Dragonmarks 5/1: The Dragonmarked Houses

The concept of magic as an industrial force is at the heart of the Eberron campaign setting, and the dragonmarked houses are an integral part of that. From the start, the idea was that the dragonmarks were hereditary traits that had allowed the families that possessed them to gain monopolistic power over a particular aspect of the magical economy. Tied to this is the idea that back in the day, a united Galifar was able to impose sanctions on the dragonmarked houses… but that with the advances in arcane sciences and the collapse of Galifar, it is an open question whether any nation is prepared to make an enemy of one of the houses.

With this said, there are a number of questions that have come up both recently and in the past concerning dragonmarks and the houses. Before I get to these, I want to call out one of my personal ideas about the dragonmarks… and a house rule I use to reflect it in 4E. These are based on one simple principle: the spell-like ability derived from a dragonmark is actually the least important benefit it provides. Obviously this refers to the 3.5 Dragonmarks – but the principle carries forward into 4E. Looking to 3.5, a character with the Least Mark of Scribing can use whispering wind once per day. Someone with the Least Mark of Making can Repair Light Damage once per day. Nifty! But this level of power can be mimicked by any magewright and surpassed by any wizard or artificer. This alone is hardly sufficient to give the houses the power they possess. That power comes from the tools that only the dragonmarked can use: Dragonshard focus items. Economically, it’s essentially irrelevant that a gnome with the Mark of Scribing can perform whispering wind once per day. What’s vital is the fact that his mark allows him to use a speaking stone – and the speaking stone network is the cornerstone of international communication. Speaking stones. Creation forges. Airships and lightning rails. These and many other tools can only be used by the dragonmarked – and THIS is what gives them control.

In 4E, I take this in a different direction. The existing 4E version of the dragonmarks allow the person who possesses a dragonmark to perform certain rituals without the ritual caster feat. I add a few things to this.

First: The listed rituals are innate powers of the dragonmark. Someone with the Mark of Healing doesn’t need a ritual book to perform cure disease; they simply have to learn how to use the mark in that way. Such training costs the same price as the market cost of the ritual, but once the training is complete the ritual cannot be taken away. It still requires time and components (note that I consider residuum to be the highest grade of refined Eberron dragonshards – the basic fuel of the magical economy), but the power is part of the mark. I generally provide one of the lowest level rituals associated with the mark to the character for free. This is the equivalent of the 3E spell-like ability. So a Kundarak dwarf with the mark can use it to make an arcane lock, and a Sivis gnome starts off knowing how to comprehend languages (provided they have time and dragonshards to burn!).

Second: I restrict many significant rituals to the dragonmarked. I don’t have a complete list to throw up here now, and frankly, it’s something you’d want to carefully consider for your own campaign – especially if you don’t have any dragonmarked PCs in your group. But for a few examples, in my campaign you need the Mark of Healing to perform cure disease; the Mark of Warding to produce an arcane lock; the Mark of Passage to use linked portal. If you go to a temple, the priests may be skilled with the Heal skill and tend you in that way; but if you absolutely want to have your disease cured RIGHT NOW, you have to find someone with the Mark of Healing. Again – magical monopolies. Now, there are always exceptions – especially for divine magic, because it’s less scientific. You can have the amazing holy man who can cure disease – but he can’t teach you how to do it.

Why? Why hasn’t someone just made an airship anyone can steer? Why wouldn’t someone just make the arcane lock ritual? Because one of the basic ideas of Eberron is that magic is a science… and you don’t get scientific breakthroughs just because you want them. Right now people are TRYING to make an airship anyone can steer. They’re trying to make a creation forge that doesn’t require the Mark of Making, or a teleportation circle anyone can use. And if your campaign, they just might do it. If you’re playing an artificer, you could be the Tesla or Edison of the age. You could be the genius who creates the linked portal ritual so you can hack into Orien’s existing circle network. On the other hand, the houses have a vested interest in preventing such breakthroughs. Lyrandar doesn’t want just anyone to be able to steer an airship. How far will it go to maintain that monopoly?If it’s just your party hacking the teleportation system or if you have a single free-use airship, you’re probably safe. But if you try to establish yourself as a rival business, that’s another story!

At the end of the day, it’s up to you how far you want to take this. You can leave cure disease as something any ritual caster can do. But personally, I like the flavor of having specific, important magical services bound to these families.

Which brings us to the first question from the audience…

Will 5E Eberron to reverse the ‘anyone can have a Dragonmark’ issue? This was the biggest change I saw in 4E Eberron, and I really disliked it.

Personally, I never considered this to be a change, by which I mean I don’t accept that “anyone can have a dragonmark” is a concrete description of the setting.

Looking at the 4E ECG:
* On page 17, in the section describing the Dragonmarked, it states “There are twelve recognized dragonmarks, each one associated with a specific bloodline that appears in a single humanoid race… Dragonmarks that appear outside these bloodlines are called aberrant marks, whether they’re recognized marks appearing on people not connected to the mark’s normal bloodline, or unusual marks beyond the recognized twelve.”
* On page 18 it states “(a dragonmarked character) might be a member of a race unconnected to the dragonmarked houses, even a race such as warforged or kalashtar (races that don’t normally manifest dragonmarks). Such a mark has nothing to do with bloodline and everything to do with the touch of the Prophecy. These characters are extremely rare—it’s not recommended that you create NPCs who fall into this category unless the story of your campaign demands it. The houses might not be sure what to do with a character like this—the character is probably the first such case they’ve ever seen, so there’s no precedent to fall back on. Some people would probably try to recruit the character into the house, while others would argue for the character’s extermination to keep the house’s bloodline—and its economic monopoly—secure.”

Putting those two statements together, what we get is this. Any player character could have a dragonmark outside of the bloodline. First of all, it would be considered an aberrant mark. Second, it is likely the first time in history this has every happened; it represents the character’s significant role in the Prophecy; and it potentially marks the character for extermination.

As such, it doesn’t change the PAST of the setting, because it’s stated that this may never have happened before and that even the DM shouldn’t casually create NPCs like this. Eberron remains a world in which dragonmarks are tied to bloodlines; it’s simply the case that players can be the bizarre, remarkable exceptions because that’s what player characters are.

I’ll note that you’re never going to see a character with no connection to a bloodline ever manifesting a pure dragonmark in an Eye on Eberron article; again, I don’t consider it to be a part of the default setting. With that said, I can think of two cases in my own novels where warforged appear to manifest dragonmarks (one pure, one aberrant)… though I’ll say that in both those cases, the whole point is for people to say “Wait, what?” and not “Oh, yeah, that’s just normal.”

… which is not to downplay your concern about the issue, but rather to say that whether in 4E or D&D Next, you shouldn’t see a setting in which the world is filled with out-of-house pure dragonmarks, even if it’s left as an option people can explore.

I always wondered about the Test of Syberis. Depending on the stress of the test, a heir may or may not develop a dragonmark according, but it’s hard for me to imagine a stressful situation involving the marks of Making or Finding. Have you used any of those in a campaign?

Depending on your edition, a mark provides you with a variety of concrete benefits. Ritual access. A spell like ability. A bonus to skill checks. Let’s focus on that last one. In 3.5, every dragonmark provided a bonus to one skill. The Mark of Finding gives you a +2 bonus to Search. The Mark of Making provides you with a +2 bonus to Craft checks. These are powers of the mark! Whether you use the spell-like abilities of 3.5 or the rituals of 4E, there’s no telling what the first power a marked individual will develop will be. So you can’t force a Cannith heir to repair a warforged and hope that he’ll turn up with repair light damage; even if he manifests the mark, it might give him mending. But you can rely on the fact that he will be better at Craft, or that the Tharashk heir will be better at Search. So that’s what you base your test on. Stress doesn’t have to mean a life-or-death situation; it can easily be derived from the threat of social humiliation or professional ruin. So, you’re put in a room with a tool box with only half the tools you need and told to fix something. It’s a nearly impossible task. Can you push your Craft skill to levels you didn’t know you possessed? Even if you can’t, will the stress of trying unlock the crafting talent within you? Likewise for Finding: It’s ultimately a test of the Search skill. And it’s THE test of the Search skill. You have one shot to have your best hunt ever, and if you fail, you shame your family. You don’t have to develop the Mark to succeed, but it would sure make it easier!

Once, in my campaign, i had this Lyrandar heir comissioned to infiltrate the Twelve and sabotage some Cannith ultrasecret project. The question is: if he would have been caught, who do you think will be the authority to judge him? Can House Lyrandar lobby in his favor in some way? How often do you think these entrapments happen?

The first authority to judge him would have been the legal authorities of the country in which the crime took place. At the current time, the houses aren’t authorized to enforce the law. If the Cannith ultrasecret project is in Sharn, then Cannith should turn the saboteur over to the Sharn watch and prosecute him according to the Code of Galifar.

Of course, having said that, there would also be a trial within the Twelve. Cannith could demand restitution from Lyrandar; threaten to raise prices on airships or elemental galleons (remember that the Zil bind the elementals, but it’s Cannith that makes the dragonshard focus items that let the heirs control their ships!); or demand that the heir in question be fined or excoriated. But this isn’t a LEGAL trial; these are business negotiations.

Could Lyrandar lobby in his favor? Sure, in both courts. They could grease palms in Sharn. And they could make some sort of concession to Cannith to smooth things over. The main thing is that negotiations in the Twelve are backs by practical considerations beyond abstract law. Lyrandar needs Cannith to keep producing Wheels of Wind and Water. There’s limits to how far it can afford to push the House of Making without threatening its own business.

How is it that two radically opposing philosophies can exist within the Triumvirate of House Tharashk? I would expect that Team Daelkyr and Team Gatekeepers would be actively trying to murder each other, not work together to further the ends of their mercantile empire. Thanks!

Well, the key answer is that the philosophies aren’t as “radical” as you might think. The Daelkyr have been sealed away for SEVEN THOUSAND YEARS. They were bound before humans even had significant civilizations on Sarlona, let alone before they settled in the Marches. Most people who follow one of these faiths aren’t actually trying to free the Daelkyr or to actively defend their seals, any more than most people in our world are actively preparing for Judgement Day or pushing for it to happen. There are extremists on both sides – the actual Gatekeeper druids, particularly active Cults of the Dragon Below. But for most people it’s a matter of the songs they sing and the stories they tell. Bear in mind also that the “Cults of the Dragon Below” are NOT in any way monolithic. Some believe that the lords of the inner earth will one day return to the surface to transform the world into a paradise (though they generally have strange aesthetics…). Some believe that when they die their souls will descend to the paradise within Khyber, provided they pave the road with the blood of their enemies. Some don’t care about the daelkyr or Khyber at all; they revere the gibbering mouther who lives in the basement and who ritually devours any family member who reaches the age of 50. On the other side, members of “Team Gatekeeper” know that the night is dark and full of terrors, and that it is by following the teachings of the druids that they help hold that evil at bay.

Short form: for the most part the members of the house aren’t radicals or extremists. They disagree on these matters, but neither believes that the beliefs of the other are a clear and present danger. Essentially, it’s much like Democrats and Republicans working together in our world. You may think your co-worker’s beliefs are moronic; you may think that the more powerful people who share his beliefs are a threat; but at the same time, he’s your cousin/countryman/coworker. So just don’t discuss politics and try to get the job done.

Comparing faiths and the dragonmarked houses, though, I have always had the feeling that given their powers and benefits dragonmarked may appear to be much more powerful than others, and think that Flamer characters, for instance, should receive additional benefits due to divine forces that make them stand apart from dragonmarked and perhaps even “envied” by them.

Sure! In my campaign, I call that benefit “divine magic.” You suggest that Jorasco can’t do exorcisms, and I agree. Most Jorasco healers have the mark and nothing else. They can’t call down fire or turn undead. They have no special power to smite evil. They can’t shield others from harm (that’s what House Deneith is for). A Jorasco house with a true cleric (likely dedicated to Arawai and Kol Korran) is a rare exception. Given this, I’ve never felt a need to give the faiths additional powers, because what they have is the powers that come with faith. Now, you suggest that they could benefit from miracles at the discretion of the DM, and there’s never anything wrong with that; for example, Tira Miron received divine aid from the couatl to battle Bel Shalor. No couatl’s going to pop into Jorasco House #153 to help with Farmer John’s hemorrhoids.

The main thing is that in creating Eberron, I wanted to break with the tradition I’d seen in the past of temples being places adventurers went to in order to throw money at the altar and get healed. Eberron is like our world. If you want to get healed, go to a hospital. If you want spiritual guidance, go to a church. But if you just walked into a church you’d never been to, handed the priest a thousand dollars, and said “I cut my leg, fix it” – how do you think that would work out for you? With that said, the Church of the Silver Flame does “heal for free.” They operate free clinics and do charitable work among the needy, as do some (non-Jorasco) priests of Boldrei and Arawai. The point is that this is generally use of the Heal skill as opposed to magic. In 4E, even if they COULD perform the cure disease ritual, it costs 150 gp to perform it; they couldn’t afford it to just wander around fixing the peasants. And frankly, for commoners, the Heal skill is going to handle most of their problems; it’s just not instant. Like our world, there are faith healers who can miraculously heal with a touch – but like our world, those are few in number in comparison to hospitals or clinics.  

This relates to the idea that player character classes are rare. The cleric IS that faith healer – the rare and remarkable individual whose faith is so great that he can heal you with a prayer. But the priest in the typical church isn’t a cleric; he’s most likely an expert trained in Diplomacy, Heal, History, Sense Motive, and of course Religion. He can preach; he can listen and counsel you; but he doesn’t do magic. In Jorasco, you don’t have clerics either. What I like about 4E with its rituals is that it finally allows a Jorasco heir to be a healer without ANY divine magic, which is how I prefer it. Jorasco house can heal, but they general can’t provide any other divine services – because they are businesses, not places of worship.

I’ll also point out that nothing prevents a Jorasco heir from joining the Church of the Silver Flame! In my campaign, one of the greatest healers is a Jorasco heir dedicated to the Silver Flame, who left the house to follow his faith. Beyond this, I would definitely consider letting a player character cleric learn the rituals normally restricted to the dragonmark, because that’s part of what makes her extra-holy and amazing.

I know about the speaking stones that only sivis can use, the airships that only lyrander can fly, the lightning rail that only orien … etc. What about Deneith, House of Shadow, etc … what tools give the other houses a financial edge in the world.

First of all, in 4E look to rituals. Certain rituals may be restricted to the Dragonmarked… and a common dragonmarked focus item would be an object that allows you to use that ritual at reduced cost or casting time. So House Kundarak has the Warder’s Key that allows a more efficient production of arcane locks – a useful thing if you’re securing an entire castle. Looking to the Shadow houses, some of the canon examples that have been mentioned are the Serpentine Mirror and the Shadow Eye – scrying tools described in Dragonmarked. But let’s take the Houses of Shadows as an example. The powers of the mark are illusion, observation, and movement through shadows. The business of the house is entertainment and espionage. How could you amplify those innate powers to create a tool that would help the business? A few thoughts:

* The crystal theater: A giant crystal ball on a stage. An heir of the Mark of Shadows can tune it to observe one of five different locations (using anchor items similar to the shadow eye); these five locations are stages where the house holds performances. So think of it as a movie theater, but instead of having a recorded image or receiving a transmission, they are scrying on a live performance.

* The Orchestra of Shadows: A similar tool – a magical stage that allows the shadow-marked operators to sculpt ongoing illusory images. As opposed to the crystal theater, this is essentially an instrument requiring skilled users. But do you want a play where a dragon actually swoops down and breathes fire? They can produce it.

* Shadowgates: An amplified version of the shadowstep power, these are linked pits of absolute darkness hidden in the recesses of a handful of enclaves. Many were sealed off after the Shadow Schism. An heir can move between them… but some say they can be lost in Mabar!

I’m going to stop there, but you get the idea. Look at what the mark does and what the house does; think about how that power could enhance the business; go from there.

Are dragonmarks mutable? I play mark of making artificer, human, who now has a homebrew silver flame paragon path… complete with silver quetzalcoatl blood. Would this change the mark of making… or turn it aberrant?

In my opinion, no. What defines the “true” dragonmarks is that they are predictable and recognizable. Even the infusion of dragon blood into the line of Vol didn’t change the Mark of Death into something aberrant, it just allowed the development of a superior version of the mark. With that said, that’s MY opinion: the mark shouldn’t casually mutate. That doesn’t mean that your silver-blood artificer might not find new ways to USE the mark by channeling the power of his altered blood through it. So as a DM, I’d be willing to explore new abilities and stories tied to it. But I wouldn’t change it to the Least Mark of Fire-Making or something like that.

Please tell us how you portray the participation of the Silver Flame during the last war and whether there religious discrimination or conflict against flamers in Karrnath or Breland.

What does this have to do with dragonmarks? Nothing. But it’s been asked often enough that I’m adding the answer to the end of the Faith post, so if you’re interested look for it there.

Aren’t Medani’s ties to Breland too close as to breach the Korth edicts?

Not really. The Korth Edicts prevent the houses from having noble titles, land, or military forces. Medani has none of these.

I’m confused. The Forge of War says “If any house truly violated the edicts of neutrality during the Last War, it was House Medani.”

First off, I didn’t work on The Forge of War, and there are multiple topics where I feel it is inaccurate…. notably, it’s depiction of Thrane. It states that Thrane had poor archers, when in my opinion and previous sources, Thrane’s peasant archers were one of its greatest strengths in the war; it’s been clearly stated that archery is taught by the church and considered a form of devotion. In general it depicts the people of Thrane as being zealous mobs, which again is at odds with the character of the Church and Thrane’s actions from other sources.

However, the question here isn’t about Thrane. The key is that it doesn’t mention the KORTH edicts; it says “the edicts of neutrality.” The Korth Edicts aren’t edicts of neutrality; they were put in place by Galifar I, at which point the Five Nations were unified as a single kingdom. The best source for the Korth Edicts (and written by me) is page 47 of The Player’s Guide To Eberron, which says:

The so-called edicts of Korth forbid any member of a dragonmarked house from holding a grant of land, and place limits on the size of house enclaves and the armed forces that can be garrisoned at an enclave. Special provisions are made for House Deneith, which has the right to assemble military forces for mercenary service. The edicts further specify that no member of the aristocracy of Galifar can be bound to a member of a dragonmarked house in marriage without one of the two giving up all heritage and rights.

As I said before, Medani wasn’t granted land, noble titles, or allowed to garrison military forces; it simply chose to provide superior service to Breland.

Now, TFoW says “edicts of neutrality.” One could assume that this was some sort of agreement not to take sides in the war. However, nothing like this has ever been mentioned before. In general, I don’t see when it would have been put into place or why it would be necessary. For example, House Sivis hasn’t signed some edict of “we won’t share your messages with others” – but if it was ever revealed that they DID, no one would ever trust them again. Favoring one country over another has simple economic consequences. If the house is willing to accept those consequences, that’s its choice. By contrast, let’s look at House Cannith. For much of the war, Cyre was its primary client; Cyre certainly employed more warforged than anyone else. There was no rule saying that Cannith had to stop selling warforged to Cyre until other nations had an equal quantity; that was up to the other nations to put up gold and offer a competitive price.

Now, Medani has been called out as providing exceptional service at a unusually low rate to Breland, based in part on the friendship of Boranel and the patriarch. However, I don’t believe that it’s been stated anywhere that Medani betrayed other clients in the process. They may have provided exceptional aid to the Citadel, but I’ve never seen it explicitly stated that they intentionally failed other clients – IE, failing to protect people who hired them, etc. If that was the case and was publicly known, I would expect it to cripple the house’s ability to operate outside of Breland and to for all intents and purposes leave the house as an arm of the Citadel. As is, I think people know that Medani was of great assistance to Breland & provided it with access to the bulk of its resources, but I don’t believe the services they provided to other nations was substandard… just like Cyre had more Cannith warforged than any other nation, but the warforged sold to other nations were just as capable as those sold to Cyre.

So personally, I think this is a case of TFoW either misunderstanding the nature of the Korth Edicts (and I’ll note that PGtE predates TFoW) or suggesting the existence of a neutrality treaty that hasn’t been mentioned anywhere else.

As always, these are my personal opinions and aren’t canon in any way. They may be contradicted by canon Eberron sourcebooks – go with what you like. Please post your own thoughts, experiences, and questions about the Dragonmarked houses below, and if you have questions on other topics, post them in this thread!