Last week I wrote about Goblins, Orcs, and the Dhakaani. It turns out that there’s a lot to say about goblins, and the post has grown to an unwieldy size. So for the ease of future generations I’ve decided to separate the orc material into a standalone post. As as long as we’re talking about orcs, I want to takes some time to delve into the Ghaash’kala, a topic that’s received little attention in the main sourcebooks.
As I said in the previous post, my goal in Eberron is always to explore what makes each PC race unique. In what way are orcs not just humans with green (or grey) skin and fangs? How are they different from goblins and other “savage humanoids”? Let’s take a look.
While they aren’t as directly animalistic as shifters, I see orcs as a very primal race. They’re extremely passionate and emotional; this can manifest as aggression or rage, but it’s just as strong when it comes to loyalty, affection and faith. They believe in things intensely. This led to them being the first druids on Khorvaire and having one of the oldest sects of the Silver Flame – the Ghaash’kala guardians of the Demon Wastes. But they’re also highly individualistic… leaning more towards chaos than law. They are very effective in small tribes or family groups, where they all know each other and are working together… but they aren’t good with faceless authority, blind obedience, or being part of a huge infrastructure. This is one of the main reasons the orcs never dominated Khorvaire. They are barbarians by nature. They have no innate desire to build vast cities or organize huge armies; the small tribe is what they are comfortable with. This led to their being pushed into the fringes of Khorvaire by the Dhakaani goblins, and that’s where this linger to this day. If the goblins are like ants or wasps, orcs are like wolves: fierce, loyal to their pack, but not inclined to form into a massive legion of wolves and conquer the world.
In playing an orc – whether as a player or DM – I’d emphasize this primal and passionate nature. They feel emotions strongly, and are quick to anger but equally quick to celebrate. They believe things deeply, and can be very spiritual. As an orc, you’re loyal to your pack – whether that’s your family or your adventuring companions – and quick to distrust massive, faceless forces and invisible authority. This may seem at odds with the idea of strong faith, but they’re equally distrustful of monolithic organized religions. The Ghaash’kala are one of the oldest sects of the Silver Flame, but they operate in small clans and have never formed the sort of political hierarchy that you see in the Church of the Silver Flame. So as an orc, follow your heart; explore your faith; be true to your friends and suspicious of those who would tell you what to do.
Half-orcs blend the traits of orc and human, and it’s up to you to decide which manifest most strongly in your personality. Do you have the quick emotion and deep faith of your orcish ancestor? Or has this been tempered by your human side? Half-orcs are celebrated in much of the Shadow Marches, where they are thought to possess the best qualities of both races. However, the people of the Five Nations don’t generally share this view… and for that matter, most of the people of the Five Nations assume that orcs are brutish.
If the orcs are so chaotic & don’t make big cities, how do we have Zarash’ak and House Tharashk?
Because of humanity. There are two primary cultures in the Shadow Marches. The tribes are the older culture and continue to live as their ancestors did thousands of years ago. The clans embraced humanity – and over the generations, they adopted many human customs. House Tharashk is an unprecedented alliance between clans, and one that would never survive if not for the humans and half-orcs that balance the chaotic tendencies of their orcish kin. Tharashk orcs have grown up in this blended culture. While they are used to it, it’s still in their nature to question authority, and most Tharashk orcs are ultimately more loyal to their close kin and enclave than to the overall institution – but that’s enough to keep the house intact. Zarash’ak is the largest city the Marches have ever seen, built by House Tharashk when success demanded it; the orcs had no desire to build such things in the past.
Orcs make up the Gatekeepers and the Ghaash’kala. So are they fundamentally good creatures?
Not at all. Yes, the Ghaash’kala and Gatekeepers are two forces that have protected Eberron for thousands of years. But for every orc in the Ghaash’kala, there’s at least two in the Carrion Tribes of the Demon Wastes. For every Gatekeeper, there’s an orc tied to a cult of the Dragon Below. One reason the Daelkyr didn’t create an orcish equivalent of the Dolgaunts and Dolgrims was because many orcs were quick to embrace their cause; they didn’t need to make an orc slave race. So orcs are passionate in their beliefs, but that includes belief in the Overlords just as easily as loyalty to the Silver Flame.
Have you ever imagined a bardic tradition for orcs?
So a critical thing to bear in mind here is that most people in the world don’t use PC classes. In Eberron, most priests are experts or adepts, NOT clerics. The same applies here. Do orcs have traditions of music and dance? Absolutely! They’re passionate, creative and emotional. I can imagine a tradition of ecstatic song and dance, where listeners are exhorted to let go and give themselves to the music; and I can imagine a tradition of song that is more mournful – similar to Portuguese fado – that is about exhorting the listener to feel the pain or anger of the song. And I’d expect specific musical traditions tied to both the Gatekeepers and the Cults of the Dragon Below. As I call out below, the Dhakaani goblins don’t enjoy art for arts sake; their songs educate you about the past, their dancing is a form of combat drill. For the orcs, art is something to experience and enjoy.
But with that said, most entertainers wouldn’t be bards. A bard isn’t just an entertainer. They are arcane spellcasters and highly skilled loremasters. If all you’re looking for is entertainment, all you need is an expert trained in Performance and perhaps Insight and Persuasion. Among the Dhakaani the dirge singers are deeply integrated into their civilization, serving not simply as entertainers but also as healers, diplomats, and spiritual guides. We have not presented a similar critical role for bards in either the Ghaash’kala or Shadow Marches. With that said, do they exist? Sure. Here’s three ideas.
- Memories. Much of the secret lore of the Gatekeepers has never been committed to writing; it is the task of a Memory to preserve this knowledge, remembering all things that both their modern comrades and future generations will need to know. Memories typically lead public services in Gatekeeper communities, and this is where inspiration comes in; they are master orators who can exhort the people to remember the importance of their cause. So a higher level druid might be the leader of a Gatekeeper sect, but the Memory may be the one who conveys his message to the people. In looking to the wider word, Memories could be sent out beyond the Marches both the confirm that their knowledge is still accurate (for example, checking the locations of Khyber seals to ensure they are still intact) and to update their knowledge base, investigating mysteries and learning new things. Memories generally know spells related to nature (Animal Friendship, Speak With Animals, Animal Messenger), healing spells, and spells that will help them uncover secrets, and they are usually well versed in knowledge-based skills (Arcana, History).
- Passions. The Cults of the Dragon Below have always had a strong presence in the Shadow Marches. Many cults don’t have traditional priests or clerics; instead, they have Passions, ecstatic speakers who fan the flames of emotion (and often madness) in their communities. At their best, Passions are spiritual guides and mediators; at their worst they are demagogues and firebrands, inflaming dangerous emotions. As such they rarely have skills like History or Arcana; instead they are well-versed in Insight, Intimidation and Persuasion. Their spells likewise tie to emotion, manipulation and madness. Vicious Mockery, Charm Person, Hideous Laughter, and Suggestion are all solid choices for Passions. If you’re playing an edition where bards have a Bardic Knowledge ability, for a Passion this would reflect literal mad insights; they haven’t studied a topic, but they just declare what they believe – and strangely, that’s often the truth. There’s no organization among Passions; they general spring up spontaneously. Generally there’s only one per community. A Passion PC might have developed a passion for travel; they might be following a mad vision, having an idea of a grand quest that might or might not have any basis in reality; or they could even have been driven from their community for causing trouble, and it’s up to the PC to decide if they’re remorseful adn seek redemption, or if they’re out to sow more chaos.
- Bridge. In the Shadow Marches, half-orcs are called jhorgun’taal, “the bridge of two bloods.” Some exceptional half-orcs embrace this role. They travel from community to community, carrying local news and helping to bind those communities together. They are entertainers and mediators, seeking to spread cheer and resolve feuds. They typically know the ways of both Gatekeepers and the Cults, and seek to bring out the best in followers of both paths. A Bridge bard would be a helpful guide and advisor to strangers coming to the Marches for the first time. It would be unusual for a Bridge to leave the Marches, but one could be driven by sheer curiosity or a desire to help a wider community.
Everyone knows about the Gatekeepers, the orc druids who fought the Daelkyr. But there’s another group of orc champions who’ve been fighting evil for far longer, and whose vigil has never waned: The Ghaash’kala of the Demon Wastes.
I created the Ghaash’kala in the original ECS. The only canon source that’s expanded on them is the Player’s Guide to Eberron. This is one of those cases where I don’t agree with what was written there – it’s not bad, it’s just not my vision. So to be clear, what you’re about to read contradicts canon and is literally what I do in my Eberron. A few years ago a friend of my ran a 5E Eberron campaign and I played a Ghaash’kala paladin, so I put more thought into the Ghost Guardians, and what follows is the result of that.
In the dawn of time the world belonged to the fiends. The Binding Flame was born from a desperate act of sacrifice. The Overlords cannot be destroyed, merely held at bay; their power yearns to break free from the Flame that binds them, and their servants prey upon those who have inherited the world. The Flame is fueled by courage, and it is only through the vigilance and sacrifice of champions that the light remains strong enough to hold the darkness at bay.
The prisons of the Overlords are scattered across the world, but their power is strongest in the Demon Wastes. Here lies the ruins of Ashtakala, the greatest city of the Age of Demons. Though the Overlords are bound, their power corrupts nature and weak minds. The Wastes are filled with horrors, both mortal and immortal. Left unchecked, these terrors would spread to the south and bathe Khorvaire in blood. But ancient magic and geography have established a barrier: the mountain range known as the Labyrinth. This barrier can’t stop the powerful rakshasa from leaving the Wastes, but it serves as a funnel for the lesser horrors. Bloodthirsty barbarians, minor fiends, twisted creatures… all flow through the Labyrinth seeking release. One force guards the gates of the Labyrinth and protects the innocents to the south: The Ghost Guardians, the Ghaash’kala, sworn to serve the Binding Flame from birth to death and beyond. The life of a Ghost Guardian is one of endless strife. It is a mirror to the Flame itself: it is a battle than can never be truly won, but through sacrifice they can continue to contain the evil and protect the innocent from harm.
The Ghaash’kala have no written records and don’t know exactly how long their ancestors have fought against the darkness. It’s clear that couatl trained and equipped the first Ghaash’kala; it may not have been during the Age of Demons itself, but it was long before humanity came to Khorvaire. As such, the Ghaash’kala may be the first humanoids to channel the power of the Silver Flame… or as they call it, Kalok Shash, the Binding Flame.
There are four Ghaash’kala clans spread across the Labyrinth. As far as they are concerned, the world is divided into two sides: the living and the fel (a word that could be translated both as “unliving” or “unnatural”; it is a term that encompasses both undead, fiends and life that has been corrupted). They have no interest in politics or commerce; should the Overlords rise, they will care nothing for trivialities of mortal nations. The Ghaash’kala place most people into the category of “The weak innocents we are protecting,” but they will accept members of any race into their ranks. They feel disdain for anyone strong enough to fight who ignores the greater duty, especially mercenaries who squander their gifts without any conviction whatsoever.
The Kalok Shash is a simple faith, and the Ghaash’kala don’t waste time on the elaborate rituals or titles of the Church of the Silver Flame. There are only a few recognized positions among the faithful.
- A korta (“Speaker”) is someone who hears the Voice of the Flame more clearly than others. The korta serve as spiritual guides, diplomats and healers, using their connection to the Flame to guide and advise others. A korta’sha is a divine spellcaster. The korta’sha are always on the front lines, leading war parties and battling demonic influences.
- A kala (“Guardian”) is a warrior who fights in service to the Flame; this includes the bulk of the Ghaash’kala population. A kala’sha is a divine warrior – typically a paladin.
- A drok (“Hand”) is a non-combatant, either because of infirmity or because of a vital non-combat skill needed to support the fight.
There are no equivalent ranks to bishop, priest, cardinal, or any of that. The Ghaash’kala are few enough in number that the korta and kala are distinguished by their deeds. Everyone knows that the korta’sha Hurok is the greatest of the Speakers; he doesn’t need some special title to indicate that. The Ghaash’kala are also considerably more blase about divine spellcasters than most human cultures. To the Ghaash’kala, these individuals are weapons. A korta’sha isn’t necessarily holier than a non-casting korta… but she has a purpose and a duty. She is a tank, and a tank belongs on the battlefield. While Ghaash’kala despise mercenary soldiers, they are truly baffled by the idea of divine spellcasters who do not use their powers to directly fight evil.
Now: how have the Ghaash’kala survived in the Demon Wastes for tens of thousands of years? Where do they get the supplies they need, from steel for their weapons to the food and water they need to survive? What are their shelters like?
To start with the last: Each of the four clans has a stronghold carved deep into the rock of the Labyrinth, each drawing on the powers of a manifest zone. These were created by dragons and couatl in the first age, and are imbued with powerful magic; it is these fortifications that have served as a final refuge in even the hardest times. Likewise, the Ghaash’kala possess tools and weapons that have been handed down for generations. The Ghaash’kala consider these relics to be sacred gifts, and they might as well be; the most potent of them were crafted by the beings who first kindled the Flame itself. Of course, an artifact is not something to be used lightly; sometimes generations pass before someone successfully bonds with a relic. Some say that Tira Miron’s blade Kloijner came from the Wastes, that the couatl guided her north to claim the weapon she needed to face Bel Shalor. If one of your players is a champion of the Flame, perhaps there is an artifact waiting for them in the vaults of the Ghaash’kala.
Such tools certainly help explain the survival of the Ghaash’kala. But there are only a few such artifacts. The Maruk stronghold has a well that never runs dry, a variation of the Alchemy Jug. But they still need food and any number of basic supplies that can’t be found in this poisoned land. But the very thing that makes the Wastes so dangerous also provides opportunity. The Demon Wastes are peppered with passages to Khyber… not simply the physical underworld, but a host of demiplanes and demonic realms. Fiends emerge from these paths to prey on the weak… and the Ghaash’kala venture into them to find what they need. The Maruk hunt balewolves in the Abyssal Forests of Khar, and wield weapons taken from the corpses of the demon foot soldiers of the Ironlands. These strange realms are alien and deadly, but over the many centuries the Ghaash’kala have learned their secrets. As a result, the Ghaash’kala have resources that can’t be found anywhere in Khorvaire. Their weapons are forged from unknown materials, and they brew salves and unguents that would make Jorasco weep. So the idea is that the Ghaal’dar are essentially barbarians living in an apocalyptic landscape – but by mastering that environment, making the most of the resources available to them, and preserving and using ancient relics, they have found what they need to hold the line in their never-ending war.
KALOK SHASH: THE BINDING FLAME
Overall, the faith of the Binding Flame is harsh, simple and compassionate. It is the duty of the strong to protect the weak. It is the duty of the living to fight the fel… whether with the sword, or in the case of the drok by caring for the warriors and producing more warriors. Harsh sacrifice is often necessary, but the loss of any innocent life is a tragedy. With that said, there is a concrete line over which innocence is lost. One of the constant threats faced by the Ghaash’kala are the Carrion Tribe barbarians, mortals who serve the Overlords. The Ghaash’kala call a mortal who chooses to serve evil a fel’gha – “Vile Soul.” They do not waste time or tears on the fel’gha; there are too many threats to the world to worry about redeeming the corrupt. A Ghaash’kala would cast any human who chooses to prey on other humans in this category, and typically one deals with fel’gha with the sword. This can be a difficult challenge for a kala’sha who travels in the south, where many humans seek to take advantage of one another. A greedy innkeeper most likely isn’t a true fel’gha deserving of death… but the Ghaash’kala are disgusted that anyone would seek to harm others for profit.
While they may give it a different name, the Ghaash’kala channel the power of the Silver Flame. They may shout different invocations, but the visible manifestations of their magic are identical to those of an exorcist of the Silver Flame or a silver pyromancer. A paladin from Thrane and a korta’sha who observe each other in battle recognize that they wield the same forces. With that said, if you’re planning to use the Ghaash’kala in a campaign involving divine characters tied to the Flame, it’s an excellent opportunity to shift around spell lists. Perhaps the Ghaash’kala know ways to use the Flame that humans have never discovered… while Tira’s followers have discovered more subtle rituals that the Korta’sha have never imagined. The simplest way to handle this is to give the Ghaash’kala spells found in a new supplement or sourcebook – so you aren’t taking away core spells from a player, but rather providing an interesting path for learning new spells. Rather than having new options magically appear over night, it’s more interesting to make a cleric study with a korta’sha to learn that new spell or channel divinity option. And perhaps they have something to teach in return.
But wait: earlier, I said the korta hear the Voice of the Flame. Isn’t Tira Miron the Voice of the Flame? She is… for the Church of the Silver Flame. A Voice is the anchor of a manifestation of the faith. Tira is the Voice of Flamekeep. But the Ghaash’kala have their own Voice, just as the people of Khalesh did in Sarlona. One can assume that the Voice of Kalok Shash was an orc from long ago, but if so their name has been lost; they are simply known as Korta’Shash. If you use my idea of learning new divine spells by training with the Ghaash’kala, it could be that this isn’t just about learning a new incantation or gesture as it would be for a wizard… but rather realizing that there is more than one Voice of the Flame, and learning how to hear the Voice of Kalok Shash.
USING THE GHAASH’KALA
Here’s a few ideas about ways to bring the Ghaash’kala into your campaign.
- If your adventurers need to go to the Demon Wastes – perhaps to explore the Lair of the Keeper? Or on a secret mission to Ashtalaka? – they will have to deal with the Ghaash’kala to get through the Labyrinth. The Guardians won’t stop people from going in, but will warn that no one tainted by the influences of the Wastes will be allowed to leave – are you sure this trip is worth it?
- An adventurer with ties to the Silver Flame may be guided to the Labyrinth. There is an artifact in the Maruk stronghold that they must claim… but can they prove their worthiness to the guardians?
- The players stumble onto a rakshasa plot to weaken the wards of the Labyrinth. The PCs must work with the Ghaash’kala to stop it – but will distrust or treachery doom this effort and unleash a horde of Carrion barbarians into Aundair?
- A Ghaash’kala paladin arrives in the PC’s community. She’s tracking an escaped possessing fiend, and will do whatever she must to destroy it. Can the PCs help capture the fiend with minimal collateral damage?
Beyond this, the Ghaash’kala can be an entertaining background for a PC. Have you been sent in pursuit of a particular agenda – Stopping the rise of an overlord? Reclaiming Kloijner? Protecting one of the other PCs, even though neither you nor they know why this is important? Are you pursuing escaped demons or the opposing the Lords of Dust? Were you exiled for a crime (and did you actually commit it)? Or are you an ambassador, sent to learn the ways of the soft southerners and protect them? As someone who played a Ghaash’kala paladin, it can be fun to play a character who is truly a warrior in the cause of light… and yet, completely unfamiliar with the ways of civilization. While most Ghaash’kala are orcs, they accept members of any races. My paladin was a half-orc; his human father was a paladin who had returned Kloijner to the Wastes, and now the blade was guiding my character on a new quest in the south.
Is there a physical manifestation somewhere in the Wastes where the Voice of the Flame can be found, similar to Tira Miron?
You may be confusing Tira Miron – the Voice of the Flame – with Jaela Daran, the Keeper of the Flame. There’s no physical location where Tira Miron can be found. Flamekeep is the site of Tira’s sacrifice and the seat of Jaela’s power, but Tira isn’t physically present; anyone who follows this branch of the faith can hear Tira no matter where they are.
The Ghaash’kala have no equivalent of the Keeper of the Flame. Every clan likely has a korta they consider to be closest to the Flame, but that’s based on their actions as opposed to being a special mystical connection; there’s no equivalent to the power boost Jaela gets in Flamekeep.
With that said: there is no canon explanation of what it takes to become a Voice of the Flame. It would certainly be reasonable to say that a mortal can become a Voice of the Flame when they voluntarily bind an Overlord – that in the process, their spirit merges with the Flame, but WITHOUT the usual process of going through Dolurrh, which means that they retain more of their individuality and consciousness. In which case, the Voice of Kalok Shash could have a story similar to Tira. Perhaps long ago a Ghaash’kala champion sacrificed themselves to bind Rak Tulkhesh. Somewhere in the Demon Wastes lies the point where this sacrifice took place; and like Flamekeep, this could be a place of power. Essentially, the Ghaash’kala don’t have a Keeper and don’t know where this point of sacrifice is, because it’s somewhere in the incredibly hostile Wastes. But if they could find it and somehow secure it, perhaps they COULD have a Keeper in the future.
Does the leaders of the Church of the Silver Flame know about the Ghaash’kala? If so, what does the relationship between those in the groups that know of each other look like?
Yes and no. There are a number of scattered sects that worship the Silver Flame. The Ghaash’kala and the Shulassakar are two prominent ones, but there are others. These are often called “Serpent Cults.” So the Church knows about the Ghaash’kala and has studied them. Whether an individual knows would be about a Religion check. It’s not COMMON knowledge, but neither is it entirely unknown. The Ghaash’kala have little interest in the outside world, because they have a war to fight.
So: in the campaign in which I played my Ghaash’kala paladin, there was a cleric of the Silver Flame from Flamekeep (technically a clone of Jaela, long story) and a Silver Pyromancer. I’d had a vision that guided me from the Wastes to protect the Jaela-clone. In their eyes, I was a barbarian – clearly serving the interests of the Silver Flame, but still a savage. In my opinion, they were soft folk who likewise had the right idea but had never fought on the front lines of the eternal war; lucky for them that I was there to protect them. So initially we didn’t UNDERSTAND each other – but we still respected one another as serving the same overall cause.
But here’s the thing. You COULD say that the Ghaash’kala and Church work closely together, that Flamekeep recognizes the importance of what the Ghaash’kala are doing and supports them. But is that a fun story? In my opinion it’s more interesting for YOUR STORY if there’s been fairly little contact between the two and each largely dismisses the other… which means that YOUR ADVENTURERS – whether they are from Thrane or the Wastes – will be the ones who ESTABLISH understanding and alliances. Let your players take an active role in establishing (or destroying the chances of) an alliance – because this is exactly the sort of thing that lets the PCs make a difference within the world.
That’s all I have time to write, but if you have questions or thoughts about the orcs or the Ghaash’kala, share them below!