Dragonmarks: The Mourning and the Dread

Last Friday I wrote about Manifestations of the Dread. That article focuses on my new RPG Phoenix: Dawn Command, but Eberron players and DMs may find another use for this material, because the effects of the Dread aren’t entirely dissimilar to one of the defining elements of Eberron: The Mourning.

The world of Phoenix: Dawn Command is dealing with an unfolding supernatural threat. The Dread can strike anywhere in the known world, and it takes many forms. The dead rise to prey on the living. The laws of nature are broken. Communities fall prey to mass hysteria, or to malevolent spirits banished long ago that have now returned. Essentially, the entire world of Phoenix is slowly becoming the Mournland… but it’s happening piece by piece.

By contrast, the Mourning happened suddenly and is contained. It consumed the nation of Cyre… and then stopped expanding. Fear of the Mourning is what brought about the end of the Last War. No one knows what caused the Mourning, and until there is an answer, people are afraid to keep fighting… because one possibility is that it was the extensive use of war magic that triggered the Mourning, and that continued conflict could cause it to expand.

Where the Dread is scattered, the effects of the Mourning are contained in a particular region, the Mournland. This area is enclosed by mist: a wall of fog that rises over a hundred feet in height and that covers the entire region from above, preventing direct sunlight and any form of observation. Combined with the considerable danger involved in exploring the Mournland, the result is that very little is known about the region. Everyone knows that it has been transformed, and that living creatures caught in the Mourning were either killed or transformed. Stories say that wounds don’t heal in the Mournland, that dead bodies don’t decompose and that there are battlefields where blood still seeps from the wounds of the fallen. War spells have taken on a life of their own, and massive crabs cover their shells with corpses.

From a design perspective, the Mourning serves a number of purposes. It provides a central mystery. It’s a foundation for the cold war. But beyond that, it takes a region that’s been civilized for centuries and turns it into the world’s biggest dungeon. On some level it’s hard to justify wild monsters and mysteries in Galifar; why weren’t they dealt with by the heroes of previous ages? But the Mourning is a NEW problem. And aside from the things that can be found in its borders, the things that leave the Mournland — both living and otherwise — can be a source of adventure.

With this in mind, my vision of the Mournland was always that it is unpredictable. No one rule should apply to the entire thing. The idea that corpses don’t decay and that wounds won’t heal is an iconic image and may be true in much of the Mournland. But for every village filled with perfectly preserved corpses, you might find another where everything organic has been disintegrated or turned to glass, or a village where animated skeletons carry out a pantomime of their former lives. Some of these things are dangerous, like the shard storm Thorn encounters in the ruins of Ascalin in The Fading Dream. But others may just be strange, and this is where last Friday’s article comes into play. All the things I’ve suggested as manifestations of the Dread could also be symptoms of the Mourning.

For a DM, the value of this variety is the ability to spawn a multitude of unique adventures. The Mournland is the size of an entire nation, filled with cities, villages, fortresses, forgeholds and more… and each one the adventurers visit may present new threats. And rather than having to justify why an ancient ruin is full of treasure, the Mournland holds treasures because until four years ago, it was a prosperous nation. Cyre was the seat of House Cannith, and if you want to find powerful magic, where better to look than a Cannith forgehold? And aside from purely material wealth, the Mournland holds religious relics, sentimental keepsakes, the secret strategic plans of Cyre’s military, and anything else once of value… any of which could be reason for an adventure.

As a player, the Mourning can provide you with a wealth of story hooks. If you’re Cyran, how did you survive the Mourning? Did you just barely escape, or were you away when it struck? Who did you lose to the Mourning, and have you ever wondered if they might still be alive beyond the mists? Is there anything you lost that you’d like to regain, whether of actual value or purely sentimental? Did you lose your extended family, or are they now refugees – and if the latter, where are they? Beyond this, most people lost in the Mourning were killed or lost… but perhaps you were affected by it but survived. Here’s just a few ways you could be affected.

  • Cosmetic Transformation. Your skin or hair might have an unusual color or texture. Perhaps you lost an eye, and your remaining eye glows when you are angry. Maybe your hair is alive; you can’t control it, but is slowly moves of its own accord. These things don’t have any mechanical effect, but can add color to a character. And because they’re so rare and unique, they don’t carry the immediate stigma of an aberrant mark; they’re just strange. 
  • Exotic Race. In one 4E campaign I played a character who was mechanically a deva. But I said he was a normal Cyran peasant who’d been caught in the Mourning, and who was now channeling hundreds of ghosts of others who’d died in the Mourning. The deva is defined by having memories of a thousand lives; in my case, these were the memories of other people, all being channeled through me. You could take a similar approach to any unusual race that you don’t want to fit into the world on a large scale. Tabaxi could have an entire civilization in Xen’drik… or, you might say that Tabaxi are shifters who were caught in the Mourning and transformed, and there’s only around a dozen of you in Khorvaire.
  • Mechanical Powers. My deva character was technically an avenger, but I explained his powers as coming from the spirits he channeled as opposed to divine devotion. City of Stormreach presents the Storm Hammers, a gang made up of Mourning survivors who have manifested unnatural abilities; mechanically they’re sorcerers, warlocks, and barbarians, but the concept is that these are dark gifts of the Mourning as opposed to learned skills. You could similarly explain your class abilities as being tied to the Mourning. Or for a less extreme effect, 5E includes the Magical Initiate feat, which grants use of two cantrips and one spell; this is certainly sufficient to reflect a strange gift of the Mourning. If you go this route, the next question is how this manifests. My deva’s powers were the work of the spirits for which he served as an anchor. The Storm Hammers draw their powers from a dark source, possibly the power of the Mourning itself — and this connection may be driving them mad. Perhaps you were in a Cannith forgehold when the Mourning struck and a bundle of wands fused with your left arm; you channel your magic through the wand-tips protruding from your stump. Or you could have been fused with a demon, an agent of the Lords of Dust that happened to be in the area; as your character level increases you can access to more of the fiend’s powers, but are you also becoming a demon?

SO, CAN YOU TELL US WHAT CAUSED THE MOURNING? 

If I don’t address this, I’m sure someone will ask, so let’s get it out of the way now. I can tell you some things that could have caused the Mourning…

  • The Ashbound and the Children of Winter are on the right track: The Mourning was the natural consequence of the extensive use of magic during the Last War. Ending the war has temporarily stopped it, but the Children of Winter believe that the damage cannot be healed: the only way the world can be restored is to go through the winter to reach the spring that lies beyond. If they are correct, the Mourning will eventually spread until it covers the world. But perhaps they’re mistaken, and there’s a way the damage can be undone… but it would still mean that the people of Khorvaire would have to be careful about overuse of magic in the future.
  • House Cannith was developing a weapon. Something went disastrously wrong. Questions that remain: could this weapon be restored or duplicated? Do any of the current Cannith leaders know about this project? Presuming the forgehold developing it was in Cyre, what happens if the Lord of Blades or someone else discovers it?
  • One of the Overlords of the First Age was bound beneath Cyre. Due to the machinations of the Lords of Dust, the fiend was partially released. The Mourning is a reflection of its influence. At the moment it is building its strength; there is one more step that is required to fully release it. If that occurs, its power – and the Mournland – would spread.
  • The Lord of Blades was behind the Mourning, an attack targeted against the heart of House Cannith. This may have used an epic artifact or eldritch machine — which could potentially still be tied to an Overlord or to the Daelkyr. Generating the Mourning drained the weapon of power… but the Lord of Blades is working to restore its power.
  • The Mourning was actually caused by dragons of the Chamber, as part of a necessary chain of events to prevent the release of an Overlord — for sake of argument, let’s say Tiamat. The Mourning can be reversed, but reversing it will unleash Tiamat, who will corrupt Argonnessen, and set into motion an epic conflict with the dragons.
  • In The Fading Dream, the Eladrin present a theory of what caused the Mourning and how it could be reversed. I won’t spoil it here, but hey, it’s possible.

That’s just off the top of my head. OK, you may say, these things could have caused the Mourning… but what didI don’t know. In MY campaigns I’ve never felt a need to solve the mystery. What I like about the Mourning is the effect it has on the world: driving the cold war between the nations, holding the Last War at bay, creating a giant dungeon in the middle of things. If the mystery of the Mourning is solved, one way or another, it paves the way for the Last War to start anew. That’s not a story I’ve wanted to explore… so I’ve left in unsolved. Which means that I’ve never needed to choose between the host of possibilities. If I decided to tell that story, I’d pick one. But as it stands, I’m happy leaving it as an enigma.

That’s all I have time for, but let me know if you have questions about the Mourning and the Mournland… and share your favorite answers for the Mourning or manifestations of the Mournland!