Dragonmark 4/18: The Mark of Death

My original plan was to do a lightning round of short answers this week. However, between the release of the Bloodsails Eye on Eberron article today and the fact that this question gets asked every few months, it seems like a good time to get my answer in an easily accessible place.

As always, this isn’t canon and I’d love to hear what you’ve done in YOUR Eberron. If you’ve got comments on the Bloodsails article, post those here too! If you’ve got other questions or topics for future posts, ask in this thread.

So, the subject of the day: when I was working with Bill Slaviscek, James Wyatt, and Chris Perkins on the original Eberron Campaign Setting book, we agreed that there would be certain topics that would never have a concrete answer. No sourcebook would ever say exactly what caused the Mourning or bring back the Mark of Death. These things are hooks specifically left in the hands of the DMs – so you get to decide what the answer is and what impact it will have on your game. However, people are often curious to get my opinion. So let’s talk about the Mark of Death.

But first, a little history…

Let’s take a quick step back in the past to look at the history of Aerenal and the elves. The elves who founded Aerenal were refugees from many backgrounds and cultures. One thing linked them together: the cataclysmic loss they had suffered as a race, and the determination to ensure that the greatest elves should be preserved from death. As the new nation took shape, three philosophic and religious movements took root. One group was determined to preserve the heroes of the past by becoming their avatars in the present. These were the first of the Tairnadal, and they soon split off from the others. The second group tapped the positive energy found on the island and the reverence of the elves, and used this power to sustain the wisest and most worthy members of society beyond the grave. This was the foundation of the Undying Court. The final faction shared territory with the followers of the Court, but favored a different approach. Despite the power of the Undying Court, it relies on the continued existence of living elves and outside sources of positive energy. This other faction preferred to draw on the energies of Mabar, creating undead who could sustain their own lives by consuming the blood or life-force of others. The necromancers who created these liches and vampires were the members of the line of Vol.

The members of the line of Vol held these beliefs for thousands of years before the Mark of Death manifested among them. They weren’t alone; the Bloodsail Principality is made up of the descendants of other elven lines that were allied with Vol. Over the course of generations, the Undying Court grew more powerful and influential. The priests of the Undying Court asserted that all Mabaran undead consume the life-force of Eberron to sustain themselves – that while a lich may not require blood to survive, its mere existence is a threat to living creatures. The allies of Vol called this a ridiculous political ploy—an excuse to threaten their undead elders.

This tension continued to grow. And then the Mark of Death appeared. This cemented the line of Vol’s position among the Mabaran faction. They continued to research ways to improve their techniques and to pursue true immortality for their people. This quest led them down questionable paths, notably an alliance with a faction of dragons from Argonnessen. These dragons were concerned that the dragonmarks had appeared on the lesser races, and wanted to see if a mark could be made to manifest on a dragon.

Most likely you know where this ends: the birth of the half-dragon Erandis Vol. Things you might not know…

  • Dragonmarks don’t manifest until adolescence. Thus Erandis wasn’t immediately seen as a threat. She wasn’t the first half dragon produced in this program; she was simply the only one to manifest the mark. And yes, this means that in my version of Eberron, Erandis is physically an adolescent (albeit an adolescent half-dragon).
  • Erandis’ dragonmark is not least, lesser, or greater. It’s not even a Siberys mark. It is something more amazing than all of them… the ultimate distillation of the mark. If she had time to learn to fully harness its powers, there’s no telling what she might have been able to accomplish with it. Essentially, she was a living eldritch machine. And this is what triggered the destruction of her line.

The Undying Court had put up with the existence of the Mabarans for thousands of years, and the existence of the Mark of Death for centuries. The appearance of a dragonmark on a child of Aerenal and Argonnessen changed that. “The Sibling Kings declared that the blood of Vol was to be completely destroyed, since even a drop could destroy all living things.

So it came to pass. Forces from Argonnessen joined with the Undying Court and battle was joined. The line of Vol was completely eradicated, and its remaining allies either slain, exiled, or sworn to abandon their Mabaran practices. Yet unknown to the Undying Court, Erandis herself survived. Together, her father and mother transformed her into a lich. Even she doesn’t know where her phylactery is; she knows only that she returns in a new location every time she is destroyed. Of course, a dragonmark has no power when carried by the undead. So Erandis Vol is the ultimate scion of her house, the cause of its destruction, and yet unable to achieve her destiny.

(Some of you may say “What was that about her phylactery? I’ve never heard that before.” That’s right. This again is MY Eberron, and that’s not a detail from a canon source. I see it as unlikely that she could have evaded the Deathguard completely for all this time. However, without locating her phylactery, even the Deathguard can’t permanently destroy her. It also means that she cannot destroy herself, and I think she may have tried in the past. And, of course, it means that PCs could find the phylactery and even she wouldn’t know what it was…)

So, history lesson over: let’s get to the main points.

I have a player who wants to have the Mark of Death, and I’m thinking I’ll allow it. What sort of powers should it have?

The Mark of Death was a “true” dragonmark, as opposed to an aberrant dragonmark. There are two things that distinguish these. First, they can be passed to offspring. Second, the true dragonmarks are almost universally constructive as opposed to destructive. There are a few marks with powers that can be used in an aggressive fashion, but the point is that the pure marks are things like making, healing, hospitality – productive, positive things. Meanwhile, aberrant marks are either destructive or in some way disturbing (for examble, Brom’s regeneration in The Son of Khyber, which is a form of healing but essentially reincarnates instead of healing, which can have unpleasant results).
My point is that the Mark of Death should be about interacting with death and the undead, but I wouldn’t make it about KILLING, because that’s an aberrant path. Things like speaking with the dead; animating the dead; controlling or even laying undead to rest; these all fit. It could be that a dragonshard focus item could be created that would harness that power in a destructive fashion – but that’s not the innate power of the mark.
Again, with Erandis Vol: bear in mind that she doesn’t just have the Dragonmark of Death, she has the ultimate expression of that mark, something beyond even a Siberys mark. If she returns to life, Erandis may be able to do things with her mark that no one else could do – raise an army of undead with a wave of her hand – but that’s because she is in essence a living Eldritch Machine.

What About Skeletal Guardian as the power of the Siberys mark?

Sounds fine to me. It’s about animating the dead, which is more in line with my views than an offensive power.

Beyond this, bear in mind that any dragonmark grants powers beyond the raw spell-like abilities… provided you know how to use them. Per standard rules, a dragonmark allows you to make use of dragonmark focus items. So you’ve got the Mark of Making? It’s nice that you can repair a construct, but it’s far more important that you can use a creation forge. The Mark of Storms makes you eligible to be an airship pilot. And so on. So the question is what tools the line of Vol created to harness and channel the power of the Mark of Death.

Likewise, in 4E, dragonmarks allow you to perform certain rituals. In my house rules, I say that you don’t need a ritual book to perform these rituals… but you have to be trained in their use (generally at the same market cost as buying it). There’s only one person out there who could train you in use of the mark, and that’s Erandis. Can you come to some sort of agreement?

I realize some of you may have been hoping for a concrete “the Least Dragonmark of Death lets you use deathwatch once per day,” but the fact of the matter is that I’ve never used it in one of my campaigns. In 4E, I will say that in addition to providing access to focus items and any logical rituals, I’d probably allow someone with the mark to perceive ghosts and to use speak with dead as a skill challenge as opposed to a ritual. I’d likely put a limit on length of death, but I’d personally have the Mark of Death involve interaction with the dead… not to be confused with the Mark of Healing, which prevents people from dying.

So a player character takes the Heir of Siberys Prestige Class and manifests the Mark of Death. Is it possible to re-establish House Vol? Would other Dragonmarked Houses approve its existence or see it as a threat?

You can’t reestablish House Vol, because House Vol never existed. The line of Vol was a noble family as opposed to a mercantile guild, and it was wiped out before the Twelve came into existence. So could you reform the line of Vol? Sure, if you had at least one living elf from the bloodline. The reaction of the dragonmarked houses would be based on whether you were cutting into their businesses in some way. Even if you came up with a mercantile niche using the mark that clashed with one of the houses (Jorasco?), unless you had a LOT of people with the mark and set up a serious commercial endeavor, it’s unlikely the houses will really care. Unlike…

Would the Aereni seek to slay this new heir even if the heir had no interest in vengeance against Aerenal? How would the dragons react to the resurrection of the Lost Mark?

Let me give you that quote again: “The Sibling Kings declared that the blood of Vol was to be completely destroyed, since even a drop could destroy all living things.” Short form: They won’t take it well. The same goes for the dragons. To be clear, this isn’t about YOU. Again, the Mark of Death was around for 600 years before the eradication, and that includes Siberys marks. The reason it needs to be wiped out is because as long as it exists, it is possible that you could produce a new abomination like Erandis. So it doesn’t matter if you’re a nice person or an evil one. It’s a question of eradicating your bloodline.

Now, obviously the game’s no fun if dragons kill you right away. So if I was going to use a returned Mark of Death in my game, I’d do it in one of the following ways:

  • Lay low. Can you keep your mark hidden? If you have to use it, can you trust the people who see it?
  • Help from above. Perhaps there’s a dragon in the Chamber who’s actively debating with the others and promoting an interpretation of the Prophecy that shows that your Mark is vital to the future. Perhaps Erandis or a Lord of Dust is working to hide you from your potential powerful enemies… though this might not be a good thing.

Of course if your goal is to go public and announce “I HAVE THE MARK OF DEATH” in fiery letters? In MY Eberron that’s just not going to end well for you. But hey, if you want to play things differently, do that.

How would the Valenar feel about a reborn Mark of Death?

The Tairnadal (the culture of the Valenar) never gave a damn about the line of Vol or the Mark of Death. How they would react to you would vary based on the individual and their ancestor.

How would Lady Vol react? Would she try to influence a person who manifested the Mark of Death?

Oh, definitely. But here, you need to decide what Erandis’s end goal is. Let me throw out a few possibilities.

  • The Happy Ending. Erandis is just sad her family got wiped out. She wants her family back, and figures that this will require the destruction of the Undying Court and Argonnessen. This is good news for you, because it means she wants you alive. The next question is how you feel about this. If you’re all for it, great! You can team up, she can help hide your mark, and you can be sent on missions to rally all her scattered allies from the good old days. If you don’t particularly like this idea, the bad news is that the best approach is to chain you in the basement and use you in a breeding program. I don’t see a lot of reason for subtlety here, although it may take her a while to find out that you HAVE the mark; one of her minions has to find out about it, pass the info along, and then she has to find you.
  • Queen of Death. Erandis believes that her destiny is to BECOME death… to replace the Keeper and claim dominion over Dolurrh and all mortal souls. The good news is that this doesn’t necessarily require her to, say “destroy all living things.” The bad news is that your reestablishing the line of Vol doesn’t help HER achieve her destiny. More likely, she’s going to try to come up with some way to use your blood, heart, or other random organs to return to life so she can unlock her Mark and use her destiny. How she’ll manipulate you is tied to what she needs to do to achieve this. Essentially, you’re part of a recipe. “Take one living heir with the Mark of Death, add paragon tier, add the gaze of Belashyrra, add a trip to Mabar, and sacrfice.” So it’s really up to the DM to decide what she needs you to do before you’re a suitable sacrifice… and how subtle she’ll have to be to accomplish these things. With that said… Again, Erandis accomplishing her goal isn’t necessarily bad; you won’t know until she does it and you find out if she makes a good Queen of the Dead. So one possibility is that you find a way to help return her to life that DOESN’T involve sacrificing you. Heck, if she goes ahead and ascends, it may be that the dragons will come to the conclusion that they were off-base in their reading of the Prophecy and leave you alone afterwards.
  • The Unhappy Ending. Remember that “even a drop could destroy all living things” line? Unfortunately, Erandis thinks THAT’S her destiny. So this is the same as the above, but the outcome is bad for everyone; there’s no helping her do it.

So the short form is that I can’t answer this. It’s up to your DM to decide what Vol is trying to do, if there’s any room for compromise, and if her best course of action is heavy-handed or subtle. With that said, if I did it, I’d definitely go the Queen of Death route and have a big list of conditions that need to be met before you’re ready for the sacrifice. It’s basically the same as having a shaper dragon interested in you as described in The Chamber article that went up last month.

Feel free to ask additional questions about Erandis or the Mark of Death, or to share your own experiences!

6 thoughts on “Dragonmark 4/18: The Mark of Death

  1. Were the Drow around with this Mark of Death business? What allies did Vol have from “back in the day?”

    • No, there’s never been any significant interaction between the Drow and Aerenal in canon sources. Vol’s allies were other elven lines that shared their philosophies. It’s these lines that brought the beliefs of the Blood of Vol to Lhazaar and Karrnath after they were exiled from Aerenal. The Bloodsail Principality is the place where their culture lingers most strongly.

  2. i had incorporated an idea of having an npc cyre elf who manifests the mark of death during the last war into a last war campaign / story. On a slightly unrelated note where a person who had parents with 2 different marks & develops a mixed mark would just a mark be a mixture of the 2 different houses abilities ? or something new yet constructive ? or would they just all be aberrant marks that don’t have the angry aberrant mark look ? *i remember an article where mixed marks had similar coloration to true marks but didn’t have the same mark shape as the true ones.

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