Yuan-Ti 2: How would *I* use them?

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 supportersWhat’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.

23 thoughts on “Yuan-Ti 2: How would *I* use them?

  1. I love the idea of it being a current transformation but it makes me wonder about my two favorite characters from dragonshard’s lizardfolk campaign. Silverblade and Blackclaw were two of my favorite heroes and i’m not sure how they would exist in a campaign that has the rise of the yuan-ti angle. Or would Xendrik Yuan-ti now be just variant lizardfolk?

    • Silverblade doesn’t particular connect to the canon yuan-ti story in any case; I don’t believe there’s any real explanation of an alliance between the Argonnessen refugee yuan-ti and the lizardfolk of the Ring of Storms. The simplest answer would be to make Silverblade a SHULASSAKAR; it would explain the “Silver”, after all.

      WITH THAT SAID, the key point is that I’m not saying that YOU should abandon the canon yuan-ti story; I’m just presenting another alternative that I might use in my campaign. You could use one, both, or neither in your campaign. Personally, I might look to Dragonshard for inspiration for the Cold Sun Federation in my Q’barra campaign.

  2. Interesting new take! I’m curious though, if you used the yuan-ti in this way, would you ignore/remove the Syrkarn yuan-ti from your campaign’s history? Or is there a way to explain the presence and spread of the canonical snakes with these new ones?

    • I’m curious though, if you used the yuan-ti in this way, would you ignore/remove the Syrkarn yuan-ti from your campaign’s history?

      I wouldn’t be removing it, because I’ve never ADDED it into my campaign’s history. But yes, that is what I’m suggesting for me personally. The basic question is what’s engaging for the players? Will THEY be interested in the long origin story of the existing yuan-ti and their vendetta against Argonnessen? My reason to make it something new is because it becomes directly relevant to the PCs now, as opposed to being driven by conflicts that occurred on continents they’ve never been to centuries before they were born. And I’m not saying ancient conflicts can’t be compelling; I use the Gatekeepers and the Dhakaani. But there are limits to how much backstory my players can engage with.

      Or is there a way to explain the presence and spread of the canonical snakes with these new ones?

      Sure! The presence of the “new” yuan-ti is proof that humanoids can be mutated into serpentine forms by contact with reptilian Overlords. All you need to do is establish that the Overlord Syrkarn is similar in nature to Masvirik, and what’s happening to the cultists right now in Q’barra happened in Syrkarn a thousand years ago. There’s no reason both those things can’t be true.

      But again, the point of this article isn’t that YOU should ignore the canon approach; it’s literally just my thoughts on what I’d do if I were to add them into the campaign I’m running right now.

      • You mentioned that Kyber is non-euclidean and the prison of each Overlord is a demiplane. Couldn’t the Overlord in Sykarn actually BE Masvirik?

        • It’s an interesting call. You’re correct about the nature of Khyber, and it’s explicitly the case that Belashyrra is active in both Xen’drik and Khorvaire because of this. We’ve generally made the Overlords more locational because they are more concretely imprisoned than the daelkyr. While the daelkyr can’t leave Khyber, they can move freely within it; whereas the overlords are fully bound and largely torpid. My other concern is that the (Dungeon-expanded) storyline of Q’barra is very driven around it being Masvirik’s prison and the safeguards that were put in place to maintain it; if the prison has a backdoor in Syrkarn, where there are no lizardfolk, no Poison Dusk, it feels like the efforts in Q’barra are less important.

          But cosmologically, it’s certainly a valid option you could explore.

          • I was imagining less of a backdoor and more of a weakened barrier, accessible only through elaborate rituals by the ancestors of the first yuan-ti. And since the yuan-ti have been killed or driven away, and the entire place evacuated off by the Inspired, Q’Barra is the only region where Masvirik has access to mortals that can conduct rituals to channel its power.

            I guess I just far prefer it when similar stuff in a setting are grouped together into a whole, rather than having, say, several different entities that overlap way too much on their domains. Masvirik is THE Overlord of reptilian evil, Katashka is THE Overlord of undeath, etc.

          • I guess I just far prefer it when similar stuff in a setting are grouped together into a whole, rather than having, say, several different entities that overlap way too much on their domains.

            Sure! But that’s why MY answer would be to drop the canon approach to yuan-ti entirely… especially since the idea of the Masvirik yuan-ti isn’t a blessing, but rather a consequence of their pursuit of power. Rather than saying “This is a story that is playing out now but also played out a few thousand years ago and they’ve been kicked around continents ever since”, I’d just focus on a singular approach and ignore the other. I still like the idea of Syrkarn holding an Overlord, but the domain of the Overlord doesn’t have to be associated with reptiles.

            Essentially, the whole story of Q’barra IS reptiles, and the idea of the dawn/dusk shards being directly tied to Masvirik. Syrkarn doesn’t have lizardfolk, doesn’t have the dawn/dusk shards; the only reason to make it Masvirik would be the yuan-ti, and I’d rather just eliminate the yuan-ti. But again, this is what I’d to in MY Eberron, where I’m not bound to use canon I don’t like.

  3. I have to say, the yuan-ti write up from the previous article felt a bit off for me, and I like this version much, much better.

    I can’t be the only one that sees Keith’s own versions as more canon than WotC publications…

    • I’ve had some arguments about “levels of canon” with people before.

      Most people agree anything WotC published and written by Keith is 100% canon but the disagreement comes as to whether Wizards published non-Baker is more canon than Baker written but non-Wizards (and then is this blog more canon than reddit, where do Dungeon articles come in, etc)

      Personally? I think ANYTHING Keith Baker has written is more canon, but that at this level none of the sources are more or less canon than the others (I like to believe Keith means precisely what he means while still being a human being who changes over time)

      But Forge of War is so anti-canon and I will fight anyone who champions that Karrnathi propaganda 😛

      • I squinted very skeptically when I read Dragons of Argonessen too. A….hidden city….of level 20 characters? What?

        I otherwise love the portrayal of dragons as an extremely paranoid species who seem to be afraid of their own power, and having a political struggle between the declining old guard and hot-blooded youths. But I consider Dragon Wakanda completely non-canon. And for the record, Pathfinder has a similar concept but executed it much better…look up Hermea.

  4. Hi Keith,

    I just wanted to say this article BLEW MY MIND! I love this idea so much I’m using it for the yuan-ti in my own home brewed campaign! Another great out-of-the-box/turn-it-on-its-head approach to a classic D&D monster! Such a great article! Thank you so much!

  5. This is probably off topic for this post, but the yuan-ti’s connection to Masvirik made me wonder. Is there a list of Overlords that explicitly exist in your Eberron, or you like particularly well? I’ve never been big on the idea of repurposing demon lords, evil gods, and great old ones from other settings and using them in Eberron, since haivng the same iconic being existing in multiple settings dilutes the distinctness of each world. The canon list also gives very little information on each (compared to, for instance, the amount of detail demon lords and archdevils in other settings usually get).

    • It is off topic, so I won’t go into detail. However, if you go to this post:
      http://keith-baker.com/eberron-flashback-the-lords-of-dust/
      I created Overlords 1-8 on the list, and I like and use them all. I didn’t create Sakinnirot, but I don’t object to him. I generally don’t like repurposing existing entities, so I don’t especially like “Tiamat”… however, I strongly endorse the Daughter of Khyber, the Overlord who holds sway over the hearts of dragons, who is imprisoned in the Pit of Five Sorrows and whose existence is one of the main reasons Argonnessen has always shown restraint in exercising its power. The IDEA works well; it’s simply not necessary for her to have the name “Tiamat.”

      I’ll note that we intentionally said that there’s around thirty Overlords but we’ve never presented a complete list, and I never intend to. This is another case where we want canon to leave room for every DM to add their own.

      • Would Project Raptor include detailed writeups on these Overlords? I own an Apocalypse Dragon figurine from Mage Knight and have always wanted to use it as an avatar of the Daughter of Khyber, but there actually isn’t much detail on her aside from her location and what the dragons feel about her.

        I mean things like the cultures and traditions for each cult, their typical minions and champions, and the kinds of conflict that exist between them.

  6. What do you think of using Yuan-ti as allies instead of enemies? In a campaign against dragons or against the dreaming dark you need every possible help. But how can you trust this vengeance-driven serpentine people?

    • On the one hand, this is somewhat redundant to the shulassakar, who are essentially “Yuan-ti who exist to be allies.” However, the point of the shulassakar is that they are inherently good, while you’re suggesting that people might ally with an evil force.

      The concept that you may have to work with evil and untrustworthy people is an inherent part of the noir theme, so sure, this is certainly a plot you could explore in an Eberron campaign.

  7. I really like your interpretation of the yuan-ti. It is what I was looking for. It something fresh and different. I just had a hard time with the canon version of the yuan-ti, and so I’m going to be using yours. My follow up question since I think it was my question on patreon that you pulled the topic from is, how would you use them in a Lhazaar Principalities campaign. I want to do some age of demons ruins/dungeon delving with the yuan-ti involved. One idea I had was that Q’baraa is just the center of Masvirik prison, and there are pockets of power in some of the southern islands. As a side note, I have a player who is playing a lizardfolk, and this would be an exciting storyline for them.

  8. Hei Keith, nothing to do with the yuan-ti, I just wanted to know if you are working on the new Eberron guide for the 5E – Eberron: Rising from the Last War

  9. I especially like the idea that “The yuan-ti have absolutely no love for the Cold Sun: they are opportunists who want to steal his power,” and that they are approaching Masvirik as a target rather than a being worthy of devotion. I can imagine ‘clerics’ of Masvirik who pray to him specifically to distract him and focus his attention away from warlocks’ efforts to tap him for power like a maple tree for sap.
    Or to put it another way:
    “My, what big teeth you have my acolytes.”
    “The better to prey o– for you, Overlord Masvirik.”

    And perhaps that’s another conflict and point of contention; the Yuan-Ti are drawing on Masvirik’s power and releasing it into the world, but are they weakening his prison walls, or are they siphoning off his strength?

  10. I love the idea of making the yuan-ti more applicable to the here and now of the world rather than being ancient far-removed threats.

    As someone above already noted the yuan-ti can be replaced with lizardfolk in Xen’drik fairly easily (so that answers my first question) but if you were going to NOT simply use ancient yuan-ti in Syrkarn, what would you replace them with in the fall of Khunan and the subsequent haunting of the ruins? What theme is Syrkarn the Fiendish Overlord moving along? Would it be something that plays into the separation and lack of unity in Syrkarn among the nomads? Or is it part of the reason the Syrks are culturally prone to aggressive posturing rather than violence, a demon that gains power when conflict occurs?

    The other overlords are beautifully realized in how they affect the areas around them and I’m just wondering what a better “monster threat” would be in Syrkarn

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