Dragonmarks: Locks and Wards

It’s a busy month. I’m working on a Phoenix article, and Illimat is being released next week! But in the meantime, I wanted to address a few more questions from my Patreon supporters.
I always tell my players that thieves’ tools in eberron look more like specialized artificer’s tools than lockpicks. What are some examples of locks of different qualities that might exist in a society where magic is a science & spells like knock exist to trivialize purely mechanical locks?
I’m going to start by addressing the general principle of locks in the setting, and then move on to specific examples of locks and tools. First of all: The existence of a tool — the knock spell — that can bypass any mundane lock doesn’t mean that people will suddenly give up on using mundane locks. There’s an increasing number of tools – both technological and mundane – that can unlock a lock on a car door, and failing that anyone can put a rock through a window; and yet we still lock our cars. We haven’t equipped every car with a new impregnable lock and we haven’t just given up on locks entirely. Instead, we accept that our lock isn’t perfect, but it will keep out any casual intruder — at least requiring some degree of effort or skill.
The same principle applies to Eberron. Go to a typical village and people will be using bars or mundane locks, because they don’t expect people to be running around with fancy knock spells, and if they do have them spells, well, there’s nothing you can do about it. My barn might get struck by lightning and burn down, but I can’t afford a lightning ward, so it goes.
But let’s assume that you’re serious about security. Your lock isn’t just a delaying tactic, it’s supposed to keep people out. Here’s some options.
  • Arcane Lock. The standard in security, available from any good Kundarak locksmith. This enhances the difficulty of forcing/picking a lock by mundane means. A knock spell suppresses an arcane lock, but if the arcane lock is combined with a mundane lock they’ll still have to bypass that, even if it’s at normal difficulty.
  • Multiple Mundane Locks. Each casting of a knock spell only opens one lock (according to the 5E SRD). Stick five locks on your door and you’ll at least make it costly for a caster.
  • Alarm. This doesn’t make a lock harder to open, but it warns you when it is opened. It’s not affected by knock. See notes below.
  • Glyph of Warding. Typically this is a one-shot spell, but Kundarak can certainly make reusable glyphs that recharge after a period of time. A GoW isn’t affected by Knock, so it’s your ultimate deterrent against the person who thinks their wand of knock is a key to all doors. Bear in mind that most people aren’t going to want to set off explosions in their homes, but a GoW can produce any spell effect of 3rd level or below. I’d make the price of a Kundarak recharging glyph vary based on the level of the associated effect, so more people would have a 1st level GoW than a 3rd. Any sort of targeted offensive spell is an option for an aggressive lock, but here’s a few other ideas…
    • Guilt Trap. Charm Person/Suggestion variant that makes the victim feel shame for their actions and causes them to dissuade other would-be thieves, or even to try to defend the house from them if necessary.
    • Unwelcome Mat. A simple Command effect that targets anyone that can hear it, ordering them to leave!
    • Sleeper. A Sleep spell, which would generally be combined with an Alarm to summon guards. Web or Hold Person are other options.
    • Guardians. While Conjure Animals is an option, Spirit Guardians are cleaner and harder to deal with – an excellent option to make life difficult if there are additional locks that need to be bypassed.
The magical options — alarm, GoW and arcane lock — all have a wide range of options for how they can be disarmed. A password is the simplest option, allowing anyone who knows the password to use the door. But they can also be keyed to virtually any sort of biometrics — to individuals, to particular races, to possessing a particular object. Kundarak certainly produces combination arcane/mundane locks where the trigger that deactivates the arcane lock simultaneously unlocks the mundane lock, so you can have a place where even these fancy locks can be opened with just a word or a touch of a hand, instead of requiring an additional key… though if the magic is deactivated by knock, this combo lock would be stuck in the locked position.
So looking back to the original question: what do locks look like?
  • Simple, mundane locks or bars. Common in any place that simply isn’t that concerned about serious security.
  • Multiple mundane locks or bars. We’re concerned about security, but not enough to pay for magic.
  • A simple combination arcane/mundane lock. We’ve got money and we take things seriously. The arcane lock could be keyed to a phrase or a keycharm.
  • Lockless doors sealed purely by arcane locks. Opened when someone who meets the right conditions (could be biometric, could be carrying a key charm) touches the door. Looks cool, but a knock spell will get you right inside… though the door could also have an alarm triggered if anyone opens the door without properly unlocking it.
  • A serious door could be more formal. Take a Kundarak Manticore lock. There’s a Manticore bust by the door. You need to place your hand on the bust and speak the keyword; it check both biometrics (say, Kundarak dwarf) and the phrase. If you fail to meet either condition it triggers the glyph of warding. Meanwhile, the door has four mundane locks and an arcane lock. Take that, knock spell. If I was having a rogue disarm it, I’d give them a chance at a high DC to disarm the entire system at once — or they could work on each system and lock separately, but it would take a lot of time and the risk of the alarm or glyph reactivating if they take too long.
The manticore is simply one example of a fancier system. A magic mouth could demand the password. An emplaced illusion could appear, threatening intruders with consequences. But critically, you’re looking at combinations of GoW, arcane lock, alarm, and mundane locks.
In a large city, you’re also going to have an option of a Kundarak alarm system. When the alarm on the door is triggered, you’re alerted but it also triggers an alert at a Kundarak enclave, who will dispatch a Deneith squad to respond to the intrusion.
Now given all this: I hold to the 3.5 approach under which a trained rogue has the ability to attempt to bypass magical wards and locks. Given that, I agree with the secondary aspect of the original post. In the Thorn of Breland books, Thorn’s lockpicking tools include lengths of mithral wire, vials of Mabar-infused water, divinatory powders, and other tools that are specifically tied to detecting and disarming mystical systems as well as tools for picking a mundane lock.

My players are on track to break into a lesser Kundarak vault in Korranberg, Sharn. Aside from your standard locks and wards and the Silver Guard, what are some quick hits of other challenges they could conceivably face? 
Well, as noted above there’s going to be various arcane systems that can be easily bypassed if they have the right things — passwords, keycharms, someone who meets the biometric restrictions (“Kundarak dwarf”, probably). There will certainly be alarm spells, and likely a nonlethal glyph of warding (Say, a 9d8 sleep spell tied to an alarm). What else?
  • An iron defender is a nice guardian who doesn’t require food or regular care, who will react aggressively if anyone enters without someone it recognizes.
  • Alternatively, you can have a living creature on guard; Kundarak likes their manticores.
  • Consider an illusion that conceals a critical part of the chamber… or the simpler, mundane secret door. Another option would be a particular object or safety deposit box tied to another glyph of warding effect; the staff know you never touch this thing.
  • When an inner alarm is triggered, it restores and reactivates the arcane lock on the outer door – potentially trapping troublemakers in the vault, if they’ve expended their resources.
  • Following principles of prestidigitation and arcane mark, I think it would be relatively simple for Cannith and Kundarak to come up with something similar to a paint bomb — something that would mystically mark people with an indelible marker. Can they find some way to dispel the marker before they’re caught? This presents a different challenge depending if the marker is visible to everyone and everyone knows the significant (you’re running around covered in purple) or if it’s invisible except to Kundarak trackers.

That’s all I’ve got for now, but hopefully it gives you some ideas. Post your own thoughts below!

19 thoughts on “Dragonmarks: Locks and Wards

    • Good luck! Though in fairness, this is all stuff that’s within the standard “wide magic” scope of the Five Nations as a whole. Dreadhold is not only Kundarak’s premier prison, it’s also one of their major enclaves and where they engage in critical research… so you’ll have more than just your standard glyphs of warding to worry about. Have you read the Dreadhold article in Dragon #344?

      • Oh absolutely, and I like how James Wyatt touched upon the wards in his Storm Dragon novel.

        My best plan is to burrow into the prison from below- entering through the Sea or through the labyrinthine tunnels below (and possibly Khyber)… oh it’s not a solid plan, with the increased hardness of the stone, but it’s likely to be the least suspected and best way to avoid becoming manticore chow.

        • Either that or staging a contingency spell upon a stone to flesh after paying for incarceration in the Stone Ward.

          • Either that or staging a contingency spell upon a stone to flesh after paying for incarceration in the Stone Ward.

            I love this idea!

  1. As a counterpoint to the Mabar-infused “nightwater” for dissolving spells and enchantments, would there be rare planar components Kundarak uses for their more costly locks? Perhaps a piece of Daanvi metal that refuses to be moved of changed by tools or spells other than a matched key.

    • Certainly. I don’t have time to make a full list of these things, but you should certainly add them. With that said, in my opinion these things would be cosmetic as opposed to absolute. I’m saying that nightwater is a standard part of thieves’ tools in Eberron that is a cosmetic justification for a rogue’s ability to bypass a magical lock – not that I’d actually make them track their supplies of nightwater and buy it individually. So if there’s a super-high DC on a lock I might justify it my saying “It’s made from Daanvi ore – it’s going to be almost impossible” – but hey, if they can make that DC 30 check, they can still accomplish the impossible.

      Essentially, it’s a way to add flavor to things that are otherwise just numbers… but that doesn’t have to mean adding additional levels of mechanics as well, unless that’s what you want to do.

  2. Perhaps the most pressing question to my mind is who can afford any of the high end options.

    Adventurers are said to carry a king’s ransom on their person in the form of magic items, but their orders are infrequent, super expensive, and difficult to fill. I suspect you can’t build a business concerned with quarterly earnings on the backs of adventurers.

    But who does that leave? Permanent magic items can cost thousands of gp, many times the monthly cost of living of even wealthy people. Does that mean that only governments, major guilds, and wealthy beyond reason merchants can make regular use of these sorts of services?

    Do most such people even have a use for them in most cases? In general, you probably don’t want the vault to cost more than the thing it is guarding. (I suppose this generalizes into the use of magic items in general. The total cost of fielding a 1st level soldier on a campaign is probably much less than even a 1st level wand. Something like 10 years salary for a mercenary.)

    I know it hardly makes sense to try to reverse engineer the economy, but how common do you see these sorts of things being? PCs generally run in the higher end circles and are more likely to encounter them, but Eberron is also a fairly broad magic world.

    Sorry for the tangent.

    • This is an excellent question, but given that this is a very specific topic and this question has broad interest beyond locks and doors, I’m going to save an extended answer for a different time.

      The short form is that both item costs and item creation rules are tied to edition (so just talking about arcane lock, there’s going to be three different sets of costs and effects based on whether you’re in 3.5, 4E or 5E). Both rules and costs are themselves oriented around player characters. We already called out right from the start that the item creation rules in 3.5 might be what PLAYER CHARACTERS work with, but are NOT the model for the overall magical economy. They don’t take into account the impact of industrial tools and dragonmark focus items (like creation forges). They don’t take into account the concept of magic being used as a science – meaning that certain effects are currently impossible (if we could easily make a sending stone you could use without the Mark of Scribing, Sivis would be out of business) and others have been refined and can be produced very efficiently. They don’t take into account the role of Dragonshards, which are supposed to be the fuel of the magical economy. Essentially, the point is that when a PC artificer makes an item in their workshop using the item creation rules, they are literally a wacky tinker building something in their garage. This means they may create something no one’s ever seen before – but it also means that it’s going to be far more expensive than Cannith running wand # 1891 off their specialized wand-making facility.

      With that said, even there we get to the idea that much of the wide magic in Eberron is more narrowly focused and limited than the sorts of items players generally interact with. A cleansing stone is a large object that produces an effect that is a fraction of a cantrip – it produces the cleansing aspect of prestidigitation, but can’t heat, chill, or flavor – and the idea is that its large size IS a factor that reduces its cost.

      Remember how I said this was the SHORT form of the answer? Essentially, the rules are designed FOR player characters, and there needs to be a larger work that gives a clearer idea of the cost of mass-produced items like a cleansing stone or an arcane lock. Likewise, in the post above I suggest two things that DO NOT EXIST: A glyph of warding that recharges after being expended, and the idea that such a glyph of warding is cheaper if it produces a 1st level spell instead of a 3rd level spell. Neither of those concepts exist with the 5E edition of the spell, so the cost of such a lock has to be set by the GM – and then you start taking into account the idea that the lock is only produced by Kundarak, which is employing proprietary house techniques and focus items to reduce the cost beyond what a PC artificer could produce.

      Beyond THAT: The typical D&D economy model is largely designed for a medieval feudal society, and is likely very skewed from a city like Sharn or Fairhaven.

      SHORT FORM: This IS exactly why I said that in a small village you’re just going to see locks and bars; people don’t feel the need for fancy magic locks, and couldn’t afford them even if they wanted them. But in a city like Sharn, a middle-class merchant could probably afford an arcane lock or an alarm for his door.

      • My number one wish for a new Eberron supplement has been a book of low level, every day magic items to scatter around for over a decade now. War magic could be included, too. Still dreaming for that Dm’s Guild unlock I guess.

        Hopefully the reason Wizards is holding on to that concession so closely is because they hope to support the settings in a more official capacity one day. Whatever the case, it can’t come soon enough.

        • My number one wish for a new Eberron supplement has been a book of low level, every day magic items to scatter around for over a decade now. War magic could be included, too.

          It’s definitely something I’d like to do when it’s possible.

        • The new Xanathar’s Guide to Everything has a good long list made by Chris Perkins that lists Common Magic Items. Armor of Mending: repairs itself every long rest. A Ten foot pole that collapses for easy storage. Lots of inspiration for those other items you’re hoping for.

          • Yes – I’ll talk more about incorporating X’s Guide in a few weeks, but the common magic items are definitely an easy add to Eberron.

      • Just wanted to say that I love this, and would love to see more about Eberron’s magical economy. My favorite thing about the setting is how it really digs down into the simulationist, how-things-work, science-fiction-but-with-magic side of things.

    • Tuckers Kobolds & similar are cheap. One of the dreaming dark(?) novels uses that sort of thing as a defense mechanism for a vault where a magical gateway needs to be used first to access the warren, then a second(?) to acccess the vault itself. any frontal assault between the first and second gateway is going to be extremely dangerous & leave more than enough time to seal the vault be destroying/disabling the second gateway long before the would be thief reaches it. tack on any kinds of wards in the vault itself & it could get much worse

    • “Adventurers are said to carry a king’s ransom on their person in the form of magic items[…] Permanent magic items can cost thousands of gp, many times the monthly cost of living of even wealthy people.”

      Personally, I regard the cost of magic items being quite as extreme as they are in 3.0/3.5/PF to be a bug in the system, particularly the speed at which costs scale. Unfortunately, scaling being part of the problem means it’s not as easy to solve as “halve all costs” or “chop off a 0”. I suspect it would take months for someone to rebalance the costs of every piece of open content in the system with a saner economic model in mind, and that wouldn’t even touch 3.5’s Magic Item Compendium. And then there’d be reworking wealth by level to be more complex than a single number lacking in context, reworking magic item creation, etc. I’d love to see systems that look like this! I’m just not aware of any, if people have already done the work.

      That said, this wouldn’t be a REPLACEMENT for the kinds of specialized advantages Keith Baker talks about in his answer. Even with a system like this in play, I’d expect a dragonmarked scion to be able to produce certain lasting magical effects at half the cost of a competitor (or a PC artificer), based on materials that are less rare (while a PC artificer might have to go on an adventure to find what he needs for something more permanent than a Spell Storing Item and more specialized than a plain +2 weapon/armor), and undercut his competition by charging 75% to 80% of what they do. Heck, I personally assume that Magic of Eberron’s “lesser schema” are first and foremost something that you can fit into certain Cannith economy-of-scale inventions like that wand-making facility Keith mentioned, and using them as described in the book instead is only a secondary function.

  3. Do you think that deneith,thuranni and mediani use this kind of kundarak system or rely more on themselves for security? I ask because I see a lot of reason for them not to invite other dragonmarked hiers at home 🙂

  4. This was a really awesome writeup that covered a lot of ground I didn’t expect =D. The first level spell examples like the guilt trap & such letting me secretly pass a note to the afflicted character & allow paranoia to kick in :D. likewise with the paint bomb & possible dye pack extension. everyone expects a mimic (seriously, I’ve never once used a mimic, why do so many people poke chests specifically checking for that)…. but no body expects a glowing iridescent dye to explode all over them when they reach in that chest… now if trying to rub it off acts like one of those tamper proof stickers that leaves behind words like void or “I stole from so and so deliver me to sentinel marshals for a reward” mwahaha

    I too have no qualms about using spells & things that do not exist in official sources & watching some of my “I cant help that I remember every spell since basic d&d too” grognards gleefully ncounter spells they are unfamiliar with makes me thing that more people should follow the advice in the article about taking liberties.

    Some of my own stuff others might find useful is at the extreme high end of security, I let house Kundarak do a ritual(very long) forcewall type things with other spells like a curtain of fireball or contained firebolt/scorching ray like the resident evil laser scene instead of a force wall/cage. Usually I adapt it to fit the spell’s effect into it in an interesting manner

    At the less flashy but horrifically deep into “oh hell nno…. I changed my mind about wanting my +5 vorpal holy avenger back”, kobolds…. specifically Tuckers Kobolds. anyone who can offer them a reasonable level of protection from surface threats & provide a desirable place to live under can pay them reasonable fees for stuff like modern sewage system analogues or vault type services. Amusingly enough, my players will try their hands at kundarak systems but seem to equate the idea of storming kobold warrens similar to “rocks fall” or “lightning strikes” despite never really having done more than accidentally blunder into the very early portions of one & suffer very minimal damage in the process.

  5. Thanks for the direct response on the bank challenges question Keith! My players have a night of sleep GoW’s and Vadalis-bred Manticores ahead of them!

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