Typically, I only answer questions that are posed by my Patreon supporters. However, I do occasionally read the Eberron forum on Reddit, and a question caught my eye. A DM explained that his players—who were playing fourth level characters—had chosen to split up while in the Mournland, planning to individually make their way back across thirty miles of Mournland and meet up on the other side of the mist. The DM had explained just how dangerous this was, but the players were committed to the action. The DM was asking for ideas on how to handle this, noting that they didn’t want to have the characters die here, even though it’s essentially a suicidal action. I’m addressing this here because there is a larger principle at play, which is what to do when your players are determined to do something that should be impossible. This is the story the players want to experience. The DM doesn’t want to just shut it down. They don’t want to just say “Mists fall, everybody dies.” But is the DM required to now create interesting encounters for each individual character while also ensuring that these encounters won’t just kill them (which, in the Mournland, should be a very real threat)? If not, what do they do?
At MY table, what I would do is to make this a challenge for the players. First, I’d say “You’ve chosen to do something incredibly foolhardy. You’ve separated in one of the most dangerous places in Eberron, a region brimming with supernatural threats and with very little safe food or water. You’re a hero, and somehow you will survive this. But how? How does your character survive this impossible journey?”
RPGs are collaborative stories, and that means you can ask the players to share the creative burden. You know that you don’t want the adventurers to die, even though in all likelihood they should. So ask them to explain how they manage to do the impossible. How do they think their character could survive this? As DM, I would work with them to temper their answer, especially as I know more about the world than they do. If they say “I find an airship and fly it” and aren’t Lyrandar, I’ll note that this isn’t how airships work… but I’d see if I could work with them to come up with an alternative that fit the general idea of this story, while also being actually plausible. Maybe they just find a lost skystaff (Broom of Flying). Maybe they find an experimental Cannith vehicle and manage to make it work just long enough to get them through the mists. Beyond this, while I won’t shut a player’s idea down completely, I will QUESTION ideas and help them refine them. In the vehicle example, if the character is an artificer, of course they can jumpstart an experimental vehicle. But if they’re a fighter with a low Intelligence and no Arcana or Land Vehicles proficiency, I would point that out and say “How is YOUR CHARACTER going to accomplish this?” If they can come up with a good answer, great! If not, perhaps we can evolve the idea into something else. The point is that we all know they WILL succeed; we’re just trying to create a satisfying story about how they do it.
However, after all this I’d ask a second question. “You have survived the unimaginable journey, but you can’t do something that dangerous without consequences. The Mournland is full of deadly supernatural threats. It can also mutate or transform creatures in strange ways. You have a scar from this experience—a permanent, lingering reminder of this journey. What is it?”
This could be something obvious and dramatic—the adventurer’s skin turns purple; their hair now moves on its own, like a medusa’s mane—or it could be a more mundane scar or a lingering fear of shellfish. If I was playing an artificer in this scenario, I might suggest that I lost a limb but managed to fashion a prosthetic out of things I found on the way, and go forward with a sentimental (and literal) attachment to this odd prosthetic. As with the previous question, I’d work with each player to hone their answer. This shouldn’t be something that imposes a permanent, ongoing penalty on the character—but it should be something that may prove an inconvenience at times, something that draws comment or attention, something that reminds them of the time they did something suicidally stupid but managed to survive. Going forward, I might continue to expand on this with Flashbacks. When the players encounter a mysterious symbol, I might say “Bob, you ran into this symbol when you were crossing the Mournland alone. Where did you see it?” We all know the adventurers survived a long, grueling trek across the Mournland; but we also know that we didn’t cover it in detail, and perhaps there could be more to the story!
Adding Depth and Danger
The approach I describe above is intended to fast forward through the difficult situation. The characters will carry scars of their journey, but there’s no chance that they will fail—and because of this, I won’t actually require any sort of skill check. We’re agreeing from the start that it WILL work, we’re just sorting out the details. But perhaps you DO want a chance of failure. In this case, I’d take an approach much like I described in the Travel By Montage article. I wouldn’t actually develop full encounters and combats; instead, I’d take turns posing characters with specific challenges. For example…
You’re traveling along an old road. Up ahead, you see the severed arm of a warforged colossus. Somehow, it’s still active; it’s pulling itself across the landscape, crushing everything it encounters. It’s headed directly for you; how will you avoid it?
You reach a wide river; the bridge is broken. There’s a powerful current, and there’s threads of red flowing through the water, like veins of blood. You could follow the bank until you find another bridge, but that could take you many miles off your course and will be exhausting; what do you do?
It begins to rain. The liquid glows with green light, and burns your armor and clothing. How will you survive this acid rain?
You find the rest of your adventuring party! After celebrating this reunion, you continue your journey… but slowly you realize that these aren’t actually your friends. You don’t know if they’re doppelgangers, illusions, or something else—but they aren’t your companions, and you feel danger in the air. How will you deal with this?
Though you haven’t seen the sun since you entered the Mournland, it’s clear that night is falling; the gray light is fading. Will you try to continue through the darkness? If not, how will you find shelter?
… And so on. For each question, I’d require the character to propose an ability check; for each one they failed, I’d impose a consequence. This could be one or more levels of exhaustion, with the threat of death if exhaustion gets too high; so taking the river crossing, they could accept an automatic level of exhaustion to find another bridge, or attempt the crossing with the risk of more severe consequences on failure. Alternately, I could impose a scar for each failure. The point is that the characters are directly using their character abilities and that there is a chance of failure, but that I’m not going to take the time to fully develop each of these as tactical encounters; we’re essentially summarizing their success or failure. Looking to the “Imposter” example, the adventurer might decide to fight them; I’d still likely pick a skill to reflect their chance of success (Athletics for the strong fighter, Stealth or Acrobatics for the swift rogue) rather than play out the scene.
Even here, it’s potentially a lot of work for me to come up with those questions… and also, if the characters are all separated, it’s a lot of time for players to be waiting for their turn to come around. With that in mind, even here, I’d start off by providing a solid set of challenges so people understand the nature of the region. But at that point, if I feel my players would enjoy it (becuase not all would, and that’s fine!) I might ask the other players to propose challenges for their fellow players. What do they think Bob might encounter in the Mournland? As before, I might refine an idea to fit the lore of the world, or even to tie into other things I have planned; but I can work with the players to develop the story rather than making it up entirely on my own.
In conclusion, as a DM, don’t be afraid to call on your players to share the narrative workload! If the players do something foolish and you don’t want them to die, you can ask them to explain how they get away with it.
Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters; this support is the only thing that makes these articles possible. So if you want to see more articles—or if you have questions you want to ask!—check it out.
As time permits, I like to answer interesting questions posed by my Patreon supporters. Often those questions are tied to Eberron, but sometimes there’s a more general topic. Case in point…
As a world builder myself and a long time improviser, making things up on the fly to adapt to situations is the environment I *live* for and it’s made my storytelling in this game really step up. I’m writing more than I’ve ever written before in order to keep up with my players story as well as be a few steps ahead. While I know it can be a matter of taste, which do you like to do more as a DM; prepare for the most likely situations but expect the unexpected or completely roll with the punches because you’re so familiar with the world you’ve created?
I love the collaborative element of TTRPGs. I may know all the secrets and where the action will go, but I love that I don’t know which hooks the adventurers will latch onto. I have an adventure that I’ve run almost sixty times, and it’s still fun for me to run again because there’s always somethingthat comes up in each session that I’ve never seen before. I love to see players come up with creative solutions to problems, and I’m always going to encourage that, because that’s what makes it interesting for me; if they followed an entirely predictable path, if I knew exactly how the story was going to end, it wouldn’t be that interesting to run it twice, let alone sixty times.
With that said, fun fact: I’ve never published that adventure I’ve run sixty times, because I’ve never written it down in such a way that anyone else could run it. The adventure is set in the city of Graywall, which I know like the back of my hand. The adventurers are trying to locate a fugitive. Because I know the city so well, I don’t have to have every option written down. If the adventurers say “We want to talk to a Brelish expatriate” or “Who sells refined dragonshards in bulk?” I know the answers to those questions, and I can freestyle a quick encounter with the Tharashk shard salesman. However, I also have a few anchor points that I know the adventure will hit. Whatever path they take to get there, I know the adventurers will have to deal with at least two of three specific people/places… and I know where the fugitive is and what they will find when they get there. So I have those four scenes prepared ahead of time—with statistics for the combat encounters, traps and treasures, and the like. But I never know which three of these four scenes I’ll use in a particular run of the game.
The same thing is true when I’m running my Patreon campaign on Threshold. In session 2, the adventurers were investigating the disappearance of local kobolds. I knew where they would end up—that they’d need to investigate the farmstead of Kaine Agran, and that doing so would lead them to a sinister chamber of skulls hidden in the mountains. I had both of those scenes plotted out, complete with statistics for the threats they would face. But I didn’t know how they would GET to the farmstead. And case in point, when I ran the adventure twice, one group of players focused on dealing with the Brelish veterans in town, while the other group centered their investigation on the kobold community. But I knew that both of those were options, and I knew that I could improvise a scene in either direction—because I had an established cast on NPCs in each location and generally knew how they could help.
Meanwhile, the fourth Threshold session—the first hour of which is available here—was set at a festival. I had five specific scenes planned at the festival—Kobolds dancing around a fruit idol; a tiefling missionary approaches one of the characters; an illusionary shooting gallery; a baking contest; and an unexpected confrontation at the final feast. But I didn’t know which of these would catch the players’ interest or how long each might take; they could have just shurgged and walked by the fruity kobolds, or they could join in the ceremony (which they did). So I had a handful of established NPCs there at the festival I was prepared to deploy. The adventurers could have been approached by the priest who was organizing the festival, or caught up in a drunken brawl; I knew I could fill space if I needed to. And taking the shooting gallery—the structure was that the PC wandslinger had to face five illusionary opponents. I had each of the other players describe one of these illusionary opponents—so even though it was a scene revolving around a single PC, each player got to be involved—and then when it got to the fifth opponent I revealed it to be an ambush by a gang of halfling hitmen (a combat which then involved everyone). The main point is that I’d planned how the scene would end—I had stats for the squad of halfling hitmen—but I didn’t know what the players would come up with for the four first targets, and it was fun for me to see what they thought up.
So MY preferred style is to work within an area that has some flexibility, with a number of concrete scenes or locations that drive the story and that I know will be involved: I know that sooner or later the adventurers will get to the Chamber of Skulls, or they will get to the confrontation at the final feast. But I’m prepared for them to take an unexpected path to reach that point, because I know the cast and locations around them and I can improvise secondary scenes. This doesn’t work with every story; if I’m doing a serious dungeon crawl where resources are limited and the players’ choice of which rooms to explore matters, I’m going to carefully map it out ahead of time. If the adventurers are going to a new location where I don’t have a well-established supporting cast to fall back on, I’ll plan things more carefully. But I personally like the middle ground—not planning every detail or leaving everything to chance, but building an adventure around a few scenes I know will occur, with flexibility to improvise around them.
How do you handle times when the players bring about a situation that you really ought to know how to handle, but in the heat of the moment can’t imagine what to do next?
I try not to be caught in this situation. While I don’t plan for every contingency, I do prepare notes ahead of time and think about characters and locations that might turn up—for example, the idea that a drunken brawl at the festival would be a simple way to fill a hole if the players moved too swiftly through the content I’d prepared. But while I do my best, it’s impossible to prepare for every contingency. Sometimes a player asks a question you just don’t know the answer to—”This is a textile factory, right? Are they doing mule spinning or ring spinning?“—while other times you may just have had a long day and find yourself out of ideas. When I do find myself in that situation, my standard approach is ask the players for the answer. First of all, in the case of the person asking about an obscure subject, given that they asked the question they probably know what they WANT the answer to be. I don’t know the difference between mule spinning and ring spinning, but THEY do, an d this gives them an opportunity to educate the group and the answer that they think makes sense. And beyond this, at the end of the day, it’s a collaborative story. Perhaps the players are in a stagecoach and it gets blown off a bridge, and you suddenly realize you have no idea how they’re going to survive. Turn it to them: How are you going to survive this? Depending on the situation, this could be a metagame discussion, where you freeze the action and talk to the PLAYERS—”How do we get out of this mess?” On the other hand, I could also present it as a simple skill check to players. “You’re going to take 50 points of damage when the coach strikes the bottom of the ravine. What do you do to survive this?” I’d evaluate their answer and either have them make a skill check (reducing the damage taken by the result of the skill check, or perhaps by double the result for a great idea) or assign an arbitrary value to an interesting, non-skill based idea. The main point is that ideally, what everyone in the group wants is a satisfying story; there’s nothing wrong with occasionally asking the players to fill in the blanks. Looking back to the textile question, I could go research textile factories to find out a good answer—but if the player already has that expertise and knows what the smart answer would be, why not use that expertise?
If you have questions about this approach or want to share how YOU do things, add your comments below! Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters for making these articles possible.
One of the core concepts of Eberron is that player characters are remarkable. The original Eberron Campaign Setting emphasized that most NPCs used NPC classes—warrior, magewright, adept—rather than player classes such as fighter or wizard. In 5E we’ve emphasized that spells of up to 3rd level are common in the Five Nations, but those of 4th or 5th level are remarkable and higher level effects are legendary.
This often leads to the mistaken assumption that Eberron is a “low-level setting”—that there are no real challenges for characters of 10th level and above. That was never the intent. The people of the Five Nations are typically low level magewrights and commoners. City guards in Sharn are low level warriors. But when we designed the setting, we didn’t expect your high level characters to be fighting city guards in Sharn! A comparison here would be The Hobbit. When Smaug comes to Laketown, the Master of Laketown isn’t a mighty champion who can fight him. All the soldiers of Laketown are helpless against the dragon. Their only chance lies with a hero who can beat the odds and do the impossible. And in Eberron, that’s you. The Lord Mayor of Sharn isn’t SUPPOSED to be able to beat you in a fight; he’s the Master of Laketown, and his power isn’t ABOUT being good at fighting. If you’re a high-level character, maybe you can defeat all the guards in Daggerwatch Garrison. But you’re not supposed to be fighting the guards, you’re supposed to be the one who DEFENDS the city when the Tarrasque shows up and no one else can stop it.
So first, people often judge Eberron based on the fact that its cities aren’t full of high level NPCs. A second reason it’s often cast as a “low-level setting” is that in Eberron, gods don’t walk the world. Which is true… but Eberron has Overlords, the archfiends who dominated the world at the dawn of time. In their original presentation in the 3.5 rules, Overlords have divine rank; they aren’t gods, but they have the same POWER as gods in other settings. As defined in Rising From The Last War, the avatar of a partially released Overlord might have a CR of 28 (with the side bonus of being immortal, which means that unless you do it properly defeating them will only incapacitate them for about a day). A fully unbound Overlord can reshape reality over the space of an entire nation; one plausible theory for the cause of the Mourning is that it’s the side effect of an Overlord’s release, and that the Mourning is just an aura that surrounds them… that if they decide to start moving, they would leave a trail of utter devastation.
So Eberron has EVIL entities that have the power of the gods of other settings… But should the Overlords be released, there’s no GOOD forces of equal power that can face them. One might ask why, given this, the people of Eberron BELIEVE in gods. The point is that the people of Eberron don’t expect the Sovereigns or the Silver Flame to manifest in the world; they expect them to guide and empower the mortals who face them. The Sovereigns defeated the Overlords in the dawn of time and then ascended to maintain reality. The Silver Flame is the prison that binds the Overlords. These are vital tasks worthy of respect and worship. And again, should an Overlord be released, people don’t expect DOL ARRAH to appear to fight it; they expect a mortal champion to face it, guided and empowered by Sovereigns and Flame, which is exactly what Tira Miron did when she battled Bel Shalor. Which brings us back to the fact that there are MALEVOLENT forces with godlike power… and if they rise, it’s up to YOU to be the Tira Miron of this age.
This ties to an important point I’ve called out before: Eberron is always one bad day away from an apocalypse. There are dozens of overlords straining against their bonds. There are thousands of lesser fiends in the world; most are trapped in places like the Demon Wastes, but those allied with the Lords of Dust could be walking the streets of Sharn right now, waiting for the moment to strike. The daelkyr and their minions crawl beneath our feet, while the quori study our dreams. Perhaps tomorrow there will be a new wave of lycanthropy. Perhaps the Lord of Blades will lead a force of restored warforged colossi against Korth. Perhaps the ancient vampires of the Qabalrin will arise from their forgotten tombs. These things don’t happen every day, which is why the civilization of the Five Nations still exists. But they could happen any day, and that’s why the world needs heroes. Most of the time, Laketown is perfectly stable and safe… but when the dragon shows up, the common people need a champion. As a player character you are supposed to be remarkable, because there ARE powerful malevolent forces and you may be the only ones who can deal with them.
Mighty and Malevolent
To start with, I want to do a quick round-up of some of the high-level forces that can be found in Eberron.
This is a big one. There was a time when Eberron was entirely dominated by fiends. The Overlords were bound along with their most powerful followers. But some of their lesser minions escaped the Flame (thing of tiny fish slipping through a net) and others have managed to escape as bonds have weakened. The common point we’ve raised is that most fiends have no interest in ruling over mortals. They are immortal beings of transcendent power and ruling mortals is basically babysitting deeply annoying children… And also risks starting a fight with the neighbors (Argonnessen). So they don’t try to RULE humanity. But they are out there. They can appear at any time that it actually serves the goals of the Lords of Dust. And they can appear at other times—perhaps summoned by a foolish wizard, or just a random fiend following their own agenda.
While we’ve always said that rakshasa are the most numerous native fiends, ANY fiend—devil, demon, otherwise—could be spawned by Khyber. The difference between a native demon and native devil is largely the point that they are embodiments of malevolent concepts—that demons reflect chaotic ideas while devils are more orderly. Any fiend tied to Rak Tulkhesh will be an embodiment of WAR and bloodshed; any fiend tied to Sul Khatesh will embody secrets and the malevolent power of magic. These native fiends don’t have the same vast hierarchy as the immortals of the planes, because they are the Lords of Dust; their kingdoms FELL a hundred thousand years ago, and they are the handful who escaped its destruction; they want to restore the Age of Demons so they can go BACK to the way reality is supposed to be. But you can still play out immortal vendettas between servants of different Overlords. But again, the main point is that native fiends largely embody the idea of pure evil, usually seen through the lens of one of the Overlords.
Now, fiends can be a powerful force, but you might say “I can’t just have a Nalfeshnee randomly walking around Sharn.” And that makes sense; we don’t SEE fiends often in the world. But never forget that the rules are a foundation for us to build on. Consider a few ways you could use fiends.
Possession. There are more fiends around us than we know, because they are possessing mortal hosts. On the simple level, this might just be an explanation for someone acting in an evil manner. Moving on, you could say that a victim of possession has some of the powers of the possessing spirit (such as its innate spellcasting). Moving even further, you could say that SOME possessing fiends can actually fully transform a host when they choose too. So you don’t see a nalfeshnee in the world, but when you attack the corrupt judge he can BECOME a full nalfeshnee… until you kill him, at which point his body reverts to the battered form of the dead mortal. This is especially strong if allies of the adventurers can be involuntarily possessed, meaning adventurers need to try to find a way to exorcise them, not simply kill them.
Disguised Immortals. We assert that there are disguised dragons and rakshasa around, using ancient magic to hide from mortal eyes. This same principle can be added to any fiend. Again, the rules are a foundation: but nothing is STOPPING you from saying that this particular erinyes can assume a perfect mortal disguise. One example of a way to do this without completely just saying “all fiends are shapeshifters!” is to introduce the idea of amulets created through blood sacrifice that let the fiend assume the form of the mortal sacrificed. That erinyes can’t just assume the form of ANY mortal; they can assume form of one particular mortal, and only while they wear the amulet… abut it also shields them from most divinations, showing them to be that mortal.
Artificial Fiends. Perhaps House Vadalis and Jorasco, working together, create a horrific monster with the power of a goristro—a beast they can’t control that breaks free and starts a terrible rampage. Perhaps Cannith creates a steel marilith. These could be vessels for actual fiends, driven by an immortal consciousness—or they could be entirely artificial creatures that have the STATISTICS of fiends but don’t have their minds or motivations.
Native fiends are the pure embodiment of evil and of mortal fears. They are most common in the Demon Wastes and similar places. But they are in the world. The more powerful adventurers become, the more chance they have of drawing the attention of these beings or over stumbling into their plans. So, there’s a host of potentially powerful beings for you to deal with.
Existing aberrations have their own roles in the world. A cult devoted to Belashyrra could be led by a beholder, while aberrations scheme in the depths of the Thunder Sea. But the general concept of aberrations is that they are things that should not be. And aberrations can appear anywhere. Yes, the daelkyr have armies of existing aberrations. But they can also CREATE aberrations, as can Mordain the Fleshweaver… and others might be created spontaneously by the energies of Xoriat. Do you want to have an Aboleth in the sewers of Fairhaven, but you can’t think of an explanation? It could have been created by the daelkyr Kyrzin, fused from the ooze of the sewers and given foul life. The main thing is that if I did this, I’d describe it in a different way from a standard aboleth, describing it as being translucent and formed from the same mucous that surrounds it, just fused into a solid form. Likewise, the slaadi may be natives of Kythri, but there’s nothing stopping Dyrrn the Corruptor from creating a creature with the same STAT BLOCK as a red slaad that simply doesn’t look anything like a red slaad and pursues the daelkyr’s agenda. Again, stat blocks are a foundation. There’s no reason a creature with the stat block of a red slaad has to be red or a slaad! It could be a slimy green humanoid covered with tiny tentacles, that infects its victims by embedding one of those tentacles within them. This has the added bonus of confounding players who have memorized the Monster Manual and are baffled by this “Green Corruptor” — even though YOU know you just converted a red slaad.
This same principle holds true for creatures that AREN’T aberrations. You could have a daelkyr create a creature that has the same basic stats as a goristro and change its type from “fiend” to “aberration.” Nothing’s stopping the daelkyr from creating ANYTHING. Dyrrn could create aberrant unicorns… I’d just change their appearance to fit the daelkyr aesthetic (it’s not a horn projecting out, it’s that their spine extends out through their brain…).
There’s any number of high-CR undead creatures that can pose challenges to high level adventurers. At a quick glance there’s vampires, mummy lords, liches, dracoliches, demi-liches, death knights; I discuss how such things might appear in Eberron in this article. Such forces COULD be tied to the Lady Illmarrow and the Order of the Emerald Claw, but they can just as easily be entirely unique. An ancient Qabalrin vampire may have come to Sharn and started creating a network of vampire minions (and for a high level games, those “minions” could be CR 13+ vampires, with the Qabalrin elder being something far more powerful I’d create for the campaign). A death knight could have been formed by its own tragic backstory. A dracolich bound to Katashka could be expanding its reach. One of the advantages of undead is that common people can become undead. So the adventurers could have spent their low levels fighting a group of criminals, and then in their teens discover that the guildmaster they thought they’d killed has returned as a vampire, and both she and her minions are now far more powerful than they were in life.
The common people aren’t that tough. But first of all, that leaves room for UNCOMMON people — people like the player characters. The Lord of Blades. Mordain the Fleshweaver. They were low level characters once—and like the player characters, they have potential beyond that of the common folk. We say that there’s not a lot of powerful BENEVOLENT NPCs, because that’s your job as PCs. But there can easily be NPCs with however much power the story requires; the point is simply to emphasize that they ARE remarkable. If you want Merrix d’Cannith to have the abilities of a 20th level artificer in your story, give him the abilities of a 20th level artificer. But make sure to call out how astonishing that is. And if it were me I’d add details that really make that point. Maybe he’s actually transforming himself into a construct (in the style of the old renegade mastermaker). Maybe he’s embedded an ancient docent into his forehead. He can BE ridiculously powerful, it’s just good to call out that this isn’t typical—that he’s just as remarkable as you are.
But even if you aren’t dealing with individual characters that have the abilities of player characters, you can also deal with “common people”—magewrights, adepts—who able to CREATE things that can pose a threat to high level PCs. Because NPCs don’t use the same rules as PCs, they may be using rituals that require multiple casters, that take years to complete, etc—but that still lets them do things no wizard can do. Artificers can create constructs with tremendous power: just look at the warforged titans and colossi! As I’ve suggested above, maybe Vadalis could create living weapons with the power of fiends… only to find that they can’t actually CONTROL them. It may be that mortals created the Mourning! You could say that an artificer has created a suit of armor that gives its wearer great power, as long as there’s a good reason adventurers won’t take it when the villain is defeated (because it taps into your spine and kills the wearer within three days).
When you’re searching for high level threats, a simple option is to leave the world behind and to travel to the planes. Exploring Eberron provides details about the thirteen planes, and all of them have options for high level play. Engage in dangerous wagers with an efreeti in Fernia. Fight alongside the Legion of Freedom in Shavarath. Try to free your city after it’s been claimed by Mabar, before it can be fully consumed by the Endless Night. Go to Daanvi to try to break someone out of the Inescapable Prison, or try to learn the location of Illmarrow’s phylactery by reading Minara’s diary in the Library of Dolurrh. Overall the denizens of the planes have little interest in Eberron, but YOU might have something to accomplish in the realms beyond.
And So On…
This is just a starting point. I haven’t discussed the dragons, the Dreaming Dark, the Heirs of Dhakaan, or artifacts —all of which could drive higher level adventures and serve as dangerous foes. The critical point is that just because the majority of the population are low level doesn’t mean that Eberron lacks high level threats; it means that the people need YOU to face these, because the city guard CAN’T solve the problem on their own. I want to reiterate that the rules are a foundation and that you can change them to fit your story; just because a fiend doesn’t have disguise self doesn’t prevent you from GIVING it disguise self, and nothing stops you from using the statistics of a marilith but making it an aberration.
With Great Power…
One point that’s been raised is the idea that as characters grow in power they may outgrow the things that make the setting unique. Once they’re fighting fiends and liches, once they can do things that are beyond everyday magic, doesn’t that just make it like any other setting? Once they’re fighting Overlords, how is it not just about fighting gods? Maybe your characters began as plucky orphans in Callestan dealing with Daask and the Boromar Clan and you don’t WANT to clash with dragon and vampires. There’s a few ways to deal with this.
Never Grow Up
If you want a campaign where the city guard is ALWAYS a threat, don’t advance your characters to higher levels. Decide what the maximum level for the campaign will be and use milestone advancement. It’s good to allow characters to advance in SOME way so there’s a sense of progression and so players don’t get bored, but there’s lots of ways to handle that. If you want to boost them mechanically, grant characters feats instead of class levels. This gives them new options and capabilities but doesn’t improve their hit points or give them access to spells beyond the reach of everyday magic. Instead of rare magic items, let them earn favors from powerful people; when you ARE arrested by the city guard, that favor the Captain owes you might be more useful than a +1 sword! Give characters new territory, new titles, and new responsibility — all of these can add to the sense of story progression even if you never (or only rarely) gain a level. As I mentioned in the previous article, I was in a campaign where the adventurers were professional ratcatchers. We started at 3rd level and stayed 3rd level the entire campaign. We made connections and we earned improvements for our business (Sewer maps! A superior toxin kit!) but we never gained levels; we were never going to go from being ratslayers to being dragonslayers, and we knew it.
Level Up The Opposition
So you want to level up, you want to keep fighting the Boromar Clan, and you don’t want them to become irrelevant because of your newly magnified power. No worries: have them evolve with you. This doesn’t have to mean that Boromar standard enforcers are all 7th level rogues. But first of all, Boromar might have a team of exceptional enforcers—their OWN party of adventurers, if you will (they might even hire them from the Deathsgate Adventurer’s Guild!). Or perhaps they have a transformative event that creates worthy high-level foes. They become lycanthropes. Saiden becomes a vampire and transforms his lieutenants. They make a bargain with an Overlord and are possessed by fiends. So they continue to be a threat, but they are a very DIFFERENT threat; as you have become more powerful, THEY have become more powerful, in a way that feels natural within the story. Meanwhile, all of you are more powerful that the common folk around you. You are exceptional, but your enemies are exceptional as well.
My common approach is to change the focus of a campaign as the adventurers both gain power but also gain recognition and connections across the world. In the last article I wrote about a campaign in which a PC wanted to overthrow Kaius, take over Karrnath, and then have to defeat Lady Illmarrow. Here’s the “Series Overview” I put together for that.
Prologue (1-4). Adventurers are on an airship to Stormreach. They have to foil a skyjacking, but despite their success the ship passes through a manifest zone into Lamannia and crashes. The adventurers must work together both to help the other survivors and find a way to escape Lamannia. This brings the characters together, as only that have the skills required to succeed.
Adventurers (5-10). Having made it to Stormreach, each character has a few hooks to explore – but they need allies and they don’t know anyone except the other players. Some of these challenges are local intrigues (drawing them into the schemes of the Storm Lords and the Kraken), others are action (one character wants to find the crown of the last emperor of Dhakaan). Along the way they become powerful both in skills and in connections. The key piece is that the Karrn PC needs to win the loyalty of the Blades of Karrn, who will serve as their core force in their campaign against Kaius.
Rebels (11-15). We shift to Karrnath. To achieve the characters goal not just of killing Kaius but of claiming the crown, the action must shift to a much higher level. It doesn’t MATTER that the adventurers could easily kill dozens of Karrnathi soldiers, because that won’t win them the loyalty of the common people. They need to negotiate with warlords, inspire commoners, use the allies they made in Stormreach, make dangerous bargains with Dragonmarked houses and accept unwise help from Lady Illmarrow. They need to identify and eliminate Kaius’ hidden weapons. When they fight they aren’t fighting common soldiers, they are fighting Kaius’ CHAMPIONS—bone knights, Rekkenmark paragons, strange things created during the Last War. They will finally face Kaius, but that will be the end of a long road of diplomacy and investigation.
Rulers (16-20). Somehow Kaius was preventing Illmarrow from exerting control over the Karrnathi undead. with his downfall Illmarrow turns Karrnath’s legions of undead against the living. She cares nothing for who rules Karrnath; she just wants massive casualties to fuel her rituals. Karrnathi undead might not be a threat to the high-level PCs, but they can’t personally destroy tens of thousands of them; they don’t have TIME, and the death count grows with every hour. They need to direct the forces they’ve amassed and allies they’ve made as effectively as possible to slow down the undead apocalypse while they find the real answer. They need to face Illmarrow’s champions at the sites that are crucial to her ritual—and these champions are mummy lords, death knights, and liches. They must find Illmarrow’s phylactery—which is so well hidden even she doesn’t know where it is—and destroy it. They must face HER and defeat her. But it could be that even in defeat her ritual works, and they must finally go to Dolurrh itself to either destroy Illmarrow for once and for all… or perhaps to find a way to guide her own to a positive path as the new Queen of the Dead. And even after all that, they must restore order to Karrnath—dealing with the aftermath of the undead attack and dealing with the very real that that one or more of the Five Nations will take advantage of Karrnath’s weakness, especially if the players haven’t won the support of the other Wynarn monarchs before killing their kinsman.
That’s was a very long example. But the point is that the players started by doing traditional adventures, dealing with local gangs and intrigues. As they reached a degree of power that made those local thugs irrelevant they shifted both to leading groups of weaker characters and to fighting champions of equal power. And in the end they were dealing with threats that could destroy nations and bargaining with extraplanar forces. It was the same basic idea with my Q’barra campaigns. In the beginning the characters were fighting bandits and exploring tombs. By they end they would be clashing with the half-fiend dragon Rhashaak and ultimately the Overlord Masvirik, and their actions would determine the fate of the Cold Sun Federation and New Galifar. It’s not simply that the characters gained greater POWER—it’s that they also gained greater responsibility, directing allies and making decisions that could affect thousands of people instead of just fighting a tougher monster.
Again, you don’t have to advance to this epic scale! You COULD spend the whole campaign in Sharn, with the Boromar clan becoming infested by demons. You could never go beyond 3rd level. But you could also choose to entwine your characters WITH the fate of Khorvaire—to have them broker a lasting peace or ignite the next war, to have them solve the mystery of the Mourning or perhaps make it worse.
This is a huge topic that I COULD write about for days, and I’m going to rein it in here. I will be posting a final follow-up with a few specific high level adventure ideas next week on Patreon (for Inner Circle and Threshold) patrons, along with establishing the time for the next Threshold adventure! Thanks to my Patrons for making these articles possible!
This month, my Patreon patrons asked for guidance on running high-level adventures in Eberron. In my next article, I’ll discuss plot hooks and villains you might use for such adventures. But first, I want to build a foundation with this article. Because there’s two primary challenges to building high level adventures in Eberron. The first is the concept that there aren’t a lot of high level NPCs in Eberron cities—how do you challenge player characters when they’re more powerful than the rest of the world? The second is that the best way to set up high level adventures is to plan ahead—to think about where your campaign will go at the higher levels before the adventurers get there.
PLAYER CHARACTERS ARE REMARKABLE
From the beginning, a central idea of Eberron was that player characters are remarkable. They’re the heroes of the movie, the protagonists of the novel… and especially in pulp adventures, such heroes are larger than life. Even at low levels, player characters are more capable than most people in the world. Just consider the Five Nations: we say that magic of 3rd level is part of everyday life, magic of 4-5th level is rare and remarkable, and magic of 6th level or above is legendary. So what does that mean for the 11th level wizard, who can cast 6th level spells? If adventurers are so much more powerful than the people around them, what can challenge them?
A common problem is the idea that if the player characters are the most powerful people in the room, what keeps them under control? This is reflected in many MMORPGs, where city guards are extremely powerful because it’s the only way to limit antisocial behavior; players have to believe that if I break the rules, my character will die. This idea is that a player may say if my PC is more powerful than the king, why aren’t I the king? If my wizard is higher level than the archmage of Arcanix, why don’t I take their place?
The all-powerful guards are necessary if players just want to be murder hoboes or knights of the Dinner Table — if they view the campaign as nothing more than an opportunity to kill anything that can give them XP and loot. And if those are your players, the rest of this article may not help you. But the fact is that D&D is a roleplaying game, not a wargame. When we play an RPG, we are creating a story. We’re making our own movie. And how do we want that movie to end? With that in mind, consider James Bond, Indiana Jones, and Aragorn from Lord of the Rings. All three of these would be the player characters in their respective stories. All three are badasses who can beat the odds and defeat legions of lesser foes. And yet they don’t rule their worlds. Looking at them one by one…
James Bond is the best spy in MI6. But no Bond movie ends with him murdering the Queen and declaring himself King of England. In D&D terms, Bond is probably higher level than M. But he doesn’t want to be M. He’s a field agent, not an administrator. And critically, he’s driven by duty and his love of his country. He doesn’t WANT power or wealth; he is the hero of the story, and he wants to do his job and help his people. When he wins a victory, the next step isn’t TAKE OVER THE WORLD, it’s to wait for the next threat that only he can deal with.
Indiana Jones is an adventurer who can overcome impossible odds. But he’s also a college professor… and at the end of the adventure, the government is going to take the Ark of the Covenant away and give it to the “Top Men in the Field.” Watching the movie, we all KNOW these “Top Men” are idiots and that Indy is far more capable than them. But he gives them the Ark and goes back to his college. Because again, he’s loyal to his country and he likes his job; he’d rather BE an adventuring professor than running some government think-tank. Adventurers are typically adventurers because they’d rather be adventurers than to have desk jobs, regardless of how much power or prestige comes from those positions.
In Lord of the Rings, Legolas, Gimli, and Aragorn are the classic model of player characters—ridiculously powerful compared to the people around them. While the Rohirrim—veteran soldiers!—are dying in droves at Helm’s Deep, Gimli and Legolas are doing cool stunts and comparing the dozens of foes they’ve dispatched. But at the end of the battle, they don’t kill Theoden and take over the keep themselves; instead, they head off to the next adventure, seeking a challenge that only they can face. But wait! Aragorn DOES become king at the end! Quite true, but the key there is at the end… and more critically, that kingship was always a part of his story. He was always Isildur’s heir, the Last of the Dunedain, bearer of the Sword that was Broken. If Aragorn was a player character, he and the DM would have established this idea during session zero. It’s an evolving part of his story comes to a satisfying conclusion at the end of the story; he didn’t just seize a crown on a whim because he happened to be the most powerful character in the room at the time
My point is that if players care about the story, it doesn’t matter if the player characters are the most powerful people in the room or the kingdom. Perhaps they COULD slaughter the entire garrison of city guards… but why would they want to? The fact that there’s no one in the city that can challenge them isn’t an issue if their enemies aren’t the common people of the city. On the contrary, ideally the fact that the player characters are so much more powerful than the common people becomes almost a burden, because it means the common people need their protection—that with great power comes great responsibility. What we said when we were writing the original ECS was that if the Tarrasque attacks Sharn, it’s up to the player characters to do something about it, because no one else can. There’s no Elminster or Gandalf waiting in the wings. Jaela Daran would if she could, but she’ll lose her power when she leaves Flamekeep. The Great Druid is a tree. Mordain the Fleshweaver, Lady Illmarrow, the Lords of Dust… they might have the power, but they aren’t going to use it to help; more likely than not, it was one of them that brought the Tarrasque to Sharn. So your characters are the more powerful than anyone in Sharn? Then you’re the only people who can save it.
There’s two places where this doesn’t work. The first is if your players don’t want to be heroes. Perhaps they want to be true villains, or perhaps they just want to be sociopathic murder hobos. We’re the most powerful people in Sharn, who can stop us? It’s a simple fact that Eberron wasn’t designed to tell this story. Eberron was designed with the idea that adventurers would be the greatest heroes of the age, that if the Tarrasque attacks Sharn, only the PCs can stop it—not if the PCs attack Sharn, who will stop them?
There’s two answers to this. The first is that while Khorvaire doesn’t have many powerful HEROES, it has no shortage of powerful villains. Just because you decide to be a jerk doesn’t mean that the Dreaming Dark or Lady Illmarrow will be your buddies. Your villainous plans likely clash with their villainous plans. So you’re still going to have to deal with the bad guys. Second, the reason Eberron doesn’t have powerful NPC heroes is because we expect you to be those heroes. If you choose to be villains, the forces that oppose you will be the heroes of the age—the characters you COULD have been, but chose not to. The next Tira Miron, a new Harryn Stormblade, a Thorn of Breland. It will be up to the DM to create those heroes, because again, by default we want you to BE those heroes. But if you decide to be the greatest villains of the era — or just the bloodthirstiest murder hobos —the DM can fill that void with new champions.
The second place where power can be an issue is when you just don’t WANT your characters to be the most powerful people in the setting, good or evil. Perhaps you’re playing a campaign where your characters are ratcatchers in Sharn, and it makes no SENSE that you’d ever be able to fight the Tarrasque or battle Lady Illmarrow. The answer there is simple enough: don’t become that powerful. Yes, characters of 10th level and above are remarkable in Khorvaire; if that doesn’t make sense with your story, keep the characters below 10th level! Use milestone advancement instead of experience points. Focus on abstract rewards rather than the typical loot: the treasures you gain are social standing, business opportunities, and hey, the friends you make along the way. I was a player in just such a ratcatchers campaign, and we started at 3rd level and ended the campaign at 3rd level, because mechanical advancement wasn’t what the campaign was about. The rules are tools, and it’s always up to us to decide which to use and how to use them. if you don’t want to tell a story about the most powerful characters in Sharn, they never have to become the most powerful characters in Sharn.
Earlier I said that ideally part of what keeps powerful characters in check is that they like the story and want to be a part of it. James Bond doesn’t shoot the Queen because that’s not part of the story any of us want to see. What this means is that you need to have a story that the players want to be a part of, and their characters need to have clear roles in that story. So, let’s talk about that.
SCRIPTING THE SHOW: CAMPAIGN DESIGN
So you’re sitting down to run a new campaign for your friends. You could just dive into it blindly. They meet in a tavern, they learn about a ruin, they get some treasure, and you’ll figure out what happens next week when next week rolls around. And when you get to the higher levels, perhaps you realize that you’re running out of things that could randomly stumble across the adventurers’ path. If that’s you, no worries—I will have some suggestions for you in the next article. But it’s not how I approach a campaign. For me, developing a new campaign is very much like developing a TV show. Let me walk you through my steps.
The Writers’ Room: Session Zero
As the DM, I’m creating the bulk of the story, but it’s not MY story. My favorite thing about RPGs is collaboration—working with the players to create a story that we’ll all love. So using the TV analogy, the first thing I have to do is to pitch the idea to the players. I may want to run an espionage campaign. But if none of the players want to play an espionage campaign, that’s where you end up with James Bond shooting the Queen—because the player isn’t interested in this story and doesn’t care about how it ends. So the first thing I’m going to do is to find a group of players who want to play an espionage campaign. I’m going to get buy-in on other aspects of it. Would you rather be working for Breland or Aundair? I want this to be a high-stakes campaign where player characters can die… are you all OK with that? Your characters need to blend in, so I’m not going to allow exotics like tieflings, minotaurs, aarakocra—are you all ok with that?
This is basically the role of the group patrons presented in Rising From The Last War and Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. A group patron essentially establishes the genre of the story—establishing from the start that we’re all spies or we’re all working for Sora Kell. Once I have player buy-in on the basic story, I’ll generally get the players to talk through character ideas. In addition to ensuring that there’s a balanced party and that character ideas fit the story, this is also an opportunity to see if the players have interesting ideas that I can use. These could be fairly simple—things like the secrets in Eberron Confidential, which give a unique hook but don’t drive the entire story. On the other hand, sometimes a player will have a BIG idea. I ran a campaign in which a player said I want to be a paladin of the Blood of Vol. My idea is that my parents were Seekers who were condemned by Kaius and killed, and i was raised and trained by Lady Illmarrow. My goal is to overthrow Kaius III. However, if and when I succeed, I’ll realize that I’ve been deceived for my entire life: that Lady Illmarrow was deceiving me. Then I’ll have to try to reform the Order of the Emerald Claw and defeat Lady Illmarrow, while also having to deal with the chaos I’ve caused in Karrnath by killing Kaius.
Now: that’s a very deep story. Given a backstory like that, one option as DM is to say That’s really not going to fit with the campaign I have planned. We aren’t going to be going anywhere near Karrnath. Is there something else you’d enjoy? Another option is to explore middle ground. This adventure isn’t going to Karrnath, but what if you were a Glory paladin, your parents were revolutionaries who were killed, and you were raised by the Swords of Liberty and are determined to bring down King Boranel? The player gets a similar idea—I’m being duped into killing a king, which will cause chaos I need to fix—but it works with the story I have in mind. Another possibility is to say That’s outside the scope of this campaign, but I’m fine with the idea that you were trained by Illmarrow and that you are trying to recruit allies who could help you overthrow Kaius—that’s just something that you’d presumably do after this campaign is done. With all of these, the point is that I want the player to be excited about the character and their story. I want to know that james Bond won’t kill the Queen not because she’s too powerful and he couldn’t, but because he actually WANTS to protect the Queen.
So: the first step is the pitch. The second step is to see what kind of characters players are interested in. And from there, I’ll start to develop my show.
The Story of the Series
In session zero I established the genre of our story. I may have set out a group patron. I likely told the players WHERE the story was taking place—Callestan in Sharn, Hope in Q’barra, Threshold. I may have set out an overall story in the pitch: You’re spies working for the King’s Citadel, you’re exorcists of the Silver Flame, you’re professional adventurers with the Clifftop Adventurer’s Guild. But they don’t know what troubles lie ahead, what mysteries they’ll have to unravel, what enemy they’ll ultimately face. So I’m going to start by sketching that out. How and where is this story going to begin… and in my mind, how’s it going to end?
A critical point here is that I expect that my plan won’t entirely survive contact with the enemy. I’m not going to try to force the campaign to follow an absolute path, because it’s a collaborative story; it could be the choices of the players will carry us in a completely unforeseen direction. I was in a campaign where we were fighting the Emerald Claw and we all got killed by vampires, and the players (myself included) lobbied the DM to have us all come back as vampires forced to serve the Emerald Claw, trying to find some way to escape this curse. That sort of creative freedom is one of the things that makes RPGs great. But even if I know it may not last, I’m still going to have a general idea of where the campaign is headed and with this in mind I’m going to pick an endgame villain. I’ll talk about this more below, but the point is that I’m going to pick a powerful villain who is driving the ultimate story—someone who can pose a threat to high level characters, and someone who they may not even KNOW about until they’ve come a long way. The players may initially think that they’re fighting the Aurum, but once they finally defeat the Aurum mastermind they’ll discover that he was just a pawn of Sul Khatesh… and I know that the final endgame will be defeating the unleashed Sul Khatesh and restoring her binding.
The Story of the Season
Once I’ve come up with the overall story—The adventurers are going to start as adventurers in Sharn but will stumble into a mystery that will ultimately lead them to saving Aundair from Sul Khatesh—I am going to break it down into seasons. This means coming up with clear milestones where the players feel a real sense of accomplishment and learn something significant that will drive the next season. So looking to the plot I’ve described, the players may not even hear the name Sul Khatesh in the first season. They’ll be dealing with mysteries in Sharn, clashing with the Boromar clan and a powerful Aurum Concordian. But there’s a recurring villain or NPC who’s a warlock of the Court of Shadows, and it’s going to be in the SECOND season that we realize that he’s been manipulating the Concordian or providing them with secrets or magic items on behalf of Sul Khatesh.
To begin with, I’m only going to focus on the first season; I’ll have general ideas for what will happen next (it’s in season two that they discover who the warlock works for) but I’m going to start by developing that first season. What’s the primary action: Solving mysteries? Defending a small town? Recovering relics from the Mournland? Who’s the first major villain the adventurers will have to deal with? What’s the first clear, concrete milestone where they’ll feel like they really accomplished something and made a lasting change? How will this set things up for the second season?
One aspect of this stage is to estimate how MANY seasons there may be. Do I think this campaign could go on for years, or do I only expect it to last for ten sessions? If it’s a limited run, I may not need that endgame villain; the big bad of the season may be sufficient.
The Story of the Episode
Each adventure is like an episode of a show. Some are going to advance the story, moving us toward the milestone that defines the season. Others may be “Monster of the Week” stories that are just fun and don’t advance the story, and that’s OK; sometimes you just need a chance to beat up a bandit and take their pie. I’m not going to try to plan every adventure in a season right away, in part because the actions and decisions of the players are likely to change the path. But I’ll usually come up with basic ideas for the first three adventures, figuring out out how these will introducing critical elements of the overall story and the season. Who are the key NPCs I want to appear? Will the adventurers obtain an item that’s going to become important later?
For example, two years ago I was running a short campaign (only planning one season). The setting was Callestan in Sharn, with a Gangs of New York vibe. The adventurers were going to have to deal with the conflict between Daask and the Boromar Clan, but the big bad would turn out to be the Order of the Emerald Claw. In the first session, one of the characters—a courier—was hired to deliver a package to a tavern. The package contained a timelocked bag of holding filled with skeletons, and the adventurers had to deal with them. The second adventure involved a zombie outbreak in a dreamlily den. The third adventure involved a device being triggered on a planar faultline, dropping a section of the district into Mabar. The key point is that as of the end of that third adventure the PCs still hadn’t heard the name “The Order of the Emerald Claw.” They knew that SOMEONE was using Callestan as a proving ground for necromantic weapons, but they’d been busy putting out the fires and dealing with tensions among the gangs. They were getting clues and they were making friends, but they hadn’t yet identified the necromancer who was the big bad of the season.
Another example is my novel Dreaming Dark novel series. From the beginning I knew that the endgame villain was the Dreaming Dark; heck, it’s the title of the series. But in the first novel, City of Towers, the adventurers never fight an agent of the Dreaming Dark or hear its name. Instead they deal with a Cult of the Dragon Below. But certain things happen that they’ll later find were caused by the Dreaming Dark, and they get help from a kalashtar NPC who becomes very important in the second book. So, the Dreaming Dark is the endgame villain, but the big bad of the first season is a Cult of the Dragon Below.
For a final example, consider the campaign I’m currently running for my Patreon supporters; Patrons can watch the first session here. First I pitched the idea of running this fantasy western on the edge of Droaam. Then we built out the characters. Now the first season has begun. With minor spoilers, in this first session I’ve introduced a threat that could play a greater role in the future—the fiend-touched minotaurs of Turakbar’s Fist—and the adventurers have made a bargain with an enigmatic supernatural entity. Right now the players don’t KNOW the full importance of either of those things. It could be that one of those is tied to the Big Bad of the https://transparentpharmacy.net/ season. It could be that one of them is tied to the endgame villain. Or either or both could be more incidental. It’s only over time that they’ll learn what’s important and what’s incidental, as the story continues to unfold.
Something we called out in the original Eberron Campaign Setting is that good campaigns often have recurring characters, both villains and allies. Player characters grow more powerful over time; nothing stops VILLAINS from becoming more powerful as well. Magneto won’t suddenly become irrelevant when the X-Men gain a level; instead, he’ll find an even greater source of power HE can use, becoming an even greater threat that only they can face. Lady Illmarrow, the Lord of Blades, Mordain the Fleshweaver… the statistics given for them are a starting point, but if you’re using them in a major role and the adventurers grow in power, have the enemy improve as well! While this is something you can do with the major villains, you can also build a great villain from humble beginnings. The original ECS included three sets of statistics for Halas Martain, who was essentially Belloq from Raiders of the Lost Ark—a rival adventurer who might try to steal the achievements of the PCs. We included three sets of statistics so he could continue to grow just as they did. We originally planned to do the same thing for the Lord of Blades—three sets of statistics, so that he could grow in power over the course of a campaign—but this ended up being cut. Recurring villains and allies are a great way to build investment in a story. Players may not care about a random bandit, but when they realize that bandit is working for #$%# Halas Martain—who spoiled their previous adventure, and who they thought was dead—then there’s investment.
One problem with this is that D&D is a system where casual death is often assumed… Where player characters often just kill their enemies. When Halas Martain tries to steal the Orb of Dol Azur from you, what, you’re going to take him prisoner and keep him with you for days while you find an appropriate authority? Who does that? but there’s lots of ways to deal with this. Don’t have your villains fight to the death. Perhaps Halas jumps off a bridge in Sharn when he only has 1 hit point left; and you know he’s got a feather token. Perhaps he vanishes. Did he blink? Turn invisible and run away? Who knows, but he’s clearly gone. Or perhaps he definitely died. So what? This is a world with raise dead. Maybe he was restored by the Queen of the Dead in Dolurrh and charged with a mission! Maybe this ISN’T Halas Martain at all — it’s a changeling who’s adopted the identity to mess with you. Consider comic books; there’s always a way to bring back Doctor Doom if you want to.
Big Bads, Endgame Villains, and Incidental Opponents
Eberron has a LOT of villains. Just between the different daelkyr and overlords there’s a host of awful fates awaiting the world. Add in the Dreaming Dark, the Aurum, the Cults of the Dragon Below, the Dragonmarked Houses, the Heirs of Dhakaan—there’s no shortage of possible enemies, and one might think that there’s no possible way Khorvaire could survive with such forces arrayed against it.
The key for me is that I’m never going to use all of those villains in a single campaign. The Rak Tulkhesh exists, sure; but it’s entirely possible that the threads of the Prophecy won’t align in a way that could release him for another thousand years, and that Tulkhesh and his cults just aren’t a factor in my campaign. Perhaps the Dreaming Dark is busy in Sarlona and just doesn’t have time to meddle with Khorvaire right now. It’s OK to leave some of the toys on the shelf. When I start a campaign, I’m going to start by picking an endgame villain—someone with the power to challenge even the most powerful characters, someone whose ambitions will create a compelling story. With that in mind, then I’ll pick a big bad for the first season. Perhaps the two will be related; if my endgame villain is Lady Illmarrow, I might choose Demise (an Emerald Claw necromancer) as my first big bad; she’s powerful, but she’s someone the adventurers CAN clash with at, say, 6th level. On the other hand, I might pick someone who has no connections to the endgame villain. Perhaps the big bad of the first season is going to be Daask; it’s simply that while we are fighting Daask we’ll stumble onto a few plans and agents of the Emerald Claw, things that won’t make sense until we get to season two… just like the Dreaming Dark in City of Towers.
Once I’ve got my endgame opponent and my big bad(s), I can decide if I want to use any of the others as incidental opponents. It may be that the Dreaming Dark won’t have any major role in the campaign, but that means I could use a Thoughtstealer as a monster of the week and not worry about how it connects to anything.
We designed our villains with these roles in mind. The Lords of Dust, the Dreaming Dark, and the Daelkyr are all good potential endgame villains. The Aurum, the Emerald Claw, and the Cults of the Dragon Below are all designed to be possible opponents for low level characters. Villains like the Lord of Blades and Lady Illmarrow falling in the middle, as powerful foes who aren’t entirely beyond reach but who could grow more powerful over the course of a campaign. I talk more about different villains and the way they can shape a campaign in this article (which predates Rising, so it might be outdated!).
So that’s a glimpse into MY process; hopefully you enjoyed it! In my next article I’ll give some more specific examples of story hooks, plot twists, and characters you might use in high level Eberron campaigns. Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters, who chose this topic and who make it possible for me to write these articles!
My new book Exploring Eberron is available now on the DM’s Guild. You can find a FAQ about it here. I am currently working on a long article about the Nobility of Khorvaire. This will examine the role of the nobility in Galifar and how this evolved over the course of the Last War and into the present day—writing about what it means to be noble in Khorvaire. However, I’m not going to delve too deeply into the history of Galifar, and one thing I certainly won’t do is provide a complete list of the historical rulers of Galifar; I thought I’d take a moment to explain why.
Creating history is a potential rabbit hole for any worldbuilder. You may have noticed that Eberron: Rising From The Last War barely addresses history before the Last War. In writing Exploring Eberron I wanted to fill in this gap for people who weren’t familiar with the older sourcebooks, and ExE includes a discussion of the Age of Demons, Age of Giants, and Age of Monsters, along with a broad timeline for the modern age. But these are brief overviews, and each section includes an important question: Why does this matter? What about this period of time can drive an adventure or add an interesting element to a player character’s backstory? This is a question I ask myself anytime I’m adding lore to the world. Can I think of three ways that this could inspire or impact a story? Can I think of a reason why a player—or character—would want to know this piece of information?
Beyond the simple point of not wanting to waste time on information that no one has a use for, I also don’t want to overcrowd the world with facts that may end up getting in the way of stories I want to tell. Imagine that I’m running a campaign, and I want the players to have to track down a long-lost artifact—the Codex Ourelonastrix, a book said to have been written by the Sovereign Aureon. One of the adventurers is a Lore bard with proficiency in History, and I start the session by revealing the following information…
“The last known owner of the Codex Ourelonastrix was Queen Marala, who ruled Galifar during the fifth century. Marala was known as ‘the Hand of Aureon’ and expanded the schools of Galifar and the Arcane Congress. According to stories, she built a hidden sanctum—an ‘invisible tower’ that held her personal library. The Codex Ourelonastrix hasn’t been seen since Marala’s death, and her library vault has never been found… until now.”
Marala and her invisible tower (which I’m imagining to be an extradimensional space, like a magnificent mansion) didn’t exist until five minutes ago. They exist now because they serve the story: I can introduce a secret library that contain the lost literary treasures of the kingdom. Moving forward, I can expand on Marala and her role in the history of Galifar, and this will be interesting to the players because they have context for Marala. If I introduce her as a lich or preserved as a spirit idol, that’s going to be interesting… but it’s interesting because of their personal experience.
The flip side is that the last thing I want is for a player to say “Fifth century? Well, actually, Five Nations says that King Borotox and King Gorman were the rulers of Galifar in the fifth century, and that they were both illiterate.” The existence of Borotox and Gorman doesn’t help the story I want to tell; it’s just a random piece of canon lore that I never read, and now it’s in the way of my story. As it is, we know that Galifar HAD queens and kings, but because they AREN’T concretely listed out, nothing’s stopping me from creating one that perfectly fits the needs of my story. Likewise, note that I just said Marala “ruled Galifar during the fifth century.” I don’t need to know that her rule began in 435 YK when she took over from King Drego II and ended when she died in her sleep on 4 Olarune 468 YK… and if I DO need to know these things, I can make them up, like I just did. We’re talking about events that occurred hundreds of years ago, to a character who didn’t exist yesterday. If I NEED specifics I can create them; but odds are good that it will never actually matter when she was coronated, and if it DOES matter, it’s useful to have the freedom to create the date that best suits the needs of the campaign.
As an example of this in practice, let’s look at the War of the Mark. We know that the war took place “approximately 1,500 years ago.” But we don’t know exactly when it began, how long it lasted, or or the precise date it ended. We know the names of some of the major figures, but not all of them! We know about the destruction of Sharn, but not the exact date. Page 178 of Rising From The Last War describes ‘The Lady’s Day’, a holiday that commemorates the Lady of the Plague unleashing her death curse on Sharn with plague drills. But it doesn’t actually give the date of the celebration! If you LIKE the idea of the Lady’s Day and want to use it in your current campaign, then congratulations, it’s happening tomorrow. Because what we don’t want is for you to say “This is perfect for my story! Oh, wait, it’s on 5 Rhaan, and that’s six months from now. Never mind.” There’s no reason that it HAS to be on a specific date. I want you to tell ME when the Lady’s Day is celebrated—and then to make a note of that, and use that in your campaign going forward. Likewise, if you want to add a new aberrant champion who fought a campaign in Thaliost during the War of the Mark, go ahead! The history we’ve provided is an overview, not an absolute battle-by-battle account of the war.
Now: I’m not saying that you shouldn’t or can’t create history or set specific dates. In Sharn: City of Towers we say that the Glass Tower was destroyed on 9 Olarune 918 YK. Sharn: City of Towers also includes a list of holidays and special events with concrete dates. Because it can help to have a framework of history that can inspire DMs looking for story ideas… “Hmm, it’s Olarune, does anything interesting happen in Olarune?” It’s the same as how we tell you about SOME of the overlords and SOME of the daelkyr—but we also say that there’s more of them and that we’re never going to give a complete list. I’m never going to give an absolute list of all of the rulers of Galifar. But what I AM going to do as a Patreon-exclusive bonus to the Nobility article is to provide a list of some of my FAVORITE rulers of Galifar… people like Marala, who might inspire a story. Just like we’ve told you about Rak Tulkhesh and Sul Khatesh but not ALL the overlords, I’ll tell you about a few interesting rulers, but I’m not going to lock them all down.
So Exploring Eberron includes a timeline of the modern age that includes a number of interesting dates and events. But I’m not going to create a 200-page History of Galifar that breaks things down in detail, year-by-year. Instead, what Exploring Eberron includes is a table of ideas for Untold History. I’ll let that section speak for itself…
Galifar stood for almost a thousand years before collapsing into the Last War. This section has highlighted some particular moments in history that can be used as inspiration for adventure. But both in this book and in the wider canon of Eberron lore, there are vast stretches of time that remain largely undeveloped.
Within your campaign—whether as player or Dungeon Master—feel free to develop and explore additional moments of history if they enhance the stories you want to tell. The Untold History table provides a starting point for ideas. As a Dungeon Master, this can be a way to add depth to a story. Have the players arrived at a currently unremarkable inn? Perhaps two hundred years ago, that inn was the headquarters of an alliance of peasants that rose up against the monarchy, only to be brutally suppressed—and they still don’t think much of characters with the noble background! Or in developing a character, perhaps one of your ancestors was a wizard who made an important arcane breakthrough—only to have it covered up by the dragonmarked houses.
The crucial point is that established history is a place to start, nothing more. Use the ideas presented here when they can help you. But always feel empowered to expand the world and develop the history of your Eberron, even if it may not match official sourcebooks that come out in the future.
Exploring Eberron, page 13
A key point here is that LOCAL history can be far more important than GLOBAL history. Imagine I’m looking to add a twist to the adventure I planned. Using the ExE Untold History table, I might come up with A brutal battle connected to the Eldeen Druids which was never explained.At some point in the past, there was a bitter battle between druids, and even the locals don’t know why it happened. Here’s just a few ways I could spin out that hook…
Purely Cosmetic. There’s a field just beyond the village that is filled with unusual crimson flowers. The locals say that the flowers sprouted where the blood of the druids fell on the field. With a good Intelligence (Investigation) check, players might be able to find a few goodberries growing amid the blood-blossoms.
Character Hook. If one of the characters has a connection to a druidic sect, they could have a vision when they enter the field. The battle wasn’t between druids; it was that the druids fought a dangerous foe and the villagers never even knew of the threat. Perhaps the field contains a portal to Khyber, and it’s about to open again.
Explanation for Threat. No one knows why the druids fought, but the magics they used had a lasting effect on the region. There are dire or horrid beasts in the region, and one of them is on a rampage…
These are just a few quick ideas. Perhaps there’s an awakened tree left behind who knows the story! The hook can be even more interesting if the region is far from the Eldeen Reaches—how did the druids reach the area? Is there a hidden sect still here? The point is that this ISN’T reflected in the grand scope of history. This isn’t a reflection of a bitter druidic civil war that took place in 734 YK; it’s just a curious piece of local history, something that can add color or an unexpected twist to local history.
If you had to rewrite some parts of Eberron, would you have kept specific dates like the destruction of the Glass Tower more vague? These specific dates seem to clash with your overall design philosophy of leaving specifics up to the GM/players to decide.
It’s a good question. To me, it comes back to the overlords and the daelkyr. I don’t mind providing SOME specifics, because many DMs like having concrete things to work with. If we just said “There’s thirty overlords out there, but we aren’t going to tell you about ANY of them” then we’re imposing a lot of work on a DM to use them in any way. By providing a number of overlords as concrete examples, we both allow the DM to use something quickly when they need it and to show what WE think overlords are like; but we still leave lots of room for you to create your own, rather than providing an absolute list of THESE ARE ALL OF THE OVERLORDS. It’s the same with history. It’s absolutely fine to provide a range of concrete dates and events, because many DMs WILL find those useful and inspiring. I don’t mind providing names, details, and even dates for SOME of the rulers of Galifar. But I don’t want to establish an ABSOLUTE, COMPLETE list of ALL rulers and dates.
So I don’t mind the Glass Tower as a specific date in the past, in part because that specific date really doesn’t matter; it’s not like it’s likely to break a story. On the other hand, a date I DO regret having absolutely established is the date of the Race of Eight Winds, because that’s DEFINITELY an event that as a DM, I want to have happen when I want it to happen; I don’t want to have to say “I was going to do a cool thing with the Race of Eight Winds, but it’s actually six months away.”
So again, I’m not against ANY specifics; I’m just saying that not everything NEEDS to be specific.
With that said, if we were starting from absolute scratch, the main thing I would do is to reduce the OVERALL SCOPE OF HISTORY. There’s a tendency in fantasy fiction—in part because of long-lived beings such as elves — to make use of VAST SPANS OF TIME without really thinking it through. Galifar lasted A THOUSAND YEARS mainly because it sounds more dramatic than “Galifar lasted for 345 years” or “Galifar lasted for 245 years before splitting into two kingdoms for 30 years, after which it reunited but under a council of five princes for a century, and was finally restored to a single ruler for a decade before the Last War.” Shrinking some of the scale of the modern age would allow the colonization of Khorvaire to have a little more of a concrete impact. Beyond that, the fact that the Daelkyr incursion canonically happened NINE THOUSAND YEARS AGO is kind of crazy in terms of having it logically impact the present day. Part of the point of the Uul Dhakaan is to explain HOW the heirs of Dhakaan could maintain their culture over thousands of years. But even so, I’ll say that I tend to blur that number. It’s a little like the population numbers in the ECS, which really don’t make sense. I don’t worry about the precise numbers because THEY DON’T MATTER. What matters is that I have a sense of the relative populations of Breland and Aundair, or of Fairhaven and Sharn. I know that Aundair has the smallest population of the Five Nations, and that’s what I need for my story. Likewise, I know that the Dhakaani Empire fell before humanity came to Khorvaire; I’m not going to dwell too much on the idea that the Dhakaani empire is substantially older than Sumer, because at the end of the day, it doesn’t affect my story; what matters is that it’s OLD.
Since you brought up the population numbers, how about the cartography? The map in Rising not only clearly lacks the requisite number of towns and villages but seems to have a lack of rail lines and rivers.
It’s the same principle as the overlords. The map in Rising is a starting point. It mentions a number of cities, a number of rivers, a number of roads. It’s a place to begin, set of cities we all know and use together. But it was never supposed to be comprehensive. Consider that New York state has 62 cities and 932 towns. Even if we could squeeze that much detail into, say, Aundair, what would be the point? What are you going to do with 932 towns? Consider that even with the small number of communities we have, we still haven’t had time to, say, give a detailed description of Atur. We only present a few because you only need a few to serve the needs of most stories and because the more we mention, the less space we have to actually describe them in any level of detail. But you can assume that there are hundreds of farming villages spread across Aundair and the Eldeen Reaches. If you want to add a city in Breland, add it! Likewise, there DEFINITELY aren’t enough rivers and rails, which is a consequence of not showing all the towns that are on them. So again, it’s like the overlords. We’ve told you about SOME of the cities, and that gives you things you can use immediately and a model for what a Thrane/Brelish/Karrnathi town is like. But it’s not supposed to be comprehensive or realistic, because a truly realistic map would bury us in unnecessary details.
My next article is going to be a lightning round IFAQ addressing questions from my Patreon supporters, followed by the Nobility of Khorvaire. Thanks to my patrons for making this possible, and to all of you who’ve picked up Exploring Eberron!
My new book Exploring Eberron is available now on the DM’s Guild. You can find a FAQ about it here. I am currently working on a longer article about the Nobility of Khorvaire, but as time permits I like to answer interesting short questions from my Patreon supporters, so here’s one from Samantha:
How do you pick the names for the Overlords? They seem to all have a common thread or convention, and I’m dying to know what it is.
The answer is tied to a broader question of worldbuilding, which is how deep do you go in creating languages for a world? Exploring Eberron includes a Goblin glossary, compiled with help from Don Bassingthwaite and Jarrod Taylor. The bulk of that glossary was developed by Don when he was working on his Legacy of Dhakaan novels, but he built it on the foundation I’d established in previous sourcebooks. The answer is that I almost never go deep into creating a language; but my goal is to be distinctive and consistent. I don’t usually bother to create a full dictionary of hundreds of words. But I establish a simple set of rules and keep track of existing words, and use the existing words as a foundation going forward.
So for example, here’s a few we came up with developing the 3.5 Eberron Campaign Setting.
Elvish. The elves use a lot of diphthongs, especially ae and ai. Words often have a soft flow, and V and L are common letters: Vadallia, Valaestas, Valenar, Vol. We quickly established Shae as “City”, Taer as “Fortress”, and “Pylas” as “Port.” This is important for worldbuilding, because you want consistent naming conventions for places when you are creating maps—even if you don’t yet no the culture. Elvish words are usually multisyllabic, and L, S, and R are common end letters… Tairnadal, Aerenal, Valenar. However, you have a few short names, usually formed on -ol—Vol, Shol.
Goblin. An immediate goal was for Goblin to feel harsher than Elvish. Goblin also uses a lot of diphthongs, but generally with repeated vowels—duur, ghaal, guul. It blends sibilance with harsh k and kh sounds—Shaarat’khesh, Taarka’khesh, Kech Shaarat. As seen in two of those three examples, glottal stops are common. As with Elvish, we immediately settled on place names, so draal was “city”; Rhukaan Draal, Cazhaak Draal, again with the harsher sound, dipthongs, and hard k’s. We started with those few basic words: duur is “dirge“,shaarat is “sword”, taarka is “wolf”, volaar is “word”, ghaal is “mighty”and could be attached to a people (ghaal’dar) or thing (ghaal’duur). We had Shaarat’khesh, the “silent blades” and Kech Shaarat, the “Keepers of the Blade.” But the point is that at the time, we didn’t have too much more than that. Until Don came along, we DIDN’T create a extensive Goblin dictionary; it was simply the case that when you needed to make a new Goblin word, you wanted to look back over the words that already existed and to make a word that feels like it fits the same pattern. So again, for me, the vital element is consistency.
So with that in mind,how did we pick the names of the overlords? Well, even before picking their names, we established the idea that every overlord would have a common title. The overlord’s actually names would be ancient and people might be superstitious about using them. Beyond that, part of the issue of using alien languages is that players can have trouble remembering them. “Rak Tulkhesh” is a jumble of sounds; “The Rage of War” immediately says this is an angry warmonger. So for most of them, the TITLE came first: The Rage of War, the Voice in the Darkness, the Keeper of Secrets, the Shadow in the Flame. In then developing their actual names, it’s the same process as for Goblin or Elvish: establish basic principles and make sure you stick with them. So…
Most overlords have a monosyllabic first article and a multisyllabic second article: Rak Tulkhesh, Sul Khatesh.
Like Goblin, overlord names often combine harsh consonants with sibilants—Tulkhesh, Oreshka. However, overlords generally DON’T use diphthongs or glottal stops.
Ul, kh, and sh are common; Sul Khatesh, Tul Oreshka, Rak Tulkhesh. Part of the concept is that while they’re usually broken into short-name long-name, to some degree each syllable has power… it’s actually Rak-Tul-Khesh and Tul-Or-Esh-Ka. This plays to the idea that on some level the name of an overlord is an incantation… which explains why you DON’T want to say their names!
There are exceptions to all things. Eldrantulku the Oathbreaker uses a single word in both name and title, but you can still imagine his name as El-Dran-Tul-Ku. Dral Khatuur has a diphthong in her name. She probably should have been Dral Khatur; I admit that this was just a case where *I* liked the look and feel of Khatuur… Dral-Kha-Tuuuuur.
Some older versions of D&D had Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic as languages, but didn’t fully expand on their role. How would you make them distinct from Infernal, Abysmal, and/or Celestial for Eberron?
PERSONALLY, how I’d make them distinct is by making them nonexistent. There’s a number of reasons why I wouldn’t use these in my campaigns.
First, I usually find that having too many languages tends to get in the way of a story instead of making it more fun. The last thing I want is for the adventurers to meet a crucial NPC but then find no one can speak to him. This CAN be fun if it’s a specific part of the story — they need to play charades to figure out the directions to the dragon’s lair, or they need to find the one sage in the region that can read ancient Orc. But I don’t want that to be a part of EVERY ADVENTURE. As a result, I tend to REDUCE the number of languages in the game, focusing on the idea of “common tongues” — Common as the common language of Galifar, Goblin as the common language of Galifar, Giant as the common language of Xen’drik, Riedran as the common language of Sarlona. Exotic languages are EXOTIC and may play an interesting story role — the gnolls will be impressed if you actually speak gnoll — but any Znir gnoll will understand Goblin.
But beyond that, ALIGNMENT languages are especially weird for Eberron, where we try to downplay the role of alignment and play up personal choice. It’s not like you are born lawful and go to lawful school where they teach you to speak Lawful. You could make it the language of Daanvi, and in the 3.5 ECS many planes have languages. But in my Eberron, any immortal that WANTS to be understood WILL be understood. When the couatl appeared to Tira Miron, it didn’t speak Common; it just SPOKE, and she UNDERSTOOD. When you finally make it to the Amaranthine City of Irian, I don’t WANT you to find that you don’t understand anything the crowds are saying. The planes aren’t just mundane alien worlds, they are UNIVERSAL SYMBOLS — and as such, I say that if an immortal wants to be understood, it WILL be understood. I don’t mind having planar languages as the MOST esoteric of the esoteric languages; if you find a SCROLL from Mabar, maybe it’s written in Mabaran. And to be clear, an immortal CAN speak a mundane language if that serves its purpose. But that’s a conscious choice.
So having said all that, it’s not what I would do, but on that principle of EVERYTHING HAS A PLACE, if I HAD to put alignment languages in Eberron, I would say that they are fundamentally magical languages; they are universal languages — the speech of immortals — but are only understood by people who share the outlook of the speaker. So perhaps a Shavaran angel of the Legion of Freedom DOES speak Chaotic, which means that any creature with a chaotic alignment understands it perfectly and no one else understands it at all. It is the language of FREEDOM, understood by any free spirit. But it’s not a language you can LEARN; it’s part of the I’m-an-embodiment-of-chaos aspect of the immortal. If a player character could speak it, it would be through some kind of magic item or supernatural gift.
As a fun side note: sometimes soldiers or emergency service personnel use a “pointy-talky” card to facilitate communication with people when they have no common language. When we were developing the RPG Phoenix: Dawn Command we created a pointy-talky for Phoenixes to use on their missions; I’m going to share that now on my Patreon!
Currently I’m continuing to work on Exploring Eberron and The Adventure Zone: Bureau of Balance (which is currently in the final two days of the preorder—last chance to get promotional cards or the limited edition!). I’m also going to be in Juneau, Alaska this week for Platypus-Con. I’m going to write a new article next week, the subject of which is currently being voted on by my Patreon supporters, but as I’m about to go on a journey myself I wanted to share an article I originally wrote back in 2013, dealing with one way to handle travel in RPGs.
Travel By Montage
In today’s adventure, the intrepid band of heroes has a long trek to reach their destination. The vast forest is infamous as a haven for bandits and ruffians, shunned by the wise… but it’s the only path to the ruined temple of the Holy MacGuffin. The fact of the matter is that the adventurers are far too skilled and accomplished for a typical band of brigands to pose any sort of threat. Having a random battle would simply waste time without adding any real tension, and compared to the story you have in mind, fighting bandits is a pretty dull story. You could take the red line approach, just cutting from point A to point B with a few sentences of description, explaining just how creepy the forest is and that the bandits are smart enough to avoid the party. But at the same time, the forest is really creepy, and the presence of the bandits is a well established part of the setting; you want them to feel like they’ve taken a significant journey. What do you do?
It’s possible for the journey to be the adventure. The Hobbit is a story about a group of adventurers delving into a dragon’s lair… but the bulk of the story is about the journey to the dungeon. Mechanically, bandits can’t pose a threat to the adventurers. Well, what if they can? What if they come back to life whenever they are killed—and the only way to stop them is to find and destroy the artifact or power source that’s empowering them? Or perhaps it’s a moral dilemma: the “bandits” are actually Robin Hood-style heroes robbing from the rich to raise money for some vital cause, like buying medicine to bring an end to a local plague? The adventurers are, in fact, incredibly rich by local standards; are they willing to help in some way, or do they slaughter the last, best hope of the stricken locals?
This sort of thing can be a lot of fun. The En Route series from Atlas Games presents a host of little scenarios designed to fit into the spaces between the major parts of an adventure—challenges that aren’t simply combat encounters, but interesting stories on their own. However, playing through such a scene takes time, and if the core adventure has a strong story, you may not want to water it down with a side scene. So you don’t have time to make a bandit encounter actually interesting; you don’t want to waste time on a pointless fight; but you also don’t want to just gloss over the journey. What do you do?
What I’ve been doing lately is using a travel montage. Come up with a few interesting things that could happen on the journey and put one of these situations in the hands of each player, giving each character their own spotlight moment. So if I’ve got an elf wizard, a dwarf fighter, a halfling thief, and a human priest, I might say:
Halfling thief: “Tell me how you help the group avoid a bandit attack on the first day.”
Elf wizard: “There are constant storms in this region. By the second day your clothes are drenched, and the bridge across the local river has been washed away. How does your magic help the party get across the river?”
Dwarf fighter: “This forest is older than human civilization. You’re sure you hear the howls of ghosts on the wind, and see things moving in the shadows. You’re a brave man… what’s the one thing that actually scares you on the journey?”
Human priest: “Tell me about the dream you have on the last night.”
The point of this approach is to give each character a chance to be in the spotlight for a moment, and to encourage the players to think about what makes the journey interesting for them. Sure, any of the characters could figure out how to cross a river, but this time, it was the wizard who figured it out… now tell me how. Depending what the players come up with, you could incorporate their answers into the later adventure. Perhaps the priest’s dream will turn out to be prophetic, or the thing that frightened the dwarf will return in some way. Perhaps the thief avoided the bandits because he actually knew the bandit leader from his first guild… in which case, that character could turn up again later in a more interesting role. Alternately, the players might just make jokes out of the scenarios; the one thing that actually scares the dwarf is watching the halfling eat, or the snores of the priest. There’s nothing wrong with this. The whole point is to let the players have a chance to tell the story they want; if they want to laugh, this is a great opportunity for that.
What’s your favorite approach for making travel interesting when it’s not a central part of the adventure? What’s worked well for you?
I’ve got a question about how you handle time progression in your home games. I’m starting my second Eberron campaign and I’m planning on having it take place at the same time as my first one but in Sharn rather than Q’barra. When you start new home campaigns, do you progress time and have the events of the last game carry over? Or do you just start over in 998 YK like it says in the books and treat each campaign as it’s own separate timeline?
This is an interesting question. You’ve finally brought a long-term campaign to a close, and you’re about to start a new one. Where—and when—do you begin?
Personally, I handle starting a new campaign much like developing a TV show. I want to consider the following things…
What does the audience—which is to say, the players—want to see? Previously I’ve talked about my Q’barra campaign, which I’ve described here and here. The point of the Q’barra campaign is to explore something different—fantasy blended with the tropes of the Western genre. But I wouldn’t push that on a group of players who hate Westerns! Typically I’ll pitch a few different ideas to the players (Q’barra! Gritty noir in Callestan! Commandos in the Last War!) and we’ll talk things over, likely coming up with entirely new ideas in the process. When we’ve found something everyone wants to play, I’ll move forward with that.
I want to focus on short term stories and a long arc. What brings the adventurers together? What’s going to happen over the first 2-3 adventures, which is a critical time for developing characters and building a bond for the group?
With this in mind, I usually won’t try to squeeze every major power group in Eberron into a campaign. I’ll usually focus on one of the more obvious groups—the Emerald Claw, the Aurum, the Cults of the Dragon Below—as an initial antagonist; choose one of the more subtle and powerful foes—The Dreaming Dark, the Lords of Dust, the Daelkyr—as a long-term enemy; and pick another group—the Lord of Blades, Miron’s Tears, House Tarkanan—as a wild card who could become an ally or an enemy.
If the campaign is going to revolve around a central hub, I’ll work with the players to establish details of that hub. I talk about how I did that in Q’barra in this post.
Beyond this, I’ll also work with the players to develop the backstories of their characters and figure out how those backgrounds tie into the developing story. If I’ve got a Blood of Vol paladin who’s determined to bring down Erandis Vol as a long-term character arc, I’ll make sure I factor that into the story board. Ideally, I’ll look for ways that these hooks can converge—if one player wants to bring down Erandis Vol, and another wants to destroy House Cannith, well, perhaps I’ll focus on Cannith East developing a secret alliance with the Emerald Claw…
Related to the two previous points, I want to make sure there’s something that ties the party together—that the players don’t feel like they’d never associate with the other characters, but they have to because, well, we’re playing this game. Do they share a common background (we all served together in the Last War)? Are they all tied to a central location (We’re all looking for opportunity in this frontier town) or united by a common purpose (we’re going to work together to bring down the Boromar Clan)? Lacking that, I’ll work to make sure that the first adventure will give them a common purpose or enemy, which will build a bond moving forward.
So, coming back to the original question: When starting a new Eberron campaign, do I incorporate the events of the previous campaign or do I start fresh? This ties to that first point above: What do the players want to experience? I was involved in a campaign that went from levels 1-30, and by the time it was over, the adventurers had changed the world in many lasting ways. One of the characters was Queen of Karrnath. Jaela Daran had sacrificed herself to rebind the unleashed Bel Shalor, and the redeemed Melysse Miron had taken her place as Keeper of the Flame. When THAT group decided to start a new game, we all agreed that we wanted to continue in THAT Eberron… that we were going to advance a further ten years and continue from there. As a result, the surviving PCs from the previous campaign were now influential NPCs in the setting. Meanwhile, one of the players decided that his PC in the new campaign would be Jaela Daran: That she would have awoken in the wilds, as an 11-year woman and a 1st level cleric, with no memory of intervening time. Part of the story of the campaign was trying to figure out what her story was. WAS she the restored Jaela? Was she a daelkyr experiment, or a creation of Mordain the Fleshweaver? For my part, I began with my changeling character Max, and established that they had strange ties to the changeling Garrow, who’d ended up as one of the major villains of the previous campaign arc.
So in that case, it was a lot of fun to build on what had gone before. But when I then brought together a group of new players for my Q’barra campaign, I didn’t even think about putting THEM in Eberron 1008 YK, because it wasn’t their story. Some of them were already familiar with the default world, and even if I took the time to explain all the changes, they wouldn’t have personal resonance for them, because THEY weren’t the ones who battled Bel Shalor. For the other group it was fun to be following in the footsteps of the epic PCs because those were once their PCs. But for a new group, I wanted to reset the world and see what THEY would do with it.
So generally speaking, I’ll treat each new campaign as its own timeline. In fact, I actually have three different Q’barra campaigns active out in the world, any of which I could get back to if I ever have time. But it can definitely be fun to build on previous campaigns, as long as the players will enjoy it.
How do you start a new campaign? Share your thoughts and questions below!
Recently I made a post about developing origin stories for my new RPG Phoenix: Dawn Command. In Phoenix, the PCs aren’t casual adventurers; their world is facing a mysterious and terrible threat, and the narrative is about fighting that Dread and trying to unravel its mysteries. As such it’s vital for every character to establish what they are fighting for. Further, the protagonists of Phoenix have died and returned imbued with new skill and supernatural power, and the type of Phoenix you become is determined by the nature of your death and the lessons that you learned… so it’s important to think about who your character was before they became a hero, and exactly how they died.
In Phoenix, this is a cornerstone of the story that drives the campaign. In Eberron — or D&D in general — that’s not always the case. If you know you’re just doing a straight-up dungeon crawl, it may be that the only thing that really matters is your statistics. But even so, what I love about RPGs — as player or GM — is the fact that we’re building a story together. And I want my character to be someone whose story I’d like to know. I could be a 1st level human fighter — done. Or I could be a dragonmarked heir who broke ties with his house to fight for Cyre, because he truly believed their cause was just and the Sovereigns were on their side. Now the war is over, and the Mourning shattered his faith and destroyed everything he loved. Will he try to get back into his house? Will he seek out Prince Oargev and fight on behalf of the Cyran people? Will he find his faith again in a divine revelation, and take levels of paladin or cleric? Will he be approached by the Twelve to become part of a secret group of excoriates doing deniable missions for the houses, or uncover a Quori infestation that’s taken over his old family? I don’t know. But I’d love to see any of those stories play out. And even if we DO just go on a few dungeon crawls, I still feel like this is a character and not just a set of numbers.
If I want a campaign with a clear focus, I’ll often talk to the players and encourage them to come up with a shared character concept that gives them a clear connection from the start and defines the direction of the campaign. Perhaps they’re all members of the Boromar Clan. Or they’re all agents of the Royal Eyes. Or they’re a Valenar warband. Or they all fought for Cyre in the Last War. Or they own an airship. Everyone understands the core story — “We’re all secret agents” — and they should come up with a concept that fits that.
But sometimes it’s more fun to have everyone come up with a unique character that doesn’t have any pre-existing connection and to have the campaign be what brings them together, and that’s what I’d like to explore now… when you’re making a character on your own, but want to develop a compelling story.
Eberron gives a number of handles for you to latch on to. The Last War is one of the easy ones. The war only ended two years ago. If you have the skills of a player character, you’re a capable person… so did you fight in the war? If so, who did you fight for? What did you do? How do you feel about the outcome? If you didn’t fight in the war, why not? What did you do instead? Did you oppose the war or simply find a different path? Personally, I often choose Cyre as a nation for my PCs because the concept of having lost everything is a strong foundation for why a person would become an adventurer. They have no home to return to; everything they once had is gone. So why not seek their fortune in an unconventional manner? On the other hand, there’s ways to do this with any nation. Consider…
I fought for Karrnath during the last War. But I’m a follower of the Blood of Vol, and King Kaius betrayed us. Now my friends and family are pariahs in my homeland. I’m equally angry at Kaius for turning on us and on the Order of the Emerald Claw for taking actions that turn the world against us… and if I every have the chance, I’ll make sure that both Kaius and the Emerald Claw pay for what they’ve done.
I fought for Thrane during the Last War, as a paladin of the Silver Flame. I love my home and my family, but far too often my duties as a soldier seemed to be at odds with what the Voice of the Flame tells me is right. I fear that ruling Thrane distracts the Church from its true mission and invites corruption, and I want to protect the innocent – all innocents – from supernatural evil, not serve the cause of one nation over others. So I have struck out on my own, following the Flame as I hear it.
I fought for Aundair in the Last War, as youngest son of a noble family of wizards. My parents urged me to stay in the army; there can be no true justice in the world until Galifar is restored. But I know that I will never reach my potential studying with military preceptors. Beyond that, I feel that if Aundair is to triumph in the next war, it needs more than just well-trained wizards. It needs to unravel the mystery of the Mourning. It needs to learn the epic magics of the giants and the dragons. I have left my nation in pursuit of power, but it is always a part of me and I will return.
I fought for Breland during the Last War. I’m proud of what I did, but I was looking forward to coming home and hanging up my sword for good. Instead I returned to find my family and friends (being extorted by the corrupt watch/murdered by Daask/squeezed by the Twelve/consumed by a Cult of the Dragon Below/haunted by an ancient curse). I may not serve the crown any more, but it looks like my war has just begun.
When developing a character on your own, it’s important to remember that you will be part of a group. So however powerful and compelling your personal story is, it has to be something that can accommodate other stories. If your backstory is I must get to Thronehold to stop the second Mourning, it’s hard to explain why you’d take a break from that quest to help a friend or investigate a murder. While with the examples above, the goals are long-term as opposed to being urgent. The Karrn generally hates Kaius and the Order of the Emerald Claw, which gives the DM two hooks they could use… but he doesn’t have a specific Emerald Claw plot he has to deal with RIGHT NOW. The Aundairian wants to uncover magical secrets, so any story that could justifiably include an opportunity to learn something new will be of interest… and if nothing like that shows up, there’s no reason she can’t do something else while waiting for the next opportunity. You want a backstory that can add a sense of depth to any situation — not one that’s entirely reliant on the whole group embracing your personal story.
The Last War is one easy source of character hooks. The Dragonmarked Houses are another. Here’s a few ideas off the top of my head:
You’re a dragonmarked heir working as an agent of your house. You have a patron in the house who may offer you advice or assignments.
You’re an excoriate unjustly banished from your house and you want to find a way to clear your name.
Your parents were excoriates. As a foundling, you have to decide if you want to return to the house… and is there a mystery to solve or a feud to settle involving your parents’ excoriation?
Your parents were remarkable artificers who made a breakthrough and then were mysteriously killed/vanished/were ruined. You believe House Cannith was responsible and have sworn to take vengeance on the house. Are you correct? Or might you uncover some deeper truth as the campaign goes on? This same premise could be translated to any house; just change the occupation to match the house’s sphere.
In the recent Phoenix post I presented a number of more exotic backstories. Even these can be adapted to Eberron if you use some imagination.
The Ship’s Cat is the idea of an unnaturally talented child. Personally, I am a strong advocate of changing the flavor of mechanical elements to fit the needs of a story. In this example, I’d be open to the idea of letting the player use the mechanical statistics of a halfling, even though for other purposes (including Dragonmarks) we’d consider the character to be human.
The Adventuring Archaeologist doesn’t require any unusual mechanics, but it is also about the story… the idea that the character is driven to uncover some of the secrets of the world. In this case, I’d advise picking a mystery that’s big enough that it doesn’t have to be solved all at once. For example, you could be intrigued by planar incursions, wanting to investigate the Xoriat incursion that destroyed the Empire of Dhakaan; the Quori-Giant Conflict; and along the way, perhaps you will discover evidence of previously unknown planar incursions, either something that happened in the past or an incursion that’s about to happen. Or perhaps you want to uncover magical secrets, looking for forgotten lore of the Culsir, the Qabalrin, or even the dragons themselves.
The Old Soldier is a concept closely tied to Phoenix: a hero of a previous age who has returned to accomplish a task in the present day. But there’s a few ways to explore the same idea in Eberron. The article Dolurrh’s Dawn presents an entire village of reincarnated legends. You could be a creation of Mordain the Fleshweaver or House Vadalis — you have the appearance of the legend, but are you truly the hero reborn or are you some sort of trick? Alternately, the Watchful Rest is a sect that maintains that Aureon and the Keeper preserve great souls from Dolurrh so they can be reborn when needed… could this be your story? Obviously it may be odd if you’re starting at a low level when you were once a hero… but this can still be justified as your full memories not having been instantly restored.
The Bad Dog is a bigger challenge. Equipment isn’t important in Phoenix, so the idea of playing a talking dog doesn’t create as many challenges as it does in D&D. With that said, you could certainly play an animal reincarnated into human form. The question then is who performed the spell. Were you the companion of a lone druid, who may have died themselves? Or do you have a connection to one of the druidic sects? Like playing a warforged, an animal reincarnated into human form is an interesting opportunity to explore what it means to be human.
I have a lot of fun building backgrounds with my players for their characters, and I always try to encourage them to develop a story or even run through character background quizzes if they are stuck.
Presenting concrete questions is a good way to help players who don’t know where to begin. Phoenix has a list of basic questions people answer as part of character generation. When I do one-shots, I often present people with multiple-choice questionnaires to give them a quick jump into the world; you can see an example of this in this set of pregens for Phoenix.
Recently I have started a roleplay exercise where in between sessions we will ask background questions that may not come up in game, but help shape the character. The goblin PC might hail from Darguun, but how does he feel that his parents were Cyran? The old orc Gatekeeper lived a full life before he ever left the Marches, so does he see his children or have they grown into adventurers of their own?
This is an excellent approach. When a campaign just begins, people don’t know who their characters are, and trying to nail down this level of detail is simply going to be overwhelming. But as the players become more familiar with their characters, it can be be a lot of fun to explore further during downtime. In Phoenix we encourage players to talk about what happens between missions – Interludes – during these “offline” times.
Do you have any suggestions for characters from lands outside of the Five Nations such as Xen’drik natives coming to Khorvaire, or ways for a Seren to get pulled into the Last War?
It’s a pretty broad question – “Xen’drik natives” covers a lot of ground. But focusing on the Seren, with answers that could apply to some Xen’drik backgrounds…
Following a personal divine vision
Sent by tribal leader/mystic/dragon to accomplish a quest
Driven by insatiable curiosity; you want to see the entire world.
Exiled from your tribe for a crime (was this justified, or are they innocent?)
Seeking vengeance on foreigner who came to your land and did something terrible; realizes it will take a long time to find this person and to gain the power/allies needed to defeat them, but starting that journey.
Same as above, but consider that “a foreigner” could be “a Dragonmarked house” – you’re going to bring down an organization that has done you wrong (better match for Xen’drik than Seren, but still).
A foreigner lived among your people. Depending on race, they could have been one of your parents, or could have been your mentor or best friend. Following your death you have traveled to their land to find the truth to their stories/finish the quest they never completed/avenge them/carry out their dying wish.
I used a variation of that last one with the Ghaash’kala half-orc paladin I played in the last 5E Eberron campaign I was in; my father was a paladin from Thrane who came to the Demon Wastes & lived among the Ghaash’kala, dying long before I ever knew him; in the campaign, I was dispatched to the green lands with my father’s sword with a specific mission (protect one of the other PCs, a mysterious reincarnation of Jaela Daeran – long story) but I personally wanted to learn more about my father and why he’d left his homeland.
As for what could draw them into the Last War? Mercenary work. Friendship — fighting to protect their best friend, even though they know nothing of the politics of the war. A vendetta against an enemy commander; they don’t care about the war, they were just hoping to get close enough to kill the commander. Testing the skills of these foreign soldiers, while honing their own.
If you have any questions — or if you’d like to share your own favorite origin story — post them below!
Since the episode includes a link to this website, some of you might have followed it and be saying “Who is this guy, anyway?” So I’m going to give the brief Keith rundown, and then I want to review the concepts Satine and I discuss in the episode.
So: I’m Keith Baker. I’ve been a professional game designer for over twenty years, and in that time I’ve worked on tabletop RPGs, board and card games, MMORPG computer games, and LARPs. I’ve written six novels. Most people who’ve heard of me know me as the creator of Eberron, one of the official settings for Dungeons & Dragons. Others are more familiar with my card game Gloom, which uses transparent cards and encourages you to take control of a family and tell a story about their tragic demise. More recently, I’ve founded my own company Twogether Studios and we’ve just released a new RPG, Phoenix: Dawn Command… a fantasy RPG where death is how your character grows stronger. If you’re interested in acquiring Phoenix, you can get it from the Twogether websiteor from Amazon.
Whether I’m working with RPGs, MMORPGs, or storytelling games such as Gloom, what I most enjoy is the collaborative experience of roleplaying. As the gamemaster I assemble the pieces of the story, but I love the fact that I don’t know how it’s going to end. In 2009 I traveled the world and ran a particular Eberron adventure with fifty-six different groups of gamers… and every time people came up with something I’d never seen before. So that’s a critical part of my approach to GMing: working with the players to create a story that we all enjoy. Phoenix adds another twist: because death isn’t the end of the story, the odds and the stakes can be far higher than in the typical RPG session. I can drop the wing into a village where there’s a zombie outbreak and say you have two hours to contain this: after that, it will have spread too far to be contained, and we’ll lose this region. The odds may be stacked against them, and to contain the infection they’ll have to find ways to beat the odds. It may take heroic sacrifice, with one or more Phoenixes giving their lives to help the rest succeed. They may decide they have to destroy the village to save the region. And it is entirely possible that they may fail, in which case they will have to live with the consequences once they are reborn… and that real possibility of failure makes any victory that much sweeter.
Which brings us to Player Buy-In, the topic of the GM Tips episode. How do you encourage players to invest in the game, to see their characters and the world as more than just stats and numbers?
First of all, if I’m preparing a long-term campaign around a particular concept, I’m going to start by discussing that concept with the players. I may want to do a spy campaign filled with intrigue and diplomacy, but if all the players want pulp adventure and action we’re going to have a problem. If you have a concrete idea – a war story, investigating Lovecraftian horrors, a mystery-oriented gritty crime saga – see what the players think and what they’d like to see in such a campaign. If you don’t have a concrete idea, talk to the players and see what interests them. Is there a particular theme or time period that interests them? A particular arc that sounds interesting? This can also tie to choice of setting or system. Phoenix is an action-oriented war story with elements of horror and investigation… does that sound fun?
Once we agree on the basic concept, my next step is to work with the players on characters. With some campaigns, I’ll get the players to develop the connections between their characters in advance. Generally this is about asking questions. Perhaps they all served together in a war… what role did their character play in the unit? What’s the worst thing character X saw in the war? How did Character Y save their life? Who was the beloved comrade they lost? Or perhaps they’ll all thieves in the same guild. Why did they turn to a life of crime? What was their biggest haul… and how did they lose the money?
While I like having parties of characters with a solid backstory going into a campaign, you can also find ways to tie disparate characters together through the action. This is the approach Phoenix takes. During character creation each player determines their own backstory. Who were they in their first life? How did they die? What are they fighting for now – because they couldn’t return as a Phoenix unless they had something worth fighting for? What are they still afraid of? The story of the setting then places them together into a wing facing horrific dangers, and as I said above, failure is an option; they all have their own reasons for fighting, but they’ll have to work together to succeed.
Looking to a more traditional campaign, there’s the Eberron campaign I discuss in the episode. Here each player made their own character, and I had each of them come up with a reason that character would be going to the frontier city of Stormreach. What are they running from? What do they hope to achieve? The game begins with them on an airship heading across the Thunder Sea. There’s a little time in the common area for them to get to know each other, as strangers on a ship might. Then the ship gets hijacked. The PCs don’t have any attachment to one another… but they’re the only people on the ship with the skills to deal with the hijackers, and there’s nowhere else to go. So they have a reason to work together. Presumably they will succeed… but by the time they get control of the ship, it’s already off course. It hits an airborne manifest zone and the elemental ring goes out.
Now the ship is crashing. None of the players have the skills required to repair an airship; they have a minute to figure out how to survive a crash. And they likely will – but it won’t be pretty. They find themselves marooned in an unknown location, injured, and saddled with other survivors who don’t have their skills… but who still may have vital knowledge or talents that could help them survive. They soon realize they aren’t even on Eberron anymore; the event that caused the ship to crash has marooned them on another plane of existence. Ultimately they can determine that they have six days to find a way back to Eberron before the planar alignment shifts and they’re stuck in Lamannia for years. The next two adventures take place in Lamannia, as they search for the things they need to survive and to find a way home. Again, the characters don’t know each other: but they have an organic reason to work together, because there’s a common goal that none of them want to walk away from. Ultimately they do find a way back to Stormreach. Now they’re finally where they wanted to go, where each of them has something they want to accomplish. But Stormreach is a dangerous place, and all their goals are more than they can accomplish alone. And you know, what about working with those people who got them through Lamannia? Rather than forcing friendship on the PCs from the start, this sort of scenario is a way to build a bond through the action of the game.
It’s possible your players aren’t comfortable coming up with this sort of story. They want to play a dwarf fighter; they don’t really have any ideas beyond that. In this case, you could present them with possible ideas – in the process helping them get a clearer idea of the setting. Here’s an example of a character questionnaire for a warforged soldier in a campaign in which the PCs were soldiers who spent time in a Karrnathi prison camp.
Another issue is that some players may be afraid to develop a background that gives them connections to the world because “The GM will use this against me” — or that they don’t want to have any sort of background element that implies failure. It’s important to make clear that this isn’t a competition. If they don’t want you to “use things against them” you shouldn’t do it; you’re trying to build an experience you’re all going to enjoy. But talk to them about stories or movies they enjoy and their favorite characters. Compelling characters generally aren’t perfect paragons with no connections to the world around them. They’re people who overcome past failings, who fight to protect the things they care about, who learn from mistakes. In the questionnaire above, I don’t give the players the option of having pulled off a perfect escape: someone got left behind, and it’s up to them to decide who. Because that failure gives the story weight. Their character isn’t perfect. The story is real, and bad things can happen… which makes the triumphs they have in the future more meaningful. I may offer them a set of three characters who were left behind, as in the example above, but once they’ve made that choice I’ll ask them to help me add details about that lost friend. What was your favorite joke Rascal told you? The more the player personalizes this NPC, the more it becomes their story, and the more meaningful it will be for them if they have a chance to save Rascal in the future.
I’m going to wrap up with that. But to me, the main point is to work with your players. Building the story together is the best way to ensure that you all care about it. As GM, it’s your job to craft the foundation and providing the driving force of the story. But the more chances you give the players to invest in the story, the more impact it will have and the more investment you’ll have in the long term.
So: what techniques do YOU use to enhance player buy-in?