Gameplay: Surviving The Impossible

Image by Carolina Cesario from Exploring Eberron

Typically, I only answer questions that are posed by my Patreon supporters. However, I do occasionally read the Eberron forum on Reddit, and a question caught my eye. A DM explained that his players—who were playing fourth level characters—had chosen to split up while in the Mournland, planning to individually make their way back across thirty miles of Mournland and meet up on the other side of the mist. The DM had explained just how dangerous this was, but the players were committed to the action. The DM was asking for ideas on how to handle this, noting that they didn’t want to have the characters die here, even though it’s essentially a suicidal action. I’m addressing this here because there is a larger principle at play, which is what to do when your players are determined to do something that should be impossible. This is the story the players want to experience. The DM doesn’t want to just shut it down. They don’t want to just say “Mists fall, everybody dies.” But is the DM required to now create interesting encounters for each individual character while also ensuring that these encounters won’t just kill them (which, in the Mournland, should be a very real threat)? If not, what do they do?

At MY table, what I would do is to make this a challenge for the players. First, I’d say “You’ve chosen to do something incredibly foolhardy. You’ve separated in one of the most dangerous places in Eberron, a region brimming with supernatural threats and with very little safe food or water. You’re a hero, and somehow you will survive this. But how? How does your character survive this impossible journey?

RPGs are collaborative stories, and that means you can ask the players to share the creative burden. You know that you don’t want the adventurers to die, even though in all likelihood they should. So ask them to explain how they manage to do the impossible. How do they think their character could survive this? As DM, I would work with them to temper their answer, especially as I know more about the world than they do. If they say “I find an airship and fly it” and aren’t Lyrandar, I’ll note that this isn’t how airships work… but I’d see if I could work with them to come up with an alternative that fit the general idea of this story, while also being actually plausible. Maybe they just find a lost skystaff (Broom of Flying). Maybe they find an experimental Cannith vehicle and manage to make it work just long enough to get them through the mists. Beyond this, while I won’t shut a player’s idea down completely, I will QUESTION ideas and help them refine them. In the vehicle example, if the character is an artificer, of course they can jumpstart an experimental vehicle. But if they’re a fighter with a low Intelligence and no Arcana or Land Vehicles proficiency, I would point that out and say “How is YOUR CHARACTER going to accomplish this?” If they can come up with a good answer, great! If not, perhaps we can evolve the idea into something else. The point is that we all know they WILL succeed; we’re just trying to create a satisfying story about how they do it.

However, after all this I’d ask a second question. “You have survived the unimaginable journey, but you can’t do something that dangerous without consequences. The Mournland is full of deadly supernatural threats. It can also mutate or transform creatures in strange ways. You have a scar from this experience—a permanent, lingering reminder of this journey. What is it?

This could be something obvious and dramatic—the adventurer’s skin turns purple; their hair now moves on its own, like a medusa’s mane—or it could be a more mundane scar or a lingering fear of shellfish. If I was playing an artificer in this scenario, I might suggest that I lost a limb but managed to fashion a prosthetic out of things I found on the way, and go forward with a sentimental (and literal) attachment to this odd prosthetic. As with the previous question, I’d work with each player to hone their answer. This shouldn’t be something that imposes a permanent, ongoing penalty on the character—but it should be something that may prove an inconvenience at times, something that draws comment or attention, something that reminds them of the time they did something suicidally stupid but managed to survive. Going forward, I might continue to expand on this with Flashbacks. When the players encounter a mysterious symbol, I might say “Bob, you ran into this symbol when you were crossing the Mournland alone. Where did you see it?” We all know the adventurers survived a long, grueling trek across the Mournland; but we also know that we didn’t cover it in detail, and perhaps there could be more to the story!

Adding Depth and Danger

The approach I describe above is intended to fast forward through the difficult situation. The characters will carry scars of their journey, but there’s no chance that they will fail—and because of this, I won’t actually require any sort of skill check. We’re agreeing from the start that it WILL work, we’re just sorting out the details. But perhaps you DO want a chance of failure. In this case, I’d take an approach much like I described in the Travel By Montage article. I wouldn’t actually develop full encounters and combats; instead, I’d take turns posing characters with specific challenges. For example…

  • You’re traveling along an old road. Up ahead, you see the severed arm of a warforged colossus. Somehow, it’s still active; it’s pulling itself across the landscape, crushing everything it encounters. It’s headed directly for you; how will you avoid it?
  • You reach a wide river; the bridge is broken. There’s a powerful current, and there’s threads of red flowing through the water, like veins of blood. You could follow the bank until you find another bridge, but that could take you many miles off your course and will be exhausting; what do you do?
  • It begins to rain. The liquid glows with green light, and burns your armor and clothing. How will you survive this acid rain?
  • You find the rest of your adventuring party! After celebrating this reunion, you continue your journey… but slowly you realize that these aren’t actually your friends. You don’t know if they’re doppelgangers, illusions, or something else—but they aren’t your companions, and you feel danger in the air. How will you deal with this?
  • Though you haven’t seen the sun since you entered the Mournland, it’s clear that night is falling; the gray light is fading. Will you try to continue through the darkness? If not, how will you find shelter?

… And so on. For each question, I’d require the character to propose an ability check; for each one they failed, I’d impose a consequence. This could be one or more levels of exhaustion, with the threat of death if exhaustion gets too high; so taking the river crossing, they could accept an automatic level of exhaustion to find another bridge, or attempt the crossing with the risk of more severe consequences on failure. Alternately, I could impose a scar for each failure. The point is that the characters are directly using their character abilities and that there is a chance of failure, but that I’m not going to take the time to fully develop each of these as tactical encounters; we’re essentially summarizing their success or failure. Looking to the “Imposter” example, the adventurer might decide to fight them; I’d still likely pick a skill to reflect their chance of success (Athletics for the strong fighter, Stealth or Acrobatics for the swift rogue) rather than play out the scene.

Even here, it’s potentially a lot of work for me to come up with those questions… and also, if the characters are all separated, it’s a lot of time for players to be waiting for their turn to come around. With that in mind, even here, I’d start off by providing a solid set of challenges so people understand the nature of the region. But at that point, if I feel my players would enjoy it (becuase not all would, and that’s fine!) I might ask the other players to propose challenges for their fellow players. What do they think Bob might encounter in the Mournland? As before, I might refine an idea to fit the lore of the world, or even to tie into other things I have planned; but I can work with the players to develop the story rather than making it up entirely on my own.

In conclusion, as a DM, don’t be afraid to call on your players to share the narrative workload! If the players do something foolish and you don’t want them to die, you can ask them to explain how they get away with it.

Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters; this support is the only thing that makes these articles possible. So if you want to see more articles—or if you have questions you want to ask!—check it out.

IFAQ: September Lightning Round!

As time permits, I like to answer interesting questions posed by my Patreon supporters. Here’s a few of the questions that came up this month!

In our world, some fairy tales heroes deal with/encounter undead: Ghosts, wraiths, skeletons, headless horsemen, etc. On the material plane, the hero would encounter them in manifest zones to Dolurrh or Mabar, but how would that story be told in Thelanis? Are there any fey in Thelanis that have to do with undead or necromancy?

First of all, you can find almost anything in Thelanis if it fits a story archetype. There’s a barony in Thelanis with a massive dragon in it, and a barony filled with ghosts. But the key point is that those ghosts were never living mortals, and that dragon likewise isn’t mortal (it’s an archfey!) and has no connection to Argonnessen or the dragons of Eberron. If a ghost story is about a ghost that lingers because of unfinished business, it’s likely tied to Dolurrh. If it’s about an aggressive undead being who consumes life or hope, it’s likely tied to Mabar. If it’s more about the abstract idea—a story that can be found repeated in many cultures, that’s more about the allegory than the specific actions of a historical undead creature—then it could be tied to Thelanis. You can have devils in Fernia, Shavarath, and Daanvi, but they’re very different from one another; likewise, you can have ghosts in Mabar, Dolurrh, or Thelanis, but they’re very different from one another. Thelanian undead aren’t actually the remnants of mortals; they’re the IDEA of remnants of mortals. It’s up to the DM to decide whether these creatures should even be considered to be undead for purposes of magical effects, or if they are in fact fey. personally, I’d probably be inclined to make Thelanian ghosts both undead AND fey; they ARE fey, but they react like you’d expect undead to react, because that’s the story.

Who is Lady Dusk of the Crimson Covenant?

The article on the Crimson Covenant notes that members of the Covenant “guide and protect other Seekers. The Crimson Covenant are the oldest and most powerful of these undead champions, some of whom were guiding the Seekers before Erandis Vol even knew the faith existed. ” It’s also long been noted that Seeker communities donate blood which is kept in barrels of preserving pine to sustain vampire champions. This practice began with Lady Dusk, believed by some to be the first human vampire in Khorvaire. Given her age and the secrecy with which she shrouds herself, few facts are known about her. The most common of these is that she was the daughter of a warlord in the first days of Karrnath; recent scholarly work suggests that she was a member of the House of the Ram, one of the warlord dynasties that would eventually merge into House Deneith. When elf refugees came west fleeing the destruction of the Line of Vol, the lady gave them shelter and fell in love with one of these refugees. When her family decided to exterminate these elves, Lady Dusk fought alongside them. She was executed by her family… but, according to the story, her lover had already shared her blood and Dusk rose as a child of the night.

Ever since then, Lady Dusk has followed the path of the undead champion—acting to guide and protect the Seekers of the Divinity Within. She’s the model of an undead champion of the faith and the reason communities began storing reserves of blood. With that said, this is dangerous work; over the centuries, most of her peers—including her lover—have been destroyed, and Dusk herself has narrowly escaped many times. As such she rarely acts openly; she disguises herself and works from the shadows. If something is threatening a Seeker community, she won’t just charge in with fangs bared; she will try to organize mortal resistance. It’s the idea of teaching someone to fish instead of fishing for them; Lady Dusk is a GUIDE, and those she assists may never know who their mentor was.

What do the Carrion Tribes of the Demon Wastes eat to survive? Do they make use of Shadow Demiplanes for resources in the same way as the Ghaash’kala?

There’s flora and fauna in the Demon Wastes, it’s just highly aggressive and often poisonous or infused with fiendish power. Over many generations the Carrion Tribes have developed resistances to these natural and supernatural toxins, and they can eat things travelers can’t safely eat—though in part because of this diet, members of the Carrion Tribes have a very low life expectancy and their numbers remain relatively low. The Carrion Tribes aren’t as disciplined or well equipped as the Ghaash’kala and also rarely retain institutional knowledge; for all of these reasons, they don’t harness demiplanes as effectively as the Ghaash’kala. Essentially, there’s lots of things you can eat in the Demon Wastes, if you don’t mind hosting infernal parasites, shortening your lifespan and suffering hallucinations and severe mood swings; for the Carrion Tribes, that’s just a typical Tuesday.

How do you imagine the curriculum at Arcanix to be? Is the goal of classes specifically to teach how to cast spells in a practical manner, in which case I’d imagine most courses don’t go beyond the Third Circle, or are there classes in which the theory of higher level magic is studied even if the spell can’t be cast by the students? Accompanying this, I’m curious if there’s a presence by Wizard Circles in Arcanix similar to companies at universities trying to recruit talent near graduation.

The Strixhaven book coming out in a month is sure to have lots of suggestions about this topic, so I’m somewhat loathe to discuss it now. But first of all, arcane magic is a form of science, so to begin with, consider how any form of science is taught. You’re going to have base entry-level classes that teach the principles of Arcana along with the basics of arcane science and history. These will advance into practical magic, from there into study of specific schools of magic, from there into specialized topics within that field. Most students of Arcanix don’t become wizards, and there are some who can cast perform ritual magic that’s beyond the Third Circle, just more limited than what a wizard can do; so yes, there are definitely classes dealing with magical THEORY that goes beyond the practical limits of 3rd level spells. Keep in mind that Arcanix is always driving students to push beyond the limits of what’s currently possible; Third Circle may be the practical limit of everyday magic TODAY, but the students of Arcanix intend to change that.

Many of the students of Arcanix will never cast spells as a wizard or sorcerer does. However, Aundair has the highest percentage of wandslingers and war wizards in the Five Nations. Thus you have the War College within Arcanix, which focuses on practical battlefield magic. It’s here that you will get direct training in combat cantrips, arcane sparring, drills to hone concentration, and so on, along with classes in tactics and strategy.

Meanwhile, wizard circles aren’t COMPANIES. The equivalent to companies would be the dragonmarked houses or the Arcane Congress, both of which do send recruiters to Arcanix. But wizard circles are essentially fraternities; they don’t simply have recruiters at Arcanix, they have CHAPTERS at Arcanix.

How do the magic tattoos from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything fit into Eberron?

Like all magic items, magical tattoos are a set of mechanics, which can be flavored very differently based on the story and cosmetic elements associated with them. There’s no single form of magic tattoo or single culture associated with them; instead, there are a number of different forms of magical tattooing. Sigilry is the field of arcane science that is used to create scrolls, and master sigilists can create magical tattoos infused with arcane power. On Khorvaire, the Mark of Scribing has given Sivis the edge in creating magical tattoos, but Thuranni and Phiarlan also have a limited tradition of arcane tattoos. But magical tattoos can also be created using divine magic—such as the couatl tattoos of the Ghaash’kala, which I mentioned in a recent article. Such tattoos are in part empowered by the faith of the bearer and can usually only be attuned by a person who shares the faith of the creator. There’s also a primal tradition of tattooing, employed by the shifters of the Towering Wood; Races of Eberron discusses these tattoos, which shift in appearance when the bearer activates their shifting trait. So it’s the same way that many different cultures use wands, but the design of the wand and the powers channeled will vary based on the culture and their magical tradition.

What do the Valaes Tairn do when they aren’t fighting? Would there be a reason for a group of warriors to be in Sharn besides looking for an artifact of some kind?

What they do when not fighting depends on their patron ancestor. Tairnadal seek to emulate their patrons at all times, not just in battle; so what was their patrons known for? Were they explorers? Entertainers? Arcane researchers? With that said, as long as it doesn’t directly oppose what their patrons would do, Tairnadal can also pursue their own interests when there’s no clearly mandated path. So a group of Tairnadal in Sharn could be looking for work; they could be tourists passing the time between mercenary assignments; they could be pursuing a rogue Tairnadal who betrayed their warband; they could be following the example of their patron. There were grand cities in Xen’drik at the time of the elven rebellion; perhaps their patron was known for protecting the innocent in the shadows of the greatest city of the age. The Tairnadal have identified Sharn as the closest equivalent and are fighting crime in Lower Dura!

That’s all for now! If you have an infrequently asked question, I’ll be taking another round soon on my Patreon!

IFAQ: The Shulassakar

Eberron often takes an unusual approach to familiar things. In Eberron, you can find gnoll demon-hunters, r gnome assassins, and dine on troll sausage. When developing the setting, we decided that couatls were the primary native celestials of Eberron. With this in mind, the 3.5 ECS has this throwaway line in the description of the Talenta Plains…

Krezent: This ancient ruin is all that remains of a couatl city from ages past. The halflings tend to avoid the site, since it is home to a tribe of benevolent yuan-ti who honor and revere the couatl and the Silver Flame.

This is the only mention of these beings in the ECS. It’s a random idea: yuan-ti are evil serpent-folk, but what if there were feathered yuan-ti devoted to the light? I loved the idea, so I expanded upon it in an early Dragonshard article, which gave these beings a name: the Shulassakar. This article also answered the seeming contradiction of the original quote: if these feathered yuan-ti were benevolent, why did the halflings of the Plains avoid them?

Over time, the shulassakar appeared in a number of places. We determined that there were shulassakar among the people of Khalesh in ancient Sarlona, and that they were targeted in the Sundering. Shulassakar were presented as an option for player characters in City of Stormreach

With that said, the shulassakar haven’t received much attention—in part because they are supposed to be rare and reclusive. They were never intended to be a central part of the setting, but rather an exotic element that could surprise players used to thinking of yuan-ti as evil.

When I have time, I like to answer interesting questions posed by my Patreon supporters, and this month there were a few questions about the shulassakar.

Do shulassakar have similar roles in their society/culture to the anathema (big hulking multiheaded divine figures) of yuan-ti culture?

The original shulassakar article notes that the shulassakar refer to purebloods as “servants,” halfbloods as “flametouched,” and abominations as “transcendent,” adding that they believe in reincarnation and that the three different forms of shulassakar represent this spiritual growth.

The shulassakar equivalent of an anathema is a Choir. This is formed when a group of transcendent shulassakar willingly sacrifice themselves in a ritual based on the original couatl sacrifice, which fuses body and spirit to create a gestalt entity possessing great power. Choirs are physically immortal—they don’t age and are immune to the effects of hunger and thirst—though they aren’t true immortals and can be killed. The ritual that creates a choir isn’t somehow instinctively known to all shulassakar, and thus different shulassakar sects have discovered it and employed it for different reasons. There could be a shulassakar choir hidden somewhere in Khalesh, the last remnant of the ancient servants who merged together to survive the Sundering. Adventurers could find a shulassakar monastery whose anchorites chose to join together in the ultimate communion. Or a choir could be found guarding a post that required an immortal sentinel. The fusing of spirits gives a choir an unusual detachment from mortality; choirs can meditate in isolation for centuries with no sense of boredom. The main point is that joining a choir does mean sacrificing one’s individual identity. It’s not something most shulassakar aspire to and they aren’t inherently rulers of shulassakar; they are created for a purpose, whether to guard a position, to gain the power needed to survive, or in the case of the monks, the pursuit of a truly transcendental state.

What do the shulassakar do for food? Are the snake-people of Krezent engaging in agriculture?

As noted in the quote above, Krezent is a RUIN and the Shulassakar are guarding it. It’s not a Shulassakar city, it’s a job; the guardians of Krezent come from a fortress-city in a demiplane they claimed long ago. Beyond this, Krezent is a COUATL RUIN, which is to say, a place built by celestial beings at the height of their power. So the guardians don’t need to farm or hunt; Krezent has divine tools that replicate the effects of create food and water for those who know how to use them.

What is the attitude of the shulassakar to the troubles of the people around them? what would drive a shulassakar adventurer?

The canon answer can be seen in the Talenta Plains, in which the halflings AVOID Krezent. This tells us that the Shulassakar aren’t running around trying to help the halflings with basic everyday problems. They aren’t mediating tribal disputes or helping when there’s an outbreak of plague. Beyond this they are completely unknown in the Five Nations; there isn’t a council of shulassakar in Thrane. This ties to a general principle of Eberron, which is that powerful NPCs aren’t going to show up to solve your problems. Personally, I’d attribute this to three factors: there are very few shulassakar, likely speaking to a low fertility rate. Shulassakar who act too openly may well be targeted by agents of the Lords of Dust. And finally, there’s the Shavarath principle: they believe that the things they are doing are MORE IMPORTANT than whatever troubles the people around them are dealing with. Yes, it’s very sad that you’re dealing with a plague, but that plague is in fact a natural occurrence and that’s how the world works… whereas if someone releases the fiends of pestilence we’re keeping bound, THAT’S going to be a serious unnatural problem. Also consider the line from the original article: “A shulassakar always prefers to solve a problem on its own or to call in a more powerful servant to handle the problem.” They don’t work WITH other people; they’re going to solve your problems for you, and likely you’ll never know. This ties to why the halflings fear the Shulassakar; “They fight against darkness with ruthless efficiency and will make any sacrifice necessary for the greater good, including the lives of innocents.”

So looking to shulassakar PCs, the question is WHY they are getting involved in other people’s problems and working directly with non-shulassakar adventurers. The simple answer is that it’s because they have been assigned a divine mission (either by a shulassakar superior or by a divine vision) and thus they’re following the dictates of their faith and culture in doing what they’re doing; it’s their SACRED DUTY to pursue their quest. The other alternative is that they are rebelling and following a path that THEY feel is more important than their sacred duties, in which case they would likely be censured by their people.

Have you every used the Shulassakar in your camapign? If so, share the story in the comments! As always, thanks to my Patreon supporters, who make it possible for me to write these articles. If you have infrequently asked questions of your own, pose them on Patreon!

Dragonmark: Couatls and the Silver Flame

Before I get started, here’s a quick word from our sponsor… Me! If you’d like to see me running an Eberron game, Fugue State is live Wednesdays at 7:30 PM Pacific for the next few weeks (and you can see previous sessions at that site). If you’d like a chance to play in my ongoing monthly Eberron game, check out the Threshold level of my Patreon. Likewise, the amount of time I have for this site and the subjects of the articles I write are all tied to Patreon, so if you’d like to support the site, that’s the place to do it!

Anyone who’s been to a church of the Silver Flame has seen the image of Tira and the couatl. But what are the couatls, and what do people actually know about them? How can you encounter them in the present day?

What are Couatls?

Couatls are native celestials, the last children of Siberys. They were born in the first age of the world, and they helped the mortal species of that time in their struggles against the fiendish overlords. The balance of power dramatically favored the fiends, and the children of Siberys realized that the only path to victory was through sacrifice. Working together, the native celestials abandoned their individual forms and fused their immortal essence together, creating a well of pure divine energy. As the dragons and other mortals defeated the overlords, this Silver Flame was able to bind them. Since that point, the Flame has been strengthened by the addition of millions of mortal souls, but it began with the sacrifice of the native celestials, and that immortal essence is the foundation of the Flame.

The question of the imbalance of power between fiends and celestials is one that is often discussed by sages and theologians. Why are fiends found across the world, while the celestials seemingly abandoned it… especially when planes such as Shavarath and Daanvi have a more even division between fiends and celestials? In his Codex of All Mysteries, Korran asserts that the answer is simple: Khyber slew Siberys. Through treachery, Khyber slew Siberys even before the world was formed and the native celestials are a reflection of the final spark of Siberys. In that time so long ago, the native celestials realized that as the balance of power tilted so dramatically toward the fiends that what they could accomplish as isolated individuals was trivial. But in fusing their essence into one great gestalt they could generate a power that could at least bind the overlords, and which could empower mortals to battle the fiends themselves. This ties to a crucial underlying theme of the setting: Eberron is a world that needs heroes. The Silver Flame is the greatest force of light in the world, but it cannot act on its own; it depends on mortal champions to carry its light against the darkness. A small handful of independent celestials remain in the world, and this will be discussed later in this article. But the bulk of celestial power in Eberron is concentrated into the Silver Flame—a tool and a weapon for mortals to wield.

Now, couatls aren’t the only form of native celestial. But just as the rakshasa are the most common form of fiend, the couatls are the most common form of celestial on Eberron. Any other form of celestial could potentially be used as a native celestial, but most such spirits will share some cosmetic elements with couatl: prismatic coloring, feathers, serpentine characteristics. So a native deva might have rainbow-feathered wings and fine iridescent scales. Why these traits? One theory is that this is a reflection of Siberys himself; the nation of Khalesh used a banner that showed Eberron and Khyber as dragons entwined, with Siberys as a winged serpent encircling the struggling wyrms. This is purely speculative, the coloring and other traits are common among native celestials and are sometimes inherited by mortal creatures infused with celestial energy, such as the Shulassakar or aasimar tied to the Silver Flame.

One complication in dealing with couatls is their shifting power level in different editions of Dungeons&Dragons. The 3.5 couatl had a challenge rating of 10, with the note that it was possible to encounter a huge couatl with up to three times as many hit dice as that CR 10 version. However, the 5E Monster Manual presents the couatl as a fairly minor celestial, with a Challenge rating of 4. The trick is that in Eberron, “couatl” is like “rakshasa”—it’s a category, spanning spirits with a wide range of power. Looking to the rakshasa, not only are there different classes—the standard rakshasa, the ak’chazar, the naztharune, the zakya—but you also have unique individuals with far greater power than the rank and file. Just as Mordakhesh is dramatically more powerful than the typical Zakya rakshasa, the couatl Hezcalipa (the ally and mentor of the dragon Ourelonastrix, who might be the inspiration for the Sovereign Aureon) was dramatically more powerful than a typical CR 4 couatl. But what do you do with this in fifth edition, which only provides statistics for the CR 4 couatl? There’s a few options.

  • Reskin other celestials. Couatl aren’t the only native celestials. You could introduce a deva or a ki-rin as a child of Siberys. But you could also take the stat block of one of these more powerful celestials and just describe the entity as a winged serpent instead of as a winged humanoid or golden-scaled beast. A deva attacks with a mace, inflicting 1d6+4 bludgeoning damage plus 4d6 radiant damage; you can have the deva-couatl attack with a bite that deals 1d6+4 piercing damage and “floods their body with radiant venom” which deals 4d6 radiant damage. Yes, this is different from the poison effect of the CR 4 couatl, and the deva doesn’t have the ability to constrict its foe; but just as not all serpents constrict or produce venom, not all couatl do either. So make the simplest changes—swapping the bludegoning damage of the mace to piercing for fangs, because that’s obvious—but otherwise, just change the way you describe the creature and its attacks. This doesn’t have to be limited to celestials; you could easily take the guardian naga stat block, change it from monstrosity to celestial, and describe it as a wingless couatl.
  • Blend old and new. You can follow the same basic idea, but actually change a few abilities to more closely reflect the couatl. It makes sense that any form of couatl would have the Shielded Mind trait of the CR 4 couatl. For a couatl ki-rin you could describe the Horn attack as a bite attack (which just doesn’t produce venom), but replace the two hoof attacks of the ki-rin with a single Constrict attack, following the model of the CR 4 couatl—perhaps raising the DC to escape to DC 17, reflecting the Ki-rin/Couatl’s higher CR and Strength. Likewise, you could swap out spells on the Ki-Rin’s spell list to include all the spells on the CR 4 couatl’s spell list. But overall, you can still us the ki-rin stat block to reflect the more powerful creature.
  • Create something new. If you have the time, you can use the CR 4 as a blueprint to create your own unique powerful couatl. It’s not something *I* have time to do right now, but I think it makes perfect sense to create couatl with distinct abilities—a loremaster couatl (such as Hezcalipa), perhaps a warlike couatl guardian shrouded in (silver) flame.

Likewise, keep in mind that couatl don’t have to be as powerful as the CR 4 version! A Celestial warlock with the Chain pact could have a tiny couatl as a familiar. Use the statistics of a pseudo-dragon, but describe it as a couatl; this has the same relationship to a standard couatl that an imp does to a more powerful devil. Remember that as celestials, couatls are essentially divine tools and ideas given form. The tiny couatl is simply a minor spirit of light; it’s not biologically related to the more powerful couatl.

This ties to one other point, which is that immortals are tools and concepts. They exist for a reason, and they don’t choose that path as mortals can. The tiny couatl familiar exists to advise the warlock; you could play it as a minor spirit of wisdom or as a guardian angel. But every couatl has a purpose and/or embodies a concept. Where the immortals of the planes embody concepts tied to their planes (War, Hope, Law, etc) the immortals of Eberron are more broadly “good” and “evil.” In creating a specific couatl, a DM could decide that it’s a spirt of truth, or courage, or wisdom—and play its personality accordingly. Swapping out spells is another simple way to reflect this and give a particular couatl some unique flavor.

What Do People Know About Couatls?

Anyone in a nation where the Silver Flame has a presence is familiar with the basic idea of the couatls—their appearance and the fact that they’re celestial emissaries of the Silver Flame. In this, they are much like angels in OUR world; almost everyone can look at a picture of one and say “That’s an angel,” but not everyone believes they exist, and even those people who DO believe they exist don’t generally expect to meet one. Couatls are part of the mythology of the Silver Flame. Tira Miron was guided by a couatl, and the templars use rainbow fletching on their arrows to emulate the swift-flying couatl. Couatls are often also part of the manifestations of divine magic tied to the Silver Flame. When a cleric of the Flame casts spirit guardians, the guardians are often couatl-like shapes formed of silver fire. Summon celestial and planar ally typically manifest couatls or other creatures with couatl-like attributes. These spells aren’t commonplace, but the point is that people associate couatls with the Silver Flame, and if they see one they will say “That’s a couatl! Like the one that guided Tira!” as opposed to “What’s that?”

With that said, Khorvaire’s Church of the Silver Flame isn’t actually that old… and couatls have been known since the dawn of time. Anyone proficient in History or Religion may know that couatls have been revered by many cultures. As mentioned earlier, the pre-Sundering nation of Khalesh in Sarlona was devoted to the celestial serpents. The orc kala’sha paladins of Ghaash’kala often tattoo a couatl wound around one of their arms; they know the couatl as emmissaries of the Binding Flame.

So almost everyone in the Five Nations knows what a couatl is. Again, think of it as analgous to angels in our world. Anyone can recognize a picture of one, but it’s going to take a Religion check to explain the difference between a cherub or a seraph.

Silvertide and Serpent Cults

So: in kanon, everyone knows what a couatl is. Everyone’s seen that picture of Tira and the couatl. However, canon has some inconsistencies in this regard. On the one hand, page 70 of City of Stormreach says this of a priest…

He only speaks of it to his most trusted parishioners, but (the priest) practices the traditions of an ancient serpent cult, passed down to his father by a feathered yuan-ti. Although the values are similar to those of the modern church, this faith teaches that the Silver Flame was kindled by the sacrifice of the couatls in the dawn times; Tira Miron and the Keeper of the Flame are stewards who bring the light of the Flame to humans too limited to see the ancient force on their own. Guin has served as an intermediary for the shulassakar yuan-ti in the past, and this could serve as the basis for an adventure.

This isn’t the heresy that has caused the Stormreach church to be severed from Flamekeep; the section specifies that it’s the opposition to the theocracy that’s the major problem, and the quote here specifies that the priest only speaks of his beliefs to those close to him. It’s not that these beliefs are heretical, but they are unusual. However, the 4E Eberron Campaign Guide introduces the concept of Silvertide, saying “This highest holy day of the faith celebrates the sacrifice of the couatls and the birth of the Silver Flame.” So Stormreach says that the idea of the couatl sacrifice is a secret the priest only shares with his most trusted friends, while the ECG says it’s the basis of the most important holy day the church has. How do we reconcile this contradiction?

The Age of Demons ended a hundred thousand years ago, the precise details of what happened then frankly aren’t as important to most of the people of Khorvaire as the things that happened a few centuries ago. In my opinion, the tales of the Age of Demons and the story of Tira’s sacrifice can be seen as similar to the Old and New Testaments. While the two are directly related, different religions place different weight on the two books. The Serpent Cults are primarily interested with the ORIGINAL story and see Tira’s sacrifice as a recent and relatively minor development. But to the people of the Five Nations, Tira’s sacrifice is the most important story, because it happened to them. Tira saved the people of Thrane from a fiendish apocalypse, and as the Voice of the Flame, she continues to guide them today. They know the general stories about how the Flame was kindled in the dawn of time to bind the overlords and they are grateful for that first sacrifice, but it’s just too long ago to have deep personal meaning; while Tira is the Voice that speaks to them today, and her sacrifice is the reason Thrane even exists.

With this in mind, you can see how I describe the festival of Silvertide on my ongoing Threshold campaign. A key point is that the priest doesn’t actually describe that original sacrifice as the COUATL sacrifice, because those details are largely irrelevant; she speaks of the battle between the forces of light and darkness and of the sacrifice of those first champions to kindle the Flame. Because the LESSON of Silvertide is the power of sacrifice—to respect the first champions whose sacrifice lit the Flame; Tira, whose sacrifice allows us all to draw upon it; and anyone whose sacrifices have made a difference in your own personal life. A key part of the festival is to call out and honor sacrifices others have made for you, and to consider what sacrifices you can make for others. So as the ECG says, it IS a festival that honors the couatl sacrifice; but it honors the SACRIFICE, not the COUATL.

This brings us to the idea of serpent cults. A number of canon sources describe serpent cults—sects found across the world and throughout history. What differentiates a serpent cult from a Silver Flame faith is the direct focus on the couatl as opposed to the Flame. A Flame sect focuses on the Silver Flame as it exists today—a conglomeration of countless noble souls of many species. Most honor the couatl as emissaries and servants of the Flame, but they are secondary to the Flame itself. A serpent cult focuses on the couatl, honoring them as the first children of Siberys and emphasizing their role in creating the Flame. Serpent cults often downplay the idea that other creatures can join the Flame and instead emphasize the Flame as the pure light of the couatl. Looking at key named sects, the Sarlonan nation of Khalesh was a serpent cult devoted to the couatl; the Ghaash’kala, on the other hand, are a Flame sect. They may call it the Binding Flame instead of the Silver Flame, but it is the FLAME that they honor above all; couatl are its tools.

So looking back to Stormreach, again, the priest’s beliefs aren’t dire heresy; they’re just unorthodox views that most followers of the modern Church don’t share or care about. To the typical Thrane parishoner, emphasizing that the first sacrifice was entirely couatl would be a slightly eccentric belief that undermines the moral of the story—that we all have the power to make a difference through our sacrifices, and that any noble soul can strengthen the Flame. This is reflected in the original statement on page 303 of the Eberron Campaign Setting

Ultimately the couatls sacrificed most of their number in order to seal the overlords within their combined souls. Scholars have theorized that this is the ultimate source of the force worshiped by the Church of the Silver Flame. The Church ministry is ambivalent about this theory, stating that regardless of how the Flame was first kindled, there is a place within the Flame for all noble souls.

Encountering Couatls

There’s three main ways to encounter a couatl in the present age.

Ancient Guardian. The quote from the ECS states that most of the couatl joined together to found the Flame. Most isn’t all; a handful remained as incarnate individuals to accomplish vital tasks that couldn’t be entrusted to mortals. Keep in mind that they use mortal agents when they can—the shulassakar, the Masivirk’uala lizardfolk, and the Ghaash’kala, even Tira Miron are all examples of this. A few reasons you might need an actual couatl are to preserve knowledge that can’t be trusted to a mortal; to oversee a project that will take many generations to unfold; do accomplish a task that requires the innate celestial powers of the couatl; or to guard an area that’s either too hostile, isolated, or corruptive to entrust to a mortal. An ancient guardian is an immortal who has existed since the Age of Demons; they don’t have heart demiplanes and typically are reborn in the location where they are destroyed, with the length of time this takes depending on the strength of the couatl and the manner in which it is destroyed. While they are incarnate spirits of light, the fact that they have usually existed in intense isolation can make these guardians more intense than their temporary counterparts; they often have tunnel vision tied to their vital task. A temporary couatl has watched humanity grow; a guardian may not have seen another living creature since before human civilization existed.

Temporary Emissary. When a priest of the Silver Flame casts summon celestial, they aren’t pulling a couatl from some other location in the world. Instead, the spirit is directly manifesting from the Silver Flame itself, and when its work is done it will return to the Flame. The Silver Flame is a mass of hundreds of thousands of souls, but within the Flame those spirits exist as a transcendent gestalt, not as individual personalities. When a temporary couatl manifests, it will employ the personality of one of the original couatl; this could allow adventurers to actually speak with Hezcalipa, for example. But Hezcalipa doesn’t exist as an individual while she’s part of the Flame, and her actions when she does appear are moderated by being part of that gestalt; she is first and foremost an emissary of the Flame, shaped by the memories of a couatl who sacrificed itself long ago.

Channeling and Visions. You don’t have to meet a couatl in the flesh. The CR 4 fifth edition couatl can cast dream, a useful tool for guiding and advising mortals. The 3.5 ECS also explored the idea of divine channeling…

A mortal who channels a celestial becomes a mortal manifestation of the celestial’s power. The celestial can draw on all the mortal’s memories, and the celestial senses what the mortal senses. The mortal and the celestial can communicate telepathically, but neither has complete access to the current thoughts of the other.

Looking to the tale of Tira Miron, the original idea was that most of the time Tira was channeling the couatl; it was guiding her, but it wasn’t just flying along next to her. In other places we’ve suggested that her guiding couatl was actually bound with her sword Kloijner. This is why in the image above, you can’t see the rainbow feathers of the couatl; it’s a spiritual presence. When it comes to a dream vision or channeling a couatl, there’s still the question of whether the spirit is an ancient guardian that has always been separate from the Flame or if it’s a temporary emissary sent out into the world to accomplish this task. In the case of emissaries, an emissary who grants dreams might never fully manifest as a physical couatl; think of it as an antenna extended from the Flame to broadcast a signal, after which it is retracted.

With any use of visions in dreams, a valid question is how this relates to Dal Quor. In my opinion, couatl visions don’t occur in Dal Quor; they effectively intercept the dreaming spirit before it reaches Dal Quor. This ties to the idea that they actually isolated the dreams of the Masvirik’uala, as described in this article. If you embrace this idea, it’s possible that they could actually give visions to mortal who sleep in some way but don’t actually dream, such as Kalashtar or elves—but that’s definitely up to the DM to decide. The general idea is that couatls have an affinity for mortal minds, something reflected in earlier editions by their psionic abilities; but they are native celestials, not creatures of Dal Quor. With that said, a scheming quori could definitely impersonating a couatl when manipulating someone with its own dream visions…

So, how can you encounter a couatl? You might find one as the guardian of an ancient vault, sworn to keep the cursed items within from falling into mortal hands… or to guide mortal champions to reclaim these deadly artifacts after the vault is breached. You could be visited by a couatl who has emerged from the Flame to assist you in overcoming a great threat, but it can only remain at your side for a brief time—or, potentially it can only assist you through dreams, or a moment of divine channeling. The main thing to keep in mind is that all of these are incredibly rare. There are only a handful of ancient guardians in existence, and they are dealing with tasks no mortal could handle. As for emissaries, the Silver Flame is a machine designed to do two things: to bind overlords and to empower mortal champions. Short term spells like summon celestial are part of that machine—tools that work through mortals and lasts briefly. For a couatl emissary to emerge from the Flame is like pulling a random gear off the machine; it’s difficult and potentially dangerous to the machine itself. It’s the sort of thing that happens to people like Tira Miron—heroes who can change the fate of the nation or the world. But overall, the Silver Flame deals with problems by empowering mortals, not by deploying celestials. This ties to that fundamental principle: Eberron is a world that needs heroes. The physical appearance of an emissary is a legendary event… but player characters have the potential to be legends.

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

IFAQ: August Lightning Round!

As time permits, I like to answer interesting questions posed by my Patreon supporters. Sometimes these are weighty topics—like whaling or medusa reproduction—that require a full article. Others I just answer directly on Patreon. Here’s a few of those short answers from last month!

The warforged colossus Artorok is designated WX-73. Were there seventy three colossuses?

Nope! Every colossus has two names—So you have Artorok (WX-73), Arkus (WX-11), and so on. The name is the name of the BODY of the colossus. The numeric designation is actually the designation of the master docent that serves as the heart of the docent network that drives the colossus. “WX” stands for “Waylon/Xen’drik” and refers to the expedition that recovered the docent. So more than seventy-three docents were recovered from Xen’drik, but only a handful of those docents were intact and capable of maintaining a colossus. Personally, I think that Cannith had time to develop twelve colossuses; they were working on the thirteenth when the Mourning struck.

What is the difference in terms of magic advancement between the Dhakanni and the Dwarves of Sol Udar?

They’re vastly different. As called out in Exploring Eberron, “The dwarves of Sol Udar were an advanced civilization employing arcane science beyond that currently possessed by the Five Nations. The halls were shaped by elemental magic—an improved form of the move earth spell—and reinforced to be stronger than any natural stone. Barring any alien influence, the air is renewed by magic and remarkably fresh; a permanent prestidigitation effect keeps these halls clean after thousands of years and untold conflicts… Widespread magic was a part of daily life in Sol Udar.

By contrast, the Dhakaani are exceptional in many ways but DON’T have a tradition of wide magic. From Exploring Eberron: “Dhakaani daashor are the finest weaponsmiths on Khorvaire. Their traditions blend mundane skill and transmutation to create and manipulate remarkable alloys, including adamantine, mithral, and byeshk. Their skill at metallurgy outstrips even House Cannith, and Dhakaani champions often wield weapons forged from such material. Dhakaani equipment is designed for durability and efficiency, rarely gaudy or bejeweled. Likewise, armor is tough and flexible—often with the properties of mithral or adamantine armor—but not dramatic in style. Dhakaani magic items are either created by the daashor (who specialize in armor and weapons) or by gifted duur’kala. Dhakaani magic rarely focuses on evocation effects, and they have no tradition of elemental binding.”

So the Dhakaani make excellent WEAPONS AND ARMOR, but part of that is tied advances in mundane science. Beyond that, the items they have are created by duur’kala, with the key point being that the duur’kala are BARDS—primarily spiritual leaders and diplomats, NOT devoted to manufacturing. So the Dhakaani HAVE magic, but it’s NOT as widespread as magic in the Five Nations—let alone Sol Adar, which is considerably more advanced than the Five Nations. Essentially, the Dhakaani excel at things that are related to WAR… though even there, the point is that they don’t employ siege staffs, airships, or similar magical tools. The Dhakaani daashor make the finest SWORDS on Khorvaire… but they don’t have a strong tradition of WANDS. Now, the catch is that the ancient Dhakaani could create ARTIFACTS, as could the dwarves of Sol Udar. But these artifacts were extremely rare—the weapons of champions and tools of the Marhu—and they didn’t have a strong tradition of EVERYDAY magic.

The Sol Udar dwarves use air refreshing magic to sustain life in the depths… What do the Dhakaani do?

There’s three factors. The first is that the Dar as a species have adapted to thrive in a subterranean environment. Much as creatures in high altitudes adapt to the lower oxygen content, as creatures who evolved in the depths I’d expect Dar to be better suited to the challenges of a deep environment. I wouldn’t see this as having a strong game effect, but if I was running a long-term subterranean campaign and decided to develop environmental effects for bad air, I might give the Dar a ribbon similar to the Goliath’s Mountain Born—”You are acclimated to deep subterranean environments.” Note that I’m specifically saying the DAR—the Dhakaani who have remained in their deep vaults for thousands of years—as opposed to all goblinoids.

With that said, just because the Dar are more capable of surviving in such environments doesn’t mean they don’t need oxygen. I have always assumed that they engineer solutions that can bring fresh air to the depths—that just like creating aqueducts and mundane systems for channeling water, they use mundane (but remarkable) solutions to channel air to the depths. Thinking further, however, there’s a third factor: certain manifest zones and demiplane portals could well serve as oxygen sources in the deeps—and Dhakaani might build around these just as they would build around good sources of water. But the general principle is that while the Dhakaani aren’t as magically adept as some cultures, they are better at many forms of mundane science… which is also why I’ve said that if I was to add traditional firearms to Eberron, I’d start by giving them to the Dhakaani.

How does the Cazhaak Creed view the aberrant creations of the daelkyr, such as the illithid Xorchylic of Graywall? Are they considered children of the Shadow as much as any other aberration?

Through the sourcebooks, we have access to a lot of specific knowledge that people in world don’t have. WE know mind flayers are creations of Dyrrn the Corruptor. But most people—in Breland and Droaam alike—know nothing about mind flayers. For most of the people of Graywall, Xorchyllic is an entirely unique terror. Followers of the Cazhaak faith would likely say “Does it possess awesome powers? Are humans terrified of it? Check, check—seems like a child of the Shadow.”

This ties to the point that the Cazhaak traditions are about FAITH, not fact. If you presented a Cazhaak medusa with absolute proof that they were created by Orlassk, they would say “So what? This Orlassk may have sculpted our bodies, but it was surely the Shadow who guided its hands and who gave it the inspiration; thus, it is the Shadow who is our TRUE creator and who deserves our devotion.” Having said that, knowledge of the daelkyr is certainly present in Droaam. As will be called out in FRAG, the sages of Cazhaak Draal DO know of Orlassk, but they consider it a tyrant they broke free from, not a being they should worship. Again, their point is that it doesn’t matter if Orlassk physically created the first medusa; in doing so, it was merely a tool of the Shadow, and they owe nothing to Orlassk.

Back to the original question, Cazhaak sages who know of the daelkyr will generally extend the same understanding they have of themselves to others. THEY believe that they are children of the Shadow, regardless of any ties they might have to Orlassk. They embrace gargoyles as children of the Shadow, in spite of their ties to Orlassk. Mind flayers, dolgrims—they too are children of the Shadow. But if they choose to serve the daelkyr and seek to destroy other children of the Shadow, then that’s sufficient reason to consider them enemies and destroy them.

What does the release of an overlord due to the Prophecy actually look like? Does it just spontaneously happen, or does it trigger some sort of cascade of events leading up to the release?

The release of an Overlord isn’t instantaneous; it’s simply that once set in motion by the breaking of bonds, it is usually inevitable. So if we imagine the final stage of releasing Sul Khatesh is for the Broken Hero (a PC) to murder Queen Aurala at Arcanix with the Blade of Sorrows, first we’ve had a chain of events to get there. When the event finally occurs and the bonds are broken, SOMETHING will happen immediately—it’s clear that we’re in trouble. In this case, the towers of Arcanix might fall, or the region around Arcanix could be shrouded in supernatural darkness, which spreads over the next few days and weeks as Sul Khatesh regains her power. A concrete example of this comes in the 4E Eberron Campaign Guide regarding Bel Shalor:

If the Shadow in the Flame is freed, his influence will begin to extend out over the land around him, first covering a few miles, and ultimately spreading out across an entire nation. People who fall under his sway become selfish and cruel, turning on one another instead of standing against him. PCs are immune to this passive effect, but it might affect their ability to find allies. Within this sphere of influence, people grow pale and their shadows become clearer and more vivid even in poor lighting, often seeming to move of their own accord. It is said that the shadows conspire against their owners, telling Bel Shalor of their secret plans; you must decide if this claim is true.

The point is that it’s not just “A hole opens up and a big monster hops out!” The physical form of the overlord is just one aspect of it (which comes back to the point that destroying that physical form doesn’t permanently destroy the overlord). The first thing that will be felt is its INFLUENCE. If the bonds of Rak Tulkhesh are broken, the FIRST thing that will happen is that people in his sphere of influence will begin fighting one another. Eventually the Rage of War will physically manifest, but its PRESENCE will be felt before that happens.

Where is House Phiarlan’s Demesne of Shape? Some sources suggest it’s in Thaliost, while others say it’s in Wroat.

Even writers make mistakes, and that’s likely what happened here. However, my answer is “Both.” Thaliost is a crazy place to establish an important facility in the wake of the war. It’s deeply contested occupied territory. Wroat, on the other hand, is a very secure national capital. In my opinion, Viceroy Idal chose Thaliost specifically because they believe that a Phiarlan presence could help maintain peace and understanding in the city and because the Serpentine Table wants a strong Phiarlan enclave in this hotspot. So the Thaliost enclave is the official Demense of Shape. However, a rival within the house has also established an “understudy” Shape facility in Wroat, because they believe that the Thaliost demesne could get burnt down any day now.

How would you make the Kech Draguus distinct from the Draelaes Tairn?

The Kech Draguus is a very deep cut. They weren’t mentioned in Exploring Eberron, and I believe the only canon source for them is a Dragonshard article I wrote, which states “Long ago, a rogue gold dragon formed an alliance with a clan of Dhakaani hobgoblins. Now this Kech Draguus has emerged from hiding. With a corps of half-dragon goblinoids and a few full-blooded dragons at its disposal, the Kech Draguus are poised to reshape Darguun.” The Draleus Tairn, on the other hand, are dragon SLAYERS. Dragons of Eberron has this to say: “The Draleus faith holds that the warrior draws strength from victory, and passes this energy to his ancestors . . . and no victory is greater than the defeat of a dragon.” There are RUMORS that Draleus dragon slayers can gain draconic powers and could become half-dragons, dragon shamans, etc, but those are of course rumors.

So, the two are VERY different. The Draguus are a Dhakaani Kech, which is to say, a tightly disciplined military force. They work WITH dragons, and essentially, they’re the Dhakaani answer to the Targaryens; they are going to employ dragons as living siege engines on the battlefield. Their champions may be half-dragons, but if so they were created with the blessing of their dragon patron, who in all likelihood counsels the leaders of the Kech. As the Dragonshard says, they have an ALLIANCE with dragons. By contrast, if there’s a half-dragon Draleus warrior, they gained that power by killing a dragon and ritually bathing in its blood. There’s no alliance between the Draleus and dragons; rather, they are bitter enemies. Beyond that, as Dragons of Eberron calls out, “The Draleus Tairn rarely socialize with outlanders, or even other elves… due to their isolation and reputation, few elves trouble the dragon slayers.” So the Draleus Tairn are at best isolated warbands, and often LONE INDIVIDUALS pursuing their personal quests… while the Kech Draguus are a militaristic, disciplined city-state.

That’s all for now! If you have infrequently asked questions of your own, you might be able to find the answer on my Patreon. Thanks to my patrons for making these articles possible!

IFAQ: Medusas

The race of medusas was born in Khyber, but two hundred twenty years ago a clan emerged from the darkness and laid claim to the city of Cazhaak Draal in Droaam. The medusas have played an important role in Droaam’s rise as a nation. They are skilled stonemasons and architects, and their deadly gaze attack makes them dangerous warriors and valuable bodyguards.

This is what the original Eberron Campaign Setting had to say about medusas. It followed our general approach of questioning and considering previous assumptions. Traditionally, medusas were monsters, expected to hang around in statue-filled caves waiting for adventurers. But third edition didn’t present them as being created by a curse or otherwise existing in isolation—and further, the mental ability scores of the typical medusa were superior of those to the typical human. So why would these intelligent, powerful creatures hang around dank dungeons waiting to fight adventurers? Why wouldn’t they have a civilization of their own? Beyond this, it was easy to see how medusas could play an important role in Droaam. They’re smarter than humans, let alone ogres—and they have a power that even a gargoyle or minotaur has to respect. Breland might not think much of a city of ogres, but a city of medusas is a force anyone has to take seriously.

I expanded on the medusas of Eberron in this Dragonshard article, which added a few additional twists. The medusas of Cazhaak Draal use their serpent manes as secondary eyes, allowing them to see while their primary eyes are closed or covered. They’ve developed a language called Serpentine, which uses the hisses and motions of their serpents. Medusas can petrify other medusas (something that has varied by edition) though they’ve developed a ritual to negate the effects of their gaze. Within their own culture they use petrification as a tool, preserving elders or mortally wounded medusas. However, this article leaves many questions unanswered… a situation further complicated by the constantly shifting lore about medusas. Sharn: City of Towers has male medusas with the same capabilities (serpents, petrification) as females, while non-Eberron lore in some editions presents male medusas as a divergent species with entirely different abilities. Fifth edition presents medusas as isolated individuals rather than a distinct species; in 5E, medusas (male or female) are created as the result of a curse and they have no culture.

Eberron has always diverged from default lore; just look at gnolls, drow, and mind flayers. The fact that the default lore of medusas has changed in fifth edition doesn’t make any difference, because Eberron wasn’t using the lore of previous editions either; again, in S:CoT we have the male medusa Harash, who’s notably not a maedar. The medusas of Eberron are the medusas of Eberron: a unique species who emerged from Khyber to found a city-state on the surface, and who possess a distinct culture and language. In Eberron, vanity alone can’t make you a medusa. Which is fine, but it leaves many questions unanswered. Keep in mind that—like all of these articles—all of what I’m about to say is what I do in my Eberron campaign. Nothing here is canon, and it’s entirely possible I will contradict canon sources. This is how I use medusas; it’s a suggestion, not a fact.

What’s so interesting about medusas?

There’s many things I like about medusas.

  • They’re traditionally encountered as lone monsters, and I love turning that around and exploring the idea of medusas as a civilized people. Along with the Venomous Demesne, they have a sophisticated culture that predates Droaam, and they’re a power bloc the Daughters want to keep as allies.
  • Many of the creatures of Droaam—ogres, trolls—are creatures that rely on brute force. Medusas are more intelligent than humans. They’re an excellent tool for getting across the point that these things humans consider to be monsters may be alien, but that doesn’t make them subhuman.
  • At the same time, medusas ARE very alien, and I like exploring that. I like digging deeper into the serpent mane, and in playing up ways that human assumptions about them can be very off-base.
  • Medusas are POWERFUL and dangerous. The mere threat of their gaze is enough to change the dynamics of a conversation.
  • The Cazhaak medusas are a very spiritual people, and are the primary priests of the dominant religion in Droaam—a religion based on deities humanity fears. This is another source of power and potential story hooks, and something that can give a medusa goals that run counter to those of Droaam; Zerasha of Graywall places the her duty to the Shadow above the desires of the Daughters.

All of these things combined can make medusas excellent ambassadors, enigmatic priests, or Daask commanders. They can enforce order among dangerous and diverse minions, but they aren’t inherently bloodthirsty or brutish. They are a truly alien species, and for people who have never actually dealt with them before it’s fun to play with expectations and fears.

Where do the medusas of Eberron come from? Were they created by Orlassk?

The Cazhaak creed asserts that the Sovereigns created and cultivated weak creatures that they could dominate—pathetic, powerless creatures, like humans. It was the Shadow who gave the blessed creatures—those humans call “monsters”—their gifts. The oldest medusa myths maintain that their ancestors were slaves in the depths of Khyber—enslaved by a “stone tyrant,” most likely the daelkyr Orlassk—and that the Shadow gave them their powers and inspired them to break the yoke of their oppression and claim their freedom. Keep in mind that these are myths, passed down through oral tradition for centuries before they were even concretely codified. Gatekeepers and many modern scholars assert that it was most likely Orlaask who actually created the medusas, blending humans (Explorers? Some sort of colony?) with basilisks. But religion is about faith; even if they were presented with absolute concrete proof that Orlaask created the first medusa by merging a human and a basilisk, a medusa would say that Orlaask was simply a pawn guided by the Shadow, and that it was the Shadow who gave their ancestors the strength to rebel against the Stone Tyrant. The Cazhaak medusas know that they are children of the Shadow, and simple facts won’t shake this faith.

Regardless of the truth, the medusas are a relatively young species. In describing Cazhaak Draal, the Eberron Campaign Setting says that Cazhaak Draal “was abandoned after the daelkyr released a horde of basilisks, gorgons, and cockatrices from the depths of Khyber.” Note the lack of medusas in that description. Medusas generally resemble humans more than they do hobgoblins or dwarves (let alone gnolls), and their first historical appearance on the surface world is when they emerge to claim Cazhaak Draal. It seems likely that as a species, medusas are little over a thousand years old. On the other hand, it is entirely possible that there is a second culture of medusas that has yet to be encountered by humans—medusas who remained servants of the Stone Tyrant. So explorers in Khyber could discover a city of medusas still devoted to Orlaask, who know nothing of the Shadow or the Cazhaak creed.

What is the life cycle of medusas in your Eberron?

First of all, in my campaign maedar—the serpentless “male medusas”—are an entirely separate species. Fourth edition presented them as having a “venomous gaze” and I’d be more inclined to use these scaly, venomous humanoids as creations of the overlord Masvirik, the Cold Sun—an overlord noted for reptilian traits and poison. The medusas of Eberron are defined by their serpent mane and their petrifying gaze.

Cazhaak medusas can have a masculine or feminine appearance. Thus we have Queen Sheshka, but also the medusa Harash in Sharn, who is described as male. The majority of medusas—around 80%—have a feminine appearance. However, the fact is that medusa physiology is nothing like that of humanity and that this presumption of gender is misleading. “Female” medusas may have a feminine shape, but they don’t suckle their young and don’t actually have mammary glands. Medusa myths suggest that they were created (whether by Orlaask or the Shadow) from another humanoid species, and most likely their silhouette is an artifact of that forgotten past.

Medusa reproduction is nothing like human reproduction, and any two medusas can reproduce. After a period of foreplay that causes key chemicals to be released, two medusas entwine their serpent manes. They bite one another’s serpents, and those bitten in this way fall off of the head. The entwined, impregnated serpents undergo a metamorphosis, merging together into leathery “eggs,” eventually releasing a young medusa that blends the traits of both parents. A stranger aspect of this lifecycle is that there’s no absolute assurance how long it will take for a medusa’s egg to mature. It takes at least a year, but it’s not uncommon for an egg to take anywhere up to ten years to hatch… and some eggs never produce a child. Many medusas believe that a child has to want to emerge. Eggs are typically buried in warm sand, and it’s not uncommon for one parent to tend to their brood, singing to the eggs each night; it’s this caregiver who the medusas would call the “mother,” even though they don’t carry the children directly. This slow gestation is offset by a long lifespan. Medusas can live between three hundred to four hundred years before falling victim to old age; There are many medusas in Cazhaak Draal who were part of the expedition that originally claimed the city.

When interacting with other humanoids, medusas often adopt the pronouns people typically associate with their appearance; thus, Sheshka is a queen and uses she/her pronouns. However, the Serpentine language doesn’t use gendered terms. In Serpentine, Sheshka is simply leader, not queen.

Where did the medusas live before Cazhaak Draal? Do they live there still?

The medusas have never been a widespread or numerous people. Their myths speak of a long period of nomadic wandering following their escape from the Stone Tyrant, and describe periods of settlement in what seem to be different demiplanes—periods that always end in disaster, with the medusas being forced to move on. This exodus came to an end when they settled in a Dhakaani city deep below the surface, a vault whose keepers were slain long ago. The medusas call this city Niaanu Draal, the Mother City, and it was here that they wrote down their myths and established the traditions they carry on today. They remained in Niaanu Draal for over two centuries, before this, too, ended in tragedy. The forces of a daelkyr drove the medusas from Niaanu Draal. These enemies could not (or would not) follow the medusas to the surface, and so they came to Cazhaak Draal and claimed it as their home.

Which daelkyr did they fight? It’s possible that it was Orlaask, that the minions of the Stone Tyrant sought to reclaim its former subjects. It could be that Belashyrra was offended by these creatures with their deadly gaze, or that the crawling hordes of Valaara overran the Mother City. This battle took place centuries ago, and ultimately it only matters if a DM wants to run a story related to Niaanu Draal; as a DM, if you want to tell that story, it’s up to you to decide which daelkyr best suits the needs of your campaign. Note that this isn’t a mystery to the medusas themselves; there are medusa elders who took part in the battle, along with petrified elders who once lived in Niaanu Draal. It’s simply that there’s no reason for me to lock in a specific daelkyr here, when a different daelkyr might serve your story better. The medusas faced a great enemy they couldn’t defeat, but it has left them alone ever since. Given the enigmatic nature of the daelkyr, it’s entirely possible that this exodus was the daelkyr’s goal all along… that for some reason it wanted the medusas to rise up from Khyber.

Has Sheshka always been the Queen of Cazhaak Draal? If not, how did she gain the title?

It wasn’t Sheshka who led the medusas to Cazhaak Draal. In the novel The Queen of Stone, a warrior who’s been petrified for over a century recognizes Sheshka as “Lady Sheshka” and is surprised to discover that she is now queen. Sheshka inherited her title, but it is about more than just bloodline. Also from The Queen of Stone

“It’s not as simple as it seems.” Sheshka’s hand brushed against the silver collar that hung around her neck. “I am Sheshka, the Queen of Stone. To you, that may seem an arrogant title, an affectation of a woman who governs a city smaller than your Wroat or Passage. But it is not just a title of nobility: it is a statement of fact. I am the Queen of Stone. I hear the whisper of marble and granite…”

Essentially, Sheshka is the Queen of Stone because she IS the Queen of Stone. In a sense this is similar to the Keeper of the Flame. Medusas have varying degrees of natural affinity for stone. The regalia of the queen—the pendant Sheshka wears—amplifies this gift, but only one with the gift can attune to the collar. If Sheshka were to be killed, the medusas would search among their people for another with this gift—starting with Sheshka’s relatives, but continuing until a suitable medusa is found. So it’s as much a theocracy as it is a monarchy; Sheshka is considered to be blessed by the Shadow.

How do you see a medusa’s gaze working in general interactions. 5e’s gaze feature indiscriminately tries to petrify any qualifying targets in range…

Not exactly. Let’s look at the text…

When a creature that can see the medusa’s eyes starts its turn within 30 feet of the medusa, the medusa can force it to make a DC 14 Constitution saving throw if the medusa isn’t incapacitated and can see the creature…

There’s nothing indiscriminate about this. The medusa CAN force the creature to make a saving throw as long as the medusa can see the target, but it doesn’t HAVE to. My interpretation of this isn’t that a medusa can somehow make it safe for other creatures to look it in the eye, but rather that it’s a simple enough matter for a medusa to avoid meeting another creature’s gaze, using any of the methods I describe in this article. Notably, I still maintain that a medusa only petrifies with its primary eyes, and it can close them (or wear eyeblinders or a blindfold) and use its serpent mane for vision. In 3.5 I assigned a -2 penalty when a medusa uses its serpents for vision, and that’s an option here (fifth edition rarely does penalties, but disadvantage feels too severe). On the other hand, it’s also reasonable to say that the fifth edition medusa can choose not to petrify creatures, and that it does this by closing its main eyes and using its serpents—and therefore apply no penalty for doing so.

Fifth edition also says…

If the medusa sees itself reflected on a polished surface within 30 feet of it and in an area of bright light, the medusa is, due to its curse, affected by its own gaze.

I’m ambivalent about this. It seems very vague and ill-defined compared to the very specific degree of control the medusa has in dealing with enemies. A medusa can choose not to look at an adventurer (not forcing them to make a saving throw)—if that adventurer is holding a mirror, I’d assume it can avoid looking at that, too? I’m not adverse to the idea that a medusa could be affected by its own gaze—as the article suggests, medusas can petrify other medusas—but I think they’d be VERY used to the risks and good at avoiding them; and they’d be able to avoid the threat completely by closing their main eyes (or blindfold) and seeing through their serpents. I’d also hold closely to that “polished surface” and say that they don’t get petrified by, for example, looking at rhe rippling surface of a glass of water. So I’m fine with saying that if there’s a really well-executed plan it is POSSIBLE to petrify a medusa with their own gaze, but that it’s not something you can do casually by just wearing a mirror around your neck.

Cazhaak Draal is noted as being the spiritual center of Droaam. Do the medusas have an arcane tradition as well, and if so, what is that like?

The Cazhaak medusas have an arcane tradition. They are devoted to the Shadow, and the Shadow is a deity of KNOWLEDGE; according to Cazhaak myths, it was the Shadow who taught Aureon all that he knows. However, the Shadow is also about personal ambition and power, and rather than developing a shared system of arcane science that can support wizards and artificers (as seen in the Venomous Demesne), Cazhaak Draal is more a collection of individuals following their own secret paths to power.

Cazhaak Draal has both magewrights and adepts. Medusas have a natural affinity for stone, and their spellcasters often cast spells (or rituals) related to stone, earth, or poison. Cazhaak Draal thus has a strong corps of magewrights capable of casting mold earth and stone shape; working together and using arcane focuses they can cast move earth. More sophisticated spellcasters generally follow the model of bards (most often Whispers), sorcerers (typically Shadow or Storm), or warlocks (potentially any). In the case of warlocks, most Cazhaak warlocks believe their powers flow from the Shadow; they might have the powers of an Archfey of Great Old One patron, but those are the gifts the Shadow has bestowed upon them. However, medusa warlocks believe that the Shadow’s gift was connecting them TO their patron, and you could find a medusa warlock dealing with an archfey, a dao, or some other patron. The main point is that such spellcasters are remarkable individuals, each blazing their own trail—and thus, Cazhaak Draal overall doesn’t have the arcane infrastructure of the Venomous Demesne.

Does it bother you that mythologically, Medusa was a specific gorgon, while in D&D, medusas are a species and gorgons are an entirely different, unrelated creature?

Not really. D&D is full of such flawed mythological analogues. Greek Mythology is as irrelevant to the medusas of Eberron as the default lore of third or fourth edition. The medusas of Eberron are an alien species that share a name and a few cosmetic traits with medusa and the gorgons of mythology. (As a side note, I’ve always loved the name Euryale—one of Medusa’s sisters.)

In conclusion… What I enjoy about medusas is that they alien and intelligent, that they are spiritual but devoted to a tradition humanity shuns. Cazhaak Draal is a distinct faction within Droaam that has considerable power and influence, and I enjoy exploring its relationship with the Daughters. And I like the dramatic weight that comes with the medusa’s gaze, especially when dealing with a medusa in a non-combat situation.

Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters, who requested this topic and who are the only reason I can taker the time to write these articles!

Dragonmarks: The Barren Sea

As time permits, I like to answer interesting questions from patrons. Here’s a recent one…

Is there anything going on in the Barren Sea beyond well… A lack of anything really? What would that be?

Good question! The Player’s Guide to Eberron has this to say:

The Barren Sea is so called because it is poor for fishing and devoid of apparent life. Hideous monsters are said to inhabit its depths—but sailors make that claim about all ten seas. In fact, sailors have more to fear from storms, icebergs in the north, and unpredictable winds than they do from any living thing in the Barren Sea. In addition to the mundane risks of storm and calm, the Barren Sea is known for scattered areas of dead calm—areas of perfectly still water, sometimes suffused with negative energy that attracts undead.

The Eberron Campaign Guide adds this…

The Barren Sea is home to dark and sinister fiends that dwell in horrid cities far below the waves… and tremendous storms send ships to splinter against the rocky shore (of the Demon Wastes).

The Thunder Sea is home to powerful civilizations, and those who cross it will have to deal with the sahuagin or sea elves. The Lhazaar Sea is more chaotic, home to pirates, drake hunters, elemental islands, and all manner of monstrosities. The Barren Sea tells a different story. As its name suggests, it seems to be almost lifeless. The Barren Sea isn’t a resource to be harvested; it’s a deadly obstacle to be crossed, an aquatic desert. It’s for this reason that you don’t see the equivalent of Rhiavhaar or the Lhazaar Principalities on the coasts around the Barren Sea; there’s no fishing, nothing to draw people into the water. The people of Ohr Kaluun, Nulakhesh, and the lands now known as Droaam largely ignored the Barren Sea. Today, the Riedran province of Corvagura is an important port that supports shipping to and from Riedra’s interests in western Khorvaire and Xen’drik, and many of Riedra’s merchant sailors are Corvaguran; but there are no fishing boats in the Barren Sea.

So why is the Barren Sea so barren? The practical explanation is hypersalinity. The waters of the Barren Sea have almost ten times the salt content of the other seas of Eberron. Few plants or animals can survive in these waters. A side effect of this is that the waters of the Barren Sea are surprisingly buoyant; anyone swimming in the Barren Sea has advantage on checks made to stay afloat. But while the salt content explains why the sea is devoid of life, the larger question is why is the water so salty? Hypersalinity is usually caused by mineral deposits, but that’s not a factor here. The mystery is further compounded by the fact that the majority of the Barren Sea is shielded from divination (including the psionic clairsentience techniques employed by Riedrans). A massive nondetection effect blankets the barren waters and anything upon them. Sages can’t explore the Barren Sea with scrying, Tharashk prospectors can’t sense what lies beneath the waves, and even commune can’t unlock the secrets of the Barren Sea. Mystical navigation tools become unreliable in barren waters, and navigators must be prepared to use mundane techniques. Taken together, the hypersalinity and nondetection effect are clearly unnatural. The cause of these effects is explored later in this article.

Calm and Still, Merchant and Spy

So, back to the original question… What goes on in the Barren Sea? You won’t encounter dragon turtles or merfolk there, to be sure. But that doesn’t mean that it’s boring and uniform. Here’s a few of the things you can find.

Deadly Storms. The Player’s Guide to Eberron calls out the risk of storms and “unpredictable winds.” it later specifies that these are “mundane risks”—so while storms are always a risk on the Barren Sea, they aren’t as dramatic as the Lamannia-fueled storms of the Thunder Sea. The exception is to the north, where the ECG notes the “tremendous storms” that can dash a ship against the Demon Wastes; along this cursed coast, the weather is enhanced and twisted by the malevolent powers bound in the Wastes.

Dead Calm. The southern Barren Sea holds a number of large manifest zones tied to Mabar. Normally Mabaran manifest zones can be recognized by their impact on flora and fauna, but in the Barren Sea there’s no native life to use as a yardstick. As called out in the Player’s Guide to Eberron, these Mabaran zones create areas of unnatural calm. Winds die and currents are diverted. Some of these share Mabar’s trait of Eternal Shadows; in such regions all bright light is reduced to dim light, and ships must make their way through this gloom.

As noted in PGtE, regions of dead calm are often inhabited by undead. Zombies, skeletons, and other undead can be found—animated corpses both of travelers and of strange creatures from deep below the poisoned waters. However, the most common form of undead are shadows. Superstition holds that within the dead calm, the shadows of sailors can come to life and kill their owners, persisting even after killing the mortal who cast them. There are countless tales of merchants stumbling on ghost ships inhabited solely by shadows. In the annals of the Wayfinder Foundation, Lord Boroman ir’Dayne discovers a massive graveyard of ships in the Barren Sea, including vessels that seemed to be the ships of giants and Dhakaani galleys. According to the story, Boroman’s own ship was overrun by shadows and he was forced to abandon his vessel and flee. His dinghy was overturned and his friends consumed by “shadow sharks,” but—at least according to the tale—Boroman managed to swim for days and made landfall in the Demon Wastes (which is a story in its own right). Though he tried, ir’Dayne was never able to find the graveyard again.

Still Water. While there are Mabaran manifest zones across the Barren Sea, to the north they are outnumbered by manifest zones tied to Risia. These zones are unnaturally cold, home to unexpected icebergs and creeping ice that can potentially trap slower vessels. Such zones have Risa’s Lethal Cold trait as described in Exploring Eberron. A few of the largest manifest zones have the Preservation trait; any creature or object that is completely encased in this Risian ice is kept in stasis, ignoring the passage of time. Travelers or entire ships could be found trapped in such an iceberg: fiends or dragons from the first age of the world, Sarlonan refugees fleeing the Sundering, or more recent sailors from Khorvaire. The shroud against divination makes it difficult to track such prisoners from afar… but there are wonders waiting to be found.

Known Threats and Dangerous Paths. Over the centuries, sailors have charted safe paths through the Barren Sea, identifying deadly manifest zones and plotting routes that avoid them. There are three primary routes used by Riedran ships and Lyrandar vessels, and with a reliable map and a good navigator you can follow such a path and avoid the planar threats. However, many independent captains—smugglers, spies, Adaran vessels avoiding Riedran patrols—pride themselves on knowing shorter paths. Such routes can save you time and avoid contact with other vessels… but a false map can lead you into still water or a shadowy end. Even if route is good, since these paths are less traveled there’s a greater chance of running across an intermittent manifest zone that was dormant when the cartographer passed through. When you leave the known paths you may encounter deadly threats—but it’s in these dangerous regions that you might find ghost ships laden with treasure or ancient wonders preserved in Risian ice.

Merchants and Soldiers. There is a regular stream of legitimate traffic across the Barren Sea. In the south, merchants and cargo ships travel between Dar Jin, Dar Qat, Stormreach, and Sharn. A northern route connects Dar Jin and Dar Kel to Aundair and points east. The majority of these ships are Riedran, though Lyrandar and other vessels are mixed in. Diplomats and scholars can also be found making their way across the sea. Riedran frigates patrol the trade routes, ever watchful for pirates and smugglers. While Riedran soldiers aren’t inherently hostile to the people of Khorvaire, they may stop and board any vessel they suspect of smuggling or of supporting the enemies of Riedra—notably, the kalashtar.

Smugglers, Spies, and Pirates. The steady stream of merchant vessels provide an inviting targets for pirates in the Barren Sea. Riedran frigates are ever vigilant, but the shrouding effect of the barren waters makes it possible for pirates to evade pursuit by plunging into uncharted waters. Of course, this means risking the dangers of a dead calm or still waters, but there are always those willing to take that risk. Given the dangers, the Barren Sea isn’t exactly teeming with pirates, but those who manage to thrive in these dangerous waters are often quite capable.

The shrouding effect also makes the Barren Sea a haven for smugglers—including the Dream Merchants of Riedran, Adarans making to or from Khorvaire, and others—and spies, whether they’re spying on Riedra, Droaam, or elsewhere. Conspiracy theorists claim that many dragonmarked houses maintain secret facilities on platforms in the Barren Sea, places where they can defy the Korth Edicts.

Sahuagin. The hypersalinity of the Barren Sea is just as deadly to the sahuagin as it is to other creatures, and the Eternal Dominion of the Thunder Sea doesn’t extend into these western waters. However, there are a few sahuagin clans scattered across the very edges of the Barren Sea. Each of these small enclaves have their own unique cultures; some are peaceful, others vicious and cruel. The most dangerous of these are the Sa’arlaath, “The All Consuming”; these sahuagin dwell on the coast of the Demon Wastes and have been twisted by fiendish powers. The Sa’arlaath raid vessels that pass over their terrain, but most of the sahuagin of the Thunder Sea remain in isolation in the deep, ignoring both the people of the surface and those who dwell in the deepest depths of the Barren Sea—the Kuo-Toa.

The Kuo-Toa: Dreamers in the Deep

The upper waters of the Barren Sea are deadly, but descend far enough and the salinity of the water drops. It is here that adventurers can discover the “sinister fiends that dwell in horrid cities far below the waves” mentioned in the Eberron Campaign Guide. Those creatures that dwell on the ocean floor aren’t literal fiends, but their realm is a terrifying array of nightmares. This is the domain of the Kuo-toa.

While the upper waters of the Barren Sea are close to Mabar and Risia, the depths of the ocean once held powerful manifest zones tied to Dal Quor, the region of dreams. A unique species evolved in this region. All mortals of Eberron possess a connection to Dal Quor, glimpsing the Realm of Dreams when they sleep. But these creatures possessed a far deeper connection; they existed in both realms simultaneously, perceiving both dream and reality at all times. They called themselves the Quor-Toa, the People of Dreams. Beyond their power to perceive Dal Quor, within the manifest zones below the Barren Sea, the Quor-Toa could draw the essence of Dal Quor into reality and shape it, sculpting tools, structures, and servants from the stuff of dreams. Their deep empire was a place of impossible wonders, of spectacles dragons and giants could only dream of. Yet because they could only work these wonders in manifest zones to Dal Quor, the Quor-Toa never sought to spread out into other lands or seas. They defended their territory, and it is for this reason that few giant explorers ever reached Sarlona; there are records in Cul’sir accounts that describe the glories glimpsed below the waves of the “Golden Sea” and of the godlike beings that defended it. In the end, the giants destroyed the Quor-Toa without even meaning to. Forty thousand years ago the giants severed the ties between Eberron and Dal Quor, as a way to end their conflict with the quori. In the process, they destroyed the Quor-Toa. As the manifest zones tied to Dal Quor were stripped of power, the dream-towers of the Quor-Toa melted away and the fishfolk themselves suffered devastating psychic trauma. Their civilization collapsed into chaos. It took generations to recover from the shock, and the survivors weren’t the people they had once been. Their knowledge had been storied in libraries of dreams, vaults that were shattered and lost. Their psychic gifts had been twisted. They were no longer the Quor’Toa; they had become kuo-toa, the fallen people.

Following Two Paths

The kuo-toa have never regained the power of their ancestors. The energies of Dal Quor no longer flow naturally into Eberron. But the kuo-toa still possess a stronger connection to Dal Quor than any other mortal creature. Most mortal creatures describe the kuo-toa as “mad”, but the truth is far more complicated. Where most mortals only glimpse Dal Quor when they sleep, the kuo-toa perceive both realms simultaneously; they are ALWAYS dreaming, experiencing the dream overlaid over reality. This has a few effects.

  • A kuo-toa can always be targeted by the dream spell, even while it is awake.
  • A kuo-toa experiences two realities at once—the physical world and Dal Quor. Thus, when a kuo-toa is dealing with an adventurer, it is also dealing with whatever dream occupies the same space as the adventurer in its vision. It could be holding a fish and describe it as a sword, because in Dal Quor, it is holding a sword. To the kuo-toa, both realities are equally real. It is a sword AND a fish. And the kuo-toa could be fighting a monster in Dal Quor while also talking to an adventurer; so while it appears to be waving a fish around, it is fighting a nightmare with a mighty sword.
  • This is the source of the Otherworldly Perception trait of the 5E kuo-toa; they perceive invisible and ethereal entities through their echoes in the dream.
  • If a kuo-toa is slain in Dal Quor, it loses its perception of Dal Quor until it completes a short rest. There’s no other negative consequence; it’s essentially no different from a human being killed in their dream and waking up.
  • The kuo-toa of Eberron speak Quori instead of Undercommon. They have no ties to the creatures of Khyber, and they learned Quori long ago from their dreams.

While they lack both the resources and the knowledge of their ancestors, the kuo-toa still possess supernatural powers tied to their dual existence. Kuo-toa seers have a sharpened form of their Otherworldly Perception, seeing dream visions that reveal secrets about the waking world; a seer might manifest true seeing—seeing a shapeshifter’s true form as a dream aura around it—or other divination effects. Kuo-toa shapers can cast illusion or conjuration spells by pulling dreams into reality, often without fully understanding that this is what they’re doing. This is just a shadow of the power they wield as a community, which is discussed below. But there’s a second aspect that’s crucial to understanding the kuo-toa. They experience Dal Quor and Eberron at once. But they don’t just dream any dreams. For whatever reason, nightmares are drawn to the kuo-toa. They aren’t just always dreaming, they’re always experiencing nightmares. And this in turn shapes the way they interact with the world.

Gods & Monsters

A single kuo-toa might have the power to draw a wisp of dream into reality to create a minor illusion. But as kuo-toa join together, their collective unconscious amplifies their nightmares—and they can bring these things into reality. Kuo-toa cities are ruled by gods they have dreamed into being, but these aren’t the gods they have chosen; they are deities built from their fears. Every kuo-toa deity is unique, and they shape their cities to match their nature. Hence, “sinister fiends that dwell in horrid cities beneath the waves”—for the gods of the kuo-toa make harsh demands on their people. Beyond their gods, the kuo-toa dream other horrors into existence. They may dream creatures that have the abilities of krakens or aboleths (though not their exact shapes or motivations), or entirely new abominations. Such monsters might serve the local deity, or they could simply rise to the surface to prey on unwary travelers. So in truth you never know what you’ll find in the Barren Sea… because the kuo-toa in the deeps could dream up a unique nightmare that’s never been seen before and which will never be seen again.

Kuo-toa and Quori

It might seem like the Dreaming Dark would love the kuo-toa and would exert power over them; in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Consider than in the Age of Giants, the Quor-Toa were in a realm close to Dal Quor, and yet the Quori came to Xen’drik instead. Why not travel through this open gateway? Because the quori of the past feared the Quor-Toa, just as those of the present fear the koa-toa. Because the koa-toa shape dreams, pulling the essence of the Dal Quor into reality and bending it to their will. The kuo-toa gods began as quori—but they have no control over the situation, and are forced to play out the roles the kuo-toa have set for them. This isn’t something the kuo-toa do consciously, and they can’t choose NOT to do it. But the quori are aware of the kuo-toa and stay far away from the ocean deeps.

The Barren Truth

The beginning of this article raised a question: why is the Barren Sea so barren? What is the cause of the focused hypersalinity, and what is it that blocks divination? Scholars on land have advanced many theories. Clearly it’s the work of the dragons of Argonnessen, an epic curse like those unleashed against Xen’drik. Obviously it’s the handiwork of the Daelkyr. Or maybe there’s an unbound overlord in the water and this is its domain. Any of these ideas are plausible, and a DM could choose any one of them. But in my campaign, the Barren Sea is a nightmare of the kuo-toa. Collectively, they see the world as a barren place of death, and it is this shared nightmare that actively poisons the waters above them. This is part of the wounded psyche of the species, and it’s not something that could be changed by a few friendly conversations. On the other hand, if Dal Quor itself were to change—if il-Lashtavar were to give way to il-Yannah and an Age of Light—perhaps the Great Light could heal the kuo-toa and life could return to the Barren Sea.

So, back to the original question… What goes on in the Barren Sea? Pirates! Smugglers! Getting boarded by Riedran soldiers who want to inspect your cargo! Ghost ships filled with shadows! Finding an ancient couatl frozen in an iceberg! A secret Cannith research platform! A nightmare from the depths! Or, perhaps, a visit to a city deep beneath the waves, where a nightmare deity rules over people poised between two worlds…

What’s Common Knowledge?

The people of the surface world know almost nothing about the kuo-toa. They know exactly what the ECG suggested—that there are “fiends in horrid cities” at the bottom of the Barren Sea. To this point, the nightmare deities of the kuo-toa have kept their dreaming subjects in the depths—and the major trade routes used by Riedra and Khorvaire don’t pass over kuo-toa cities. So how will adventurers discover what lies below? Adventurers venturing through uncharted waters could be shipwrecked by a nightmare and drawn into the depths. A dragonmarked research platform could shift the focus of a kuo-toa god, causing it to focus its wrath on the world above. A kalashtar could be urged to venture below by visions from il-Yannah; could the kuo-toa play a vital role in the turning of the age? And what affect might the kuo-toa dreamers have on a kalashtar’s quori spirit?

Q&A

How powerful are the Kuo-Toa gods?

It depends on the community they’re tied to. A small outpost might have a “god” with the power of a pit fiend. For the major cities, I’d personally use this as an opportunity to repurpose the statistics of existing archfiends; this would be a fine place to have a version of Demogorgon or Asmodeus, thought I’d definitely give them some distinct kuo-toa flavoring. The main thing is that their power is definitely geographically limited; while Blibdolpoop/Demogorgon might be extremely powerful in their domain, they couldn’t leave it and go attack Sharn. It’s a little like the Undying Court, except that the kuo-toa gods feed on the nightmares of their people instead of on their love.

Maps are inconsistent across editions. Some maps show the Barren Sea extending all the way to the Dagger River; others present it further west. Where do you draw the line for the “Barren” waters?

The general description of the Barren Sea is that it is “west of Khorvaire, northwest of Xen’drik and east of Sarlona.” If you consider the most recent map—page 104-105 of Rising From The Last War—the labeling of the Thunder Sea is significantly southwest of the Dagger River and Manta Bay. I’m inclined to say that the barren waters start just to the west of Zarash Bay. So Zarash Bay has standard water, but the Bay of Madness and the western coastline of the Shadow Marches are barren water.

How does that even work? Shouldn’t currents disperse the high-saline water? Nature doesn’t just stop at an arbitrary border.

That is ABSOLUTELY CORRECT. The point is that there is nothing natural about this. Hypersalinity is an effect that can be found in the natural world based on mineral deposits in closed bodies of water. But this ISN’T a bounded body of water and there’s no clear mineral deposits that could cause it. Likewise, the fact that it STOPS when you do deep enough is entirely unnatural. And keep in mind that once the giants referred to it as the “Golden Sea.” The hypersalinity is a natural effect that is being created and sustained by a supernatural force. When the waters of the Barren Sea are flow out of the Barren Sea, the charged salinity fades. If the science of this is troubling, you can just think of it as “magical death water.”

Since it’s so barren, what do the kuo-toa eat? Do they dream food into existence?

The Quor-Toa dreamt food into existence. The kuo-toa don’t have quite such perfect control; it’s possible that there are kuo-toa shapers who can cast effects like goodberry, create food, or even heroes’ feast by conjuring food from dreams, but this is a rare gift and isn’t enough to sustain a city. The main point is that the barren water ENDS when you go deep enough; there is flora and fauna in the depths. Much of it is unusual—shaped over time by kuo-toa nightmares—but there’s definitely edible plants and fish.

That’s all for now! I am traveling at the moment with limited internet and there is a good chance that I will not be able to answer many questions on this article, though I’m happy for people to pose questions and discuss them in the comments. Thanks to my Patreon supporters both for suggesting the topic and for making it possible for me to write it; it’s only this support that allows me to spend time on articles like this.

IFAQ: Whaling in Eberron

As time permits, I like to answer interesting questions posed by my Patreon supporters. Questions like…

Where and how do you see whaling playing a part in Eberron?

The immediate question is are there whales in Eberron, because there’s no particular reason to assume that any random thing that exists in our world does exist in Eberron. As it turns out, whales have been mentioned; Exploring Eberron has this to say.

When dealing with the Thunder Sea, remember that it’s just as civilized as the Five Nations. It does have wilderness regions with feral beasts roaming at will, and you might find wild plesiosaurs, a scheming sea hag, or a hungry scrag. But in the areas above and around sahuagin city-states, such beasts have been tamed or destroyed. All cultures of the Thunder Sea farm fish like the people of the land farm sheep or cattle; a pod of whales may be carefully managed and cultivated, and their farmers will be quite angry with dryskins who poach their ichthyic livestock. 

So first of all, I don’t see whaling as being a common practice in the Thunder Sea, because blundering out and killing a random whale is a great way to get your ship sunk by an angry Karakala stormcaller. We’ve called out that agreements between the Five Nations and the powers of the Thunder Sea do allow fishing in close coastal waters, so you have Brelish fishing villages on the southern coast, but I wouldn’t make them whalers.

So, where and how do I see whaling playing a part in Eberron? I see it as being focused on the Lhazaar Principalities, but the twist is that it’s not whaling. In our world, whales are the largest and most dramatic denizens of the sea, but this isn’t our world. In the Lhazaar Sea, the mighty creatures bold sailors hunt are dragon turtles. They aren’t the SAME dragon turtles described in the Monster Manual; they’re slightly smaller and weaker (commonly huge, though they can reach gargantuan size), they’re omnivorous, and they’re less intelligent, notably not speaking Draconic; we can call them drake turtles or softshell dragon turtles. But they are still built on the model of the dragon turtle. Building on this, I’d say that drake hunting is a major part of the Lhazaar economy. Drake (turtle) blood is a crucial component in industrial alchemy, part of what allows Jorasco and Cannith to produce mass quantities of healing and other potions. Drakebone could be used in everything from corsets to weaponry. In the Principalities, most medium armor makes use of drake turtle scales and heavy armor is typically made not from metal, but from drake turtle shells. Essentially, this not only creates an industry that parallels whaling, it also creates a unique flavor for Lhazaar fashion and tools and introduces the disturbing idea that many mass-produced potions use components drawn from a deeply questionable source. Because I’ve said that these are as intelligent as the standard dragon turtles of the Monster Manual… but less intelligent doesn’t mean they aren’t intelligent. They don’t perform magic. They don’t speak Common or Draconic. But they sing… and anyone who knows the language (which very few land-dwellers do) will realize that they are singing in Aquan.

Part of the point of Eberron is that stories don’t always end well and that good people can do bad things. A druid adventurer may realize a drake turtle is singing in Aquan. But even if the character speaks Aquan, the drake turtles may not think or communicate the same way humans do—even if it is clear to the ADVENTURER that the turtles are intelligent, it may not be a simple matter to prove it. And there could always be the chance that while the turtles appear to sing in Aquan, they aren’t actually intelligent by the typical measures. Even if adventurers can prove it, the response of the common Lhazaar sailor will be “Who cares if drake turtles sing in Aquan? They’re MONSTERS. I need to feed my family. The healing potions Jorasco will make using that drake’s blood will save countless HUMAN lives. I chose my family and my species over the well-being of alien sea monsters.” Personally, I like the idea of placing player characters at the very forefront of this issue—making it THEIR discovery, because it’s their story—but you could also say that it’s something that’s been known for decades and is being actively debated. Druid activists could be blocking drake hunting boats. Principalities could be split, with some princes forbidding drake hunting, while other principalities are deeply dependent on the drake-hunting economy. It could be that ending dragon-hunting would be a major blow to industrial alchemy, unless Cannith and Jorasco can be pushed to find new methods of production. Ultimately, it’s a more dramatic and bloodier version of the ethical questions of elemental binding… and it could be that fighting over this issue could force people to reevaluate Zil binding as well.

So, going back to the original question, I’d place whaling in the Lhazaar Principalities and I’d make it an industry that has great impact within the region but also to the greater economy of Khorvaire, but I’d also make the creatures hunted an variant form of dragon turtles as opposed to whales. Not with that said, there’s nothing wrong with saying that there’s also traditional whaling in the northern Lhazaar Principalities. But personally, I’m more interesting in adding something that’s unique to the world—and in doing so, being able to add a unique twist to the economic impact of that creature. But if you want a story focus on traditional whaling, tell that story!

Do drake turtles have blowholes?

No, they don’t. However, they do have steam breath—though it’s weaker than that of a dragon turtle and takes longer to recharge. They need to vent this occasionally, and common drake hunter practice is to wait for such an exhalation before attacking, to strike while the breath is discharged. So you can still have a “Thar she blows!” moment.

Does Riedra have any interest in drake turtles?

Certainly! I think that drake’s blood is a useful basic alchemical component and that the shell, scales, bones, and teeth all have their uses. I definitely think fishing rights in the Lhazaar Sea is an lingering point of tension; it’s even possible there’s been an open conflict—similar to the Cod Wars—between Rhiavaar and one of the Principalities at some point in the past.

If drake turtles sing in Aquan, how can there be any doubt they’re intelligent? Why don’t people just use the Tongues spell or similar magic to talk to them?

A parrot can recite a poem in English; does that mean it possesses human intelligence? The drake hunters argue the same thing of drake turtles; it’s exotic behavior, but that doesn’t mean they’re PEOPLE. Which comes to a key point in my description: Even if the character speaks Aquan, the drake turtles may not think or communicate the same way humans do. My point is that if you know Aquan, when you hear the drake’s song you’ll recognize it as, for example, “Bluuuue sorrow delving deeeeep.” But if you row up to the drake turtle and say “Hi! My name’s Keith! What’s yours?” in Aquan (or using tongues) it will ignore you. Perhaps it doesn’t recognize the tiny non-turtle as a creature. Perhaps it doesn’t respond to simply spoken words; you need to SING your statement at a particular pitch for the drake to recognize it as an attempt at communication. Or perhaps it’s a parrot—it produces words it’s picked up from passing elementals but it doesn’t actually understand their meaning.

D&D has a tendency to treat any creature with a language as communicating exactly as humans do. I like to explore the idea that alien creatures may communicate in very different ways, something I’ve discussed in articles relating to elementals and lizardfolk. The point is that your Aquan speaker/tongues caster can understand the words the drake turtle is singing; but that doesn’t mean that you understand the meaning or how to effectively communicate back. The point of all this is because I’m interested in exploring the question of drake turtle intelligence as a STORY. Consider the movie Arrival; it wouldn’t have been much fun if the protagonist just walked in, cast tongues, and it was all over. I like the idea that people KNOW the drake turtles sing in Aquan, but because no one’s ever managed to have an effective conversation with one, the hunters can dismiss them as parrots. If the player characters get involved, their challenge is to figure out how the turtles communicate, beyond simply the words that they’re using. In OUR world there’s considerable debate about cetacean intelligence; my point is that I want it to be a possible story that adventurers can be a part of, because player characters are remarkable. If drake turtles are fully sentient, I want your character to be the protagonist of Arrival or Spock mind-melding with a whale; I want YOU to be the one who solves a mystery others have abandoned or dismissed. But if that’s not a mystery you want to explore, you can definitely resolve it one way or the other using NPCs or have it have been clearly established in the past.

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

Dragonmark: Priests, Krozen and Zerasha

July is quickly fading, but as time allows I want to answer a few questions posed by my Patreon supporters. This month, people asked about a pair of priests—High Cardinal Krozen of Thrane and Zerasha of Graywall.

Dealing with the Divine

Krozen and Zerasha are both powerful divine spellcasters. In third edition, Krozen was defined as a 12th level cleric of the Silver Flame, making him one of the most powerful clerics in canon Khorvaire. While never defined, Zerasha is supposed to be similar in her power—a priest respected and feared by a city of monsters and the mind flayer who governs it. Given that most priests in Khorvaire are adepts—or don’t even cast spells at all—I want players to feel how remarkable these individuals are when they encounter them. A powerful wizard is essentially a scientist, someone who uses logic and knowledge to break the laws of reality. A powerful divine caster is something else. Both Zerasha and Krozen are the chosen agents of cosmic powers. The Sovereigns and Six are omnipresent forces. The Shadow knows the evil that lurks in the hearts of mortals, and Zerasha is one of its chief agents. Krozen can command the dead to return to life or call celestials from the essence of the Silver Flame. We can debate the existence of the Sovereigns, but the Silver Flame is the force that stands between Eberron and the overlords, and Krozen is a conduit for its power. These aren’t just people who have learned how to perform magic tricks. They are the chosen agents of vast cosmic forces. If you’ll pardon the phrase, they are burdened with glorious purpose.

But how do you make the powerful priest feel different from a wizard or a prince? This is something I discuss at more length in this article. One of the key points is to separate the way divine NPCs cast spells from how player characters do it. We need the structure of the classes for player characters because we need tactical precision, and I’m fine to say that in combat, Krozen casts spells as a 12th level cleric. But outside of combat I don’t feel that he needs to engage with his magic in the same way as a player character. The most common divine spellcasters—adepts—function much like magewrights; they have a specific set of cantrips and spells they can cast and that’s all they can cast. A typical spellcasting priest might be able to cast thaumaturgy, light, and ceremony. There are specialist adepts—oracles who can cast divination, healers who can perform lesser restoration—but the oracle can’t just decide to become a healer in the morning. They have been granted a divine gift, and they can’t exchange it for another one. More powerful spellcasters like Zerasha and Krozen aren’t limited like this, but they also don’t call their divinity on the phone each morning and make spell requests. Their divine power source grants them the spells they need when they need them, provided the request is justified. Krozen doesn’t prepare zone of truth ahead of time, but if he formally demands you speak the truth in the light of the Flame, zone of truth happens. Essentially, his spells are selected on the fly to match the situation he finds himself in. But the contrast is that he doesn’t have the freedom a PC has to request any spell. The Flame may empower Krozen to raise someone from the dead or to smite them with a flame strike, but in spite of his effective level it’s not going to grant him the power to create undead or to cast contagion; these aren’t the tools of a righteous servant of the Flame, and if you DO see a Flame priest using such spells, it’s a clear sign that they are actually a servant of the Whispering Flame or a warlock hacking the Flame. Krozen may take actions we consider evil, but he believes his actions are righteous in the light of the Flame; he’s not drawing on malefic powers.

Divination is another important example. With the spellcasting power of a 12th level cleric, Krozen could technically cast commune three times a day, along with a batch of auguries. And that’s how things work for PCs. But Krozen doesn’t just have some magic hotline that he can dial three times per day. He can’t just call up Tira Miron and say “Does Boranel dye his hair? Yes? I KNEW it!” It’s not some sort of abstract, scientific tool that he can just use for whatever random, trivial detail he wants to know. But the flip side is that he may simply receive information that he needs—that he can receive divine visions. Even when he doesn’t cast augury, he may suddenly KNOW that a decision he’s about to make could lead to disaster. Even without commune, he might KNOW the truth about a situation. This is especially relevant for Zerasha, because part of what defines the Shadow is dangerous secrets. Consider this description of the Shadow from this article:

As the dark side of Aureon, the Shadow is also the Sovereign of Knowledge… but specifically the things you shouldn’t know. The Shadow knows the evil that lurks in the hearts of mortals. It knows who killed your parents. It knows what your lover really thinks about you. And it knows secrets of magic that Aureon won’t share… techniques that can provide power, but at a cost.

So It’s not that Zerasha sits down and says “I want to know secrets about this player character” and casts commune or some other divination spell; it’s that when the players come before her, she simply DOES know who killed the paladin’s parents and why the rogue murdered their partner, because that’s part of what it means to be the voice of the Shadow.

The short form is that when dealing with NPCs who are powerful divine spellcasters, I want them to FEEL like they are conduits to powers far greater than they are. When Krozen demands that you speak the truth, zone of truth happens. When he barks out an order, it may become a command, because that’s the power that flows through him. I want the powerful priest to feel larger then life, because at the end of the day they are the conduits for something that IS larger than life.

Now, reading all this, you might say “But I thought Eberron was the setting where we don’t know if the gods even exist.” We know that deities don’t walk the world in Eberron. You will never have a chance to punch Aureon in the face. But we know that divine power sources exist. We know that priests have been drawing on the POWER of Aureon for tens of thousands of years, and that in part because of this, most people believe divine forces exist. They may argue about details; the Cazhaak interpretation of the Dark Six is quite different from how they’re depicted in the Pyrinean Creed. But most people believe in SOME form of divinity, and part of the reason for that is the fact that divine magic exists.

With all of this in mind, you might say “If that’s how you handle NPC priests, why don’t you deal with player character clerics in the same way?” I offer some suggestions in that direction in this article. But fifth edition embraces the idea that NPCs and PCs don’t have to follow the same rules. Part of being a player character is having flexibility and tactical control. It’s about having the ability to make choices. I’ve played campaigns in which divine characters CHOSE to give me more control over their spells—embracing the idea that the powers were gifts they didn’t fully control—but that was a choice they made that fit the story of that character. But one of the fundamental principles of Eberron is that player characters are remarkable, and I have no problem with them having a greater degree of versatility and precision than most other servants of the divine.

Having worked through that, let’s talk about the two specific priests that people have asked about…

Who is High Cardinal Krozen of Thrane?

Our blessed child is the Keeper of the Flame and shows us all the path to the light. But I am the keeper of the nation, and if I must toil in the darkness to ensure its prosperity, so be it.

High Cardinal Krozen

People have lots of questions about Cardinal Krozen of Thrane. What’s his first name? Does he realize he’s evil? Does he believe in a greater good—or for that matter, does he even believe in the Silver Flame? What makes him more important than the other 11 High Cardinals of the Church? These are all good questions. I’ve always liked Krozen, but my vision of him is quite different from how he’s evolved in canon sources. I know what I originally planned for him when we first created the character, and that’s how I use him, so I’ll lay that out here. Keep in mind that this directly contradicts multiple canon sources (which, admittedly, contradict themselves on some points). This is MY interpretation and I am not going to reconcile it with what other authors have done with the character; it’s up to you to decide which version you prefer.

My original vision of High Cardinal Thrane was loosely inspired by Cardinal Richelieu as depicted in The Three Musketeers—a ruthless man who is engaged in sly intrigues, but who is nonetheless an extremely capable leader, perhaps moreso than the king the protagonists serve. It was always my vision that Cardinal Krozen was devoted to Thrane and that he performs his duties exceptionally well—that he is a brilliant strategist and a charismatic orator. But this is tied to the idea that he truly believes that he knows what is best for the nation. The basic dictate of the Silver Flame is to protect the innocent from supernatural evil. Where Jaela recognizes that this applies to ALL innocents, regardless of their faith or nationality, Krozen believes that you aren’t innocent unless you’re a Thrane and a servant of the faith, and don’t oppose him. He DOES fight to protect the innocent—but only those HE decides are innocent.

So I see Cardinal Krozen as a remarkable man—one of the player characters of his generation. He’s human and I see him as being about fifty years old. The details of his youth—and, in fact, his first name—aren’t generally known; the general story is that he lived on the Aundairian border and that the Flame granted him the power to perform great deeds, first in the defense of his village and then as a templar. He was always charismatic and intelligent, but beyond that, his divine power was always remarkable; when he called on the Flame, he gained the power to smite his foes. In his early twenties he rose out of the templars and into the hierarchy of the church, turning his gifts to leadership behind the scenes rather than fighting on the battlefield. From there, his star rose and rose; those who opposed him were either won over by his charisma or driven from his path, one way or another.

Part of the core idea of Krozen is that he represents the danger of Thrane becoming a theocracy—that in doing so it drags the church into the management of temporal matters and political concerns. The idea of Thrane is that Jaela Daran represents the pure ideals of the faith—while Cardinal Krozen deals with political realities. Again, Jaela does believe that “protect the innocent” applies to all people—that Krozen believes that it can only be applied to the faithful and to Thranes. It’s not that he is a vile, selfish person; but he has blended his faith with his devotion to his nation and places the good of Thrane over all others. Beyond this, Krozen very much has a Chosen One mentality. He possesses immense divine power, and in his mind this proves his righteousness. He believes he was given this power to serve the interests of Thrane, and the fact that he still wields that power proves that he is right to do so. He will crush others who get in his way—even other priests or templars—because he believes, again, that those who oppose him aren’t innocent.

In considering all this, take a moment to think about the Shadow in the Flame. There are those—the Whispering Flame cultists—who knowingly choose to serve Bel Shalor. But the true power of the Shadow in the Flame is its ability to piggyback on the Voice of the Flame and to pour poison in the ears of the truly faithful. Bel Shalor loves to erode empathy and to convince people to do evil when they only seek to do good. The Shadow in the Flame reveled in the suffering caused by the Silver Crusade, and Bel Shalor undoubtedly sees Cardinal Krozen as a valuable tool. The question for the DM to decide is how much of a hold does Bel Shalor have over the Cardinal? In MY Eberron, Krozen KNOWS the dangers posed by the Shadow of the Flame; all the faithful do. And with that in mind, he does his best to resist those impulses; he knows that he does questionable things (like, you know, torture and murder…) but he truly believes that he is acting for the greater good and that he’s NOT a tool of the Shadow in the Flame. But in your campaign you could decide that he HAS fallen prey to Bel Shalor’s whispers and no longer realizes the evil he is doing… or even go further and decide that he is a priest of the Whispering Flame. Personally I prefer to follow the shades-of-grey model, to say that while Krozen does evil things, he only does them when pursuing the interests of Thrane—that he always believes his actions are justified. I like the idea that Krozen knows he walks a dark path, but that he believes it is the path the Flame has set him on, and that at the end of the day he is protecting the innocent—even if he has had to sacrifice his own innocence to do it.

Now, some people may be say “That’s all fine, but who IS he?” Krozen is one of the high cardinals of Thrane. Per the original Eberron Campaign Setting…

This group of powerful church leaders administers both the workings of the church and the functions of the government. In theory, the cardinals answer to the Keeper of the Flame. In practice, they run the church and the government, only dealing with the Keeper on issues that require divine attention and interaction with the Voice of the Flame. The cardinals believe that they know best when it comes to running the government and the church, and they leave the Keeper to deal with the well-being of the spirit of the nation. This arrangement has led to problems between the Council and the Keeper in the past, but the current Keeper seems interested more in divine and spiritual matters than the intricacies of secular administration.

There may be twelve High Cardinals, but Krozen is the effective leader of the Council—and thus, of Thrane. If you have a divine problem, talk to Jaela. But if you’re looking into the deployment of Thrane troops or about getting more resources for Rellekor, it’s Krozen who can get things done. The general idea is that Krozen is in many ways the opposite of Jaela. Where the Keeper is compassionate, the Cardinal is ruthless. The Cardinal is a master of political intrigue, while Jaela prefers honest dealing. Jaela wants what’s best for all innocents; Krozen cares only for Thrane.

The final thing I’ll call about about Krozen is this: If there’s twelve high cardinals, why is he the leader? What makes him special? The short answer is that what makes him special is that he IS special. Again, not all priests are spellcasters at all, and in a world where everyday magic goes to 3rd level, a 12th level spellcaster is remarkable. He can raise the dead! Those who oppose him are struck down by flame strikes! You’ve seen him shape celestials from the pure power of the Flame! And as I said, while I don’t just let him cast commune three times a day, he hears the Voice of the Flame in ways that others do not (and, of course, potentially the Shadow in the Flame as well). There’s surely other spellcasters among the cardinals, but Krozen stands out; if you look to the 3.5 statistics, he’s notably a more powerful spellcaster than the high priest of the Host and Archierophant Ythana in Sharn: City of Towers. Power alone isn’t everything, but the whole idea is that this power is matched with passion and charisma—that just like a player character, Krozen is remarkable. With this in mind, he doesn’t command the Council of Cardinals, but he has won the loyalty of the majority of its members and thus is the EFFECTIVE leader of the council. In my opinion, there’s four cardinals who are utterly devoted to him; three who believe he’s doing what’s best for Thrane; and four who don’t support him. Of these four, all believe that the Keeper shows the proper path for the nation and that Krozen’s actions are concerning; one or two may have deeper concerns, or believe that he is serving the Shadow in the Flame. So Krozen DOESN’T have absolute control of the council, but he’s effectively the leader.

Krozen as a Villain

As I’ve just spent a lot of time insisting that Krozen believes he’s acting for the good of Thrane and that he is an effective leader, you might wonder if I actually see him as a villain. I do, generally—just a villain with many layers. He performs evil deeds in pursuit of the greater good, and more than that, he is only concerned with the greater good of THRANE. When I use Krozen, I want it to be clear why people support him. I want Thranes, in particular, to feel conflicted because Krozen IS good at his job—that if the nation was guided purely by the idealistic Jaela, it would be easy prey for the machinations of Kaius, the Royal Eyes of Aundair, and the Dark Lanterns. Krozen is effective; but is that enough to justify his methods? And IS he a tool of the Shadow in the Flame, even if he refuses to see it?

Zerasha, the Voice of the Shadow

You think you know why you’re here. You think we have to be enemies. But that’s the voice of your petty and jealous Sovereigns, who fear what you could become if you follow the paths I could show you.

Zerasha of Graywall

The medusa Zerasha is a priest of the Shadow in the city of Graywall. She’s mentioned in a Dragon article, which says…

The street ends at the Eye of the Shadow, a small windowless temple formed from black stone. The medusa priestess Zerasha holds court here. A fearsome combatant and skilled ritual caster, Zerasha is the most influential voice in Graywall after Xorchylic; the people of the town have come to trust her oracular gifts. At the moment, she is an ally of the Daughters of Sora Kell, but her first loyalty is to the Shadow and to her own warlord, the Queen of Stone. Should there ever be a civil war in Graywall, the black-scaled medusa will be a force with which to be reckoned. 

Backdrop: Graywall, Dragon 368

That’s the only canon information that exists on her. Since I wrote that article, people have asked: What is the priestess Zerasha’s relationship with Xorchylic? What are her goals, and what might cause those goals to become so misaligned with Xorchylic’s as to cause open conflict?

In my mind, Zerasha is truly devoted to her faith and to her Queen, in that order. As described in this article, she believes that the Shadow is the guide and guardian of those creatures followers of the Sovereigns consider monsters. Beyond this, she is what the article describes as a mentor. Acting on behalf of the Shadow, she seeks to help the faithful achieve their ambitions—even if that means following the darkest possible paths to do so. Beyond that, the Shadow is the Sovereign of secrets. As described above, she is an oracle—not as gifted in this regard as Sora Teraza, but certainly the most powerful oracle in Graywall. She knows secrets. Having said that, as I called out above, her knowledge comes from the Shadow and she doesn’t know things until she needs to know them. When she meets a player character, the Shadow may tell her their secrets; but it’s not like she just randomly knows everyone’s secrets all the time. And again, if the Shadow shares a secret with Zerasha, it’s so she can DO something with that secret.

So in terms of her goals, I believe that Zerasha’s goals are first and foremost to offer spiritual guidance to the people of Graywall and to help them achieve their true potential. Beneath that, her goals are whatever tasks the Shadow sets before her; it’s quite common for her to feel that there is a particular individual the Shadow wishes her to focus on, someone who needs to be guided on the proper path. And beneath that, her loyalty is to her queen, the medusa Sheshka, and to the people of Cazhaak Draal.

Her relationship with Xorchyllic largely depends on what the DM decides Xorchyllic is truly up to. As long as Xorchyllic is pursuing the greater good of Graywall and Droaam, Zerasha will support him. But we’ve called out that the Flayer Guard of Droaam serve the interests of the governor first and the common folk second. If Xorchyllic is somehow oppressing or harming a portion of the city in pursuit of his personal agenda, that could bring him into conflict with Zerasha. Ultimately, the question is what is the interest of the Shadow? If the Shadow supports Xorchyllic and wants the illithid to achieve its ambitions, Zerasha could work closely with the governor. On the other hand, if the Shadow is most interested in helping a lowly kobold on the Street of Shadows achieve her ambitions of overthrowing Xorchyllic and becoming a new warlord, than Zerasha would oppose the mind flayer. The same is true for player characters. What does the Shadow think of them? It could be that it favors their enemies, in which case Zerasha will oppose them. Or it could be that the Shadow has an interest in one of the adventurers and wants to show them the path to power—in which case, Zerasha who seek to serve as their mentor. But again, a mentor of the Shadow will always lead you down dangerous paths…

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

IFAQ: Talenta Dinosaurs

As time permits, I like to answer interesting questions posed by my Patreon supporters.

In what clever ways do the Talenta halflings utilize their dinosaurs besides using them as beasts of burden?

The halflings of the Talenta Plains are what I call a Wide Primal society. They have never pursued the arcane science that defines the Five Nations, in part because they’ve never felt a need to do so. The Talenta have a path of magic that they use to solve their problems; they work with spirits, employing both druid magic and fey pacts. So while they don’t have arcane magewrights, they do have widespread adepts and gleaners who employ magic as part of everyday life. Like magewrights, Talenta gleaners generally know a few cantrips and can cast a few spells as rituals—typically druid spells, though those that deal with fey spirits often work with enchantment and illusion.

With this in mind, consider that the following spells are “Everyday Magic” in the Talenta Plains: animal friendship, animal messenger, beast bond, beast sense, find familiar and speak with animals. When the Talenta talk about having a bond with the spirits of their mounts, it’s because many of them literally do. Even when you’re dealing with beasts of burden, halflings will usually talk to their beasts. We’re still talking about dinosaurs, so they are limited by their intelligence; but there’s a general sense of partnership between the Talenta and their dinosaurs.

An important thing to keep in mind is that the spells and cantrips used by NPC magewrights (or adepts or gleaners) don’t always work like their PC counterparts! Often they are more limited; when Talenta gleaners use the spells mentioned above, they typically can only cast them on reptiles, which is one reason they work so closely with dinosaurs; their magical traditions have evolved to work with them over time. However, these specialized rituals can be more effective in other ways, such as having a longer duration. The spirit rider is an important form of Talenta gleaner; they employ a ritual that combines the effects of beast bond and beast sense, allowing the gleaner to enter an extended trance in which they perceive the world through the senses of their dinosaur companion and can guide it telepathically. Note that this doesn’t dominate the beast; it simply allows telepathic communication. It takes a long time for a spirit rider to establish a necessary connection to a dinosaur, and they can’t just ride a new beast on the spur of the moment. Spirit riders who work with glidewings and dartwings serve as scouts and couriers; but spirit riders often also work with larger dinosaurs—hammertails, bloodstrikers, threehorns—to guide them while traveling or performing heavy labor. As a random point: most of the everyday magic of the Plains works specifically with reptiles, and one of the reason the Talenta use tribex as livestock is because they don’t talk to the tribex.

So throwing out a few random ways dinosaurs are used…

  • Bloodstrikers are large burrowing herbivores. Many Talenta tribes have a single bloodstriker, which will use its burrowing abilities to help establish camps. In Gatherhold, bloodstrikers are used to maintain latrines, and as living mining tools. The caustic blood of the beast is also harvested.
  • Dartwings, typically just called darts, are small pterosaurs; they use the hawk stat block. Dartwings are the primary messengers of the Talenta, and they are also used by scouts—both full spirit riders who may spend hours watching the world from above, and hunters who may just use speak with animals or beast sense to get information from their companions.
  • Glidewings and soarwings are larger pterosaurs. While often used as flying mounts for hunters and warriors, spirit riders can use them to scout and they are also often used by couriers, swiftly transporting goods between tribes.
  • Many large herbivores are used as beasts of burden, but hammertails (Ankylosaurs) are often used as mobile homes; a family can make its home in howdah tent on the back of the beast. few tribes have thunderherders (diplodocus)—among other things, they require a great deal of food—but those that do often use the herder for their leader’s tent, leading to the phrase that someone important “rides the thunder.”
  • Carvers, clawfeet and swiftclaws (velociraptors) are all used for hunting and for defense. Swiftclaws are used for pest control. Along with the fastieth, clawfeet are often seen as a simple form of mobility enhancement; it’s very common for a hunter to ride their fastieth or clawfoot in situations where most people would dismount; the rider considers themselves to be a single entity with their mount.
  • Scampers or scamps are a tiny form of fastieth, and can use the weasel stat block. they have nimble foreclaws and are often used as assistant animals, fetching small things or performing simple tasks.

These are just a few examples. The main thing to keep in mind is that through spirit riders and general use of speak with animals, the Talenta can get their dinosaurs to perform precision tasks that would otherwise be difficult or impossible. Large dinosaurs are used as beasts of burden, but also perform a wide range of heavy labor—effectively serving as living cranes and bulldozers. Within Gatherhold, you have a few high chambers that can only be reached if a thunderherder lifts you up.

So dinosaurs help with scouting, hunting, transportation, communication, and heavy labor; hammertails serve as housing! Dinosaurs are even used as instruments. Three-horn bellows can be heard across a great distance, and are often used for signaling purposes. Hammertail drums may be used in somber rituals, while dartwing choirs support other musicians. Scale singers blend the talents of spirit rider and bard, riding a dinosaur and singing with its voice. Dinosaurs are worked into sporting events as well; the Talentans play a mounted sport called Dalasci that is somewhat like aggressive polo, and scamp races are a common basis for gambling.

What kind of dinosaur would be the typical livestock of one of the nomad tribes?

Dinosaurs don’t produce milk and generally aren’t raised as food; both of these are the role of the tribex. So most tribes have a herd of tribex. Beyond that, tribes often breed a specific type of dinosaur, which they will then trade with other tribes. So most tribes only have a few hammertails, but there’s a tribe that has a breeding population of hammertails, a tribe that breeds threehorns, a few that breed clawfeet, and so on. The point is that there is no “typical” dinosaur livestock; it’s a choice that shapes the tribe, and a hammertail-breeding tribe will be quite different from the tribe with a host of clawfeet.

Do Talenta halflings eat dinosaur eggs? Would they raise dinosaurs to harvest their eggs?

There’s no taboo against eating unfertilized dinosaur eggs; these are celebrated as a gift from a friend. However, keep in mind that dinosaurs don’t lay eggs like chickens do. Some species don’t lay unfertilized eggs. Others do, but only at a specific time of year—typically Nymm to Lharvion. These are generally times of feasting, and for celebrating the dinosaurs that share these gifts. But they don’t keep dinosaurs JUST for the eggs; dinosaurs are essentially members of the tribe who perform a useful function, and the eggs are a bonus. In my opinion, the only Talenta dinosaurs that lay unfertilized eggs across the entire year would be scamps; so scamp eggs are certainly part of the Talenta diet.

Are there any Talenta tribes that use necromancy?

Certainly! The Tolashcara (“Keepers of Bones that Rustle and Moan”) tribe guard a manifest zone to Mabar in the Plains and draw on its power to animate the dead. They believe that by using its power as they do, they keep the hungry spirits from venturing further afield to prey on innocents. Some Tolashcara are drawn to pursue undead threats elsewhere in the Plains or in the world, and a small group of Tolashcara halflings patrol the edge of the Boneyard (the graveyard of dragons) hoping to keep the dead quiet. So overall, they are a peaceful and benevolent force; on the other hand, you could always have a new leader rise up among the Tolashcara with a more malevolent agenda.

That’s all I have time for today, but add any interesting ways you’ve used dinosaurs in your campaign in the comments! Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters, who make these articles possible.