IFAQ: Exotic Races

I’d be curious how you’d use the Tabaxi and the Rakasta in Eberron to make them distinct. Also, how would you use the Shadow Elves?

This basic question—how would you add (exotic species) to Eberron—is the single most frequent question I’m asked. But for me, there’s a second question that is more important, and that’s why do you want to add this species to Eberron? While this may sound snarky, I mean it quite seriously. Let’s look at the most common answers to that question.

I want to play a character with these racial features.

As often as not, this is what the question comes down to. Why play a tabaxi instead of a shifter? Because the tabaxi has that Feline Agility feature, which is perfect for this archer I want to play. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But the point is that you don’t need to add an entirely new CULTURE into the setting—having to find territory and consider its role in both history and the current political balance—in order for someone to play a ranger with Feline Agility. Here’s a few ways to handle it.

Reskin the character as another species. The player wants the features of a tabaxi, but they don’t mind being part of shifter culture. So call the character a shifter. For purposes of the story, they’re an unusual Swiftstride shifter, and they can even describe their character as shifting when they use their Feline Agility (even though this doesn’t convey any of the other advantages or disadvantages of shifting). The player gets the abilities they want, but they are part of a species that already has an established story in the world.

Make the character unique. If the player doesn’t care about the culture of their character, then their character could be unique. They could have been mutated by the Mourning, the result of an experiment by House Vadalis, or a creation of Mordain the Fleshweaver or one of the daelkyr. Their abilities could be the result of exposure to the energies of a manifest zone, or the curse of an archfey. With all of these examples, the player gets the abilities they want, but you don’t have to add a new culture to the setting. And you can also explore the character’s relationship with their creator. WHY did Mordain the Fleshweaver crate a tabaxi? Was the character once his feline familiar? Did the character escape from Mordain, or were they released into the wild for some unknown reason?

Small Batch. The thing about making a character unique is that they don’t have an opportunity to interact with other members of their species. If that’s important to a player, but they don’t actually want that culture to play a major role in the campaign, you can take the small batch approach. An entire village was caught in the Mourning and ALL of its inhabitants were turned into tabaxi. House Vadalis produced a unit of Goliath supersoldiers during the war: the player escaped, but most are still held in a secret Vadalis facility. There’s only a dozen Kenku: they were servants of the archfey known as the Forgotten Prince, and he stole their voices and exiled them to Eberron as punishment for a crime. What’s fun about a small batch species is that it automatically gives you a story hook to work into the game. If there’s only twelve kenku, then your kenku character knows them all. Are you working together to regain your voices, or are you rivals? Are you seeking revenge against the kenku who betrayed you and your allies to the Prince—or are you the traitor responsible for their exile? If you’re a goliath supersoldier, what do you do when another goliath asks you to help free your brothers from a Vadalis facility?

Being part of a small batch means that you don’t have a nation or a culture to fall back on. But it gives your character a certain significance. If tortles have a principality in Lhazaar, you’re just one of many tortles. But if you and your three brothers are actual turtles transformed into turtles by the Mourning, then you are the only four tortles in the world, which makes you all quite remarkable!

I’ve played this character in another setting and I want to play it in Eberron.

This is another common concept: the reason someone wants to play a tabaxi is because they ALWAYS play tabaxi and they just want to play that character again. Usually in this situation the player has a very concrete idea of what tabaxi are like, and they don’t actually WANT you to change their culture to better fit the setting: they want to play this character the same way they’ve always played it. They don’t want to play a Qaltiar drow, they want to play a drow ranger from the Forgotten Realms, because that’s the character they’ve always played.

Personally, when I encounter this, my answer is usually to say OK, your character has come to Eberron from another world. The far traveler background works well for this, as it essentially plays to the idea that no one has ever seen anything like you. This doesn’t mean that you have to make travel between settings commonplace within your world; this character could be a bizarre fluke, brought to Eberron by the Mourning, the Draconic Prophecy, a planar convergence that won’t happen again for thousands of years, or what have you. The point is that the player gets what they want—to play this character exactly the way they want to—and as DM, you don’t have to bend the setting into strange shapes trying to fit this character into.

As a side note, a few months ago I was invited to join a Rise of Tiamat campaign that was set in Faerun and already quite far along. *I* wanted to play a warforged Forge cleric. And this is the path I took: I was a priest of the Becoming God who had been sent from Eberron to seek out pieces of the Becoming God across the multiverse. I used the far traveler background, and I talked a lot about Eberron things that made no sense to anyone in the setting, and everyone had fun with it—and it was much simpler than the DM coming up with an explanation for warforged in the setting and me picking an FR god instead of getting to build the Becoming God. I got to have the story I wanted, and I didn’t need to fundamentally change the setting to get it.

I want this species to have a meaningful place in the world.

Sometimes it’s not just about a specific player wanting to play a single character of the race. Sometimes it’s the DM who loves a species and WANTS it to be a meaningful part of the setting. Or perhaps the player wants their character to have a homeland, to be an envoy or exile from their people. So what are some ways to handle this without having to rewrite the entire setting?

Replace something you aren’t using. Have you ever used the Znir Gnolls of Droaam? Do you plan to? If not, you could say that the rakasta are the founders of the Znir Pact. Or if you don’t like goblins, you could say that the Empire of Dhakaan was a GITH empire, and that the Heirs of Dhakaan are Gith clans. This allows you to make use of existing lore and relationships, just changing the focus of it. The world doesn’t become a cluttered kitchen sink, because you’ve taken something out before adding something in.

They’ve always been there… You’ve just never noticed. This is the approach we took when adding the dragonborn in Fourth Edition. The setting had already established the presence of reptilian humanoids in Q’barra and the tension between them and the colonists. We just said we only mentioned the lizardfolk, but there’s dragonborn in Q’barra as well; the humans just didn’t understand the difference between them. We added further history—the dragonborn had an empire that once covered the Talenta Plains and fought the Dhakaani, but had to retreat to their strongholds in Q’barra to fight the Poison Dusk. This allows players to play dragonborn (and I did, in a 4E Eberron campaign) and to have a homeland to return to and a place in the world—but we didn’t have to redraw the maps or change recent history. The Dragonborn have always been here, but they are an isolated culture with little contact with the Five Nations.

There’s lots of isolated places on the map that work for this. It’s entirely possible that there are tribes of tabaxi living alongside shifters in the depths of the Towering Woods, just as lizardfolk and dragonborn coexist in Q’barra; it’s up to the DM to decide if they have a unique culture that humanity simply hasn’t encountered, or if they are integrated into the Druidic sects. The Lhazaar Principalities can work for this as well. If no one’s ever met Cloudreavers in your campaign, you can declare the Cloudreavers are goliaths, and they’ve always been goliaths.They’re rare enough that people don’t know them in the Five Nations, and they didn’t have a huge impact on the Last War; but they have an island, they have ships, and they’re known across the Principalities. And obviously Xen’drik is a vast blank slate that was intentionally designed for this purpose; you could easily add a loxodon nation in Eberron that no one’s encountered. Speaking of loxodons, I’ve seen people place them in the Tashana Tundra or the Frostfell as mammoth-folk, which I think is a great way to use them and adds flavor to regions that are currently largely unknown.

We’re new in town. This is the approach we took in adding the eladrin in fourth edition. We established that the eladrin lived in feyspires that moved back and forth between Eberron and Thelanis, but that these generally only remained in Eberron for a short period of time—but that following the Mourning, the spires were trapped in Eberron and stripped of their defensive magics. The point was to say the reason eladrin haven’t played a more significant role in history is because they haven’t BEEN here until now. The general idea here is that this species has been secluded and hidden from the rest of the world but is now being thrust into contact. For example…

  • Loxodons have dwelt peacefully in the Frostfell for millennia, but they have been driven from their homes by the rising power of Dral Khatuur. Now tribes of loxodon refugees are landing across the northern coast of Khorvaire.
  • Vedalken are from a demiplane within Khyber—an inner earth filled with wonders and crystal towers. Perhaps their home has been invaded by the minions of the daelkyr Belashyrra; or perhaps the Mourning caused a chunk of their realm to materialize in the Mournland.

This allows the species to have a deep culture and potentially to have magic or techniques that SHOULD make an impact on Khorvaire, but to explain why they haven’t affected history to this point. The idea is that while people may not have encountered this species before, it’s a significant part of the story NOW.

In Conclusion…

For me, the most important thing is for the elements of the world to feel significant. While there’s a PLACE for everything in Eberron, I don’t want to force something in if it doesn’t actually add something compelling to the story I’m telling. As such, I’ve never actually used tabaxi, rakasta, or many other types of humanoids in my personal campaign. In deciding how to add them into your campaign, my advice is to first think about WHY you want them in the campaign—whether the character could be a unique mutation or an extraplanar visitor, or if you want their culture to have a significant place in the world. So looking back to that original question, I personally wouldn’t use rakasta or tabaxi in my campaign because I’d rather use shifters. If it was a design dash challenge and I had to add tabaxi in, I’d take the small batch approach: there’s a city in the Mournland where all of the inhabitants were transformed into tabaxi, and they now dwell in the ruins and are mysteriously compelled to sing and dance…

… OK, maybe not. Happy Halloween!

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?