I’m getting ready for GenCon and working on Project Raptor and other things. But the other day I posted an article in response to a question from a Patreon supporters: What’s the role of the yuan-ti in Eberron? In this article, I focused on the CANON role of the yuan-ti in the setting… yuan-ti civilization began in Sarlona; they were driven first to Argonnessen and then to Xen’drik, where they scheme and hunger for revenge. Which is fine. But I’ve never actually used any of that in a campaign I’ve run. In writing the article and addressing follow-up questions, I started thinking about how I would actually use them… and I thought I’d share that here.
It’s proverbial that If it exists in D&D, there’s a place for it in Eberron. But as I’ve said before, this was never meant to mean that everything in D&D IS in Eberron; it’s that it COULD be, if you want it to be a part of your campaign. I’ve always preferred to focus on fewer elements but to add more depth to them. I’ve never used the yuan-ti in a campaign because I’ve never had a need for them, when I’ve had the daelkyr, the Dreaming Dark, the Gatekeepers, the Dhakaani. But in adding anything, the question to me is what it brings—what’s unique about it. For me, the things that are compelling about the yuan-ti are…
- Their variable phenotypes: from the purebloods who can blend in among humanity to the inhuman abominations and anathema.
- The idea that they were once human but were corrupted by their dark devotions.
- The principle that as a group they are up to no good… something that is rare in Eberron, where evil generally isn’t genetic. The yuan-ti are sly schemers, hungry for power and dominion over others.
- The question of their connection to the shulassakar… who I”ll note I originally created as an alternative to the yuan-ti, a way to use the mechanics of the yuan-ti in a COMPLETELY different way than in other settings.
Now, one option is to try to take the rest of the traditional yuan-ti backstory—the fallen empire of slavers—and to fit that into the setting, and that’s essentially what the canon approach does; creating a yuan-ti nation in Sarlona that was overthrown during the Sundering. However, if I were to use them in my campaign, I wouldn’t do this. I don’t NEED another ancient kingdom, and my players have no reason to care about some nation that fell a thousand years ago on another continent. So I’d rather find a way to add the yuan-ti that makes them integral to the story that I’m telling.
So, if *I* were to use the yuan-ti, I’d turn it around and make their evolution from human to yuan-ti something that’s happening RIGHT NOW—not something that happened a thousand years ago. Q’barra is the prison of the Overlord Masvirik, also known as the Cold Sun: an archfiend embodying the divide between mammal and reptile, lord of scale and venom. Since the Age of Demons, Q’barra has seen conflict between the lizardfolk of the Cold Sun Federation and the corrupted forces of the Poison Dusk. A region of untamed jungle, Q’barra had long been ignored by the people of Galifar… until the Last War, when Ven ir’Kesslan led a flotilla of settlers east. These settlers soon discovered rich deposits of Eberron dragonshards in Q’barra, and this brought a new wave of opportunists and fortune seekers. Today, New Galifar seeks to maintain the values of the fallen kingdom, while Hope is a wild frontier.
In running a Q’barra campaign, one of the primary themes is the interaction between the settlers and the lizardfolk, tied to the idea that the settlers don’t understand the ancient dangers that linger in this land. But what if there are humans who do understand… warlocks and sages who seek to claim Masvirik’s power as their own? What if there is a conspiracy spread across the land, with agents among the nobles of New Galifar and the shard barons of Hope? What if they’re using their influence to stir up conflict between the humans and the scales… in the process destroying wards and allowing them to seize artifacts and dragonshards tied to Masvirik? And, of course, what if in doing this—in seeking to harness the power of the Cold Sun—these people are becoming something less than human?
In part, this could seem like any cult of the Dragon Below. Here’s the things I’ll call out to separate it.
- It’s always been a theme of the yuan-ti that they aren’t devoted to their gods; they want their power. I’d highlight that here. The Poison Dusk are fanatically devoted to Masvirik. The yuan-ti have absolutely no love for the Cold Sun: they are opportunists who want to steal his power.
- Q’barra includes dusk shards: dragonshards imbued with the power of Masvirik. The yuan-ti would be amassing these shards and using this dark power—to create eldritch machines, to create magic items, or as focus items. Some might grind up the shards and drink them. Acquiring dusk shards would be a common, basic goal of the yuan-ti… and something that would place them at odds with the Cold Sun Federation.
- Rather than priests, I’d likely focus on these yuan-ti as sorcerers and warlocks; they are stealing the power rather than having it granted to them. A yuan-ti warlock could be tricking Masvirik into granting power, but more likely the Cold Sun isn’t an ACTIVE patron; rather, the warlock has just found a way to tap into its power. For NPCs, the point would be that these abilities are sustained and enhanced by dusk shards.
- The mutation is caused by long term exposure to dusk shards and dramatically enhanced by channeling Masvirik’s power, and it’s something that’s happening right now. These yuan-ti have only been active for a few decades, and they’re still learning about their true nature. The abominations were born human and were once important members of their community; other members of their families have to hide the abominations, and cover for their inability to conduct business face to face. At this moment in time, there may not BE any anathema; one or more abominations will BECOME anathema over the course of the campaign.
Among other things, this allows a recurring NPC to mutate over the course of the story. The PCs deal with a villain; when they finally capture him, they discover that he’s a pureblood with serpentine characteristics. He escapes, causes more trouble, and eventually appears to be killed… only to return later as a malison or anathema, explaining how the Cold Sun revived him, and changed him in the process. Essentially, I don’t just want them to be snake people; I want to highlight that they are BECOMING snake people because of what they’re doing. I also wouldn’t limit them to humanity; there will be dwarves, elves, and orcs who are becoming yuan-ti.
What I like about this is that it makes the yuan-ti an unpredictable wild card. The Poison Dusk serve Masvirik. The Cold Sun Federation opposes him. They’ve been fighting this war for thousands of years. But the yuan-ti are new and are here for POWER. They are tied into the power structures of the settlers, and have allies at all levels of society.
Meanwhile, the shulassakar have been servants of the Silver Flame for thousands of years, transformed by their tie to the couatl. Shulassakar agents may show up mid-arc, sensing the disruption being caused by the actions of yuan-ti and Poison Dusk alike… just in time to confuse the PCs, who by now will have learned to distrust serpentine humans. Will they sort it out?
So, that’s what I would do with the yuan-ti. If you’ve done something else with them in your campaign, post it in the comments!
Yuan-ti have a strong connection to psionics, and in 3.5 they have natural psionic powers. However, in Eberron they have a strong arcane or even divine influence by being connected to the overlords. What would be the most common yuan-ti spellcaster? A psionic, a mage a priest or another one?
I don’t feel a need to add psionics to 5E yuan-ti just because they had them in 3.5. As noted above, I would focus on sorcerers and warlocks. The sorcerer would channel powers largely through supernatural mutation, while the warlock would be using arcane knowledge to essentially steal power from Masvirik.
Traditionally physical mutation is more associated with the daelkyr than with the Overlords. Are there other examples of Overlords causing physical mutations? How would you distinguish it from the daelkyr?
It’s always been called out that agents of the Poison Dusk may be physically corrupted; 4E suggested that the Blackscale Lizardfolk weren’t actually a separate species, but were simply mutated champions of Masvirik. Beyond this, another Overlord noted for physical corruption is Katashka the Gatekeeper, who transforms followers (and others) into undead. The main question is whether the Overlord’s domain has an obvious physical aspect. Masvirik is associated with reptiles, and it’s reasonable that mammals who channel his power could develop reptilian traits. While Sul Khatesh embodies dangerous and arcane knowledge, and the manifestation of her corruption is that knowledge.
One way I’d highlight the difference between such Overlord corruption and the work of the daelkyr is that the corruption isn’t directed. Goblins didn’t spontaneously become dolgrims; Dyrrn took goblin prisoners and MADE dolgrims from them. By contrast, it’s not that Masvirik is intentionally turning these people into yuan-ti, and it’s not something they have control over; it’s a consequence of channeling his power.
This isn’t ENTIRELY dissimilar from some daelkyr; we’ve called out that followers of Belashyrra may start growing new eyes. However, that corruption doesn’t go very far; we’ve never suggested that they become beholders, for example. The key point I’d call out here is that the yuan-ti aren’t cultists, and the transformation isn’t a gift; it’s a consequence of their hunger for power.