elvish because fundamentally, they are fey, and being fey means knowing Elvish. The language evolves as it is needed, and all fey creatures know the language. What this DOES mean is that any creature without Fey ancestry who learns Elvish WILL find that new words occasionally appear and they’ll have to learn their meaning, because without Fey Ancestry, they don’t get those automatic dictionary updates.

This is a long discussion of a point that, mechanically, makes no difference. Because by the rules, elves just know Elvish. It’s a racial feature with no inherent story. But the point is that once you add a story you GIVE it meaning. The reason I’d say that they DO all know it, that it is fundamentally tied to Fey Ancestry is because I WANT to explore the impact of that decision—on the Xen’drik Uprising, on the relationship between Khoravar and Aereni, on the idea of elves being bound to tradition. I think it’s interesting to explore ways in which elves AREN’T like humans, and to imagine what it would be like to be born with immediate, perfect knowledge of a language.

So, in conclusion, when there is no canon answer to questions like this—or even if there is!—the question to me is always how will it affect the story, and what story do I want to tell? *I* find the story of innate-knowledge-of-Elvish more INTERESTING that Elvish-is-just-a-mundane-language-like-any-other. But you certainly don’t have to agree with me!

Are there other languages that would work the same way?

Certainly. I’d say that an aasimar understands Celestial the same way that an elf understands Elvish; they don’t have to learn it, and you can’t be an aasimar and NOT understand Celestial (unless you’re an aasimar tied to a power that speaks another immortal language; note that the Court aasimar in Exploring Eberron speaks both Elvish and Celestial, and of course has Fey Ancestry!). All true immortals are born innately possessing all of their basic knowledge, including languages, and I would say that just like I’ve suggested with Elvish, if Celestial needs a new word, all creatures with an innate knowledge of Celestial automatically know that word. Again, MORTALS who have LEARNED the language wouldn’t get that automatic update. This could be an interesting element for archaeologists, being able to date inscriptions in Abyssal or Celestial based on “Note the use of ‘Alael’, which didn’t become part of the language until the Age of Giants.” But in general this would be an aspect of immortal languages. Humans can make new languages; immortals are born knowing their language, and again, can usually make themselves understood when they wish to.

In this article I suggested that Undercommon might be constantly evolving, but that anyone who could speak Undercommon automatically knows the current form of it—essentially the same principle as the Elvish dictionary updates, but that rather than just ADDING to the existing language, the pre-existing words are always changing… and that when you find inscriptions in Undercommon, they may make no sense under the current form of the language or they might have taken on a new meaning. However, this is a pretty difficult concept for us poor mortals to wrap our brains around, and I didn’t actually push it in either the Wayfinder’s Guide or Rising From The Last War.

Before the fall of Xen’drik were there multiple Giant languages for each realm?

This comes back to the whole question of language-in-games in general. Xen’drik is a massive continent and there were multiple, very distinct giant civilizations. Barring some exterior factor—IE Fey-Ancestry-means-you-speak-Elvish—it’s reasonable to assume that these different giant cultures would all have developed unique languages. However, it’s also the case that we haven’t defined those languages; we’ve never mentioned Sulatan or Elevenese. What we’ve said is that the language we know as Giant was the COMMON TONGUE of Xen’drik, widespread enough that it is what you find spoken by the vast diverse range of creatures across the continent. I might very well introduce the idea of Elevenese as a PLOT DEVICE—the adventurers have found an ancient scroll in Risia that’s written in old Elevenese, the pre-Giant language of the Group of Eleven! It’s completely unknown in the modern age, and you’ll need to use Comprehend Language!—but I’m not going to expect a player character to waste a language slot learning Elevenese; Giant is the language you NEED to know to get by in Xen’drik. Again, at the end of the day, it’s the question of how will this decision affect the story you and your friends tell at your table?

What is the difference/relationship between Celestial and Draconic?

In the article that’s been linked a few times I suggested that they might be the same, but I’ve actually backed off from that (and we didn’t include it in Rising From The Last War). I think that there are SIMILARITIES between the two, just as I’ve suggested that Goblin and Orc may have their roots in Abyssal (noting the similarity between Goblin and the names of the Overlords). But essentially, I think Draconic is the oldest MORTAL language, but it’s not an IMMORTAL language.

What about gnomes? Aren’t they fey? Do they know Elvish?

The idea that gnomes are from Thelanis was added into the fourth edition books specifically to address the fact that in fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons, gnomes were fey creatures. This is no longer true in fifth edition, and it’s not something we mention in Rising From The Last War. To my mind, this is in the same category as BAATOR, which was added into the planar cosmology in fourth edition, and REMOVED AGAIN in Rising From The Last War. Canon can evolve, and the latest canon does NOT have gnomes as Thelanian immigrants. What I have suggested is that there are gnomes who have immigrated FROM EBERRON TO THELANIS through the Feyspires, but they are natives of Eberron. They do not have Fey Ancestry and as such don’t have an innate understanding of Elvish. If a gnome knows Elvish, it’s because they learned it like anyone else.

Setting aside the fact that the idea of gnomes being from Thelanis was always a 4E artifact, the gnomes and elves of Eberron have a few very fundamental differences that reflect this. The elves are deeply bound to tradition and not driven toward innovation. They are happy to exist in isolation. By contrast, gnomes are typically extremely inquisitive. They are called out as being explorers, seeking out new lands and discovering new cultures. The Zil try different religions. House Sivis is specifically called out as having created multiple languages. They’ve reverse-engineered elemental binding techniques recovered from Xen’drik. The fact that there’s some gnomes in Thelanis is a reflection of that deeply inquisitive nature—not of Thelanian origins. With that said, as I describe in the Exploring Eberron FAQ, I’m playing a gnome artificer from Pylas Pyrial in my current campaign. But he’s NOT a fey creature; he’s just using the “Magical Thinking” style of artifice tied to his Pyrial upbringing.

Thanks for taking this deep dive into the Elvish rabbit hole. And thanks to my Patrons for making it possible!

IFAQ: Creating Languages

My new book Exploring Eberron is available now on the DM’s Guild. You can find a FAQ about it here. I am currently working on a longer article about the Nobility of Khorvaire, but as time permits I like to answer interesting short questions from my Patreon supporters, so here’s one from Samantha:

How do you pick the names for the Overlords? They seem to all have a common thread or convention, and I’m dying to know what it is.

The answer is tied to a broader question of worldbuilding, which is how deep do you go in creating languages for a world? Exploring Eberron includes a Goblin glossary, compiled with help from Don Bassingthwaite and Jarrod Taylor. The bulk of that glossary was developed by Don when he was working on his Legacy of Dhakaan novels, but he built it on the foundation I’d established in previous sourcebooks. The answer is that I almost never go deep into creating a language; but my goal is to be distinctive and consistent. I don’t usually bother to create a full dictionary of hundreds of words. But I establish a simple set of rules and keep track of existing words, and use the existing words as a foundation going forward.

So for example, here’s a few we came up with developing the 3.5 Eberron Campaign Setting.

Elvish. The elves use a lot of diphthongs, especially ae and ai. Words often have a soft flow, and V and L are common letters: Vadallia, Valaestas, Valenar, Vol. We quickly established Shae as “City”, Taer as “Fortress”, and “Pylas” as “Port.” This is important for worldbuilding, because you want consistent naming conventions for places when you are creating maps—even if you don’t yet no the culture. Elvish words are usually multisyllabic, and L, S, and R are common end letters… Tairnadal, Aerenal, Valenar. However, you have a few short names, usually formed on -ol—Vol, Shol.

Goblin. An immediate goal was for Goblin to feel harsher than Elvish. Goblin also uses a lot of diphthongs, but generally with repeated vowels—duur, ghaal, guul. It blends sibilance with harsh k and kh sounds—Shaarat’khesh, Taarka’khesh, Kech Shaarat. As seen in two of those three examples, glottal stops are common. As with Elvish, we immediately settled on place names, so draal was “city”; Rhukaan Draal, Cazhaak Draal, again with the harsher sound, dipthongs, and hard k’s. We started with those few basic words: duur is “dirge“, shaarat is “sword”, taarka is “wolf”, volaar is “word”, ghaal is “mighty” and could be attached to a people (ghaal’dar) or thing (ghaal’duur). We had Shaarat’khesh, the “silent blades” and Kech Shaarat, the “Keepers of the Blade.” But the point is that at the time, we didn’t have too much more than that. Until Don came along, we DIDN’T create a extensive Goblin dictionary; it was simply the case that when you needed to make a new Goblin word, you wanted to look back over the words that already existed and to make a word that feels like it fits the same pattern. So again, for me, the vital element is consistency.

So with that in mind, how did we pick the names of the overlords? Well, even before picking their names, we established the idea that every overlord would have a common title. The overlord’s actually names would be ancient and people might be superstitious about using them. Beyond that, part of the issue of using alien languages is that players can have trouble remembering them. “Rak Tulkhesh” is a jumble of sounds; “The Rage of War” immediately says this is an angry warmonger. So for most of them, the TITLE came first: The Rage of War, the Voice in the Darkness, the Keeper of Secrets, the Shadow in the Flame. In then developing their actual names, it’s the same process as for Goblin or Elvish: establish basic principles and make sure you stick with them. So…

  • Most overlords have a monosyllabic first article and a multisyllabic second article: Rak Tulkhesh, Sul Khatesh.
  • Like Goblin, overlord names often combine harsh consonants with sibilants—Tulkhesh, Oreshka. However, overlords generally DON’T use diphthongs or glottal stops.
  • Ul, kh, and sh are common; Sul Khatesh, Tul Oreshka, Rak Tulkhesh. Part of the concept is that while they’re usually broken into short-name long-name, to some degree each syllable has power… it’s actually Rak-Tul-Khesh and Tul-Or-Esh-Ka. This plays to the idea that on some level the name of an overlord is an incantation… which explains why you DON’T want to say their names!

There are exceptions to all things. Eldrantulku the Oathbreaker uses a single word in both name and title, but you can still imagine his name as El-Dran-Tul-Ku. Dral Khatuur has a diphthong in her name. She probably should have been Dral Khatur; I admit that this was just a case where *I* liked the look and feel of Khatuur… Dral-Kha-Tuuuuur.

Some older versions of D&D had Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic as languages, but didn’t fully expand on their role. How would you make them distinct from Infernal, Abysmal, and/or Celestial for Eberron?

PERSONALLY, how I’d make them distinct is by making them nonexistent. There’s a number of reasons why I wouldn’t use these in my campaigns.

First, I usually find that having too many languages tends to get in the way of a story instead of making it more fun. The last thing I want is for the adventurers to meet a crucial NPC but then find no one can speak to him. This CAN be fun if it’s a specific part of the story — they need to play charades to figure out the directions to the dragon’s lair, or they need to find the one sage in the region that can read ancient Orc. But I don’t want that to be a part of EVERY ADVENTURE. As a result, I tend to REDUCE the number of languages in the game, focusing on the idea of “common tongues” — Common as the common language of Galifar, Goblin as the common language of Galifar, Giant as the common language of Xen’drik, Riedran as the common language of Sarlona. Exotic languages are EXOTIC and may play an interesting story role — the gnolls will be impressed if you actually speak gnoll — but any Znir gnoll will understand Goblin.

But beyond that, ALIGNMENT languages are especially weird for Eberron, where we try to downplay the role of alignment and play up personal choice. It’s not like you are born lawful and go to lawful school where they teach you to speak Lawful. You could make it the language of Daanvi, and in the 3.5 ECS many planes have languages. But in my Eberron, any immortal that WANTS to be understood WILL be understood. When the couatl appeared to Tira Miron, it didn’t speak Common; it just SPOKE, and she UNDERSTOOD. When you finally make it to the Amaranthine City of Irian, I don’t WANT you to find that you don’t understand anything the crowds are saying. The planes aren’t just mundane alien worlds, they are UNIVERSAL SYMBOLS — and as such, I say that if an immortal wants to be understood, it WILL be understood. I don’t mind having planar languages as the MOST esoteric of the esoteric languages; if you find a SCROLL from Mabar, maybe it’s written in Mabaran. And to be clear, an immortal CAN speak a mundane language if that serves its purpose. But that’s a conscious choice.

So having said all that, it’s not what I would do, but on that principle of EVERYTHING HAS A PLACE, if I HAD to put alignment languages in Eberron, I would say that they are fundamentally magical languages; they are universal languages — the speech of immortals — but are only understood by people who share the outlook of the speaker. So perhaps a Shavaran angel of the Legion of Freedom DOES speak Chaotic, which means that any creature with a chaotic alignment understands it perfectly and no one else understands it at all. It is the language of FREEDOM, understood by any free spirit. But it’s not a language you can LEARN; it’s part of the I’m-an-embodiment-of-chaos aspect of the immortal. If a player character could speak it, it would be through some kind of magic item or supernatural gift.

As a fun side note: sometimes soldiers or emergency service personnel use a “pointy-talky” card to facilitate communication with people when they have no common language. When we were developing the RPG Phoenix: Dawn Command we created a pointy-talky for Phoenixes to use on their missions; I’m going to share that now on my Patreon!

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.