Dragonmarks: Aesthetics & Armor

Art by Júlio Azevedo for Exploring Eberron

Eberron is a world where you have the lightning rail, where warforged can be mass-produced, where the towers of Sharn scrape the sky. But it’s also a world where your character might be a knight in plate armor hitting things with a sword. So what does that look like? Does the world feel medieval, or is the aesthetic closer to World War I?

In creating Eberron, the design team made a conscious decision to keep the experience of the world grounded in D&D. This meant that people would still wear plate armor. They’d ride horses instead of motorcycles. They’d fight using swords and bows rather than using a version of firearms. So part of the point is that we didn’t want to make classic armor or weaponry obsolete. With the introduction of the wandslinger in fifth edition it’s possible to see how the world is moving in that direction—one of my favorite quotes from the Wayfinder’s Guide is the Aundairian exclaiming “Sovereigns above, Wyllis. We’re days away from the Eleventh Century and you’re still shooting people with pointed sticks?” So we are REACHING a point where the warlock wearing leather armor and carrying a wand is just as plausible a soldier as the fighter in plate with sword and shield. But for now it is still a world where armies clash with sword and spear.

With that said, the basic concept of Eberron is that it is a world in which magic has taken the place of the science we know. It’s a world that has trains, yes: but that train doesn’t use steam or gears, it’s a series of stagecoaches that ride a line of lightning. It’s NOT our world, and while the tools people use may have medieval names, that doesn’t mean they are medieval in form. I discussed this in a previous article dealing with crossbows, but it is equally important when thinking about armor. Heavy armor became obsolete in our world because crossbows and gunpowder weapons could easily penetrate it, and the protective value of the armor no longer offset its limitations on movement. But consider a few facts about armor in D&D…

  • Heavy armor provides equal protection against all weapons. Plate armor provides significantly better protection than leather armor, regardless of whether your attacker is using a sword, a heavy crossbow, or even a modern firearm (if you use the rules provided in the DMG).
  • Heavy armor is remarkably flexible. As long as you meet the Strength requirement, the only limitation it imposes is disadvantage on Stealth checks: it’s NOISY. But unlike previous editions, it doesn’t reduce your movement speed. And it doesn’t impose disadvantage on, say, Acrobatics or Sleight of Hand checks. That implies remarkable ease of movement. And, you can wear it all day without worrying about sores or other problems.

You can choose to look at these as the limitations of a casual rules system. But the alternative is to accept the idea that this isn’t medieval armor. It is “plate” armor, yes. It’s literally heavy and it requires a certain level of Strength to use it effectively. In terms of its materials and appearance, it’s not medieval. The same concept applies to other “medieval” things. Orien couriers use a form of horseshoes of speed that channel the power of their dragonmark (thus reducing the rarity) to give a mount greater speed and durability. So yes, people are riding horses instead of motorcycles, but that Orien courier can tear past you with blue light flashing from the hooves of the horse; less frequently you might even see a courier with horseshoes of a zephyr riding a horse across the surface of a river. It’s a MAGICAL world; don’t just think “No cars means it’s primitive”, highlight what they’ve developed instead. Mention the squad of Vadalis hippogriffs passing overhead, or the street performer weaving wonders out of illusion; it’s not medieval, it’s magical.

Magic is a part of life, and is very much a part of fashion. Glamerweave is a form of common magic item that imbues clothing with illusion. A sorcerer may wear a cloak that’s lined with a starry sky. A former soldier could have glowing sigils representing the medals bestowed upon them in their service etched into their armor. Consider also shiftweave, a common magic item that allows the wearer to shift between multiple outfits—so someone who can afford a common magic item can shift between their traveling outfit and a shimmering gown with a snap of their fingers. Exploring Eberron will also discuss cosmetic transmutation—the idea that you can go to a cosmetic illusionist and add magical details to your appearance. In Aundair in particular you can expect to see people with glowing eyes, metallic hair, or other cosmetic details that are obviously the product of magic.

Art by Olie Boldador for Exploring Eberron

Pulling back to armor and common appearance for a moment: Consider that Khorvaire is just two years out from decades of war. All genders served in the armies of the Five Nations. Combined together, you’ll see a trend toward practical clothing that allows freedom of movement. The closer you were to the front lines, the more you wanted to be ready for anything. Nobles might embrace fashions that restrict movement to make a statement—my fancy gown shows that I’m NOT going to fight, or that if I do it will be with magic, not muscle—but that would stand as an exception. Tied to this, armor has become a part of everyday life. Especially in the case of light armor, leather and even studded leather can be designed to be stylish and comfortable. Many former soldiers wear a modified form of their service armor. Think of it a little bit like gunslingers in westerns; carrying a pistol suggests you can handle yourself, but it’s not going to immediately raise alarm. The same is true of armor; heavy armor is definitely making a statement, but people won’t blink at someone causally wearing light armor.

So with that in mind, consider that the names of armors in D&D are arbitrary. A deeper system might explore the advantages and disadvantages of chainmail versus rigid armor; current D&D doesn’t. So consider chain shirt, scale mail, and breastplate:

  • These are all “metal armor” for spells and effects that target metal armor.
  • “Scale mail” is 20 lbs heavier and applies disadvantage to your Stealth Check, but provides better protection.
  • A “breastplate” is the same weight as a “chain shirt” but provides the same protection as “scale mail” while not imposing disadvantage on Dexterity checks.

Mechanically, these are the factors that matter: weight, AC, disadvantage on Stealth, metal armor… and the fact that someone who examines you can recognize those things. Everything else is story. There’s no reason that you can’t say that the Doldarun dwarves produce exceptionally strong, light chainmail that has the same characteristics as a breastplate rather than being heavy armor. Essentially, there’s no reason that “breastplate” armor has to BE a breastplate—as long as someone looking at the wearer can recognize the qualities of their armor. This likewise applies to, say, “studded leather.” It doesn’t have to actually involve STUDS; it is leather armor reinforced with metal, but that could be strips, metal vambraces and shinguards, etc; what’s important is that someone can say “Oh, it’s reinforced leather armor, that’ll have the stats of studded.”

Putting all of this to practical purpose, let’s talk about the common uniforms of soldiers of the Five Nations. Consider that they all BEGAN as soldiers of the army of Galifar, so while nations would evolve their own styles over the course of the war, it’s reasonable that they’d have a common base style used for conscripts. I imagine leather armor as either a leather greatcoat or, as shown with Greykell in the image above, a leather tunic supplemented with gauntlets or vambraces and high boots or shinguards. Advancing to studded leather you’d add metal to the vambraces and shinguards, and studs or strips of metal to the leather. Moving to medium armor, you’d add a metal helmet and breastplate. The standard model would MECHANICALLY be “scale mail”—but it’s a metal cuirass that’s heavy enough (that extra weight) that it applies the Stealth penalty. The improved model —the “breastplate”—is the same basic design, but uses stronger alloys to produce a thinner, lighter model that doesn’t impose the Stealth penalty. Advancing to heavy armor, I’d still keep the same cuirass design, but add chain beneath it. Now, this is definitely where you’d start to see national variation; the Karrns have always been the finest armorers of the Five Nations and will make more use of heavy armor, both in their armies and among their nobles; this can be more stylized, and even aside from the infamous bone knights you can expect gothic styling or details tied to a family crest. Meanwhile, actual chainmail would be more common in the Mror Holds and the Lhazaar Principalities… and again, I could imagine a Mror champion with reinforced double-chain that is effectively plate armor, even though it’s described as heavy chainmail.

All of this has been a very long way to say a simple thing: Just because people in Eberron use tools WE think of as medieval doesn’t mean they are medieval. You can adjust the appearance of everything from a crossbow to plate armor to make it feel more modern in its design, and you shouldn’t feel limited by the NAME of a type of armor as long as you logically maintain its STATISTICS and that someone can recognize that—again, nothing wrong with a Mror champion having chainmail “plate” as long as people KNOW that they’re fighting someone with the capabilities of plate armor.

I don’t have time to get into the individual fashions of each of the Five Nations now, but if patrons are interested in the topic, bring it up on Patreon and I may address it in an IFAQ or as a poll topic. But here’s a very high-level overview:

  • Aundair is the most magical of the Five Nations. They have the most significant number of wandslingers, and you’ll see more of a focus on the classic “musketeer”—lighter armor and wand. While mobility is key, Aundairians are definitely concerned with appearance and fashion, and are the most likely to use glamerweave or cosmetic transmutation to produce exotic effects. In general, Aundairians favor grace, mobility, and skill over heavy armor and brute strength.
  • Breland has always been called out for its industrial capacity and pragmatic nature. I see them as holding to the standard leather-and-cuirass design. People like to have some touch of personal flair, but they aren’t going to be as exotic about it as Aundairians or Cyrans.
  • Cyre falls between these two: not as dramatic as the Aundairians, but placing importance on personal style. In the past we’ve called out that Cyran fashions incorporate gloves and cloaks, with varying styles for the occasion—heavy cloak for traveling, short cloak for socializing, light long cloak with a glamerweave lining for the gala. Jewelry is likewise important for Cyrans—not necessarily holding great value, but as a form of personal expression. The fashion of “Mourningwear” is to maintain this style, but in black.
  • Karrnath is both gothic and martial in its overall style. It’s common to wear some form of armor, and heavy armor is more commonly used both on and off of the battlefield. Armor and helmets are designed to intimidate; in contrast to Aundair, in Karrnath strength is emphasized. The flag of Karrnath is black and red, and both these colors are common in their fashions.
  • Thrane is the most practical and least pretentious of the Five Nations. Templars may wear heavy armor, but the common peasant militias relies on light armor and bows. Light clothing is common, but subdued; cosmetic transmutation and glamerweave are rare. Followers of the Silver Flame will usually display a symbol of their faith, whether pendants, brooches, or painted designs.

That’s all I have time for today! Hopefully it’s been interesting. Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters for keeping this blog going, and to patron dglover for the question that inspired this post. The next major article—as chosen by the patrons—will be on the moons and the space race in Eberron, though there may be another short article before that. Add your thoughts on fashions in Eberron in the comments!

26 thoughts on “Dragonmarks: Aesthetics & Armor

  1. This is amazing details, Keith, thank you.

    I’m now picturing Ardiane standing out in Fairhaven by keeping her leather armour and clothes completely unadorned, since she grew up in the Eldeen Reaches. Perhaps that’s one way of telling the difference between Reachers and Aundairans.

    Would the various Thronehold nations (Darguun, Zilargo, Eldeen, Mror) have styles distinct from or similar to the nations they were previously part of?

    • In my Eberron, the Reachers are typically portrayed as wearing locally produced flannel layers with various hide armors, as that better insulates from cold & wet, plus the color & pattern of threads in the traditional ‘flame-stitch’ pattern can help distinguish one local group from another.

    • Would the various Thronehold nations (Darguun, Zilargo, Eldeen, Mror) have styles distinct from or similar to the nations they were previously part of?
      The Mror and Zil never particularly adopted Galifar’s customs, and the Ghaal’dar were never part of Galifar, so all three of those are quite distinct. The Eldeen Reaches seceded from Aundair 40 years ago, so at least some of its people still remember Aundair. However, they were notably Aundairian FARMERS and not quite as deep in the style trap (or so steeped in arcane tradition) as the cityfolk, and over the last four decades, they’ve largely adopted the simpler styles of the people of the Towering Woods. So your vision of Ardiane makes sense to me!

  2. I let the extremely fashion-conscious sorcerer in my party discover a pair of “Cyran dancing slippers” in the Mourland, which look like high heeled glass slippers studded with dragonshards. They’re functionally boots of springing and striding, but the fluff is that they’re specifically fashionable shoes enchanted so the wearer doesn’t have to give up comfort and agility for beauty.

  3. I like the idea that even if “power armour” isn’t a fully realised concept yet, you could have an old soldier who still proudly wears heavy armour that has been cheaply magically lightend (with ongoing levitation) to help them walk, albiet not with enough grace to fight in it. (It’s more like living with a hovering lifebelt around your torso.)

  4. “In Aundair in particular you can expect to see people with glowing eyes”

    One wonders if this began in imitation of a wizard with permanencied Arcane Sight.

    On what the armor types are: Eberron just came out of a century of war, and most maintenance/repair is essentially automatic through Mending so the amount lost to poor care is relatively low. That implies both a lot of arms/armor has been made, and the population is noticeably lower than at the start of the conflict, which would mean it just doesn’t make sense for people to keep producing goods that are easily obtained used. My preferred explanation has been that the different types of armor aren’t all currently made (at least not in quantity) and most of the starter armor is actually used goods (remember: Only PCs sell at half price, and that’s because they’re trying to get rid of it quickly without an established business rather than simply the nature of used goods). Perhaps at the dawn of the Last War, Cannith was only capable of mass producing individual links and scales and assembling them into armor, with plate being purely the domain of a skilled armorer, but toward the end they started being able to produce solid plate for the masses.

    This has its basis in history. After the black plague cut down the population, sword prices fell dramatically due to high existing supply relative to the low demand. There have been examples of lower class soldiers wearing some really outdated used armor as well like a Spanish kettle helmet (1100s) that was found in New Mexico (it would have been brought over by a Conquistador in at least 1500). From a story telling prospective, it enables describing someone’s wealth with their equipment: The village militia wearing a collection of mismatched armor, much of it outdated before the Last War, vs. the Deneith marked warrior with shiny newly produced armor is a pretty stark contrast.

  5. On an unrelated note, I just read the classic The Principalities of Glantri, the 3rd part of the Known World Gazetteer. A lot of first impressions were imagining how Glantri and Khorvaire’s nations would react to each other’s similar (widespread use of Continual Flame, teleporting messengers) yet highly different (“You can open planar gates at will and you use it to HEAT WATER?!!”) versions of industrialized magic. Did Glantri have any role in inspiring Eberron?

    • No, I’m afraid not—while it rang a faint bell from my childhood, I actually had to google “Glantri” to find out what it was.

  6. Lots of thoughts on this one.

    First of all, if you are interested in armor as fashion, check out the 16th century “jack of plates” (close enough to a scale armor cuirass) and the 17th century “buff coat” (leather armour dress coat) in Wikipedia. Nothing to make chain pretty, but I bet glamerweave techniques could make chain look pretty cool and not like armor at all.

    Secondly, I feel like “bespoke” must be a common magewright ritual, which makes armor and clothes change size to fit you perfectly. I figure the ritual is actually cheaper than getting actual bespoke anything. It explains how you can get plate armor off the rack without getting it fitted, and how you can don plate armor without assistance (it just slips on and contracts to fit, without a lot of buckle adjustments), not to mention why the stuff you loot from corpses always fits perfectly.

    Third, a question: what type of armor is going to get you grief in Upper Tavick’s Landing?

    • Third, a question: what type of armor is going to get you grief in Upper Tavick’s Landing?
      Just because armor may be “in fashion” doesn’t mean it’s in fashion everywhere. I said that wearing armor is kind of like a gunslinger carrying a gun; it’s a statement that you’re cool and tough and ready for trouble. Well, guess what? They don’t want any gunslingers in Upper Tavick’s Landing. Sharn: City of Towers says “Armor is usually considered to be inappropriate unless the wearer is part of the Watch, House Deneith, or another branch of the city government or the crown.” In UTL you need to have a REASON to be wearing armor, and “It looks cool” or “I might want to get into a fight” don’t cut it.

      Now, the wording is “USUALLY inappropriate”. I might ignore leather armor (that’s LEATHER. not studded leather) if it’s previously been described as having a stylish appearance. I’d likely say the UTL watch will show some respect to a soldier with the Military Rank background… depending, of course, what nation they served. And someone with the noble background and reasonably fashionable armor can probably get away with it. Otherwise, any armor is a problem. Even stylish armor is still clearly ARMOR, and wearing it suggests that you’re ready for a fight; UTL doesn’t want any fighting, so there’s no need for you to be wearing that here, sir.

  7. Would the fact that warforged are “always in armor” be another reason that people are concerned about them? Do warforged have any options for trying to at least appear demilitarized? Fashionable engraving or the like?

    • Absolutely: people look at warforged and see them as weapons. This has been reduced in fifth edition; in third edition rules warforged not only had armor, but they had a lethal unarmed strike.

      I don’t think “fashionable engraving” would change opinions, but under fifth edition rules, a warforged who TRULY wants to appear demilitarized can remove its armor plating (an option available in third edition as part of the Reforged prestige class). However, I’m not sure people would be any more comfortable around an unarmored warforged, as people are at least USED to armored warforged.

  8. The descriptions of Aundair and Cyre fashion has got me thinking about an Aundarian and a Cyran having some sort of stylish flourishing contest with a hat and cloak respectively. It would probably be some comic relief in some play performed in Breland. I imagine that when Brelanders encounter Aundairian fashion, their first thought is that it looks like something a Cyran refugee might wear, except that the cloak has been replaced with a big floppy hat.

  9. Concerning weapons that are not quite as medieval as the books suggest, there is one simple nonmagical thing that can be done to bows: pulleys, like modern bows in our own world. There is a block and tackle in the PHB, after all. Of course, rather than using metal and thick wire like our own compound bows, Eberron’s take on the idea might use densewood and a string woven from hair from a horse magebred for hair strength.

  10. I wonder of gnome alchemists might not have discovered liquid armor, compounds that could effectively make even the most delicate fabrics act as armor. No doubt this type of armor would be outrageously expensive, affordable to only the wealthiest and most powerful individuals.

  11. There was a time in England, and perhaps elsewhere in Europe, where much could be communicated by how you held your gloves. I wonder if Cyrans have something like that with both gloves and cloaks, and Cyran rogues employ their garments as part of their thieves cant with other Cyrans.

    Also, I’m imagining a lot of late middle ages and renaissance Italian cloaks and capes.

    • That right there is the kind of stuff Cyran characters need. I’d imagine Aundair originated the tradition (as it’s artsy and passionate) but how Cyre adapted it likely created a complex and elaborate ritual to it that’s now just a collective shared cultural touchstone

  12. Thinking back on this subject, I feel that, aesthetics wise, the best real world influence for Eberron armor would be stuff from the late 1500s to mid 1700s seen in conflicts like the Dutch Revolt, English Civil War (the one between Parliament and Royalists. I don’t know why it gets definite article when there’s eight+ of them.), late Sengoku, Thirty Years’ War or the conquistador expeditions. Compared to the high medieval-mid renaissance mishmash most settings go for, it’s comparatively “modern” looking (beyond the obvious, resemblance of buff coats to World War era longcoats helps a lot), and uniform looking for the average soldier (though a lot of this is a bias induced by provenance of surviving examples, like the collection that was kept in reserve at what is now the Royal Armories museum now being the standard image of armor from its conflict) while making “heroic” armor stand out (still plenty of fancy armor and outlandish fashion under it for the wealthy). One uniquely “Eberron” addition I can think of is Cyrans using sleeve garters to temporarily keep their wide sleeves restrained.

    Alas, I am no artist so this all remains a product of the imagination.

  13. Hey Keith.
    I have a question about your vision vs officially published sources for Karrnath soldiers and the Blood of Vol. When I read ‘gothic’ my mind goes to historical gothic armor but perhaps with some artistic flair. My understanding is that Karrnath leans as a whole to being militaristic and orderly, while the Blood of Vol, despite using necromantic magic, is a very humanistic and a community based religion. Neither hold a sinister description. Karrnath reads to me as a neo-Roman military pushed into the late medieval age with some Germanic influence. Yet, most official art shows Karrnath through Blood of Vol examples and they always seem to look overtly evil. Even though the Blood of Vol doesn’t revere the undead, much of the art has warriors looking vampiric or decorated in bones and skulls. I can’t help but feel a disconnect between what is written and what is shown.

    My question to you is this: Does this follow your personal vision for Karrnath? If it doesn’t, could you describe to me how you do envision it?

    Bonus: I also am curious about the the aesthetic of an old Galifar military and how strongly that influences the look of Karrnath today.

    • Karrnath reads to me as a neo-Roman military pushed into the late medieval age with some Germanic influence. Yet, most official art shows Karrnath through Blood of Vol examples and they always seem to look overtly evil.
      There’s three factors here: traditional Karrnathi armor; the equipment employed by the Seeker chivalric orders created when undead were first introduced into the military; and how this affected the general Karrnathi aesthetic.

      Karrnathi has the harshest environment of the Five Nations, and this plays into its general psychology and is the reason the Blood of Vol found a purchase there. Its people believe in strength and in showing force. They are noted as having the greatest expertise with general infantry. So traditional Karrnathi equipment wouldn’t necessarily be GOTHIC, but there is a certain brutalist aesthetic; you want to intimidate an enemy with a show of strength.

      The Seeker chivalric orders do have a gothic aesthetic. There’s a few reasons for this. The first is that SEEKERS are comfortable with the dead, which is why they are willing to animate them. Once the blood and soul are gone, the corpse is just a tool waiting to be used. It’s nothing to fear or revere. So there’s three factors: skulls and bones don’t scare THEM; they realize that skulls and bones frighten their enemies, and again, Karrns are always happy to intimidate enemies; and, from a purely practical perspective, it’s like an exterminator with a picture of a cockroach on his uniform. Do you need to find a necromancer? Look for the guy with the skull on his hat. Again, WE see that as evil — but to them, there’s nothing inherently good or evil about a skull.

      Once Karrnath WAS using undead in its forces, I feel there was a general redesign of Karrnathi equipment. Normal soldiers wouldn’t be festooned with bones — again, that’s the sign of a bone knight or necromancer — but certainly, Karrnath embraced the idea of playing on the superstitions and fears of their enemies and played with an intentionally intimidating aesthetic.

      So the Blood of Vol isn’t EVIL, but a) they don’t see a skull AS a symbol of evil and b) they don’t mind using your fears against you if you are afraid of it.

      • But looking to, for example, Karrnathi archtiecture: Outside of Atur, it shouldn’t include skulls and the like. But I think it does have a brutalist aesthetic; Karrns seek to display strength and intimidate enemies.

  14. Late to the party here, but I just recently discovered this blog…

    This article got me thinking: Companies don’t just shutter their doors when their product line gets canned, they pivot. For instance, Netflix didn’t fold when they lost the rights to many movies, they produced their own content. Similarly, I don’t see House Cannith abandoning their warforged arcanotech after the Treaty of Thronehold forced them to shut down their creation forges. They invested too much treasure to just walk away from that arcanotech. It might take a few years, but they’d find a way to retool the creation patterns and leverage them without producing sentient beings.

    For my take on Eberron, I could see House Cannith creating wearable warforged armor as their next big thing- a magical suit of Iron Man armor. The “wearforged” armor could combine pre-sentient warforged artifice with modern production techniques to produce a kind of magical powered armor, perhaps something akin to the CryNet Nanosuit. An early prototype would mechanically be plate armor (or half-plate or studded leather), Perhaps it ignores the strength requirements and can do 1d6 unarmed bludgeoning damage as well. Advanced models could have integrated arcanotech like increased strength, burning hands, jumping/flying, and the like.

    But its biggest feature is the ability to adapt warforged artifice to its frame. If House Cannith is smart, they’d follow the razor blades economic model, and make baseline wearforged cheap. Then they could then produce more warforged accessories, like a shoulder mounted warforged crossbow that can attack a designated target as a bonus action. The more accessories the better, as that is where they’d make their profits.

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