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!

Manifest Zone: The Last War

The second episode of the Manifest Zone podcast is up! The subject is the Last War. As the podcast is a stream of consciousness discussion, I’m going to do a follow-up post after each episode… think of it as my commentary track.

The Last War is a critical part of the story of Eberron. By default, an Eberron campaign begins in the year 998 YK. YK means “Year of the Kingdom” — specifically, the Kingdom of Galifar, which brought together the disparate nations of Khorvaire almost a thousand years ago. Galifar was prosperous and generally peaceful for centuries. However, when King Jarot ir’Wynarn died in 894 YK, his heirs refused to follow the standard practice of sucession. The five provinces of Galifar — Aundair, Breland, Cyre, Karrnath and Thrane — split apart, forming what are now known as the Five Nations. A century of war followed as each heir attempted to rebuild Galifar under their rule. The war finally came to an end following the Mourning, a mystical cataclysm that completely destroyed the nation of Cyre, transforming it into the warped region known as the Mournland. No one knows the cause of the Mourning. Was it a weapon, and if so, are its creators developing a second one? Was it the result of using too much war magic, in which case continued conflict could result in further destruction? The Mourning occurred in 994 YK, and within two years the war formally ended with the Treaty of Thronehold in 998 YK. But no one WON the war, and few people are happy with its outcome. The mystery of the Mourning is holding further conflict at bay, but sooner or later that mystery will be solved… and most believe that when it is, war will be inevitable. Some rulers are actively pursuing the cause of peace, while others are already preparing for the next battle.

The Last War serves a number of important functions. First and foremost, it shatters the established order and creates an era that is filled with conflict and uncertainty. Thanks to the war, we see a number of critical developments:

  • New Nations. Darguun, Valenar, Q’barra and Droaam were all born from the conflict, as new forces seized land once claimed by Galifar. The Eldeen Reaches expanded into Aundair, while the Mror Holds and Zilargo asserted their independence. Some of these shifts were more dramatic than others; for Zilargo it’s virtually a semantic change, while Darguun and Valenar represent violent upheavals of the previous order.
  • Balance of Power. As a single market, Galifar had the power to dictate terms to the Dragonmarked Houses – something it did with the Korth Edicts, which established that dragonmarked house can’t hold land, titles, or maintain military forces (with exceptions made for House Deneith). Now the nations need the houses more than the houses need any one nation. If the houses do decide to violate the Korth Edicts, who would have the power to enforce them?
  • Innovation. The Last War drove innovation, and within the last century there have been many critical developments. First there were warforged titans, and this led to fully sentient warforged. The eternal wand is a critical advance in the science of wands, being both more accessible and reusable; the next step could be a wand that anyone can use. The airship was developed during the war, which is a critical point: air travel is still very new in Khorvaire! These are a few major examples, but in my opinion this is representative of a broader range of advances, as both houses and nations struggled gain an edge in the conflict.
  • Opportunity for Adventure. The Mournland is the world’s largest dungeon, and it’s sitting right in the middle of the continent. Cyre was the richest of the Five Nations, and all its treasures are lost in a twisted wasteland filled with monsters. If you prefer espionage, the Five Nations are all vying for power and position as they prepare for whatever happens next. This can even extend to straight pulp adventure. You’re searching for the Orb of Dol Azur in Xen’drik? Well, so’s the Order of the Emerald Claw… and if they get ahold of it, you can be sure they’ll use its power against Breland in the Next War!

Beyond this, the Last War is a source of infinite character hooks. The war ended two years ago. The typical soldier in the last war was a first level warrior (that’s an NPC class from 3.5 – a crappy version of the fighter – if you don’t know the term). As even a first level PC classed character, you are more talented than the typical soldier. So, if you’re a fighter… did you fight in the war? If so, were you a mercenary, or did you fight for one of the nations… and if so, which one? Are you still loyal to your nation, or are you disillusioned by what you’ve been through? And if you didn’t fight in the war even though you clearly had the skills to do so, why didn’t you fight?

This is something you can develop as deeply as you wish. For some people, this is a way to really add depth to a character. What happened to you during the war? What were your greatest victories, and what did you lose? Were you a war hero, or were you just a grunt in the trenches? Did you spend any time in a POW camp, and if so, what did you endure? How about your family – how did the war affect them? If your character is religious, how did the war and the Mourning affect your faith – was it a solace to you in difficult times, or has it forced you to question your faith?

This can easily form the foundation for a story that unites an entire party of adventurers. One of my go-to ways to start a campaign is to establish that the players were all part of a unit of soldiers during the last war. With that in mind, I’ll ask each character to figure out how their concept fits within that mold. You want to play a warforged fighter? Easy, you were made for the war. You’re playing a warlord? Congratulations, you’re the captain of the unit. Wizard? OK, you were the arcane support. My standard nation of choice is Cyre, because while no one won the war, Cyre definitely lost it. As a Cyran soldier, you have no homeland; you’ve lost everything; and yet, you still have a particular set of skills. Why WOULDN’T you become an adventurer? It’s essentially Mal and Zoe from Firefly. And like Firefly, what I like to do with this set up is to actually set the first adventure (or two) during the war: so we get to see your group working together as a unit, and we get to see some of the things they went through. You’ve got to hold an undersupplied post against an advancing army of Karrnathi undead. It’s a fight that can’t be won, and in the process you’ll have to make difficult decisions, and you’ll deal with a Karrnathi commander who you will surely come to hate. Once we resolve that, we’re going to talk through the next two years: how you moved from being soldiers to adventurers. But you’ve got a foundation to work with. You’re not strangers brought together by an old man at a bar. You’re comrades in arms. You’ve faced the undead together. And when that Karrnathi bastard shows up again working for the Emerald Claw, you’ve got a real reason to take him down.

In the episode of Manifest Zone, we talk about how war can leave fairly intense scars. You don’t have to dig that deeply if you don’t want to. You can establish that your fighter fought for Breland and leave it at that. You may not want to burden your character with a crisis of faith or PTSD. You could very well ask how it benefits YOU to damage your character, or to hand the GM tools to make your life difficult. For me, it’s not about given the GM “things to use against you”, because as the GM I’m not your enemy. At my table, what we are trying to do is to build a story together… and for that story to be as dramatic and compelling as possible. These sorts of scars give your character depth. They give you trauma that you can overcome, and they give you things to fight FOR beyond simply getting a better magical sword. Just looking at, for example, The Force Awakens: Finn is a former conscript who’s fled war and ultimately works up the courage to fight the people he once fought for – even though this pits him against people he once served with. Rey is an orphan who’s avoided the conflict and lived as a scavenger. And Poe is the soldier who believes in his cause. In Firefly, Mal is an officer who was deeply devoted to his cause, only to have that faith crushed in defeat; but it’s still there, underneath his mercenary cynicism. Having flaws gives your character depth. In 5E D&D, these elements can be worked into Backgrounds; at some point I may post something that explores backgrounds particularly well suited to Eberron.

So: the Last War is a source of upheaval and change that creates opportunity for adventure and adventurers. It provides a wealth of hooks for character development. It can also provide a host of possibilities for adventures. Setting aside the Mournland, you can have to deal with mystical weapons gone terribly wrong, from a rampaging titan to a secret program that sought to create magebred supersoldiers. You can have “dungeons” anywhere, because rather than having to rely on ancient ruins you can have NEW ruins created during the war. You can track down war criminals or delve into espionage. Whether you care about a country or are just looking for opportunities, the shadow of the Last War creates many possibilities.

THE SHAPE OF THE WAR

With all that said, many people want a better sense of the actual nature of the war. Was it more like World War I, with grueling trench warfare and soldiers being ground up on a relatively static front line? Was it a time of constant change, with cities being seized and lost? Was it like modern warfare, with air strikes and similar attacks inflicting damage far beyond the front lines?

The sourcebook The Forge of War provides the canon answer to these things and is your best source for in-depth information, since I don’t have time (or permission) to write a sourcebook on the Last War. With that said, I didn’t work on The Forge of War and it is the canon source I have the most issues with. It doesn’t delve as deeply into the concept of innovation as I’d like, and doesn’t explore the question of what new weapons and tools were developed in the war. It ignores many other canon sources; one of the most infamous examples is its statement that Thrane lacked any decent archery support, when archery is a devotional practice of the Church of the Silver Flame and should be one of the greatest strengths of Thrane. With that said, FoW provides a POSSIBLE overview of the course of the war.

As for my answer: The Last War was all of these things. It lasted for a century, and that wasn’t a century of constant, unending total war. It had its slow periods, with soldiers glaring at one another across the static front lines. And these were punctuated by periods of intense conflict, of shifting alliances and changing borders. And while it was largely concentrated on the fronts, there certainly were magical attacks that pushed beyond the front to cause indiscriminate damage further back. Often this would be triggered by a new magical development. When Karrnath first incorporated undead into its armies; when Cyre fielded the first warforged titans; when Aundair pioneered new long-range war magic. One issue to me is that I feel that we haven’t established the primary weapons used in the warThe magic items and spells that PCs use are geared towards squad-level combat with small groups of powerful individuals, because that’s what PCs are. But a fireball that inflicts 6d6 damage over a thirty foot radius is both overkill and too small an area to have much impact on a group of a thousand first level warriors. So what spells did war mages rely on? Do you take the principle of cloudkill to make a larger-scale gas attack… and if so, did someone invent the equivalent of a gas mask? One advantage of this approach — the idea that most spells used in the war were lower damage but larger area — means that faced with such things, PCs get to shine on the battlefield. A 6d6 fireball may be a grave threat to a third level PC. But if the magical bombardment inflicts 1d6 fire damage over a hundred foot radius, it’s still a serious threat to the common soldiers – but the PCs can miraculously survive a few blasts, which is after all how we want this movie to go.

The basic principle of Eberron is that it’s a world in which arcane magic has been used to solve the problems we’ve solved with technology. So if you look to the common tools of modern warfare — mines, tanks, artillery — I feel all of these should have their parallels in Eberron, but based on arcane principles. The warforged titan is one answer to the tank; I could imagine a variation on the apparatus of Kwalish as another. In my novels, we see a variation of mines (based on the principle of a glyph of warding) and artillery — specifically the siege staff. Following the idea that a wand is a form of mystical sidearm and that the staff is physically larger and more powerful, a siege staff is a staff made from a tree trunk — thus capable of holding even more energy and projecting it farther. Neither of these things were ever given mechanics, but it’s the sort of thing I’d like to see addressed some day.

Tied to this, in a previous post Zeno asks: It is said that Titan Warforged was created for war. That sometime devils has been released on opponents. I wonder why 1st level commoners should be thrown in a war like that. A single titan Worforged could kill a whole army.

It’s true: the typical soldier in Eberron has no chance against a warforged titan. Just as common soldiers in our world have trouble when faced with tanks, chemical weapons, or incendiary bombs. It sucks to be a typical soldier when you have to charge up a hill against an entrenched machine gun. War has never been fair, and it’s not fair here.

With that said: the typical person in Eberron is a first level commoner, but the typical soldier would be a first level warrior; a veteran might be second level. Small difference, but a difference nonetheless. Nonetheless, a second level warrior wouldn’t stand a chance against a warforged titan. Why would they be thrown into that war? Because that’s all they had to work with… and because it’s what also forms the bulk of the opposing forces. Infantry is the best tool to hold ground. Meanwhile, the warforged titan is a specialized and very expensive piece of military equipment that serves a specific role on the battlefield. Think of the warforged titan as a tank. If you’ve got a squad of soldiers armed with machetes or even standard smallarms, they simply aren’t equipped to deal with a tank. If they try, they’ll get killed. The same thing is true of a squad of warriors facing a warforged titan. In both cases, what you won’t see is the soldiers charging in and trying to hack the overpowering enemy apart with machetes. Instead, you’re going to have the following questions:

  • Do we have access to equipment that allows us to overcome this threat? Do we have an arcane specialist with a wand or staff with a spell that can defeat this? Do we have a siege staff? Can we summon a planar ally? Essentially, do we have anti-tank weaponry in our unit? You see this in City of Towers, where the unit is faced with a military airship and requires a specialist to bring it down.
  • If not, can we take advantage of the terrain? Can we lure it into swampy terrain where it will sink? Is there a minefield? Can we get it onto a bridge and collapse the bridge?

If the answer to these things is no, then they won’t engage it. They’d retreat and regroup. So IN THEORY a warforged titan could kill a whole army; in practice, the army would disengage.

On top of this, consider that military command would be tracking these things. Units with warforged titans, the capability to summon planar allies, and the like are exceptional; that’s exactly the sorts of units that would be tracked. So when that titan shows up and you have nothing to handle it, you get out of there and hope that command already has forces en route with anti-titan capabilities.

So yes: the warforged titan can slaughter a squad of typical soldiers, as can a summoned fiend or any number of other threats. Which means once the titan exists, people immediately began finding ways to deal with it — just as people in our world invented anti-tank weaponry. And this is great for House Cannith, which sells you the weapons, and then sells you the thing you need to counter the latest weapon, and then sells you the thing you need to counter the counter, and so on.

Could we get a brief overview of each of the Five Nations’ general tactics in the Last War?

Certainly. If they were a party of adventurers, Karrnath was the fighter. Aundair was the wizard. Thrane was the paladin. Breland was the rogue. And Cyre was the bard. This is a gross simplification – not addressing Breland’s industrial capacity or Cyre’s wealth – but it’s a good place to start as a mental image.

With that said, this could be the subject of a sourcebook. I’d refer you to Forge of War, but I don’t think they actually got this correct. So first of all: Galifar was a united kingdom, but its resources were spread throughout the five provinces. This is generally reflected in the culture of that province. So for example, Karrnath was the seat of Galifar’s military and the home of Rekkenmark, its premier military academy. Soldiers from across Galifar trained at Rekkenmark, and when the war began most returned to fight for their own nations. Likewise, wizards from all countries trained at the Arcane Congress in Aundair. So all sides benefitted from these resources initially. But the people of that province were the most committed to the concept embodied by those institutions; had the MOST people trained at those institutions; and held onto the institutions themselves and their resources as the war continued. So at the start of the war, every nation had spies trained by the King’s Citadel. But Breland had the most of them, and had the facilities, records, and resources of the Citadel itself. With that in mind…

Karrnath was the seat of Rekkenmark and the Royal Army. Karrnath has always had a harsh, martial culture. In general, they had the most disciplined and best-trained soldiers, and had exceptional heavy infantry and cavalry. I’ve always felt that they had decent war magic, though obviously inferior to Aundair and extremely focused (primarily evocation). Karrnath was further distinguished as the war went on by the use of undead in battle. So in Karrnath you have stoicism, discipline, and general martial excellence… with a side dish of undead.

Aundair was the seat of Arcanix and the Arcane Congress, and has always had the edge in arcane magic. It is the smallest of the Five Nations, and has always relied on magic to make up for that. So Aundair would have the best mystical artillery, both using things like siege staffs and in terms of having the most actual wizards on the battlefield. They lacked the industrial capacity of Breland or House Cannith, but were always the leaders in arcane innovation… so to make a modern analogy, they didn’t have the MOST missiles and bombs, but they had the BEST missiles and bombs, and were the most likely to surprise you with something you hadn’t seen before.

Breland was the industrial heart of Galifar, and further was the seat of the King’s Citadel… which includes the intelligence agency of Galifar. So from the start they had the greatest numbers of spies, assassins, and other covert operatives. This was further enhanced by a strong relationship with Zilargo and House Deneith. So intelligence was always a strength of Breland. Beyond that, they had numbers and resources, and what they lacked in discipline they often made up for in spirit and charisma; so your rank and file soldiers weren’t as exceptional as you’d get in Karrnath, but they’d be more likely to have truly inspiring leaders, and to break the rules of war to try something new. I still think the rogue is a good analogy: Not as good in a straight up fight, but clever and unpredictable, and very dangerous if they can catch you off guard.

Thrane was the seat of Flamekeep and the heart of the Silver Flame. This shouldn’t be underestimated. While the Silver Flame is revered across Galifar, Thrane was its heart, and Flamekeep is where paladins and clerics would received their training. And this is critical, because the Silver Flame is a martial faith. The Silver Flame is about being prepared to defend the innocent from supernatural evil. Archery is a devotional practice, and every Thrane villager trains with the bow. Beyond that, the Silver Flame maintained its own army of Templars. The Lycanthropic Purge was the biggest example of templars at war, but on a smaller scale the templars were constantly hunting down and eliminating supernatural threats. Karrnath was the seat of the army; but the Thranes had if anything more soldiers who’d actually SEEN BATTLE, even if they hadn’t been fighting other humans. This also meant they had more hands-on experience supplying and supporting their forces than most nations.

In summary, Thrane’s greatest strengths were peasant militias, exceptional archers, morale enhanced by a shared creed, an experienced and disciplined force in the Templars, and beyond that, the greatest ability to bring divine magic to the battlefield. PC class characters are exceptional, but to the degree that there were clerics and paladins on the battlefield, Thrane had the lion’s share of them… and just as Aundair was most likely to produce a dramatic new arcane technique, Thrane was most likely to suddenly summon plaanr allies or otherwise turn the tide through use of divine magic.

Which leaves Cyre. Cyre was known as the center of art and culture, and in some way it wasn’t the best at anything… but at the same time, it also had a little bit of everything. Hence the bard — jack of all trades, not tied to any one path. Cyre also had the fact that according the the laws of Galifar, they were in the right — so back to the bard, strong morale. Finally, Cyre’s greatest asset was holding the wealth of the kingdom… which in turn meant that they could field the most mercenaries and draw the greatest amount of support from the Dragonmarked Houses. And it certainly didn’t hurt that House Cannith was based in Cyre. So Aundair had the BEST arcane magic; Cyre had considerably more of what could be bought from House Cannith. Cyran forces involved a lot of mercenaries (Deneith, Valenar, Darguul) and more warforged than any other nation… and like Breland, what leaders lacked in discipline and experience, they would attempt to make up for with charisma. As we all know, the heavy use of mercenaries had some pretty disastrous consequences down the line… but there you are.

That’s all I have time for now, but I will continue to answer questions over the course of the week. Let me know how you’ve used the Last War in your campaign and what you’d like to know about it! And check out the latest episode of Manifest Zone!

FOLLOW UP QUESTIONS

I seem to recall that Aundair took Arcanix from Thrane. If so, did they possess the arcane advantage they were known for at the beginning of the war? And if so, where did it come from?

This is from The Forge of War and is one of those the elements I strongly disapprove of. With that said, here’s my answer. The Arcane Congress has always been part of Aundair. It was founded by Aundair herself if the early days of Galifar, and respect for magic and education have both been engrained into the Aundairian character in a way no Thrane can understand. Arcanix — the greatest university and the seat of the Arcane Congress – is a floating citadel. It is also a mystical stronghold; Aundair’s greatest military asset its its arcane prowess, and Arcanix is, if you will, its Death Star. And like the Death Star, it’s mobile. It’s a floating institution, and when they seized a particularly desired stretch of land from Thrane and laid claim to it in the war, they moved Arcanix to that region. So it is true, Aundair took what is now Arcanix from Thrane during the war… but it wasn’t Arcanix when they took it.

You’ve established that the Keeper of Secrets is bound at Arcanix’s location. Would you say that she is tied to the town, the mobile fortress, or both?

As a GM, I’d definitely say she’s bound to the location. From a story perspective, this helps justify new developments at Arcanix tied to the presence of Sul Khatesh. I’d probably say that Hektula is manipulating Aundair and that shifting the location of Arcanix is part of the puzzle that will eventually free the Keeper of Secrets. But it could also simply be that Minister Adar learned of the location of Sul Khatesh on his own and has a team of sages seeking to tap into her knowledge and power… and we all know that will go well.

Why did the Five Nations refuse to recognize Droaam in the Treaty of Thronehold, when they recognized Darguun and Valenar? 

On the surface, it’s easy to see all these things as being equals. Darguun and Droaam are both nations of monsters, right? Kind of. First there’s the issue of timing. Valenar rose over forty years before the end of the war; Darguun almost thirty years before the Treaty. Both fielded large armies during the course of the war. Both represented recognized civilizations. Essentially, both had proven that they weren’t going anywhere, and they had sufficient military forces that it was vital to get them to the table in the interests of establishing a general peace.

By contrast, at the time of the treaty Droaam had been around for a decade. It was an assembly of creatures whose cultures were largely unknown in the east; no one had really considered the idea that harpies or medusas we in any way civilized. And while Droaam brokered mercenaries through House Tharashk, it never fielded a true army during the war. It’s the closest thing Eberron has to a terrorist state. It’s something the people of the east didn’t believe would last and something they don’t WANT to last. They settled with Darguun and Valenar because they had to. Droaam wasn’t seen as a civilization deserving of respect or as such a significant threat that it needed to be placated. My novel The Queen of Stone explores the ongoing relationship between the Thronehold nations and some of these issues.

When suggesting your players to be war comrades, did you ever had problems in finding a place for druids and barbarians?

It’s generally an approach I’d use when I’ve got a group of players who don’t have character ideas they’re dead-set on — so it’s something where the players would build characters with the war story in mind, and I’d challenge THEM to figure out how the character fits.

Primal characters don’t have a strong role in any of the Five Nations, so it’s not an easy match. The first and most important question is whether they are driven by the mechanics of the class, or by its specific role in the setting. Do they want to be a barbarian because they want to be a savage outsider, or because they like the mechanical abilities of the barbarian class? If they want to be an outsider — a druid from one of the Eldeen Sects or a barbarian from the Demon Wastes — they need to think of what could cause a character with that background to serve with your nation. They could be a mercenary. In the case of a druid, they might not actually be part of the army; they could simply be a mysterious ally who’s chosen to help the squad. If your soldiers are Brelish, the druid could be one of the Shadows of the Forest who’s chosen to help against their enemies. In the case of the barbarian, I’ll note that among the Dhakaani, the barbarian class represents a martial art that involves a cultivated state of battle fury; they aren’t savages, they are specialized warriors. Your PC barbarian could follow this same path — having the abilities of a barbarian but not the flavor. Worst case scenario, say that the barbarian and druid don’t join the party until after the war… and if you do initial adventures set during the war, it’s a great time to have these players put on red shirts and play the warriors or experts who likely won’t make it through the adventure… and their tragic deaths can help bond the rest of the squad.

But the point of doing that “squad scenario” is to say “Make a character who would be in this squad.” If your players won’t be happy with that limitation, I wouldn’t follow this path.

About Karrnath: do you think people there had already a different relationship with undead and/or death? Were they more ready to accept undead soldiers than others?

Absolutely. It’s not always been presented clearly, but Karrnath and the Lhazaar Principalities have always been the stronghold of the Blood of Vol. The faith was well-anchored in Karrnath long before the war, and in Seeker communities you’d already have undead performing basic labor; they’d just never been harnessed and organized for war, and the Odakyr Rites (which produce the distinctive Karrnathi Undead) hadn’t been developed. In part this is tied to the idea that Karrnath is the harshest of the Five Nations in terms of environment, and its people were generally more receptive to the bleak outlook of the Blood of Vol. It’s not like the Silver Flame and Thrane; the number of Seekers is small enough that Kaius could choose to use them as scapegoats in the present day. But the faith has always been around in Karrnath and thus its people had more casual contact with undead than any of the other Five Nations.

Would a Karrnathi Silver Flame or Sovereign cleric, or maybe even a bard be DIFFERENT in his approach to the topic?

Mechanically or philosophically? Mechanically, no. If you want a different approach to undead, make a Blood of Vol cleric. Philosophically they’ve be more used to having them in mundane roles and thus less likely to see ALL UNDEAD AS ABOMINATIONS then their counterparts in other nations. The focus of the Silver Flame is protecting the innocent from supernatural evil; a templar raised in Karrnath knows that the skeleton working in the fields in that Seeker community ISN’T suddenly going to turn on the villagers. With that said, the Silver Flame has never had a strong foothold in Karrnath, precisely because its culture leans more towards the bleak pragmatism of the Blood of Vol; in my opinion, Seekers have always outnumbered the followers of the Flame in Karrnath.

Five Nations says Thrane was the nation Breland feared the most… I thought Breland was much stronger than all.

If Breland was “stronger than all” the war wouldn’t have lasted a century. Breland had more people and stronger industry. But Aundair had better magic and Karrnath had better soldiers. As for Thrane, I didn’t write Five Nations so I can’t tell you what they were thinking. But let’s look at a few key factors.

  • Thrane and Breland share a significant border.
  • Along with Karrnath, Thrane has the most militant culture among the Five Nations. Its people stand ready to fight supernatual evil… but that still means that they are combat ready and prepared to make sacrifices for their faith. Again, in my mind the peasant militias are one of Thrane’s greatest assets.
  • Tied to this, I feel Thrane had a morale advantage over the other nations because its people are united by common belief, and by a faith that taught them to be ready to fight and to make sacrifices to protect the innocent.
  • Thrane has the greatest access to divine magic on the battlefield. Unlike arcane magic, divine magic isn’t a science. As a result, it’s more mysterious, and mystery isn’t something you want in an enemy.
  • Most of all: Thrane abandoned the monarchy to become a theocracy. That was undoubtedly terrifying to the leaders of all of the Five Nations — especially to Breland, where the monarchy is on thin ice.

Was Talenta pulled into the Last War at all, or was their relative distance and the influence of Ghallanda and Jorasco enough to spare them from most of the fighting?

The Talenta Plains are a large undeveloped stretch of relatively barren land; it’s got little that anyone actually WANTS, and virtually no cities or fortresses that could be claimed as strategic assets. The tribes have never assembled into what the Five Nations would consider an army. Thus they primarily are a path that Karrnath and Cyre passed through while fighting each other. If I was developing a full history of the war, I could certainly come up with some interesting events involving the Plains: interactions with the Q’barran colonists; interactions with Karrnathi forces planning a surprise offensive against the heart of Cyre; general interactions with supply lines, or the time Cyre decided to establish a fort there. But generally actions in the war would have involved raids, mercenary service (uncommon but possible), or defensive actions.

Forge of War indicates that of all the nations, only Karrnath didn’t ally with one of the other five at any point during the war. Do you agree with this?

It’s not my idea, to be sure. With that said, the Karrnathi character includes both deep confidence in the superiority of their own martial skills — a conviction that they are the greatest power in Khorvaire — and a bitter stoicism, they’ll have to kill us before we back down and even then our bones will rise and fight until they are ground to dust. So it seems unlikely to me that they wouldn’t have at least negotiated with Aundair regarding joint operations against Cyre, or the like (and I feel this has even been discussed in some other source), but I’m willing to accept the idea that Karrnath never engaged in a full if-the-war-ends-we-share-power alliance — that they always believed that they would either win the war and rule Galifar on their terms, or fight to the bitter, bitter end. This still can be seen in the present day, where many of the warlords consider Kaius’s strong support of peace initiatives to be a betrayal, a belief that drives many Emerald Claw recruits.

How common were sending stones and other Sivis communications equipment on the battlefield?

We’ve established that communications in Eberron are more akin to telegraph that to radio or phone. It wasn’t a modern battlefield where squads come be in direct real-time communication with one another. With that said, Sivis communication was a vital tool for long-term coordination. Speaking Stones are BIG and expensive; you’re talking about a wagon, and something Sivis wouldn’t want to put at risk in active battle. So you’d have such a thing with a major army, but not a unit. I can imagine a smaller focus device allowing a Sivis heir to send a message to or receive a message from the nearest speaking stone, but how I’d see it would be something requiring a ritual – maybe ten minutes, maybe more, along with expenditure of ground dragonshards – to activate, and likely that ritual has to be active to receive messages. So an heir could send an emergency message to the nearest stone if he had ten minutes to do it; but receiving messages is something he’d do at a specific time – check messages at noon – and not something that could be done in the midst of active combat. Of course, if you’re in a HUGE hurry, sending is an option – but there’s very few heirs who can do that.

So it was a vital tool for coordinating strategies and getting updates, but not real-time communication and not something the smallest units would have. With that said, I think you’d also see the Five Nations exploring other options – experimenting with Kalashtar psions, Aundair developing an alternate method of arcane communication, Vadalis messenger birds – but Sivis would be the gold standard.

Someone mentioned Karrnath doing necromantic experiments on living prisoners? That seems…beyond the pale for a salvageable nation state, to me. I don’t want to go that dark with Karrnath, but I’m curious about your take on that? 

That someone was me. It’s part of the plot for an adventure I wrote for the ChariD20 event; the PCs are former Cyran prisoners of war who were used as fodder in necromantic experiments. A critical point here is that the adventure is about hunting the camp commander down in Droaam, because he’s a war criminal who’s fled the Five Nations. It’s not that Karrnath as a whole encouraged or engaged in such behavior; it’s that there’s ONE GUY (and his soldiers) who did so, and if he remained in Karrnath, KAIUS would have had him tried for war crimes. This ties to the difference between the Blood of Vol – a faith that uses necromancy, but generally as a positive tool that serves the needs of a community – and the Order of the Emerald Claw, which is about over-the-top pulp villainy and routinely engages in horrific actions. This commander is a pulp villain: a scenery-chewing mad necromancer that we all agree is a deplorable human and deserves to be brought to justice (whatever that ends up meaning).

So it’s not about KARRNATH being that dark. This is an example of what the Order of the Emerald Claw is capable of, and it’s WHY the Order of the Emerald Claw is considered a terrorist organization; again, if the villain here remained in Karrnath, he’d have been brought to justice for his crimes.

My player is under the impression that Karrnath was not doing as well as they had, toward the end of the war, and may have started experimenting on people out of a bit of desperation. My impression was that… they were still in a strong position when the war ended, other than the famines.

Karrnath has always been struggling due to famine and plagues. They turned to use of undead in the first place as a way to offset this. However, Kaius chose to break ties with the Blood of Vol and limit the use of necromancy towards the end of the war, as opposed to embracing desperate measures. The main issue is that at full strength one would have expected Karrnath to steamroll Cyre; instead, because of their troubles, it’s been more even. But it’s still a force to be reckoned with, and many warlords are angry at Kaius for pursuing peace because they believe Karrnath is still strong enough for war. As a side note, in my Eberron Kaius blames the famines and plagues on the Blood of Vol, giving him a populist platform to strengthen his position; thus Karrnathi Seekers are dealing with prejudice and anger, which is further exacerbated by the actions of the Order of the Emerald Claw.

Podcasts, Livestreams and Conventions

If you’re interested in Eberron, Phoenix: Dawn Command, or my opinions on random TV shows, here’s a few things you might want to watch or listen to.

For around the last twenty years, I’ve had a weekly phone call with friend and fellow game designer Andrew Looney. Sometimes we talk about game design or our latest projects; other times we talk about the shows we’re watching or stories we’re reading. We call this The Download, and in 2015 Andy suggested we make it a podcast. I’m not sure if it’s interesting for anyone but us, but if you’re curious what two game designers talk about, check it out.

But that’s not my only podcast. If you’re interested in the Eberron Campaign Setting you should definitely check out Manifest Zone. This is a podcast about Eberron, and each month Kristian Serrano, Wayne Chang, Scott W and I will be discussing a particular aspect of the setting and how it’s relevant to both players and gamemasters.

And as long as I’m talking about podcasts, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Going Last podcast, where I’ve been an occasional guest and co-host.

If visuals are more your thing, I wanted to draw attention to Maze Arcana and Saving Throw, two livestreams tied to RPGs I love. Maze Arcana is a D&D 5E livestream featuring the fabulous Satine Phoenix, GM Ruty Rutenberg, and others. I’ve worked with Satine for the years on the ChariD20 charity RPG events, and I’ve enjoyed consulting with her and Ruty on the story behind Maze Arcana. Meanwhile, Saving Throw is the only place where you can see Phoenix: Dawn Command in action – including a session run by me in season one! Honorable mention here goes to RoleOut, an Eberron livestream from Oz Mills.

Last but not least, if you’re in the Memphis area I’m the gaming guest of honor at MidSouthCon this weekend, and it’s a chance to play or discuss Eberron, Phoenix: Dawn Command, Illimat and more. I hope to see some of you there!