IFAQ: Arcane Photography

It’s been over a month since the release of Exploring Eberron, and I’m working on something new—a shorter project we’re currently calling “Fool’s Gold.” However, as time permits, I like to answer interesting questions from my Patreon supporters; here’s one raised by patrons Joseph and Tiernan.

In your Eberron, do you have photography—or at least, an arcane equivalent?

We’ve often called out that Eberron is closer to the late nineteenth century than it is to the twentieth century. It’s reasonable to imagine a form of arcane photography that works with principles of, say, illusory script to cast an image onto parchment. So I think there is a LIMITED form of arcane photography in the Five Nations, but the key there is LIMITED — closer to the tintype photography of the eighteenth century than to a digital camera (or even a Polaroid). Key points…

  • It wouldn’t be FAST. Like a tintype, the subject would have to sit still for a few rounds while the image was captured.
  • It wouldn’t be SUBTLE. It’s not like you’re hiding this apparatus in your bow tie.
  • The resolution might be limited; again, look to the tintype as an example.
  • I’d expect it to require some degree of magical affinity to operate — it’s the tool of a specialized magewright, though I might allow a PC who can cast minor illusion or possibly prestidigitation to operate one.

Because this is a form of ILLUSION magic, I could imagine the image having brief animation, as with the photographs in the Harry Potter series, but I’d leave that to the DM. The main point is that this is an evolving tool and it is currently limited. In the Thorn of Breland series, Thorn is a spy, and she’d LOVE to have something like a digital camera, but she doesn’t; while I think that camera equivalent exists, it’s too bulky and too slow to be of use to her in her missions. So the Korranberg Chronicle may have pictures of a royal coronation, but it isn’t a trivial, widespread technology; you probably still need to copy the inscriptions you find in the Dhakaani tomb, not just take a photograph. With that said…

You’ve called out before that House Phiarlan uses magic to project plays in other parts of the world. Could it be something akin to this technology?

House Phiarlan doesn’t PROJECT plays to other parts of the world. A Phiarlan crystal theater uses a dragonmark focus item similar to a limited crystal ball to SCRY on the stage, and then that image is projected from that crystal focus to the local screen. So the core “technology” here isn’t a broadcast device, like a television; it’s a limited crystal ball that can only scry on a few preset locations (channels, if you will).

However, House Phiarlan DOES have the image projector, mentioned in Magic of Eberron, that allows them to record a short scene and replay it as an illusion. With this in mind, I think it’s quite reasonable for PHIARLAN (and Thuranni) to have a focus item that allows them to record images, and to transfer that image onto parchment or a similar surface. Personally, I’d see this as something like this:


Wondrous item, common (requires the Mark of Shadow)

This is a small stone disk bearing a sliver of siberys dragonshard and engraved with the Mark of Shadow; it can easily be concealed in the palm of one hand. While holding the Shol eye, a creature with the Mark of Shadow can use an action to record an image in the eye. This can be the full vista of what the bearer can currently see, or it can be focused on a specific individual or object within line of sight. A Shol eye can only hold a single image at a time. If a creature with the Mark of Shadow works with the eye for the duration of a short rest, they can transfer the stored image out of the eye and onto a sheet of parchment or similar material.

This is a common item; a more powerful item could store multiple images. This ties to the basic idea that the houses have access to tools that others do not, and it would be a definite edge for Phiarlan spies. However, as with many unique dragonmarked tools, I’d expect other forces to be working to duplicate the effect. The slow and bulky tintype equivalent would be the first step toward this. But I could see, for example, the Trust having a way to record a short audible illusion—a simple, limited voice recorder.

In any case, that’s what I would do: call it out as something that exists but in a limited form, with Phiarlan having access to superior tools and other organizations actively working to improve their capabilities. The main issue about making photography more commonplace is to consider the ways it will impact a campaign. Can adventurers take a picture of an an ancient inscription instead of having to take the time to copy it down? How easy is it for them to record evidence of wrong-doing—or to be caught red-handed themselves? If I was running a campaign in which the adventurers WERE chroniclers, I could definitely imagine giving them a camera equivalent but playing up the challenges of working with its limited capabilities: it takes four rounds to capture the image and it’s not small. CAN they keep the target talking long enough to get the image, and what happens if they spot the camera? As with anything, I’d want to make sure it makes the story more exciting and fun.

Thanks again to my Patreon supporters for making these articles possible. Have you used photography in your Eberron campaigns?

39 thoughts on “IFAQ: Arcane Photography

  1. Interesting idea, Keith. I’ve often been of the opinion that people with photographic memories and artistic ability are highly valued for being able to create “photographs”. Would you consider this particular combination rare, or would there be some magic item to improve memory in that specific way?

    • Mechanicaly speaking, Keen Mind plus Silent Image could make this. Right now I’m making a old gnome Lorghalen pirate (Wizard: School of Illusion)that have this combination. Of course, he uses this more for spy things or for just look a map and don’t need it anymore casting minor ilusion, but seems that an artist character could use for other objectives.

    • I imagine it might have something to do with the interface in that case, the warforged to final messenger connection might simply be more efficient in taking in all that information?

    • True, though a final messenger doesn’t PROJECT an image that others can see; it essentially stores memories that another warforged can access by attaching the messenger. So useful, but a very different effect.

  2. When I was statting a Korranberg daguerreotypist, I noticed that one of the Artificer’s Magical Tinkering effects is:

    “A static visual effect appears on one of the object’s surfaces. This effect can be a picture, up to 25 words of text, lines and shapes, or a mixture of these elements, as you like.

    The chosen property lasts indefinitely. As an action, you can touch the object and end the property early.”

    One current trinket per INT modifier works well – with a healthy INT, that’s three chances at getting the right shot and then trying to get it to the printer so they can acid-etch the plate in time for the morning edition.

  3. So, one of my one shots that probably will happen this or next year is about a group of gnomes from a gossip chronicles. They mission is take a picture of King Kaius that proof he is a vampire. One of the challenges about it will be the price of each picture. It is a small journal, so they really don’t have a lot of shots.

    Do you have idea about price and how much attempts are possible? I always thought as something very expensive, 1000 ~ 5000 per picture. So, this would be the explanation to not have in all places this, only large journals can afford the cost and even so it is expansive. Or you thing that is better the item be expansive, not each picture?

    • In our world, the cameras were relatively cheap, it was the film that made the bulk of the cost since it has to be made with silver. The 1985 Montgomery Ward Catalog (the earliest I can find with any camera listings, but pre 1940 catalogs aren’t indexed too well) had “hand cameras” as low as 3.50 (though generally ~7.50) and “cheap” cameras at $10-15. Its didn’t have a variety of film offered, but a $14 hand camera that produced 4×5 inch photos had film that cost 7.5 cents a photo, and that’s one of the less costly options. For comparison $4.20 would get a basic single action black powder revolver in a viable cartridge that only cost 1.38 cents a round.

    • Sure, I could imagine the Zil developing an expensive, expendable item that serves this purpose; I’d almost imagine it as a scroll that imprints an image instead of releasing a spell. Essentially, a prototype that’s too expensive to be feasible as a general tool, but that could work for this purpose.

      Or you could use the standard image recorder I suggest — but the point is that it would take multiple rounds to record the image, so you couldn’t take advantage of a quick surprise.

  4. I have used the Pratchett-esque version in which a small demon sits in a box and draws the scene very quickly. Only available to high-level summoners, or the terminally stupid.

  5. Memory in the real world tends to work off a “rebuilding” concept (e.g. we don’t remember perfect pictures, just the framework and notable details, then recreate it each time we remember it). Does it work the same way for your Eberron? If not, would someone be able to remember a location and create a minor/major illusion of it and then do a tintype/Shol Eye of the image in question?

    Separately, for those with artificial eyes (e.g. Ersatz Eye), how does this differ from TT/SE?

    • It’s possible to use minor illusion to recreate an area that you’ve seen, but certainly, most people aren’t going to remember a location perfectly. I’d likely have the person make a Perception or Investigation check to see how much they remember, setting a base difficulty based on the complexity of the scene. Though I’d probably only allow this if they’d made a point of examining the location originally, or if it’s a location they visited multiple times; most people definitely don’t have perfect recall of every location they happen to pass through.

      I don’t think an ersatz eye works on the same principles as a Shol eye. One thing is that I’d say an ersatz eye is a general item that could operate on any number of different principles based on who created it; this is something discussed in Exploring Eberron. An ersatz eye created by the daelkyr might actually be organic. One created by the Aereni might actually be haunted, with a minor spirit passing images to the host. But ultimately I’d say that it’s based on divination as opposed to illusion; it’s allowing the bearer to sense their surroundings, not creating or recording images as an SE/TT does.

  6. As photography/audio recording/video recording becomes more widespread in Eberron, I wonder about the impact on jurisprudence. On Earth, recorded evidence became widely accepted in courts. But in Eberron, skilled illusionists would have the ability to create “deep fake” recordings from the very earliest days of imag/audio recording! My guess is that judiciary in the Thronehold treaty nations are still figuring out waht to do about recorded evidence. One approach might be to say that such evidence is not admissable in court unless the person who made the photo/recording is available for examination in a Zone of Truth or on a Stone of Aureon to verify the origins of the recording.

    • Frankly the issue of illusions and the like making ALL evidence suspect should already exist in the Code of Galifar. Eyewitness testimony in the REAL world is already unreliable (but unfortunately overly trusted by juries and many legal professionals), and we don’t have the problem of “Did you really see Count Dias kill that man, or did you merely see a changeling DISGUISED as Count Dias kill that man?”.

      • Very true! The same problem exists (and is largely ignored) in superhero universes – was it a Skrull? was it a light-manipulated illusion? Was it a mentally implanted illusion? How are you sure??. There are a few things in Eberron that can help. If I recall correctly, the Blackened Book has a dragonshard device that can identify who cast a spell at a given location and time, without reference to their appearance The rules of evidence for getting warrants are probably a lot looser, since the judge can do Zone of Truth interrogation after the arrest. But the life of a prosecutor, at least in states that try to administer the law justly, must be hard!

  7. Very interesting! Regarding the idea of simple animation, could this happen with hand-drawn pieces as well? Maybe using a special set of tools or something to create an animated drawing? Now I’m thinking about Khorvairan picture books…

    • hello Samantha, one of the items included in my ‘Phiarlan Catalogue’ (published some months ago on DMsGuild), is able to do that!

      it was produced as a collaboration between Korranberg scholars and house Phiarlan 🙂

  8. Thanks for another great article!

    It’s kind of funny to see this. In my current campaign, the bard wanted to start streaming the party’s adventures (I don’t think he considered whether Eberron had television). We’ve made a subplot out of how Tasker’s Dream is using magic imported from Sarlona to try to launch “Dream Vision”, with the party being the subjects of a reality series for the initial programming. (This is all part of the Dreaming Dark plot to control Khorvaire with a miniature hanbalani in every home.)

    • It’s kind of funny to see this. In my current campaign, the bard wanted to start streaming the party’s adventures (I don’t think he considered whether Eberron had television).

      I ran a one-shot in which one of the player characters was the subject of a reality series; she had a crew with her with scrystones, which allowed the crystal theaters to tune in on her. So it’s certainly plausible; again, the point is that they aren’t PROJECTING, they are allowing the theaters to scry on their location.

      • It might be kinda interesting for someone to use that kind of idea for an Eberron game that’s being live streamed. Maybe also have a Sivis gnome with a portable speaking stone (it might only be able to receive messages) in the crew to pass along messages from paying viewers so that the players can respond to chat messages in character.

  9. One thing Daanvi does is keep records of everything. Could there perhaps be an experimental technique that involves commissioning a modron to record a particular event for an objective archive? That feels like an avenue someone would explore.

    • One concept I’m keen on is that the planes keep pace with the material plane. As Eberron develops technologically, the weapons of Shavarath keep pace (albiet in grander and more terrible versions) and as the idea of what an empire looks like changes, so too will the rising and falling empires of Mabar change.

      So on that basis, once Eberron has widespread photography, Modrons will set to work filing all these photographs that suddenly manifested. You will eventually be able to look at a photograph of Galifar I which was never taken.

  10. ” I could imagine the image having brief animation, as with the photographs in the Harry Potter series, but I’d leave that to the DM”

    Before I’ve had the idea of the portraits on identity papers for the truely wealthy could have glamerweave embellishment to make their portrait rotate.

    • Glammerweave works on fabric. Paper that needs to be durable like dollar bills (75% cotton / 25% linen) is fabric rather than paper pulp. So then it’s just a matter of getting Vadalis to magebreed up the right type of textile crops, so that Cannith can process them into the right type of image receptive fabric paper, so that the right team of magewrights with the right date on their licensing fees can open a graphics house/Kinko’s/photography studio.., Boom! There’s your plastic media revolution commodified & sequentially monopolized in the span of one production cycle. It’s perfect, it’s achievable, it’s probably responsible for the Mourning

  11. Interesting image storing. I had a museum doing something similar with their collection of antiquities. A gnome archivist was recording images of historical items in shards. Just a way to conserve delicate items. Had not thought of the Mark of Shadow doing something similar.

  12. Are there Phiarlan and Thuranni performers who perform exclusively via crystal theater, remotely entertaining people across the world?

    How common is it for Phiarlan and Thuranni performers to entertain audiences while constantly concealing their identities via illusion magic? Might certain entertainers adopt and maintain a consistent illusory persona, which everyone knows is purely illusory, but becomes part of their charm as a performer?

    I was considering the idea of Phiarlan and Thuranni entertainers presenting themselves in constant, consistent, illusory personas and performing exclusively via crystal theater, creating a sense of mystique surrounding these idealized and fantastical characters.

    • I think there’s two different levels of this. On the one hand, you have someone who literally conceals their identity—who only performs through crystal theater, or who uses illusion to create a fantastic persona that clearly isn’t real. A lesser form of this is someone who has an exaggerated persona—a singer known for their prismatic hair, for example—where it’s clearly a magical effect, but they aren’t actually CONCEALING their identity. I think you can see examples of both of these in Phiarlan/Thuranni, but the full concealment isn’t COMMON; most performers WANT to be known and celebrated.

      So definitely, certain there are certain performers who do this. But I wouldn’t say it’s COMMON.

  13. Excluding things like stamps (where the picture was MADE to make reproductions), can pictures be reproduced with Eberron’s tech?

  14. I always liked the concept of Discworld’s iconograph, a camera equivalent, a box in which a tiny imp paints the pictures it sees through the lens. Using illusion magic would work much better in the D&D system of course, but there are multiple ways to create a magical camera. Typically, I’d associate the use of camera’s with the Mark of Scribing, but none of the spells of that dragonmark is in any way related to creating images.

  15. For the bulky slow tintype analogue, would perhaps treating it as utilizing a tool proficiency of its own be appropriate?

  16. This reminds me of a homebrew spell I encountered by Maxwell_DMs on DndBeyond.

    Image Capture
    1st level Transmutation (Bard/Wizard)
    Casting Time: Action (Ritual)
    Range: Self
    Duration: Instantaneous
    Components: V, M (A small piece of parchment, or a stone or clay slate, and a small vial of ink)
    You hold a piece of parchment, stone, or clay in a direction you choose. A flash of light appears, and an image in the style of an oil painting apperates onto the material. This image takes the likeness of the scene in which you faced.

    The image is permanently inscribed on the material, but can be removed with either fire or scraping with a sharp tool. The image is in faded color, and if the image was captured in darkness, only vague details can be made out, as if it is being seen by a creature with darkvision.

    In my Eberron campaign, I gave it to the npc College of Lore Archaeologist Bard from Morgrave University. He specialized in utility/ritual spells and very little in the way of actual combat ability. Very useful for his profession.

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