Dragonmarks: Exotic Races in Eberron

The original Eberron Campaign Setting promises “If it exists in D&D, then it has a place in Eberron.” Over the years, one of the most common questions I’ve heard is “How do I use (insert unusual race) in Eberron?” How would people react to an Illumian in Sharn? Where would you put a Goliath? Recently I’ve been talking with Ruty Rutenberg of Eberron livestream Maze Arcana about tieflings and aasimars; over in Facebook’s Eberron Enthusiast group, someone was asking about playing an imp. In the weeks ahead I may look more closely at specific races and how I’d use them. But let’s start with a general discussion about introducing new races to the setting.

As a general rule, I prefer to avoid adding too many new races to the common tapestry of the world. In my mind, the streets of Fairhaven don’t look like a Mos Eisley cantina. I prefer to focus on fewer races but to make sure each one has a strong place. Warforged are defined by their role in the Last War and the chaos caused by their emancipation. Shifters are haunted by the Lycanthropic Purge and tensions with the Silver Flame. When we made dragonborn a common race in Fourth Edition, we did so by co-opting the existing story of lizardfolk in Q’barra, explaining that most humans couldn’t tell the difference between them. For the Eladrin we introduced the concept of the Feyspires, explaining that while the Eladrin were an ancient race they had always remained hidden in the shadows – until the current disaster that brought the Feyspires into the light. In this way, each race had a place in the world deep enough to generate story, without radically rewriting the setting. So that’s a starting point. If a new race exists as a true race – with a significant population and established culture – I want to think about how it fits in and the impact it should’ve had on history.

With that said, part of point of “If it exists in D&D, then it has a place in Eberron” is that there is plenty of room for unique entities. As a member of an unusual race, you could be…

  • A strange effect of the Mourning. You were once human, but you were caught in the Mourning and it transformed you.
  • A unique creation of Mordain the Fleshweaver, or one of the Daelkyr. Perhaps you escaped your creator, or perhaps you were released as part of an experiment.
  • A mutation caused due to your being conceived and born in a manifest zone/during a coterminous phase; your inhuman nature is a reflection of the influence of one or more of the planes. You could be unique, or this could be a mutation known to occur in this place at coterminous phases – so you could potentially encounter others of your kind.
  • A member of a hidden community. Your people could have a secret city in Xen’drik never seen by human eyes. You might come from a demiplane in Khyber that only touches on Eberron in a few places. You could even come from another plane, like the Eladrin; the Kenku could easily be from Lamannia or Thelanis, depending how you want to depict them. Or you could be hidden among a better known race, just as the dragonborn of Q’barra are confused with lizardfolk.
  • You might not be a member of a new race at all. If the player is primarily interested in the MECHANICS of the race as opposed to the story behind it, you have the power as DM to simply reskin that race as something else. In a 4E Eberron campaign, I played a character who was mechanically a Deva avenger with shaman subclass. However, my STORY was that I was a human peasant from Cyre who had become a host for the vengeful spirits of thousands of Cyrans who died in the Mourning. The Deva race is about having “memories of a thousand lives”; in my case, those were thousands of lives of the ghosts haunting me. The Shaman subclass gave me the ability to summon a spirit – one of my haunting spirits temporarily manifesting through me. The idea wasn’t that I was a trained warrior, but rather that the ghosts infused me with the powers of an avenger. The point being that I had all the abilities of a Deva, but we didn’t actually add a new race into the setting; we said that I was a human modified by magic.

All of this comes to the most critical question: WHY does the player want to be a member of this race? Roleplaying is collaborative storytelling, and as DM you are working with the player to create a story you’ll both enjoy. Rather than you deciding unilaterally how a race fits into the world, the critical first step is to identify the story the player is trying to create. Is the player only interested in the mechanics of the race, in which case reskinning is an option? Are they tied to the exact appearance of the race, or could you reimagine it to better fit the setting? Is it important to them to be part of a community of their own kind, or are they OK with the concept of being the only member of this species that exists in the world? Are there other elements that define the character they want to play?

For example, looking to the question “How would people feel about a tiefling in Sharn?” In my opinion, the people of Sharn would have very little reaction to a tiefling. Devils play a minor role in the world, so common folk would be more likely to consider the tiefling to be a shaved minotaur than touched by infernal power… and in Sharn in particular, the locals are used to seeing gargoyles, harpies, goblins, warforged, and even medusas. The guy with red skin and horns is exotic, sure, but I’m not going to get a mob together. But if the player specified that she wanted to be persecuted and feared – that the whole concept was that her infernal blood was a curse that made life difficulty for her – then I’d find a way to make it work. My first question would be if she was set on the general devil-horns appearance of the Tiefling, or if we might reskin it to have more of a rakshasa flavor, given that rakshasa are the most common fiends of Eberron; if so, it would be easy to play up the idea of stories of these rakshasa halfbreeds and persecution by the Church of the Silver Flame. If the devil-appearance was important, then I could easily run with it and say that people in this campaign are familiar with devils… because it’s an easy change for me to make to give the player the story she’s looking for, and I’m comfortable doing it. With that said, tieflings DO have a few defined roles in the setting, and I’ll talk about them in more detail in a future post… but you get the idea.

With that said, it’s also OK to conclude that a particular concept just doesn’t work in a campaign. Given that it’s collaborative storytelling, it’s OK for you to conclude that YOU aren’t happy with the direction the story would have to go… in which case hopefully you and the player can work together to come up with something that works for both of you. As I mentioned above, I was recently in a discussion with a DM putting together a shades-of-grey campaign set at Rekkenmark Academy, and one of the players wanted to be an imp dedicated to Dol Arrah. Through discussion, the idea was worked out that the character could be an imp-like entity tied to the Three Faces of War (since the player really wanted the ABILITIES of the imp, which were more in line with the Mockery than Dol Arrah) conjured to serve as a sort of spiritual mascot for the mortal characters. But ultimately, the player was deeply attached to the character being a pure embodiment of LAW and GOOD, and that character just didn’t belong in the noir environment the DM was creating with this Rekkenmark story; even if the DM allowed the player to use the character, the player wouldn’t get the EXPERIENCE they wanted… so ultimately, better to come up with an idea better suited to the campaign.

All of which is to say: you CAN find a place for any concept in Eberron, but that doesn’t always mean you should. Make sure that you understand the experience the player is looking for, and that the interpretation you’re using will actually provide that experience.

SUBRACES IN 5E

One point that’s come up in the comments discussion is how to incorporate the subraces of Fifth Edition into Eberron. Are Tairnadal High Elves or Wood Elves?

In my opinion, most subraces in 5E are designed for character optimization as opposed to story impact. If you’re going to play a wizard, you want to be a High Elf; if you’re going to be a ranger, play a Wood Elf. The system isn’t tied to any setting and there’s no built in reason that you HAVE to make Wood Elves and High Elves culturally distinct… so in my campaign, my answer is that all the common Elves of Eberron – Tairnadal, Aereni, Phiarlan, Thuranni – can be either Wood Elves or High Elves, as the player chooses. Essentially, subrace is a reflection of individual aptitude and specialization. WITHIN EBERRON, no one will ever use the terms “high elf” or “wood elf”; it’s simply a question of whether your Tairnadal elf is more attuned to arcane magic or to the wilds.

I’d take the same approach to most of the common subraces in the 5E handbook. A Mror Dwarf can be Hill or Mountain; a Talenta halfling can be Lightfoot or Stout. The only place where I’d separate subrace is where the subrace has a unique story, place in the world, or abilities that should have a notable cultural impact. So Wood/High Elves are simply personal aptitudes within the general “elf” race… while Drow and Eladrin are unique races/cultures with their own societies and stories. Mror dwarves can be Hill or Mountain, but Duergar are something else entirely.

As always, this is a personal choice. But to me it’s a case of most subraces serving the purpose of class specialization – and there being no compelling reason to force a player who wants to be a Valenar wizard (and there are many mighty wizards in Tairnadal legend) to be a wood elf when they’d rather have the mechanical benefits of the high elf.

In future posts I’ll talk about ways I might work particular unusual races into the setting. What races would you like to see me discuss? What unusual races have you used in your campaign?