Gameplay: DM Improvisation

As time permits, I like to answer interesting questions posed by my Patreon supporters. Often those questions are tied to Eberron, but sometimes there’s a more general topic. Case in point…

As a world builder myself and a long time improviser, making things up on the fly to adapt to situations is the environment I *live* for and it’s made my storytelling in this game really step up. I’m writing more than I’ve ever written before in order to keep up with my players story as well as be a few steps ahead. While I know it can be a matter of taste, which do you like to do more as a DM; prepare for the most likely situations but expect the unexpected or completely roll with the punches because you’re so familiar with the world you’ve created?

I love the collaborative element of TTRPGs. I may know all the secrets and where the action will go, but I love that I don’t know which hooks the adventurers will latch onto. I have an adventure that I’ve run almost sixty times, and it’s still fun for me to run again because there’s always something that comes up in each session that I’ve never seen before. I love to see players come up with creative solutions to problems, and I’m always going to encourage that, because that’s what makes it interesting for me; if they followed an entirely predictable path, if I knew exactly how the story was going to end, it wouldn’t be that interesting to run it twice, let alone sixty times.

With that said, fun fact: I’ve never published that adventure I’ve run sixty times, because I’ve never written it down in such a way that anyone else could run it. The adventure is set in the city of Graywall, which I know like the back of my hand. The adventurers are trying to locate a fugitive. Because I know the city so well, I don’t have to have every option written down. If the adventurers say “We want to talk to a Brelish expatriate” or “Who sells refined dragonshards in bulk?” I know the answers to those questions, and I can freestyle a quick encounter with the Tharashk shard salesman. However, I also have a few anchor points that I know the adventure will hit. Whatever path they take to get there, I know the adventurers will have to deal with at least two of three specific people/places… and I know where the fugitive is and what they will find when they get there. So I have those four scenes prepared ahead of time—with statistics for the combat encounters, traps and treasures, and the like. But I never know which three of these four scenes I’ll use in a particular run of the game.

The same thing is true when I’m running my Patreon campaign on Threshold. In session 2, the adventurers were investigating the disappearance of local kobolds. I knew where they would end up—that they’d need to investigate the farmstead of Kaine Agran, and that doing so would lead them to a sinister chamber of skulls hidden in the mountains. I had both of those scenes plotted out, complete with statistics for the threats they would face. But I didn’t know how they would GET to the farmstead. And case in point, when I ran the adventure twice, one group of players focused on dealing with the Brelish veterans in town, while the other group centered their investigation on the kobold community. But I knew that both of those were options, and I knew that I could improvise a scene in either direction—because I had an established cast on NPCs in each location and generally knew how they could help.

Meanwhile, the fourth Threshold session—the first hour of which is available here—was set at a festival. I had five specific scenes planned at the festival—Kobolds dancing around a fruit idol; a tiefling missionary approaches one of the characters; an illusionary shooting gallery; a baking contest; and an unexpected confrontation at the final feast. But I didn’t know which of these would catch the players’ interest or how long each might take; they could have just shurgged and walked by the fruity kobolds, or they could join in the ceremony (which they did). So I had a handful of established NPCs there at the festival I was prepared to deploy. The adventurers could have been approached by the priest who was organizing the festival, or caught up in a drunken brawl; I knew I could fill space if I needed to. And taking the shooting gallery—the structure was that the PC wandslinger had to face five illusionary opponents. I had each of the other players describe one of these illusionary opponents—so even though it was a scene revolving around a single PC, each player got to be involved—and then when it got to the fifth opponent I revealed it to be an ambush by a gang of halfling hitmen (a combat which then involved everyone). The main point is that I’d planned how the scene would end—I had stats for the squad of halfling hitmen—but I didn’t know what the players would come up with for the four first targets, and it was fun for me to see what they thought up.

So MY preferred style is to work within an area that has some flexibility, with a number of concrete scenes or locations that drive the story and that I know will be involved: I know that sooner or later the adventurers will get to the Chamber of Skulls, or they will get to the confrontation at the final feast. But I’m prepared for them to take an unexpected path to reach that point, because I know the cast and locations around them and I can improvise secondary scenes. This doesn’t work with every story; if I’m doing a serious dungeon crawl where resources are limited and the players’ choice of which rooms to explore matters, I’m going to carefully map it out ahead of time. If the adventurers are going to a new location where I don’t have a well-established supporting cast to fall back on, I’ll plan things more carefully. But I personally like the middle ground—not planning every detail or leaving everything to chance, but building an adventure around a few scenes I know will occur, with flexibility to improvise around them.

How do you handle times when the players bring about a situation that you really ought to know how to handle, but in the heat of the moment can’t imagine what to do next?

I try not to be caught in this situation. While I don’t plan for every contingency, I do prepare notes ahead of time and think about characters and locations that might turn up—for example, the idea that a drunken brawl at the festival would be a simple way to fill a hole if the players moved too swiftly through the content I’d prepared. But while I do my best, it’s impossible to prepare for every contingency. Sometimes a player asks a question you just don’t know the answer to—”This is a textile factory, right? Are they doing mule spinning or ring spinning?“—while other times you may just have had a long day and find yourself out of ideas. When I do find myself in that situation, my standard approach is ask the players for the answer. First of all, in the case of the person asking about an obscure subject, given that they asked the question they probably know what they WANT the answer to be. I don’t know the difference between mule spinning and ring spinning, but THEY do, an d this gives them an opportunity to educate the group and the answer that they think makes sense. And beyond this, at the end of the day, it’s a collaborative story. Perhaps the players are in a stagecoach and it gets blown off a bridge, and you suddenly realize you have no idea how they’re going to survive. Turn it to them: How are you going to survive this? Depending on the situation, this could be a metagame discussion, where you freeze the action and talk to the PLAYERS—”How do we get out of this mess?” On the other hand, I could also present it as a simple skill check to players. “You’re going to take 50 points of damage when the coach strikes the bottom of the ravine. What do you do to survive this?” I’d evaluate their answer and either have them make a skill check (reducing the damage taken by the result of the skill check, or perhaps by double the result for a great idea) or assign an arbitrary value to an interesting, non-skill based idea. The main point is that ideally, what everyone in the group wants is a satisfying story; there’s nothing wrong with occasionally asking the players to fill in the blanks. Looking back to the textile question, I could go research textile factories to find out a good answer—but if the player already has that expertise and knows what the smart answer would be, why not use that expertise?

If you have questions about this approach or want to share how YOU do things, add your comments below! Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters for making these articles possible.

My Summer Streams!

Currently I’m taking part in two live-play streams of fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. The two campaigns are very different; one you can watch, the other you can potentially participate in! Here’s the story.

THRESHOLD

Threshold is an Eberron campaign I’m running as DM. It’s set in a small town that lies between Droaam and Breland, the setting of my upcoming Frontiers of Eberron sourcebook, and I’m using the plots and places I’m creating for that sourcebook in the campaign. Threshold is tied to my Patreon. The story is ongoing and it involves a consistent cast of ten player characters, but each session only involves five of those characters—and the players change each session, being drawn from among the patrons. Those patrons who don’t get a seat at the table still have a chance to influence the story through polls and discussion on the Threshold Discord. Patrons have access to both audio and video recordings of the sessions, but I’m not sharing these with the general public. However, if you want a sense of what Threshold is all about, I’ve just posted a one-hour excerpt from a recent session. I love how Threshold has evolved through the collaboration of the patrons, and I can’t wait to see where it goes next! So if you join my Patreon (at the Threshold tier) you get access both to the past episodes, the campaign website, the Threshold Discord, and the chance to play in a future session… As well as helping to support the articles I post on this site!

FUGUE STATE

In addition to running games, I occasionally like to play games with my friends. Back in 2020 I started playing in a weekly online campaign with a few of my friends in Portland—Colin Meloy and Chris Funk of the Decemberists, Charlie Chu from Oni Press, and Patti King from the Shins. Conveniently, Charlie—the only one of that line-up who isn’t a musician—is the one playing the bard. DM Han Duong is running us through Rime of the Frostmaiden, and after thirty sessions we thought “Hey, why don’t we let other folks watch?” Fugue State happens from 7:30 PM – 10:00 PM Pacific Time every Wednesday, on the Twogether Studios Twitch channel. We’re also working to raise money for local charities; this month we’re raising funds for the Black Resilience Fund. So it remains to be seen if we’ll save the eight remaining towns of Icewind Dale (seven if you leave out Targos, which is a garbage town for garbage people), but we can do a little good regardless. I’m only a player in Fugue State—it’s not set in Eberron and I’m just along for the ride—but if you want to take a peek at the game I’m playing in, drop by!

THE ZONECAST SUMMER

The final stream I want to mention isn’t a D&D stream at all, and I’m not actually a regular! However, Twogether Studios is sponsoring the ZoneCast, a livestream in which Gnomedic and guests play my game The Adventure Zone: Bureau of Balance! The ZoneCast will be happening throughout the summer on the Twogether Studios channel, every Tuesday at 6 PM Pacific Time! So if you’d like to see what TAZ:BoB is all about and possibly win some fabulous prizes, check that out!

Q&A

In Threshold, players take control of pre-existing characters. Do you feel that players get into character easily or do they struggle at times? I’ve had guest players take the role of pre-established NPCs before, and it didn’t always mesh well.

So far it’s gone great, and I really enjoy seeing what each new player brings to their character. When players apply to play in a session, they request a specific character; it’s not random, and people know what they’re getting into. The campaign website has detailed backgrounds of each character and their past exploits. And this includes a section of roleplaying notes; the image below is from Rolan Harn, the former Sentinel Marshal.

Think of these as expanded Bonds and Flaws. A player doesn’t HAVE to abide by these restrictions, but if they play these up they may receive Inspiration or gain advantage on an action; conversely, if they go against the character’s nature, they may suffer disadvantage or other penalties. So an oathbreaking, cruel Rolan will effectively have very bad luck—whereas if you play up Rolan’s honesty and integrity, you’ll have a better chance of success.

That’s all for now! I hope to see you at a future stream!

IFAQ: War Crimes and Potatoes

I’ve been traveling and haven’t had much time to write. But whenever I have time, I like to answer interesting questions posed by my Patreon supporters. Here’s two that came up in June on clearly related topics: War crimes and potatoes.

What counted as a war crime during the Last War?

Looking to the definition of war crimes in our world is a good place to start. One of the key points is that in principle, the Last War was being fought with the intent of reuniting Galifar. As a result, causing unnecessary harm to civilians or civilian infrastructure was definitely an issue – consider the Geneva Convention’s censure of “taking of hostages and extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly.” NOT JUSTIFIED BY MILITARY NECESSITY is the key point there. It’s understood that there will be a certain amount of collateral damage in military operations—but are we talking about justified destruction or about wanton, extreme actions that inflict avoidable harm on the civilian population?

Likewise, the development or deployment or weapons of war that would cause unnecessary suffering or collateral damage was also censured. Again, the key is MILITARY NECESSITY: is the use of this weapon justified, or is it a weapon that will clearly cause grievous and unnecessary harm to civilians or irreparable damage to what we one day hope will be a reunited Galifar?

The crucial underlying point is that the civilians were ultimately seen as the innocent people of a united Galifar. The monarchs were fighting over the succession, but they were fighting for the right to rule all of the people of Galifar—so don’t butcher civilians. Likewise, there was a general rule that you don’t target noncombatant members of dragonmarked houses (IE Jorasco healers)—though this only applies to NONCOMBATANTS, so a Deneith mercenary or a Jorasco healer who takes up arms would be valid targets.

A highly contentious point was the treatment of corpses. Four of the nations supported laws forbidding the desecration of corpses and gravesites. As a result, under the code of war Karrnathi necromancers could only animate the corpses of Karrnathi citizens. This is a rule that many frontline necromancers violated during the war, and there are active cases based on this—with Karrnathi counselors arguing the point of “military necessity.”

When would war crimes actually have been defined? Were they already on the books when the Last War began? Were they only defined with the Treaty of Thronehold?

The basic principle of the Last War is that the five heirs of King Jarot challenged the traditional succession… But that all sought to reunite Galifar under a particular leader. None of the Five Nations were trying to secede; it was a war about who should rule the united whole. So there was reasonable open communication between the warring powers from the very beginning, and I think the general terms of warfare were established early on; again, the war was fought over the question of who was worthy to rule Galifar, not to destroy any of the Five Nations. So I think basic agreements on the treatment of civilians and prisoners would have been established by the leaders of the Five Nations early in the war. Beyond this, the war lasted for a century and wasn’t going at a breakneck pace the whole time; there were certainly previous attempts at mediation and temporary ceasefires during which the rules of war could be renegotiated, prisoners exchanged, etc. There surely were additional clauses established in the Treaty of Thronehold—such as forbidding the creation of warforged—but the basic laws likely date back to the start of the war.

Would Cloudkill be outlawed under the rules of war? If not, why not?

There are banned weapons of war. And it’s easy to draw casual comparisons to our world: cloudkill is a form of poison gas, we banned poison gas, therefore wouldn’t they ban cloudkill? But with any comparison to our world, it’s important to look at the reasons we made the decisions we made and to see if they actually apply to D&D. Poison gas was banned because it horrified the public. Mustard gas was seen as a slow and agonizing way to die—slowly suffocating while your skin and lungs blister—and notably, had horrific long-term effects on the people who survived gas attacks. It also wasn’t especially EFFECTIVE; heck, if the wind changed it could threaten your own people. Essentially, it was a very traumatizing weapon, causing unnecessary suffering when considering its actual effectiveness.

Cloudkill, on the other hand, is none of these things. It inflicts 5d8 poison damage—even the half damage inflicted with a successful saving throw is sufficient to kill a typical commoner, so it kills just as quickly as a fireball. There’s no risk of wind blowing it out of your control. It has no effect OTHER than damage—no long-term side effects, nothing that indicates that it particularly causes pain; it doesn’t even inflict the Poisoned condition, which would be an easy way to represent debilitating pain. There’s nothing that makes cloudkill any more inhumane than a fireball; one could argue that swift death by gas might be MORE humane than death by fireball, and fireballs are a standard part of war in the Five Nations.

If I was to create an equivalent to mustard gas, I’d make it slow-acting—either 1d6/round or simply to say that it kills through suffocation—while adding additional effects to reflect the agonizing pain and long-term after-effects. Let’s say that it inflicts the Poisoned condition the first time a victim fails their saving throw and makes them Incapacitated on their second saving throw, as well as reducing Constitution by 1 every time they fail a saving throw (incidentally reducing their ability to resist suffocation). This Constitution damage would be permanent unless magically cured. You could also add a risk of blindness, which was another long-term side effect of mustard gas. The essential point is that a weapon like fireball—or, in my opinion, cloudkill—is seen as a valid, effective weapon of war. Weapons that will be banned are those seen as causing unnecessary suffering or which are specifically designed to cause mass civilian casualties.

What are a few specific ways the people of Khorvaire and beyond enjoy their potatoes?

Keep in mind that I myself am not an expert on all the ways one can prepare potatoes, and that someone with a stronger culinary background might be able to present more interesting and exotic alternatives to what I’m going to suggest. With that in mind…

  • While other sources may not agree with me, I’ve always personally seen Thrane as relatively ascetic in its cuisine. I see Thranish life as being largely driven by small farming communities. As a result, I see Thranish country cuisine as being more functional than exotic. So I’d say Thranish potatoes would be floury potatoes par-broiled to cook the outside while leaving the inside nearly raw, providing an immediate carb-hit from the outside, with a longer release of carbohydrates over time as the uncooked core is slowly digested. 
  • By contrast, I’ve always seen Aundairian cuisine as being both more dramatic and subtle, playing off the more widespread presence of prestidigitation. Likewise, I see the Aundairians being more inclined to show off with their cuisine, taking pride in delicate work. So I could see a sort of Hasselback potato with different flavors infused between the slices, or fine croquettes. 
  • Breland I’d lean toward a straightforward baked potato but with lots of extras piled on, with the specific extras varying by region (and also somewhat being a chance to show off one’s wealth). 
  • Karrnath I personally lean toward potato soup and stews. 
  • Cyre would of course borrow from everyone else, but I’d also be likely to make Cyre the place that’s developed the fried potato and dishes spinning off from them. Though House Ghallanda has picked up and popularized thin fried potatoes across the Five Nations—everyone loves dragon fries!

With that said, these are just MY ideas, and a better cook might be able to come up with more interesting options! Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters for keeping this site going and for asking these important questions!

IFAQ: Kaius and Lady Illmarrow

Image by Rich Ellis and Grace Allison, from Phoenix Dawn Command

In my previous article, I answered questions my patrons posed about the Blood of Vol. In response to that, one of my patrons asked a question that had deeper roots reflected the changes to the setting over the course of three editions of D&D.

Could you please clarify the historical relationship between the vampiric Kaius, the Blood of Vol, and Erandis/Illmarrow under your current conception of their lore?

One of the most infamous “secrets” from the original Eberron Campaign Setting is that Kaius ir’Wynarn III, the King of Karrnath, is actually Kaius I—that he was transformed into a vampire by Erandis Vol and replaced his descendant. I say “secret” because this information was included in the basic description of Karrnath in the book, and because there have been images and miniatures of Kaius the Vampire… so while it was supposed to be a secret in the WORLD, most PLAYERS were aware of it. In describing this, the ECS says…

When the Last War was in full swing, Kaius I was approached by priests of the Blood of Vol. These priests promised to aid Karrnath against its enemies, provided Kaius agreed to a few minor considerations… First, the priests worked with Kaius’s own court wizards to perfect the process for creating zombie and skeleton troops to bolster Karrnath’s forces… Second, the priests provided an elite fighting force dedicated to both Vol and Kaius—the Order of the Emerald Claw.

That was in the ECS, the first Eberron book ever written. Over the course of fifteen years, the concept of the Blood of Vol, Erandis Vol, Lady Illmarrow, and the Order of the Emerald Claw all evolved. Lady Illmarrow is a spider who has agents spread among the Seekers—including priests and members of the Crimson Covenant—but the faith doesn’t serve her personally. Likewise, it has been established that the Order of the Emerald Claw was just ONE of the Seeker chivalric orders, but not the only one. So for a more detailed breakdown of the timeline as I personally run it…

  • Early in the war, plagues and famines wreak havoc in Karrnath. Priests of the Blood of Vol — possibly including Malevanor’s predecessor Askalor, or even a young and still living Malevanor — approach Kaius and propose an alliance between the Seekers and the crown, offering necromantic advancements and undead troops in exchange for elevating and celebrating the faith and developing the chivalric orders.
  • The Seekers celebrate this alliance and the common people grudgingly accept it. Over the course of decades, Seeker priests and necromancers work to find ways to enhance Karrnath’s military might through necromancy. This includes widespread use of common undead troops with their bone knight commanders, the development of the Seeker orders, and the perfection of the Odakyr Rites, creating the Karrnathi undead.
  • This continues until the Regent Moranna turns against the Blood of Vol, disbands the orders, and breaks ties between the faith and the crown. When Kaius III rises to power, he blames Karrnath’s troubles—including the plagues and famines that originally set the alliance in motion—on the Seekers, a populist strategy that salvages Karrnathi pride and seeks to solidify support behind Kaius; this is important because not all of the warlords support his desire for peace.

This all public-facing, well documented fact. What is NOT publicly known is what happened to Kaius I and the role of Lady Illmarrow. One of the intentional choices we made when writing Eberron Rising From The Last War was to leave the ultimate truth about this up to the DM. Specifically, Rising includes a newspaper article that says Maybe Kaius is a Vampire… Or maybe he isn’t! This is tied to an in-world conspiracy theory I personally subscribe to, but I’ll get back to that later. So the main point is that what I’m about to say isn’t a spoiler, because IT MAY NOT BE TRUE IN THE CAMPAIGN YOU ARE PLAYING IN, reader. But with the assumption that Kaius I is a vampire…

Long before the Last War, Lady Illmarrow worked to spread agents throughout the Seekers. She gained power over priests and even placed a number of her own loyal servants within the Crimson Covenant. While useful, this influence was limited by the fact that the Seekers had little political influence and no organized military; there was no equivalent to the Order of the Emerald Claw for her to use. As the Last War began, she used her influence with her Seeker agents to promote the idea of the alliance with the Crown. It’s worth noting that it is entirely possible that ILLMARROW is responsible for some of the plagues and famines, creating a situation where Kaius needed the alliance. Regardless of whether this is true, the priests who approached Kaius I largely did so in good faith, truly believing that their actions would benefit both their country and their faith—while Illmarrow’s loyalists made sure to include the idea of the Seeker chivalric orders. In the decades that followed, the elevation of the Seekers and their integration into the military served Illmarrow’s agenda in a number of different ways. Her agents within the Seekers gained more broad influence in the nation. She gained greater access to the Karrnathi military (remember, not all the members of the modern Emerald Claw are Seekers—many are just Karrnathi veterans and patriots!). She had access to the arcane resources of Karrnath to help her develop necromantic weapons. And with the development of the chivalric orders, she was able to build the core of a force that could serve as her personal strike force—the Order of the Emerald Claw.

Next, the ECS tells us this:

When Vol, the ancient lich at the heart of the Blood of Vol cult, appeared before Kaius to collect her “considerations” for the aid her priests provided him, he had no choice but to submit. In addition to allowing the cult to establish temples and bases throughout Karrnath, Vol demanded that Kaius partake in the Sacrament of Blood. Instead of the usual ceremony, Vol invoked an ancient incantation that turned Kaius into a vampire. Instead of becoming a compliant thrall, however, Kaius fought to keep his independence. Furious that the vampire refused to be humbled, Vol eventually forced the issue by triggering Kaius’s blood lust (something he had been struggling to control). When the crimson haze cleared, Kaius discovered that he had killed his beloved wife.

Even with the many changes over the years, in my campaign the basic idea of this is the same. As the price of the continued Seeker alliance—something Illmarrow could control through her agents—Kaius was forced to become a vampire. This should have made him a thrall forced to do Illmarrow’s bidding, but somehow he was able to resist her control… though not before killing his wife. We know that what happened next is that he went into hiding. There’s likely two reasons for this: the first being that the world wasn’t (and still isn’t) ready to put a vampire on the throne of Galifar, and the second being that whatever allowed him to resist Illmarrow’s control wasn’t reliable; he had to go into hiding until he found a way to protect himself from her influence. The ECS tells us “Now, after eighty years of hiding and secretly working to break all ties with the Blood of Vol, Kaius has returned to govern his nation. He has taken the place of his great grandson, pretending to be Kaius III.” Looking back to the public-facing facts, it is at this time that Karrnath breaks ties with the Seekers and disbands the chivalric orders. It’s up to you how far this goes; as I say above, in my campaign Kaius III is now using the faith as a straw man to build support. Regardless of whether you follow that path, Kaius III has taken an anti-Seeker stance and opposes Illmarrow, while Illmarrow has reformed the Order of the Emerald Claw as her personal army, including both original Seeker members and Karrnathi fanatics who believe she will return Karrnath to greatness (unlike peace-loving Kaius III).

The question that remains is who is Kaius III? It is possible that he’s Kaius I the vampire pretending to be Kaius III. I personally like the theory that he’s Kaius III pretending to be Kaius I pretending to be Kaius III—that the reason Illmarrow can’t control him is because he’s NOT really Kaius I, but rather Kaius I is remaining in hiding and working through K3 until they can find a way to break Illmarrow’s hold over him. This ties to the next question, which is assuming K1 is a vampire, what IS Illmarrow’s hold over him? The ECS account implies that Erandis used a ritual to turn K1 into a vampire. *I* prefer the idea that she turned him the old fashioned way—that one of her top vampire lieutenants sired Kaius, and that it is actually that lieutenant who can control Kaius, using the standard bond between sire and spawn. One of the main reasons I prefer this is because it means killing that vampire is the key to breaking Illmarrow’s hold over Kaius, and that’s a story adventurers could get involved in.

If you follow the original narrative in which Kaius I is a vampire who replaces Kaius III, what to you think he did in all the years between disappearing and becoming Kaius III? It is almost 100 years for a ex-king vampire probably with none or few allies.

First of all, I COMPLETELY disagree with the idea that Kaius I had “no or few allies.” He didn’t just run away. His disappearance would have been very carefully planned. To my knowledge the exact circumstances have never been described, but I expect that he faked his own death, used cosmetic transmutation to enact a long term disguise, and then went into hiding among a carefully established network of supporters. For the sake of absolute secrecy it’s quite likely that many of the people sheltering him didn’t know who he was, but they would know that he was a loyal servant of the former king. He would have retained contact with followers with influence in court, and in MY Eberron he was certainly continuing to manipulate events in Karrnath from hiding, offering guidance to generals and nobles who remained loyal to him and likely dealing with political rivals from the shadows. Ultimately, this culminated with his working closely with Moranna to plan the Regency and his return. Again, aside from Moranna many of the people he worked with may not have had known exactly who they were dealing with, but they certainly respected and valued his advice.

Beyond that, one of the most important things he was doing was learning everything he could about vampires. He was surely working to master his own abilities, but also to understand his weaknesses and particularly to understand the methods Illmarrow could use to control him and what he could do to block them. In this, I expect that he was working closely with Seekers. Remember that Kaius has been called out as having a loyal cabal of Seeker followers who, among other things, provide him with blood. Part of the idea is that even though Kaius PUBLICLY denounces the Seekers—because it’s politically expedient to do so—he maintains ties with a devoted sect OF Seekers. Why would they follow him? Because they recognize that Illmarrow holds a poisonous influence within their faith and that Kaius opposes her—they believe that in the long term, Kaius WILL help the Seekers. Time will tell if they are correct.

But to the short form, I believe that the vampire Kaius I was always pursuing his return, which required him to learn more about the nature of vampires and to manipulate events from the shadows. He built alliances, destroyed enemies, and studied the nature of the undead.

WHY DOES THIS MATTER?

All this may be fun for folks who like quibbling over inconsistencies in canon sources, but as a DM or player, why does any of this matter to you? Here’s the key breakdown.

  • The Order of the Emerald Claw is a force that is directly loyal to Lady Illmarrow. Its forces include Seekers with elite military training—bone knights, battlefield necromancers—as well as Karrnathi veterans who aren’t Seekers but who are fanatically devoted to Illmarrow.
  • While there are still necromantic forces integrated into the Karrnathi military—non-Seeker Karrns learned necromancy during the time of the alliance—a significant portion of this strength was lost when the crown broke ties with the Seekers. The bulk of the Karrnathi undead were sealed in subterranean vaults, and some of the warlords are afraid that they cannot be trusted.
  • As a Karrnathi Seeker, you may have to deal with hatred from your own people, who have been encouraged to blame the Seekers for all of Karrnath’s woes. Some Seekers are angry about this and have turned against the Crown, and it’s many of these Seekers who support the Emerald Claw. However, other Seekers are still devoted to Karrnath and trust that this time will pass.
  • Kaius III opposes Lady Illmarrow and the Emerald Claw. It may be that Kaius is a vampire who has found a way to resist her control; that he isn’t a vampire at all; or that he is actively carrying out a plan to break her power (IE destroying his sire). Illmarrow seeks to undermine Kaius; her loyalists in the Emerald Claw accuse him of being weak, of robbing Karrnath of its rightful victory by pursuing peace, and so on.
  • It also ties to the most basic question of whether Kaius is a potential ally or whether he’s a dangerous enemy. If adventurers oppose Lady Illmarrow, Kaius could be a powerful friend. On the other hand, while he may want a peaceful solution, in my opinion Kaius still wants to rule Galifar; remember that if he is the vampire Kaius I, he’s one of the five rulers who STARTED the Last War. I believe that he pursues peace because he doesn’t feel Karrnath can win and reunite Galifar through force, at least for now. But in my opinion he is a ruthless man and a brilliant strategist who has been scheming for a year. He may be the enemy of your enemy if you’re opposing Illmarrow, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have sinister plans of his own… it’s just that where Aurala is willing to restart the Last War, I think Kaius is searching for a different path to the throne of Galifar.

As a Karrnathi Seeker player character, an important question is whether you are angry at Kaius III for turning on your faith (and if so, if you actually have a positive opinion of the Order of the Emerald Claw); whether you simply have no opinion; or whether you are actually loyal to your king in spite of this betrayal. If you choose the latter approach, one option is that you are actually part of the king’s inner circle (even if only at the lowest level)—that you are sworn to help him find a way to break Lady Illmarrow’s poisonous influence within the faith.

As an example of this: In a campaign I ran, a player created a paladin of the Blood of Vol. His backstory was that his parents were members of a Seeker chivalric order and were killed when Moranna turned on the faith. As a child, the PC was taken in and raised by Lady Illmarrow, taught to harness his powers and led to believe that Kaius III betrayed his faith and was responsible for the death of his parents. As a PC, his initial arc was to build his power and gain allies to help him bring down Kaius III. That was the PC’s goal, but what the PLAYER knew from the start was that his character was a dupe and that Kaius III wasn’t truly guilty. His whole idea was that, assuming he succeeded in killed Kaius, it would through Karrnath into chaos and the PC would realize Illmarrow had lied—that the SECOND arc of his story would be undoing the damage he’d done and bring down Lady Illmarrow. We never actually reached that second arc in the campaign, but I appreciated the idea—that he KNEW his character’s goal was something foolish that would have disastrous consequences, but that his long-term character arc would be cleaning up that mess. And in this story you can see something I talked about in the previous article—that it may be that any number of Illmarrow’s agents serve her because they believe she has the best interests of the Seekers or of Karrnath at heart, and that if they discover absolute proof that this is not the case, they could turn against her.

You used to talk about Erandis Vol as quite a sympathetic character, murdered and robbed of her birthright while still a teenager, but your presentation of “Lady Illmarrow” is quite different; she seems more unambiguously evil.

There’s a few important elements here. From the very beginning Erandis Vol was intended to be one of the major antagonists of the setting. Eberron draws on Pulp and Noir themes, and Erandis and the Emerald Claw were always intended to weigh on the pulp side of that spectrum. They’re the Nazis in an Indiana Jones movie, Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon, COBRA in GI Joe. What I’ve always said is that the Emerald Claw are the villains adventurers can always feel good about opposing: you never need to stop and say “I wonder if we should actually let the Nazis have the Ark of the Covenant” or “Maybe COBRA has some good points.” The SEEKERS have a far greater degree of moral complexity and depth of story, and SEEKERS can be allies or enemies. But Erandis and the Emerald Claw are supposed to be some of the most reliable, straightforward villains you can encounter in the world.

Having said that: I see Erandis as a TRAGIC character, and I always have. I LIKE villains to have depth and motivations we can understand. Erandis has endured horrors and carries an enormous burden. I can understand why she commits atrocities. But the key point there is that she commits atrocities. We may feel sympathy for her loss, we may understand her drive to reclaim her birthright, but the simple fact is that she will destroy nations and slaughter countless innocents in pursuit of that goal. She’s a tragic villain, but the key word there is VILLAIN.

The second important point here is that the people who work for her DON’T KNOW HER TRAGEDY. And that’s what underlies this question and WHY we introduced the identity of Lady Illmarrow. Erandis Vol is the woman murdered as an adolescent, who saw her entire bloodline unjustly eradicated because of a mark she bears on her skin but cannot use, who cannot even choose oblivion but is bound to an eternity to contemplate her failings and the stolen legacy of her line. It is Erandis who must hide her name and nature lest the forces that eradicated everyone she cares about come after her again. She CAN’T share her burden. She can’t even declare her name with pride lest she bring down ruin on all she has accomplished. And thus, she created Lady Illmarrow, a Grim Lord who has risen to power among the Bloodsails entirely on her own merits, unburdened by ancient tragedy. Lady Illmarrow is infamous not for the deeds of her family, but for her own deeds and power. She is respected and feared by her minions, even those who have no knowledge of her true past and potential.

It could well be that Erandis uses Illmarrow to channel her darkest impulses and to be the ruthless tyrant she needs to be to achieve her destiny, while Erandis remains the murdered adolescent still mourning her family. She’s been alive for thousands of years and has suffered through immense tragedy; it could well be that Illmarrow is in some ways an independent persona, that the mask Erandis created has taken on a life of its own and in this way allows the core of Erandis to retain some innocence. However, the ultimate point is that whether she’s Erandis or Illmarrow, she is a dangerous villain who will break the world if it allows her to achieve her goals.

If Erandis Vol wants to die (“she cannot choose oblivion”) why doesn’t she just reveal her presence to the Deathguard and let them destroy her?

First of all, just because Erandis may hate her existence doesn’t mean that she wants the DEATHGUARD to end it. The Undying Court destroyed her entire bloodline and she is all that’s left of their legacy. If she was to be destroyed without mastering her mark, all of that would be for nothing. And she will NOT allow the Undying Court to win this struggle.

Second: the Deathguard can’t destroy her. Since Rising From The Last War, it is canon that the elocation of Erandis’s phylactery is unknown; if her body is destroyed, she will reform in a random location hundreds of miles away. So the Deathguard can’t grant her oblivion. What it CAN do is slaughter all her allies, steal or destroy all the relics she’s gathered, and ruin all the plans she’s carefully built up over centuries. The danger they pose isn’t to her personally, but rather to everything she has managed to accomplish. Imagine you’d spent 800 years building up a plan; would you want a bunch of $&%* paladins to suddenly drop in, destroy everything, and leave you in a new body hundreds of miles away having to spend centuries to rebuild everything you’ve lost?

I’ve written a number of articles that are quite relevant to this topic, so for people who HAVEN’T been reading this blog for years, here’s a few you might want to check out.

Dragonmark: The Blood of Vol

IFAQ: The Crimson Covenant

IFAQ: Malevanor

IFAQ: Mummies and the Blood of Vol

Erandis: Hot or Not?

That’s all for now. Thanks to my Patreon supporters for making these articles possible!

IFAQ: Blood of Vol, Malevenor, and Tairnadal Burial!

It’s been a very busy month, but as time permits I like to answer short questions posed by my Patreon supporters. Here’s a few questions related to the Blood of Vol, the mummy priest Malevanor, and the burial customs of the Tairnadal elves.

Malevanor—the Blood of Vol’s high priest of Atur—seems to have genuine faith and sits between Erandis, the Crimson Covenant, and the Seeker community. What makes him tick? Is he good, bad, or in between?

In life, Hass Malevanor was a Seeker priest and student of necromancy. A Karrnathi patriot, he devoted his life to helping to develop superior combat applications of necromancy. Along with Gyrnar Shult, Malevanor played a key role in the development of the Odakyr Rites—the rituals used to create Karrnathi Undead. The basic principles of the Blood of Vol maintain that the universe is cruel and that we must stand together; Hass fought for the good of both his people and his nation. Exploring Eberron says “The former high priest of Atur was the mummy Askalor, who held the post for over four hundred years—but he was weary of his long undead existence. When Malevanor was grievously injured during the Last War, Askalor transferred his power and his undead existence to his apprentice.” This ties to the point that Seeker undead—especially the Oathbound—are expected to guide and protect the living. As both High Priest and Oathbound, this is the role Malevanor sees for himself. It is his duty to guide and protect living Seekers. As an Oathbound, he can never truly find the Divinity Within—but he can help the living Seekers and seek to find and aid those who may yet be the greatest living champions of the faith.

I personally believe that Hass is still a patriot who loves the idea of Karrnath, but it’s also the case that Karrnath has betrayed him and his people. He will always put the good of the Seekers above all else—but if he CAN help Karrnath along the way, he will.

So in Kanon, what’s his relationship with Lady Illmarrow?

I think that Malevanor believes Illmarrow is dangerous and that he questions her devotion to the faith, but he also realizes her POWER, and both a) doesn’t want to have her as an enemy and b) wants to see that power used for the good of his people. So he’s trying to maintain an alliance with Illmarrow, but it’s an uneasy relationship. Ultimately, he is OATHBOUND. I believe that his oaths are just what it says on the tin: that he is bound to protect the Seekers, help them find the Divinity Within, and to maintain and protect Atur. Which is an interesting contrast with the lich Illmarrow. I don’t think Malevanor COULD betray the faith for his own personal gain, because the oaths that sustain his undead existence are predicated on doing his duties as high priest and protecting his people.

Could Malevanor be a warlock patron (say, Undead or Undying)?

Sure, Malevanor could definitely be a warlock patron for a Seeker warlock. I’d love to do a campaign with a PC Seeker warlock who’s essentially Malevanor’s undercover agent working against Illmarrow. The main thing I’d emphasize in this case is that it’s not that Malevanor is giving the warlock powers, it’s that the warlock’s powers come from their own Divinity Within and that maelvanor is just helping them to unlock those powers. Because that is literally what he’s supposed to do: help Seekers harness the power of the Divinity Within.

In most of the Five Nations, the Blood of Vol is a series of independent covert cults without any clear connection or hierarchy between them. How does the Crimson Covenant or Lady Illmarrow find or get in contact with these cults? Or does Illmarrow mainly rely on the Order of the Emerald Claw?

Exploring Eberron has this to say:

The (Blood of Vol) isn’t as formally structured as the Church of the Silver Flame or even the Sovereign Host. For the most part, Seekers keep to themselves, living in their own villages and small towns or in isolated neighborhoods of larger communities, where they can practice their traditions without drawing the ire of their neighbors… Outside Atur, for the most part, each Seeker community relies on their abactor—the priest that oversees a temple or community—and they rarely reach out to the world beyond. The largest temple in a region serves as a hub, coordinating with the other Seeker communities around it.

With that in mind, the important thing to understand is that the Blood of Vol is a religion that Seekers follow because it helps them make sense of their lives, providing meaning and strengthening their community. Most Seekers don’t know who Lady Illmarrow is and don’t have any interest in helping her with her grand schemes. Illmarrow has agents scattered throughout the faithful who do support her—from agents in the Crimson Covenant down through hub temples or villages—and these specific agents may provide support to her schemes. But OVERALL Illmarrow doesn’t control the faith and most Seekers don’t serve her purposes; some actively despise and oppose the Order of the Emerald Claw. Meanwhile, the members of the Order are Illmarrow’s active agents; some are extremist Seekers, while others—including Illmarrow herself—aren’t Seekers at all.

So: Illmarrow’s active agents are almost entirely in the Emerald Claw. Agents of the Emerald Claw may be able to get support from a local Seeker community but that is not at all a sure thing; it will depend in Illmarrow has supporters or sympathizers within that specific community.

Meanwhile, the Crimson Covenant is something that even Seekers generally know of only as a rumor. One thing I’ve suggested is that when a Seeker priest uses commune, they could actually get their answers from the Covenant. For more on the Crimson Covenant, refer to this article.

I like the idea of the Crimson Covenant being influenced by Lady Illmarrow, but not under her full control. But how could adventurers free it over her influence without having to destroy the mummies and liches that are loyal to her?

This depends entirely on how you decide to present the members of the Crimson Covenant who are loyal to Illmarrow. WHY are they loyal to her? It could be that Illmarrow is deceiving them, and that if adventurers can expose the truth these members of the Covenant will turn against her. Or it could be that these members of the Covenant are themselves merely hungry for power and not concerned with the good of the Seekers; if adventurers could prove this to the other members of the Covenant, then the truly faithful might clean house.

The Blood of Vol is a religion that values basically faith in your inner self. It seems there would not be much of value to Seeker cleric besides their own life (and maybe life of others). What would a BoV cleric refer to as “sacred”? Does this notion even apply to the Blood of Vol?

Looking up “Sacred”, I found this definition: connected with God (or the gods) or dedicated to a religious purpose and so deserving veneration. So with this in mind, what does a Seeker priest consider to be sacred?

  • Life. First and foremost, the Blood of Vol is based on the idea that mortals possess a spark of divinity within. We ARE the gods we venerate—or at least, we have the potential to be.
  • Blood. More specifically, the Seekers consider blood to be the channel of the Divinity WIthin.
  • Survival. This one’s a little more abstract and not shared by all sects, but the general idea is that death is unnatural—that mortality is a curse invented to prevent us from unlocking the Divinity Within. With this in mind, fighting death is a sacred activity. Don’t give up, and do all you can to protect the people you love.

One of the central rituals of the Blood of Vol is the communal sharing of blood as a way of establishing the bond between a community. What we have called out is that while Seekers believe that life is sacred and death is a tragedy, they recognize that you can’t save everyone and their focus is on protecting their own communities and people. Any death is a tragedy, but if bandits attacks your village, you need to put your OWN survival ahead of those who are trying to kill you and the people you care about. But I could very well see some Seekers who actively try not to kill their enemies, believing that any death is a loss.

Though again: There are many sects in the Blood of Vol. The Thieves of Life largely care only about their OWN lives and Divinity Within, and are all too happy to sacrifice others in pursuit of their own ascension.

And now for something completely different…

How do the Tairnadal/Valenar elves bury their dead? Especially when they’re in the field or engaged in battle?

So: The Tairnadal are a nomadic culture. They are essentially always engaged in battle and on the move, and generally don’t place a lot of importance on physical monuments. Likewise, they don’t place much importance on corpses. They’re concerned with the SPIRIT, believing that the spirit can live on through devoted followers. For revenant blades of Cardaen, Cardaen’s spirit is with them at all times; it doesn’t matter where his bones are.

Having said that: we’ve talked about revenants who treasure relics of their patron ancestors. Notably, the Player’s Guide to Eberron talks about the zaelshin tu:

Every Valenar warrior reveres his ancestors and carries a zaelshin amulet bearing the sigil of his patron ancestor with him at all times. With a zaelshin tu, you do more than that: You carry a physical relic of your patron ancestor—a tooth or sliver of bone brought from Xen’drik to Aerenal and encased in your zaelshin amulet.

The two noteworthy points here are that champions carry a piece of their patron—so again, not burying them in some grand tomb—and that these are described as teeth or slivers of bone; we’ve never described them as using, say, bonecraft armor.

With this in mind, I think that the common Tairnadal practice is to burn the dead, and then to collect ashes, teeth, and slivers of bone that survive the fire, which would be carried by other members of the fallen elf’s warband and possibly passed on to the Keepers of the Past. You don’t want to leave something behind an enemy could desecrate, and all you need is a sliver that can help serve as a beacon to their spirit.

That’s all for now! Thank you to my Patreon supporters for their questions and support!

IFAQ: Thrane Fashion

Art by Bad Moon for Frontiers of Eberron: Threshold

As time permits, I answer interesting questions posed by my Patreon supporters. Here’s another:

The Thrane fashion section is missing from Five Nations—any general ideas on how citizens of Thrane might dress distinctly differently from the other Five Nations?

In thinking of Thrane, it’s useful to contrast the forces shaping it to those that shaped its neighbors. Aundair has the widest penetration of everyday arcane magic and is also shaped by long-term interaction with the Fey. This leads to fashions that are wild and whimsical, to widespread glamerweave, cosmetic prestidigitation, and a general love of flamboyance and flair. On the other side, Karrnath has the harshest climate and the most martial culture. When it embraces fashion, it tends toward a gothic approach that is both grim and intentionally intimidating; the strong seek to SHOW their strength, and you see a definite martial element across general fashion. So with that said…

Faith is the cornerstone of Thrane. This predates both the Church of the Silver Flame and Thrane itself; before Galifar, the people of Daskara were devoted to the Sovereign Host. Divine magic is as important to Thrane as arcane magic is to Aundair, but that power comes from deep faith. I have always seen the typical Thrane as more humble and stoic than their counterparts in the other nations. A key element of the faith of the Silver Flame is the idea that we face a constant, shared threat—that people should be prepared to face supernatural evil and to protect themselves and their neighbors. We’ve called out that shared devotion—and practices like group archery—are key elements of daily life for the common Thrane. I see Thrane fashion as reflecting all of these things. They don’t seek to intimidate their rivals or to celebrate their martial prowess, as you see in Karrnath; and they don’t seek to shine the brightest or to dazzle their peers, as happens in Aundair. More than anything, Thrane fashion is SIMPLE and FUNCTIONAL.

Blue and silver are colors associated with the faith, and both of these colors are thus commonly seen throughout the populace. Now, it’s not that people don’t take pride in their appearance—but they aren’t especially driven by a desire to shine brighter than their neighbors; what is vital is to wear clothing that is PRACTICAL. More than any other nation, the people of Thrane know that dolgrims could burst out of the ground or ghouls could swarm out of the graveyard at any moment; so as a Thrane, you’re always thinking “Am I wearing something that would be practical in a zombie apocalypse?”

On a more specific level, I think that long coats and dusters are common in Thrane: simple, durable, versatile when it comes to weather. The same concept goes to boots and hats; in Thrane, a hat is designed to protect you from the sun and rain; in Aundair, a hat exists to make a STATEMENT, and its functionality is a secondary bonus.

This means that at a glance, Thranes have significant uniformity—similar colors, similar overall design of clothing. But it’s not a UNIFORM. And likewise, where an Aundairian will use Mending to repair damage and likely throw out (or recycle) clothing that is out of style, Thranes will wear their clothes to the bitter end and repair them by hand. They aren’t embarrassed to have clothing with patches or a cloak that’s clearly using a piece of another cloak. So while there’s a common overall style, there’s also a significant degree of tiny, unique details, as clothes evolve over time. I could also definitely imagine a patchwork aspect to clothing, almost like a quilt—where people specifically patch their clothes with pieces of cloth that have particular significance to them—heirlooms from family members, a strip from of the cloak of a heroic templar.

We can see some aspects of this reflected in Epitaph, the Thrane missionary pictured above. Epitaph is a priest, so there is a little flair to her outfit; I’d argue that her flowing sleeves are tied to a tendency to make sweeping gestures while preaching. But compared to Aundairian fashion, it’s a fairly SIMPLE outfit. There’s no glamerweave, no decorative embroidery, no jewelry, She’s wearing practical footwear. Her most prominent accessory is the symbol of her faith, as befits a missionary. Her clothing serves its purpose. Now, she doesn’t have the “patchwork” aspect I suggested above, but that’s not surprising for a missionary, who represents the Church; but the common templar isn’t embarrassed to wear a patched cloak, or their father’s long coat modified to fit their frame.

Is there a specific style of glamerweave that does incorporate silver, similar to how silverburn alters the colors of mundane fires?

The fashion potential of glamerweave is effectively limitless; it’s illusion imbued into cloth. The Church of the Silver Flame has a small but significant following in Aundair, and yes, I believe that Aundairian priests will often have burning lines of Sliver Flame traced on their robes. In my mind, Archbishoip Dariznu of Thaliost may take things even farther; I could imagine him in a silver cloak that appears to be trimmed in actual silver flames.

Does the sentiment of reducing waste and reusing things extend to food too, does Thrane have dishes equivalent to jok/congee, horchata or cod cakes, where the food can be prepared from leftover prepared food (examples far from exhaustive)?

Yes. Again, a good way to think of Thrane is We’re always prepared for a zombie apocalypse. So you’re definitely looking for ways to recycle waste and to get the most out of the supplies you have. In some ways, this is an interesting contrast to Karrnath, which we’ve always called out as the most martial by culture. Karrnath is proud of its martial heritage and has mandatory military service. But the people of Thrane are essentially SURVIVALISTS, always training to be prepared for the threats they know are out there. This ties to the point that local militias are a major part of Thrane’s military; it’s not as FORMAL as the armies of Karrnath, but again, most Thranes have drilled with the bow since childhood. And, of course, prior to the Last War the templars of Thrane often saw more active combat than many of the soldiers of Galifar; the Silver Crusade was certainly the most dramatic conflict in the century leading up to the Last War.

That’s all for now! Thanks to my Patreon supporters for making these articles possible.

IFAQ: Education, Overlords, and More!

Art by Bad Moon for Frontiers of Eberron

The latest episode of Threshold has been posted on my Patreon for Threshold patrons! In this episode, the crew spends the day at the feast of Bounty’s Blessing. In addition, young Tari meets the Silver Flame missionary Epitaph, pictured above; Epitaph and this art will be seen in the upcoming Frontiers of Eberron!

In the meantime: Each month, I ask my Patreon patrons to submit questions. Sometimes these form the basis of articles, but there’s often questions that are interesting but have short answers. As I’m getting read to do a new call for questions, I wanted to post a lightning round with some of the questions patrons asked in May.

Do the Overlords, and their envoys in the Lords of Dust, have any form of a non-aggression pact towards one another, or is it just a free-for-all should the machinations of one come into conflict with another?

This is addressed in this article. A critical line: “The Overlords weren’t allies and had no interest in cooperation. When the domains of two overlords overlapped they would clash, and many took great joy in these conflicts.”

To begin with, don’t just think of the overlords as powerful rakshasa. They engage with reality on a fundamentally different level than their lesser minions. Overlords are primordial forces that shape reality around them sheerly by existing. In a real way, you can think of overlords as kaiju, like Kong or Godzilla. Mortal lives and cities are utterly insignificant to them and they will sweep them aside without even noticing. Rak Tulkhesh spreads rage and war. He doesn’t meticulously plan out the details of these actions because he doesn’t have to; if he is unleashed in his full power, everyone within his sphere of influence will be consumed by bloodlust and a hunger for conflict. Now, with this in mind, one can ask: could Kong and Godzilla have a non-aggression pact? Well, they certainly might team up in a particular encounter in order to defeat Monster Zero. But it’s not like they’re WRITING SOMETHING DOWN. and the next time they meet, Kong might decide to kick Godzilla’s @$$.

However, THE LORDS OF DUST are a completely different story. They are servants of the overlords and seek to return reality to a state of primordial chaos, but THEY engage with the world on a far smaller scale. Rak Tulkhesh will just sweep over a nation and cause it to collapse into savage warfare, because that’s the power he wields. But MORDAKHESH doesn’t have that power, and HE has to manipulate newspapers and subvert generals and make long term plans. And with that in mind, the PURPOSE of the Lords of Dust and the Bleak Council of Ashtakala IS to facilitate cooperation and communication between the servants of the different overlords in order to prevent unnecessary conflicts. So if Mordakhesh and Hektula find that they both have plans for a particular group of adventurers, they will meet in Ashtakala and try to work something out. And in general, they do manage to avoid unnecessary conflict with one another. But the key word there is “unnecessary”; they will almost always put the interests of their overlord ahead of the interests of the Lords of Dust as a whole… which is a weakness that can potentially be exploited.

How does public education actually work in Khorvaire? Who receives free education? Is it any different in, say, Sharn, particularly the lower wards?

The educational system of the Five Nations is described on page 132 of the Eberron Campaign Setting: “Throughout the Five Nations (or at least what’s left of them), formal schooling is considered a right and a necessary part of every child’s training. Rural manors maintain schools for the sons and daughters of the peasants and laborers. Private tutors provide an education for the children of royal and economic nobility. In towns and cities, schools cater to all who wish to attend. In no case is education mandatory; however, most people understand the advantages offered to them by the remnants of the Galifar education system. Higher education and study is available at a number of colleges and universities, as well as among the religious institutions.” So while they’ve never been specifically mentioned, we can assume that there are public schools in Sharn. With that said, I think it’s reasonable to assume that this system faces the challenges of any public schooling system, and that there are regions — such as the lower wards of Sharn — where schools will be understaffed and underfunded. It’s also important to note that the ECS specifies that education is offered but never mandatory. Nonetheless, the Five Nations do have a reasonably effective public education system… which is why it’s taken for granted that the average person in the Five Nations speaks Common and is literate.

How does Morgrave university works in terms of recruiting new students? How much it can cost per year? Or is it the talent that forms entry barrier, not the money – can they have some sort of research for especially talented young people and offer them free tuition? For example, is it possible that some people from Morgrave notice poor urchin kid on the street and take him in because he is a talented sorcerer and seems like promising/useful student and/or magic user?

Here’s a relevant comment from Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron:

As a Morgrave student, you’re not an adventurer yet. You’ve got talent, but you’re learning. Consider how your background ties into this. As a noble, are you an entitled rich kid who thinks you’re better than everyone else? As an urchin, did you somehow earn a scholarship, or are you literally sneaking into your classes? As a criminal, you could be the daughter of a Boromar crime boss, or you might be an entrepreneur selling dreamlily to the nobles. A charlatan could be a brilliant drama student or an undercover spy trying to root out enemy agents in the faculty. If you’re an entertainer you might be a prodigy whose talent is only just emerging. A Morgrave story is about coming of age and unlocking your potential. So think about your background as a way to set up the person you’re becoming, as opposed to representing adventures that you’ve already had.

The point here is that I would make the price the price of plot. D&D economics are extremely nebulous, in order to calculate a REALISTIC tuition I’d have to sit down and concretely establish the actual incomes of the different social classes of Khorvaire, which frankly I don’t have the time to do. Hence the suggestion to use backgrounds above. If you want the characters to be students at Morgrave, then they ARE students at Morgrave. If a character’s a noble, then their family is paying their tuition. If they’re an urchin, either they have a scholarship or they are sneaking into classes. The point is, the character is going to Morgrave; I’ll use their story to decide exactly how.

The only time I would want to set a concrete tuition was if it was an important plot point that the character has to RAISE that tuition over the course of their adventures, following the model of The Name of the Wind — but note that in the Kingkiller Chronicles, THE TUITION IS DIFFERENT FOR EVERYONE, which again allows the author to set the tuition at the rate that makes it most interesting for the story. 10 gp could be an insurmountable obstacle to a 1st level character and completely trivial for a 4th level character; so a system that bases the tuition off of what you want it to be for THIS story is going to be more useful than me arbitrarily setting a cost that could be too high or too low for the story you want to tell.

What are the towns inside the Towering Wood like? We know about Greenheart and the feyspire Shae Loralyndar, but are there others? Who lives there, and how are they different than the ones in the western Reaches?

There are very few traditional “towns” in the Towering Wood; the 3.5 ECS notes that “In the great wood, the druid sects and shifters typically live in small communities that are roughly equivalent to thorps and hamlets.” Essentially, these are communities that will be tied around an extended family and live off the land; whenever population grows to a level that strains local resources, a group will split off and start a new home in unclaimed territory. The Towering Woods are vast and population density is extremely low, so there’s no shortage of space. Towering communities employ primal techniques instead of arcane or mundane industry, so you will often find homes that are embedded into living trees or that are made of stone that has been shaped by hand. Envoys—often druidic initiates—travel between family estates, sharing news and needed supplies. Shae Loralyndar is an unusual exception, and there are a handful of satellite elven/Greensinger villages around it, but those represent a distinct culture that’s different from the mainstream—just as there are nomadic shifter tribes that have traditions that are entirely different from the settled folk.

What does prophetic significance look like? Is dragonmark graffiti’d on the wall of a ruined building prophetically significant? How do the Chamber and Lords of Dust recognize this significance?

This could definitely be the subject of a longer article, but in brief: what’s been said about the Prophecy is that it takes many forms and involves more than one element at a time. IE it can be crop circles; fissures formed by an earthquake; graffiti on a wall; an unusual pattern of bloodstains. But this is COMBINED with a particular planar or lunar conjunction, a spike in magical energies, the presence of three dragonmarked people, etc. This is part of why it’s generally only creatures with vast lifespans and enormous resources that are able to interpret it. That graffiti on the wall MIGHT be significant, but unless you’ve been studying the Prophecy for a thousand years (or you’re, say, a cleric of the Prophecy with divine insight) you don’t have the context to fully interpret it.

Can Aberrant Dragonmarks appear on Warforged?

Yes. It’s an extremely bizarre thing that will be seen as a curiosity and draw interest from certain scholars, but it is possible.

That’s all for now! Thanks again for my Patreon supporters for asking interesting questions and for making these articles possible.

What’s going on in Threshold?

Art by Carolina Cesario

It’s the 14th of Lharvion, and it’s too damn hot. Today is Bounty’s Blessing, the feast of Arawai; there’s a farmer’s market in the square, and a baking competition to see if anyone can make something palatable using “sand fruit”, a local succulent that is anything but succulent. In the cliffs above town, a group of adventurers have found ruins filled with petrified goblins, a dead but perfectly preserved Gatekeeper, and an altar dedicated to the mysterious Still Lord. Who is the Still Lord? Are their cultists hidden in Threshold? And can anyone actually make a satisfying sand fruit fritter?

I’m currently working on Frontiers of Eberron: Threshold, a sourcebook that explores the region between Breland and Droaam; I discuss it further in this interview. In Threshold, there’s a party of gnolls loitering at the Gold Dragon Inn while they wait for the lightning rail. Three-Widow Jane’s facing Rusty in a showdown at high noon. But there’s powers at work that overshadow such mundane concerns. Who is the Still Lord? What is the secret history of the region, and how does it threaten the future?

Frontiers of Eberron: Threshold is going to be a large book—comparable to Exploring Eberron—and won’t be out until later this year. I’m enjoying the chance to take a deeper dive into a piece of the setting, a region that’s not as well known as Sharn or Stormreach; I also love any chance to work with Droaam, as the nation of monsters is one of my favorite pieces of Eberron. While the book itself won’t be out for months to come, I’m currently running a campaign set in Threshold online—and my Patreon supporters have an opportunity to watch the campaign and potentially, to play in it. My Patreon has a Threshold tier. In addition to the Inner Circle benefits, this grants the following things.

  • Threshold patrons have access to all previous sessions of the campaign.
  • I run one session each month. The characters and the stories are persistent, but the players change each month and are drawn from the patrons. Patreon doesn’t allow me to select players randomly, but each session I post a creative challenge—challenging would-be players to add a detail to a character or to the town—and the winners play in the upcoming session. i change the recording time with each session so that sooner or later people will have a chance to play regardless of their time zone.
  • Patrons can participate in polls that help establish details about the characters, the story, and the town—so even if you don’t get a chance to play, you have an opportunity to shape the story. The ten player characters used in the campaign were developed through a series of these polls.
  • Patrons have access to the Threshold channels on the Eberron Discord server, and I drop by when I can to talk about the campaign and all things Eberron. Currently I’m trying an experiment: an ongoing story running in a Threshold channel, where Patrons can choose the path that events take.

Collaborative storytelling is my favorite aspect of TTRPGs. While I there’s only a few seats at the table in each session, this experiment allows me to collaborate with patrons even if they don’t get to roll dice in the session. I enjoy the characters we’ve created and it’s fun to see how different players interpret those characters—and it’s always fun for me to meet new people. So I can’t promise that you’ll get to play at the table if you become a Threshold patron, but you will have an opportunity to affect the story and to see the sessions (which currently aren’t available to the public), and you just might end up at the table! The next episode will be recorded on Friday, May 28th and the casting challenge is open until noon Pacific time on Tuesday the 25th.

Post any questions about Frontiers of Eberron or Threshold below! Otherwise, you can find more information at my Patreon. And the

Dragonmarks: Familiars, Homunculi, and Animal Companions

A wizard walks into a tavern with a raven on his wrist. A Cannith heir is close behind, followed by her gleaming steel defender. The Eldeen ranger is waiting for them, with his wolf curled up under the table.

All three of these are plausible player characters in an Eberron campaign. But how do these things—familiars, animal companions, homunculi—fit into the world? How do people react to them, and what do people know about them? Would any of them actually be allowed in a tavern, and would a typical person actually be able to tell the difference between a familiar and an animal companion?

Familiars, homunculi, and animal companions play different roles in the game and in the world, and I want to explore each one of them. But to begin with, let’s answer the quick questions. In the Five Nations…

  • Familiars are most common in Aundair and (previously) Cyre, but they have been employed throughout the Five Nations for centuries. They are also found in Zilargo and the Eldeen Reaches.
  • Even beyond these four areas, people are familiar with the basic idea of familiars and most people know at least some of the following facts: Familiars can communicate with their companion; their companion can see through their eyes; familiars can potentially channel touch spells; they can be easily dismissed and resummoned; they can be resummoned if killed.
  • People generally assume that familiars are extensions of a spellcaster (discussed in more detail later in this article) and don’t consider them fully independent beings. Along with homunculi, they are seen as tools. In the eyes of the law, a character is responsible for the actions of their familiar/companion/homunculus, and you can’t get away with murder by casting the killing spell through your familiar.
  • While most people can’t tell the difference between a familiar and an animal companion, most know that familiars are usually limited to tiny forms. The common assumption is that a tiny animal companion is a familiar, and a small or larger animal companion is a beast.
  • If an establishment allows patrons to carry weapons, it will generally allow well-behaved familiars, homunculi, or animal companions, unless the creature seems especially unsanitary or aggressive. In part, this is a metagame conceit: we are still playing a game, and the Beast Master ranger or Battlesmith artificer shouldn’t be crippled every time the adventurers go indoors. But it also ties to the idea that people recognize these things as tools. So in my opinion, any place that will allow the barbarian to carry his greataxe will allow the battlesmith to bring her steel defender… And conversely, a fine restaurant like the Oaks in Sharn isn’t going to let you bring your axe or your steel defender to your table.
  • Most people know that a spellcaster can spy through the eyes of a familiar, just as they know that someone with the spell beast sense (druid, ranger, Vadalis heir) can see through the eyes of a mundane animal. People don’t assume that every rat is a spy, but they know it’s a POSSIBILITY… so tiny animals showing up in highly secured areas or behaving in a clearly unnatural manner may be dealt with as if they’re spies.
  • In major cities with a significant population of magewrights or arcane universities, you may find businesses that cater to characters with familiars—the bring-your-own-sassy-magical-cat cafe.
  • While most people assume familiars are extensions, they also recognize traditional imps and quasits as fiends. Having a quasit as a familiar isn’t ILLEGAL, but it definitely makes a statement; even if you’re not actively associating with fiends, you’re choosing one to represent you. Some people will see that as cool and edgy, some people will see it as a sign that you’re a scumbag, and some people will see it as pretentious— “LOOK AT ME! I CONSORT WITH DEEEEEMONS!” It will definitely be noticed, and it’s up to the DM to decide how people will react. But again, people see familiars as tools, so they aren’t going to burn you just for having an imp; but it’s similar to whether your fighter has a greatsword of plain steel or whether he’s carrying a rune-carved sword that moans softly. You can’t get arrested for it, but people will make judgements because of it.

So key takeaways: People are familiar with the idea of familiars and homunculi. They largely see them as tools and will treat them accordingly. If a tiny animal behaves in an unusual manner, people may assume that it’s a familiar or otherwise being manipulated by magic. With those general things settled, let’s take a quick look at the differences between these three categories of companion…

FAMILIARS

Mechanically, familiars have a common foundation—the find familiar spell. Warlocks, wizards, and druids all acquire their familiars by using this spell, and this establishes the core rules that all familiars follow—shared senses, telepathic communication, can be dismissed and resummoned, and so on. But while this provides a concrete baseline for the mechanics of a familiar, from a story perspective the familiars of a wizard, a warlock, and a druid may be very different. While this isn’t an exhaustive list, here’s three important categories of familiar.

Extensions

The most common form of familiar—the form used by most wizards and magewrights in the Five Nations—is an externally manifested aspect of the spellcaster’s personality. A few aspects of this…

  • As an extension of you, your familiar doesn’t know anything that you don’t know—but it’s drawn from your subconscious, and may know things you’ve forgotten or draw conclusions you haven’t consciously made.
  • All familiars must obey the spellcaster’s commands. An extension doesn’t resent this; they’re part of you. If they do have any personal goals, they’re likely things you actually want, even if you haven’t consciously realized it.
  • When an extension is dismissed or slain, it returns to your subconscious. This isn’t unpleasant for the familiar, and most extensions don’t resent being dismissed.
  • An extension is drawn from you. Most extensions have the fey creature type; in many ways, they are manifested stories. Extensions would only manifest as celestials or fiends if they are tied to remarkably virtuous or deeply vile people.
  • If you wish, you and your DM could decide that the familiar represents a specific aspect of your personality, which could in turn flavor its personality and demeanor. This could also be reflected by its shape, which you can change by casting the spell. It could be that as a cat it reflects your curiosity, while as a hawk it’s your courage and as a weasel it’s your cunning. A secondary question is whether each of these three would present themselves as having different names—if they essentially identify as three familiars—or whether they maintain a single identity even though their shape and personality changes.

In many ways, an extension is like a character in your dreams. They have distinct personalities, you can have interesting conversations with them, they FEEL real—but ultimately they’re a manifestation of your own mind. This doesn’t stop them from being fun and interesting individuals; it could be that your rat familiar embodies your sense of humor! But they can’t be killed because they’re a part of you; and conversely, if you die, they will die with you.

Extensions are the most common form of familiar in the Five Nations. They are a product of arcane science. On some levels (especially in Aundair), a familiar is both a tool and a status symbol for an accomplished spellcaster; wizards are rare, but some magewrights and demi-wizards manifest familiars for this reason. However, the most common users of familiars in the Five Nations are falconers. This is a magewright specialty that masters a narrow form of find familiar. A falconer can only summon a single shape of familiar—so if they can summon a hawk, they can’t turn it into a cat—but they can maintain telepathic communication and a sensory link with their familiar over a far greater distance than usual. The typical range of a falconer is one mile, but an exceptional falconer can go even farther. Falconers typically served as scouts and skirmishers in the Last War, and as the name suggests, most summon birds (typically hawks or falcons, though owls and ravens are also used). There are other magewrights who use this specialized form of find familiar in different ways—ratcatchers who conjure cats, even assassins who can conjure poisonous snakes. All of this ties to the basic point that people see extensions as tools—you learn to manifest an extension because you have a use for it.

Emissaries

When a warlock acquires a familiar, it’s generally not an extension of the warlock—it’s an emissary of the warlock’s patron, an independent entity whose services are granted to the warlock as a gift. However, this can also be an appropriate choice for a conjurer wizard or any other character who has made bargains with a powerful supernatural being. Important details about emissary familiars…

  • An emissary is an independent spirit with its own history and agenda. It’s up to the DM to decide exactly what that agenda is. It may be that the emissary is entirely benevolent and has been sent solely to assist you and protect you. But it could be that the emissary is sent to watch you—to see if you’re living up to expectations, to remind you of agreements you’ve made with your patron, or to serve as an intermediary for communication; the patron might temporarily possess the familiar when they want to communicate with you.
  • Tied to this: an emissary familiar has to follow your orders when it comes to taking physical actions, but it doesn’t have to share all of its information with you. Unlike an extension, an emissary may have knowledge you don’t have—but it’s only going to share that information with you if it serves the interests of the patron.
  • The creature type of the emissary will generally reflect the creature type of the patron. If you’re working for Sul Khatesh she’ll give you a fiend, while a celestial warlock channeling the power of the Silver Flame will have a celestial familiar. A DM may choose to tweak type and details to fit a particular patron. For example, an efreeti patron could give a warlock a familiar that’s mechanically an imp, but with the elemental type and knowledge of Primordial instead of Infernal; they might even say that its sting inflicts fire damage instead of poison damage, causing the victim to burn from within. An undead patron could likewise give an “imp” that’s got the undead type and inflicts necrotic damage with its sting.
  • Emissary familiars CAN assume a mundane animal form, but even those that take the form of animals may have a “natural” form that reflects their origins. A raven gifted by an efreeti could choose to appear as a tiny phoenix wreathed in cold flames, or just as a mundane bird.
  • It’s up to the DM to decide what happens to the emissary when it is dismissed/killed. It may be that it returns to the domain of its patron; if this is the case, it may actually WANT to be dismissed occasionally to go and take care of its own business. Or it may be that as long as it’s bound to you, it is bound to your spirit and retreats into you when dismissed. If this is the case, it may still be aware of what is going on around you, even if it can’t take any actions.

The basic question between having an extension or an emissary is whether you want your familiar to be entirely loyal and reliable, or if you LIKE the idea that your familiar may have secrets and agendas you don’t know about. An extension may have a semblance of personality, but at the end of the day it really is a puppet; an emissary is a truly independent entity who is only working with you for now, and who could have their own significant role to play at some point in the campaign.

Emissary familiars are rare. You can go to school to become a falconer, but there’s no common magewright paths that teach people to make bargains with overlords. As noted above, people generally assume that familiars are extensions, so having an imp as a familiar doesn’t automatically mean you’re making deals with demons, but to a common person what it means is that THE PROJECTION OF YOUR PERSONALITY IS A FIEND and people will judge you accordingly. And if people DO realize that no, this is an actual emissary of Sul Khatesh and you are getting advice from it, that’s not going to be great; so usually, you’re going to want your imp to be in an animal form.

Primal Spirits

Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything introduces the Wild Companion feature, allowing a druid to cast find familiar by using a charge of wild shape. Such a familiar has the fey creature type. It’s worth noting that beasts summoned with the conjure animals spell also have the fey creature type. This doesn’t mean that they are from Thelanis. If you’re a Greensinger, they might be; but typically, these are primal spirits. These can be seen as native fey, in the same way the Lords of Dust are native fiends. They are essentially stories made real—the idea of a beast given temporary form. A few details…

  • Primal spirits don’t have individual identities in the same way as emissaries or extensions. They are more iconic beings. Your raven embodies the idea of “raven” and will behave as you expect a raven to act in a fable or folktale. A cat may be curious, a raven may be wise. But the cat embodies the idea of CAT, not of your personal curious Graymalkin.
  • Primal spirits generally only remain for as long as they are needed; when they die or are dismissed they simply return to the transcendent essence of Eberron.
  • Primal spirits generally have no desires other than to help the summoner. They don’t NEED anything and generally look forward to returning to the heart of Eberron.
  • Druids and rangers typically employ primal spirits to avoid placing living animals in danger. They don’t feel any compunctions about sending summoned animals or familiars to their deaths because they aren’t really alive; you can’t kill an idea, and ultimately that’s what they are.

Primal spirits are typically only found in communities with strong primal roots—the Eldeen Reaches, the Qaltiar drow, the Lorghalen gnomes. In such places, you may find the equivalent of Falconer magewrights—gleaners who can conjure a specific familiar spirit, and who can maintain their bond with it over an unusually long distance. Primal communities often also involve animal companions, but people working with living beasts will generally be much more conscientious about placing their companions in dangerous situations—whereas primal spirits suffer no lasting harm from death.

In Conclusion…

Familiars are the most common class of companion, and extensions are the most common class of familiar. Falconers and similar magewrights use familiars as practical tools, while arcanists use often familiars as companions and assistants. Emissaries are rare and thus rarely recognized for what they are, but most people won’t be thrilled if you reveal that your companion is an actual fiend given to you because you made a bargain with a malefic power.

HOMUNCULI AND CONSTRUCT BEASTS

A homunculus is a construct, typically created by an artificer or wizard. They notably don’t follow the rules of find familiar; a homunculus can’t be simply dismissed and recalled at will. The most common form of homunculus player characters deal with is the homunculus servant, which is created using an artificer infusion. The servant is a tiny construct, and notably the shape of the homunculus is up to the artificer. The intention of this is that the appearance of the homunculus should reflect the techniques of the artificer. A Cannith Traditionalist may create a steel dragonfly with crystal wings—a creature similar to a warforged, perhaps with metal threads or gears instead of root-like tendrils. An artificer from Pylas Pyrial may use Thelanian logic to create a flying teapot. And an alchemist who’s experimenting with daelkyr fleshcrafting techniques could create a tiny platypus with one eye and three wings. A Battle Smith artificer gets to create a more powerful homunculus, a steel defender. Again, what’s specifically noted is that the shape and design of the defender is up to the artificer, including the choice as to whether it has two legs or four. This reflects the idea that all of these homunculi are extremely unique. The fact that the artificer can only have one of each type of homunculus at a time reflects the idea these creatures aren’t entirely stable—that the artificer has to continue to maintain their companion and to maintain the reserve of arcane energy that sustains it. As noted, homunculi can’t be dismissed and resummoned with the ease of a familiar, but if one is destroyed it can be rebuilt.

So a key point is that the homunculi of player characters aren’t supposed to be as familiar as a raven or even an imp. They’re supposed to stand out; they’re reflections of the unique genius of the artificer character. Unlike familiars and falconers, there isn’t a class of magewrights that creates homunculi; again, familiars ultimately come from a 1st level spell, while homunculi are derived from an artificer class feature. They’re more exotic than familiars. At the same time, people understand the CONCEPT of homunculi. Sentient magic items exist. Constructs exist. The Clockwork Menagerie of Eston was one of the wonders of Cyre centuries before House Cannith perfected the warforged. And with that said, the Last War involved a constant escalation in the development of constructs leading up to the Last War. Animated weapons have been developed, ranging from the tiny arbalester to the arcane ballista. Warforged titans stormed across the battlefield decades before their smaller cousins. And House Cannith does create construct beasts; the iron defenders of House Cannith can be produced as autonomous constructs (though they are typically considerably weaker than the steel defender of an accomplished Battle Smith). These creatures are still EXOTIC, but they aren’t unheard of and people generally won’t be frightened by them. They’ll draw attention, certainly, but attention isn’t always bad. With that said, the daelkyr-inspired fleshcrafted homunculus will generate the same sort of reaction as the imp familiar; people may not run you instantly out of town for having a creepy homunculus, but they will judge you by the company you keep.

I’ll be posting a table of random ideas for homunculus servants on my Patreon as an exclusive bonus for Inner Circle and Threshold patrons later in this week, so if you’re a supporter, keep an eye out for that!

ANIMAL COMPANIONS

What about the ranger and his wolf? Well, beasts are a part of everyday life in Eberron. From horses and tribex to the giant owls of Sharn or the Valenar hounds, there’s nothing strange about seeing someone with an animal companion. Magewright falconers conjure their companions, but Vadalis farriers can cast animal friendship, speak with animals, and beast sense, and gleaners (primal magewrights) in the Eldeen Reaches also develop these talents. Many gnomes cultivate the gift of speaking with small beasts. Exotic beasts are often rarer in major cities simply because of the difficulty of maintaining them, but people aren’t especially SURPRISED to see a ranger with a wolf companion; the fact that there are people who can befriend and speak with animals is a simple fact of life, and has been for centuries.

Animal companions aren’t exactly tools in the same way as familiars, because they’re independent living creatures. A Beast Master can replace an companion that dies, but an animal still died… while familiars and conjured beasts can be put in harm’s way with no lasting risk. Nonetheless, to the world at large they are still largely seen as tools and treated accordingly, so the same rule applies. If the ranger is allowed to bring his sword and his bow into a place of business, he’s probably allowed to bring his wolf; and if the wolf bites someone, the ranger will be held responsible, just as if he’d stabbed the victim with a sword.

Some might wonder if the existence of speak with animals would drive an overall greater wave of ethical behavior regarding the treatment of animals. Sadly, this is not the case in the Five Nations. Speak with animals exists, but MOST people can’t cast it. People will still take a tribex-drawn carriage down to a restaurant where they’ll eat a steak, without stopping to think “Was that tribex happy? Did the cow I’m eating live a good life?” The general attitude of House Vadalis is that they’ve been granted dominion over beasts, and it is their right to exploit that power. This is quite different in wide primal societies—such as the Eldeen Reaches and Lorghalen—but in the Five Nations beasts are still primarily treated as property and tools.

That’s all for now! Thanks to my Patreon supporters for helping to choose this topic and for making these articles possible.

Dragonmarks: Common Knowledge

As time permits, I like to answer interesting questions posed by my Patreon supporters. One question that often comes up is “What do people in the world actually know about (subject)?” As players and DMs, we have access to a tome of absolute knowledge that tells us all about the Lords of Dust, the Dreaming Dark, the Empire of Dhakaan, and so on. We know that characters may know about these things if they have appropriate proficiencies and make successful skill checks. But what do people know WITHOUT making any skill checks? What things are just common knowledge?

This article reflects the common knowledge of a citizen of the Five Nations. Common knowledge will vary by culture, and I can’t account for every possible variation. People in Stormreach are more familiar with drow than people in Fairhaven. Shadow Marchers will have heard of the Gatekeepers, while Karrns won’t have. In general, you can assume that things that have a direct impact on the lives of people living in a region will be part of common knowledge. For example, the people of the Mror Holds don’t know a lot about the daelkyr in general, but they DO know about Dyrrn the Corruptor, because they’ve been fighting him for decades and he signed his name with Dyrrn’s Promise in 943 YK. So determining what things are common knowledge will often require the use of common sense.

With that said, the people of the Five Nations can be assumed to know the following things.

Planes, Moons, and Manifest Zones. Everyone knows the names of the planes and the moons, and the basic attributes of the planes (IE, Shavarath is the Eternal Battleground and is filled with celestials and fiends fighting). Think of this a little like knowledge of the planets of the solar system in our world; most people can name the planets and know that Mars is the Red Planet, but only someone who’s studied them can tell you the names of all of the moons of Jupiter. The main point is that the planes have real, concrete effects on the world through their manifest zones and coterminous/remote phases, and people understand these things. A common person may not be able to tell you the precise effects of a Shavarath manifest zone unless they actually live by one, but they know Shavarath is the Eternal Battleground and could GUESS what such a manifest zone might do.

The Creation Myth. Everyone knows the basic story: Khyber, Eberron, and Siberys created the planes. Khyber killed Siberys and scattered his pieces in the sky, creating the Ring of Siberys. Eberron enfolded Khyber and became the world. Whether people believe this is literally true or a metaphor, everyone knows the myth and everyone understands that magic comes from Siberys, natural creatures come from Eberron, and fiends and other evil things come from Khyber.

The Sovereign Myth. The Sovereign Host is deeply ingrained into daily life in the Five Nations. Even if you don’t BELIEVE in the Sovereigns, you know the names and basic attributes of the Nine and Six. Likewise, everyone knows the basic story that in the dawn of time the world was ruled by demons; that the Sovereigns fought them; and that the demons were bound. The Dark Six are largely only known by their titles—The Mockery, the Keeper—and their original names are something that would only be known by someone with a tie to a relevant cult or with proficiency in History.

The Silver Flame. Tied to this, everyone knows the idea that the Silver Flame is the force that binds demons. People do NOT know where it came from. Many vassals assume the Sovereigns created the Silver Flame. Those who follow the faith assert it is a celestial force that is strengthened by noble souls.

Dragons. Everyone knows that dragons exist and that they are terrifying and powerful creatures. People know stories of dragons guarding hoards of treasure, and if you’re from Thrane you know of the Bane of Thrane, the dragon who slew Prince Thrane. There are also a few stories about heroes making bargains with dragons, or dragons possessing secret knowledge. People know that Argonnessen is a land of dragons, but they know almost nothing about it beyond “Here there be dragons” and the fact that people who go there don’t come back. Some people know that dragons occasionally attack Aerenal, and know that the giants of Xen’drik were destroyed in some sort of war with dragons. So everyone knows that dragons exist; that they are extremely powerful; and that they can be deadly threats or enigmatic advisors. Most people don’t ever expect to see a dragon. The idea that there are dragons secretly manipulating humanity is a conspiracy theory on par with the idea that many world leaders in our world are secretly reptilian aliens; there are certainly people who believe it, but sensible people don’t take it seriously.

Evil Exists. Everyone knows that there are fiends, undead, aberrations, and lycanthropes in the world. They know that ghouls may haunt graveyards, that the creepy stranger in town could be a vampire or a werewolf, and that dangerous things could crawl out of Khyber at any time. This is why the Silver Flame exists and why templars are generally treated with respect even by people who don’t follow the Silver Flame; people understand that evil exists and that the templars are a volunteer militia who are ready to fight it.

The Overlords and the Lords of Dust. Everyone knows that the overlords were archfiends who dominated the world at the beginning of time. Regardless of whether you believe in the Sovereigns or respect the Flame, you know that the overlords are real because one broke out and ravaged Thrane a few centuries ago. Most people have heard stories of a few of the overlords and may know their titles—the Shadow in the Flame is the one most people have heard of—but would need to make checks to know more. But critically, everyone knows that there are bound archfiends that would like to get out and wreck things.

Most people have never heard of “The Lords of Dust.” People have certainly heard stories of shapeshifting demons causing trouble and know that this is a real potential threat, but the idea that there is a massive conspiracy that has been manipulating human civilization for thousands of years is up there with the idea that dragons have been doing the same thing. If you have credible proof that someone in town is actually a fiend or is possessed by a fiend, people will take the threat seriously; people know that such threats can be real. But few people actually believe that there’s a massive conspiracy that secretly controls the course of history, because if so, why haven’t they done anything more dramatic with it?

As a side point to this, most COMMON PEOPLE don’t differentiate between devil, demon, and fiend and treat these as synonyms. People know of rakshasas as “shapeshifting demons,” even though an arcane scholar might say “Well, ACTUALLY ‘demon’ refers specifically to an incarnate entity of chaos and evil, and the rakshasa is a unique class of fiend most commonly found on the material plane.” But the Demon Wastes could be called “The Fiend Wastes;” in this context, “Demon” is a general term.

Khyber and the Daelkyr. Tied to the creation myth and to the idea that evil exists, people know that BAD THINGS COME FROM KHYBER. They don’t know about demiplanes, but they know that if you find a deep hole there might be something bad at the bottom of it. Critically, most people just know that THE DRAGON BELOW IS THE SOURCE OF BAD THINGS and don’t actually differentiate between aberrations, fiends, and monstrosities. This is why the Cults of the Dragon Below are called “The Cults of the Dragon Below” even though a cult of Dyrrn the Corruptor really has nothing in common with a cult of Sul Khatesh; as far as the common people are concerned, they are cults that worship big evil things, and big evil things come from Khyber, hence, cult of the Dragon Below.

With this in mind, most common people don’t have a clear understanding of what a “daelkyr” is. Anyone who’s proficient with Arcana or History has a general understanding of the difference between the daelkyr and the overlords without needing to make a skill check. But for the common person, they are both powerful evil things that are bound in Khyber.

Fey and Archfey. Everyone knows that the fey exist. Everyone knows about dryads and sprites, and everyone knows that they’re especially common near manifest zones to Thelanis. Beyond this, everyone know FAIRY TALES about fey and archfey, and knows that there’s some basis to these stories. So people know STORIES about the Lady in Shadow and the Forest Queen, and they know that somewhere in the planes, you might actually be able to meet the Forest Queen. But they don’t actually EXPECT to every meet one. Most people have no way to easily differentiate between an archfey and some other type of powerful immortal. Notably, you could easily have a cult of the Dragon Below that’s bargaining with Sul Khatesh but BELIEVES it is bargaining with an archfey, or a cult of Avassh that thinks it’s blessed by the Forest Queen. If a cult worships “The Still Lord” or “The Queen of Shadows”, they don’t have some kind of special key that tells them whether that power is a fiend, a fey, or a celestial; that distinction is ACADEMIC, and would require a skill check.

Specific knowledge of the fey is more prevalent in regions that are close to Thelanis manifest zones or where people have a tradition of bargaining with the fey; notably, Aundairians know more about fey than most people of the Five Nations.

The Dreaming Dark and the Kalashtar. Everyone knows that when you dream you go to Dal Quor. Everyone accepts the idea that “There are demons that give you bad dreams!” Very few people believe that those fiends are manipulating the world. People have had bad dreams FOREVER. If bad-dream-demons were going to take over the world, why haven’t they already done it? As with the Lords of Dust, people will listen to credible threats that a specific person could be possessed, but few will believe stories of a massive dream conspiracy bent on world domination.

Looking to Sarlona and the Inspired, everyone knows that the Riedrans have a strict culture and they’re ruled by beings who they say are channeling celestial powers. Few people have ever met a Riedran, let alone one of the Inspired. Those who have met kalashtar (which for the most part only happens in major cities) know that the kalashtar have been oppressed and driven from Sarlona, but largely assume this is about political and religious differences, not a war between dream-spirits. It’s relatively common knowledge that people from Sarlona study some form of mind-magic, but most people don’t know the precise details of how psionics are different from arcane or divine magic.

The Aurum. While it’s a stretch to say that everyone’s heard of the Aurum, it’s about as well known as, say, Mensa in our world. It’s generally seen as an exclusive fraternal order of extremely wealthy people. Because it IS exclusive and because many of its members are minor local celebrities, there are certainly lots of conspiracies theories about what it’s REALLY up to… but even if there’s people who SAY that the Aurum wants to overthrow the Twelve or that it engineered the Last War, at the end of the day people know it’s that fancy members-only club on Main Street that always donates generously to the Race of Eight Winds celebrations.

Secondary Religions. Aside from the Silver Flame and the Sovereign Host, most of the other religious are relatively regional. The Blood of Vol is the best known of the secondary religions because of the role it played in Karrnath during the Last War, but outside of Karrnath most people think it’s some sort of Karrnathi death cult. Everyone knows druids exist, and the Wardens of the Wood are relatively well known because of their central role in the Eldeen Reaches, but the other sects are largely unknown outside of the areas where they operate; the Ashbound are likely the second best known sect because of sensationalized reports of their violent actions. The Path of Light is largely unknown aside from people who have direct interaction with kalashtar.

Goblins and the Empire of Dhakaan. Everyone in the Five Nations knows that goblins were on Khorvaire before humanity, and that they had an empire that fell long ago. Most people don’t know the name of this empire or exactly how it fell. People generally recognize Dhakaani ruins as being goblin creations, and know that many of the largest cities of Khorvaire are built on goblin foundations, but there’s certainly a lunatic fringe that asserts that those structures are clearly too sophisticated to be goblin work and must have been built by some forgotten human civilization. However, most people understand that these “forgotten human” stories are ridiculous conspiracy theories, on par with the idea that shapeshifted dragons are secretly manipulating the world.

The History of Xen’drik. People know that Xen’drik was home to a civilization of giants. Most people believe that the giants were destroyed in a war with the dragons. Many people know that the elves were originally from Xen’drik and fled this destruction. Without History proficiency, most people do NOT know the name of any of the giant cultures or that there were more than one, and they definitely don’t know anything about giants fighting quori. The idea that arrogant giants destroyed the thirteenth moon is a common folk tale, but it has many forms and it’s something most people know as a serious fact.

Spies. When people in the Five Nations talk about spies, they’re usually thinking of The Dark Lanterns or the Royal Eyes of Aundair. Both are well known spy agencies known to operate covertly in other nations, similar to the CIA and KGB during the height of our cold war. Most people in the Five Nations have heard of the Trust and understand that it’s some sort of secret police force that maintains order in Zilargo, but don’t know much more than that and they aren’t concerned about Zil spies. House Phiarlan and House Thuranni are known as providers of ENTERTAINMENT and aren’t generally seen as spies. The assertion that Phiarlan runs a ring of spies is like the idea that Elvis worked for the CIA; not IMPOSSIBLE, but not something people see as a particularly credible threat.

Exotic Player Species. Most people know that drow come from Xen’drik. People know that lizardfolk and dragonborn come from Q’barra, but most people in Khorvaire don’t know that these are two different species. Tieflings are generally understood to be planetouched; as discussed in Exploring Eberron, aasimar are generally so rare that they won’t be recognized by the general populace. With that said, overall people are fairly accepting of species they’ve never encountered. In a world where people DO deal with humans, orcs, shifters, goblins, warforged, elves, kalashtar, ogres, medusas, and more every day, people who’ve never seen a goliath before are more likely to say “Huh, never seen that before” than to panic because it’s some sort of alien giant-man; exotic characters will generally be targets of curiosity rather than fear.

Dragonmarks and Aberrant Dragonmarks. The dragonmarks have been part of civilization for over a thousand years. The houses provide the major services that are part of everyday life. Everyone in the Five Nations knows the names of the houses and the common twelve marks. Without proficiency in History, people won’t have heard of the Mark of Death. Common knowledge is that aberrant dragonmarks are dangerous to both the bearer and the people around them, and are often seen as the “touch of Khyber.” Without proficiency in History, they won’t know much about the War of the Mark, aside from the fact that the aberrants were dangerous and destroyed the original city of Sharn.

The Draconic Prophecy. Most people have heard of “The Draconic Prophecy” but know almost nothing about it aside from the fact that it’s, y’know, a prophecy. When such people talk about the Prophecy, what they’re usually talking about is the Caldyn Fragments, a collection of pieces of the Prophecy assembled by Korranberg scholar Ohnal Caldyn (described in City of Stormreach). Most people definitely don’t understand that it’s an evolving matrix of conditional elements or that it’s the key to releasing the overlords.

Aerenal, the Undying Court, and the Tairnadal. Aerenal is an isolationist culture that has little interest in sharing its traditions with others. However, the elves do trade with the Five Nations and there’s been enough immigration over the course of history to provide a general knowledge of their culture. Most people know that Aerenal is ruled by the Undying Court, and that the Undying Court is made up of ancient undead elves. Most people don’t have a clear understanding of the difference between deathless and other undead. In Five Nations, most people have never heard of “Tairnadal” and assume any Tairnadal elf is from Valenar. They know that Valenar elves are deadly warriors who are always looking for fights and who worship their ancestors, but they don’t know any specifics about patron ancestors or the Keepers of the Past.

Q&A

What do most people believe about the connection between shifters and lycanthropes?

Most people believe that there is some sort of distant connection between shifters and lycanthropes. Shifters are often called “weretouched,” and some people mistakenly believe that they get wild when many moons are full. However, few people few people believe that shifters are capable of spreading lycanthropy or are sympathetic to lycanthropes. Those negative stereotypes exist, especially in rural Aundair or places where people have never actually SEEN shifters, but they’re not common.

What do followers of the Silver Flame believe about the Sovereigns? What does the Church teach about them? Is it normal to venerate both, at least among the laity? Do they even believe the Sovereigns exist?

Nothing in the doctrine of the Church of the Silver Flame denies the existence of the Sovereigns. It’s entirely possible to follow both religions simultaneously, and templars are happy to work with paladins of the Host. However, the point is that the Church of the Silver Flame doesn’t CARE if the Sovereigns exist. Their general attitude is that if the Sovereigns exist, they are vast powers that are maintaining the world overall. Arawai makes sure there’s rain for the crops. Onatar watches over foundries. That’s all great, but SOMEONE HAS TO DEAL WITH THE GHOULS IN THE GRAVEYARD. It’s notable that the Church of the Silver Flame, for example, doesn’t have a unique creation myth because at the end of the day it doesn’t MATTER where the world came from, what matters is that the people who live in it are threatened by supernatural evil and we need to work together to protect them.

I’ve said before that the Church of the the Silver Flame is more like the Jedi or the Men in Black than any religion in our world. It is EXTREMELY PRACTICAL. Evil exists, and good people should fight it. The Silver Flame is a real, concrete source of celestial energy that can empower champions to fight evil. Noble souls strengthen the Flame after death, so be virtuous. If you want to believe in some sort of higher beings beyond that, feel free. What’s important is to protect the innocent from supernatural evil, and faith in the Flame will help you to do that. So the Church doesn’t teach anything about the Sovereigns and it doesn’t encourage its followers to believe in them or incorporate them into its services in any way, but it doesn’t specifically deny that they exist or forbid followers from holding both beliefs.

That’s all for now! Feel free to ask about other general information topics in the comments, but I won’t have time to address every topic. Thanks again to my Patreon supporters who make these articles possible!