Dragonmarks: Common Magic, Part One

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything was released recently, and it includes a host of options for players and gamemasters. Over the next month I’ll explore how I’d incorporate some of these ideas and options into Eberron. Right now I want to tackle a subject that intersects only partially with XGtE: the question of how Eberron can coexist with the limited magic of default 5E D&D.

The first thing to bear in mind is that Eberron is not a high magic setting – it’s a wide magic setting. Eberron is built upon the premise that arcane magic behaves as a science and would thus become integrated into the world in a scientific manner. But one of the other basic principles of Eberron is that high-level characters are rare… and this ties to the magic that’s available. Here’s a few basic principles to consider.

  • In comparing Eberron to our world, we’ve always said that it’s closer to the late 19th century than to the present day. We have magical equivalents to the telegraph and the railroad and we’re just getting started with air travel. But we don’t have widespread equivalents to automobiles, telephones, or the like.
  • Wide magic generally includes effects that mimic spells of up to third level. Spell effects of up to fifth level – teleportation, raise dead, cloudkill – are known, but rare. Higher level effects are still “magical.”
  • Making a breakthrough in magic is exactly as difficult as making a breakthrough in science. Why hasn’t someone invented an airship anyone can fly? Because they haven’t figured out how to do it, just like WE haven’t figured out cold fusion or time travel.

Which brings us to two issues: magic items in the world and magic item creation. Under third and fourth edition, magic item creation and costs are very concrete and mechanical, and this lent itself to a vision of a world where you could go to a store and buy a +2 flametongue (and maybe ask the smith to customize the flames for you). Fifth edition initially didn’t have rules for creating magic items and ran with the idea that even a +1 weapon was a remarkable treasure. For some, this meant it was impossible to reconcile Eberron with the system. For me, it’s all about setting expectations: what is common magic? 

I mentioned earlier that “wide magic” involves spell effects between 0-3rd level. Just start at the bottom and look at what you can do with those effects. My favorite spell for this is prestidigitation. Using this cantrip, you can…

  • Light a mundane fire.
  • Instantly clean an object of limited size.
  • Instantly chill, warm, or flavor food.

If we accept that these are basic principles of magic – that we’ve figured out how to use magic to produce these effects using trivial (cantrip) amounts of magic – and you have the principles you need to create magical counterparts to the refrigerator (chill food), microwave (warm food), vacuum cleaner (clean room), lighter (firestarter) and washing machine (clean clothes). These things won’t look like our tools, and they won’t act like them. Instead of a vacuum cleaner, you might have a Sorcerer’s Apprentice broom that sweeps itself, of a fancier whisk broom that simply vaporizes dirt when you wave it over a floor. Such items won’t be cheap, but they also needn’t be ridiculously expensive; what you’re talking about is an object that only does a sliver of an effect of a cantrip.

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything presents a host of items with this level of power, which it calls common magic itemsClothes of Mending automatically mend themselves at the end of each day. The Ear Horn of Hearing negates the deafened condition while it’s in use. Some of these common items already exist in Eberron. The Instrument of Illusions is essentially the Thurimbar Rod, an illusion-based instrument developed in Zilargo; and the shapeshifting Cloak of Many Fashions is similar to Eberron’s shiftweave, if somewhat more versatile. As I mentioned in a previous article, something that’s often overlooked in Eberron is the idea of glamerweave – fabric infused with illusion. You could have a cloak with a lining of stars, or a blazer emblazoned with what appear to be actual flames.

The short form is that the common magic items of XGtE are a good model for things that could be common in Eberron – and something you can use as inspiration in creating other items or setting a scene. For me, the key is to look for principles demonstrated by a low level spell and consider how that could be harnessed as a tool. For example, the Sivis sending stone is based on the principle of the spell whispering wind, which delivers a short message to a specific distant location – more limited than sending, but lower level. When you do create a new item or effect, one thing to consider is that if it’s TOO useful, it might be something that’s only found as a dragonmark focus item, especially if the effect is clearly related to a dragonmark’s sphere. Whispering wind is a simple effect – but I still decided to limit it to Sivis, because from a story perspective it’s interesting to have the house have a near-monopoly on swift communication.

So common magic items could indeed be common. With that said, I think it’s reasonable for uncommon items to be uncommon — not something you see in every household, but things that CAN be manufactured and purchased. When you go to rare and legendary items, you can keep them rare and legendary. Perhaps they’re relics of fallen civilizations, or creations of advanced ones (such as the Chamber or the Lords of Dust). Perhaps they are one of a kind things created under special circumstances — during particular planar conjunctions, using unique Siberys shards, or even fashioned in other planes. Perhaps that Elven blade was forged by a member of the Undying Court and imbued with a fraction of her spirit. In short, there’s room for magic to be both commonplace and truly magical. That everburning torch is just a tool you can buy at any Cannith forgehold… but that Vorpal Sword is a legendary weapon spoken of in song and story. Meanwhile, magical weapons can have lesser magical effects – a self-sharpening sword, an axe that glows on command – things that are useful and magical, but don’t have to have the same impact as a bonus to attack and damage. I have many thoughts about wands, but I’ll delve into that in my next article.

In considering these things, XGtE also helps with its classification of magic items as major or minor in addition to the rarities. Minor uncommon items should be easier to acquire than major uncommon items. The short form is to think about what it means for a magic item to be something that can simply be purchased. If that thing is a reliable tool that exists in the world for anyone who has enough money to acquire it, how should it impact your story?

MAGIC ITEM CREATION

So we’ve established a general yardstick for what exists in the world. The next question is what can player characters create, and how can they create it? The first thing to point out here is that whatever system House Cannith uses to make wands isn’t going to be the same system a player character uses. While Eberron doesn’t have full-on manufacturing plants, the creation of magic items is an industry. Creation Forges are the most dramatic tools available to House Cannith, but they have a host of lesser ways to improve the process of production. They may literally have enchanted assembly lines — not automated, but still, facilities designed to efficiently produce a particular type of item and enhanced with various magical effects. They acquire rare components in mass quantities – which ties to another largely unrealized idea in Eberron, that dragonshards are a critical part of creating magic items and serve as the fuel of the magical economy. Cannith may have lesser focus items that channel the Mark of Making. And they certainly have secret techniques or patterns for making specific items as efficiently as possible (which is to say, schema).

Meanwhile, your wizard or artificer is literally a guy making a thing in a garage. Cannith can make a wand of fireballs faster and cheaper than you can. But the one you make is going to be entirely unique. And perhaps you can make something they’ve never figured out how to make – because you’re an innovator, not just working on the assembly line.

All of which is to say that this actually works well with the model of magic item creation presented in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything… making the creation of a magic item part of an adventure as opposed to simply a formula you fill out with gold and XP. You can’t replicate the process Cannith uses to make a wand of fireballs, because you don’t have their facilities, resources or specialized expertise. BUT, if you could get ahold of an elemental heart from Fernia, you could use that to create your wand! And what do you know, you’ve heard that you can acquire such a thing by hunting drakes in a Fernian manifest zone in the Blade Desert. If you can get that heart, a thousand GP worth of refined Eberron shards, and a good piece of darkwood you can carve into a wand – give it a few weeks and you can make it happen.

So I like the XGtE model; just bear in mind that what you are doing ISN’T the same thing House Cannith does when they are producing something. What you are creating will be unique – and again, for that reason and because PCs are remarkable, it may be that you can create something that Cannith cannot create.

In my next article I’ll write about magewrights and wand adepts. Until then, post your questions and thoughts below. Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters, who make these articles possible.