Dragonmark: Couatls and the Silver Flame

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Anyone who’s been to a church of the Silver Flame has seen the image of Tira and the couatl. But what are the couatls, and what do people actually know about them? How can you encounter them in the present day?

What are Couatls?

Couatls are native celestials, the last children of Siberys. They were born in the first age of the world, and they helped the mortal species of that time in their struggles against the fiendish overlords. The balance of power dramatically favored the fiends, and the children of Siberys realized that the only path to victory was through sacrifice. Working together, the native celestials abandoned their individual forms and fused their immortal essence together, creating a well of pure divine energy. As the dragons and other mortals defeated the overlords, this Silver Flame was able to bind them. Since that point, the Flame has been strengthened by the addition of millions of mortal souls, but it began with the sacrifice of the native celestials, and that immortal essence is the foundation of the Flame.

The question of the imbalance of power between fiends and celestials is one that is often discussed by sages and theologians. Why are fiends found across the world, while the celestials seemingly abandoned it… especially when planes such as Shavarath and Daanvi have a more even division between fiends and celestials? In his Codex of All Mysteries, Korran asserts that the answer is simple: Khyber slew Siberys. Through treachery, Khyber slew Siberys even before the world was formed and the native celestials are a reflection of the final spark of Siberys. In that time so long ago, the native celestials realized that as the balance of power tilted so dramatically toward the fiends that what they could accomplish as isolated individuals was trivial. But in fusing their essence into one great gestalt they could generate a power that could at least bind the overlords, and which could empower mortals to battle the fiends themselves. This ties to a crucial underlying theme of the setting: Eberron is a world that needs heroes. The Silver Flame is the greatest force of light in the world, but it cannot act on its own; it depends on mortal champions to carry its light against the darkness. A small handful of independent celestials remain in the world, and this will be discussed later in this article. But the bulk of celestial power in Eberron is concentrated into the Silver Flame—a tool and a weapon for mortals to wield.

Now, couatls aren’t the only form of native celestial. But just as the rakshasa are the most common form of fiend, the couatls are the most common form of celestial on Eberron. Any other form of celestial could potentially be used as a native celestial, but most such spirits will share some cosmetic elements with couatl: prismatic coloring, feathers, serpentine characteristics. So a native deva might have rainbow-feathered wings and fine iridescent scales. Why these traits? One theory is that this is a reflection of Siberys himself; the nation of Khalesh used a banner that showed Eberron and Khyber as dragons entwined, with Siberys as a winged serpent encircling the struggling wyrms. This is purely speculative, the coloring and other traits are common among native celestials and are sometimes inherited by mortal creatures infused with celestial energy, such as the Shulassakar or aasimar tied to the Silver Flame.

One complication in dealing with couatls is their shifting power level in different editions of Dungeons&Dragons. The 3.5 couatl had a challenge rating of 10, with the note that it was possible to encounter a huge couatl with up to three times as many hit dice as that CR 10 version. However, the 5E Monster Manual presents the couatl as a fairly minor celestial, with a Challenge rating of 4. The trick is that in Eberron, “couatl” is like “rakshasa”—it’s a category, spanning spirits with a wide range of power. Looking to the rakshasa, not only are there different classes—the standard rakshasa, the ak’chazar, the naztharune, the zakya—but you also have unique individuals with far greater power than the rank and file. Just as Mordakhesh is dramatically more powerful than the typical Zakya rakshasa, the couatl Hezcalipa (the ally and mentor of the dragon Ourelonastrix, who might be the inspiration for the Sovereign Aureon) was dramatically more powerful than a typical CR 4 couatl. But what do you do with this in fifth edition, which only provides statistics for the CR 4 couatl? There’s a few options.

  • Reskin other celestials. Couatl aren’t the only native celestials. You could introduce a deva or a ki-rin as a child of Siberys. But you could also take the stat block of one of these more powerful celestials and just describe the entity as a winged serpent instead of as a winged humanoid or golden-scaled beast. A deva attacks with a mace, inflicting 1d6+4 bludgeoning damage plus 4d6 radiant damage; you can have the deva-couatl attack with a bite that deals 1d6+4 piercing damage and “floods their body with radiant venom” which deals 4d6 radiant damage. Yes, this is different from the poison effect of the CR 4 couatl, and the deva doesn’t have the ability to constrict its foe; but just as not all serpents constrict or produce venom, not all couatl do either. So make the simplest changes—swapping the bludegoning damage of the mace to piercing for fangs, because that’s obvious—but otherwise, just change the way you describe the creature and its attacks. This doesn’t have to be limited to celestials; you could easily take the guardian naga stat block, change it from monstrosity to celestial, and describe it as a wingless couatl.
  • Blend old and new. You can follow the same basic idea, but actually change a few abilities to more closely reflect the couatl. It makes sense that any form of couatl would have the Shielded Mind trait of the CR 4 couatl. For a couatl ki-rin you could describe the Horn attack as a bite attack (which just doesn’t produce venom), but replace the two hoof attacks of the ki-rin with a single Constrict attack, following the model of the CR 4 couatl—perhaps raising the DC to escape to DC 17, reflecting the Ki-rin/Couatl’s higher CR and Strength. Likewise, you could swap out spells on the Ki-Rin’s spell list to include all the spells on the CR 4 couatl’s spell list. But overall, you can still us the ki-rin stat block to reflect the more powerful creature.
  • Create something new. If you have the time, you can use the CR 4 as a blueprint to create your own unique powerful couatl. It’s not something *I* have time to do right now, but I think it makes perfect sense to create couatl with distinct abilities—a loremaster couatl (such as Hezcalipa), perhaps a warlike couatl guardian shrouded in (silver) flame.

Likewise, keep in mind that couatl don’t have to be as powerful as the CR 4 version! A Celestial warlock with the Chain pact could have a tiny couatl as a familiar. Use the statistics of a pseudo-dragon, but describe it as a couatl; this has the same relationship to a standard couatl that an imp does to a more powerful devil. Remember that as celestials, couatls are essentially divine tools and ideas given form. The tiny couatl is simply a minor spirit of light; it’s not biologically related to the more powerful couatl.

This ties to one other point, which is that immortals are tools and concepts. They exist for a reason, and they don’t choose that path as mortals can. The tiny couatl familiar exists to advise the warlock; you could play it as a minor spirit of wisdom or as a guardian angel. But every couatl has a purpose and/or embodies a concept. Where the immortals of the planes embody concepts tied to their planes (War, Hope, Law, etc) the immortals of Eberron are more broadly “good” and “evil.” In creating a specific couatl, a DM could decide that it’s a spirt of truth, or courage, or wisdom—and play its personality accordingly. Swapping out spells is another simple way to reflect this and give a particular couatl some unique flavor.

What Do People Know About Couatls?

Anyone in a nation where the Silver Flame has a presence is familiar with the basic idea of the couatls—their appearance and the fact that they’re celestial emissaries of the Silver Flame. In this, they are much like angels in OUR world; almost everyone can look at a picture of one and say “That’s an angel,” but not everyone believes they exist, and even those people who DO believe they exist don’t generally expect to meet one. Couatls are part of the mythology of the Silver Flame. Tira Miron was guided by a couatl, and the templars use rainbow fletching on their arrows to emulate the swift-flying couatl. Couatls are often also part of the manifestations of divine magic tied to the Silver Flame. When a cleric of the Flame casts spirit guardians, the guardians are often couatl-like shapes formed of silver fire. Summon celestial and planar ally typically manifest couatls or other creatures with couatl-like attributes. These spells aren’t commonplace, but the point is that people associate couatls with the Silver Flame, and if they see one they will say “That’s a couatl! Like the one that guided Tira!” as opposed to “What’s that?”

With that said, Khorvaire’s Church of the Silver Flame isn’t actually that old… and couatls have been known since the dawn of time. Anyone proficient in History or Religion may know that couatls have been revered by many cultures. As mentioned earlier, the pre-Sundering nation of Khalesh in Sarlona was devoted to the celestial serpents. The orc kala’sha paladins of Ghaash’kala often tattoo a couatl wound around one of their arms; they know the couatl as emmissaries of the Binding Flame.

So almost everyone in the Five Nations knows what a couatl is. Again, think of it as analgous to angels in our world. Anyone can recognize a picture of one, but it’s going to take a Religion check to explain the difference between a cherub or a seraph.

Silvertide and Serpent Cults

So: in kanon, everyone knows what a couatl is. Everyone’s seen that picture of Tira and the couatl. However, canon has some inconsistencies in this regard. On the one hand, page 70 of City of Stormreach says this of a priest…

He only speaks of it to his most trusted parishioners, but (the priest) practices the traditions of an ancient serpent cult, passed down to his father by a feathered yuan-ti. Although the values are similar to those of the modern church, this faith teaches that the Silver Flame was kindled by the sacrifice of the couatls in the dawn times; Tira Miron and the Keeper of the Flame are stewards who bring the light of the Flame to humans too limited to see the ancient force on their own. Guin has served as an intermediary for the shulassakar yuan-ti in the past, and this could serve as the basis for an adventure.

This isn’t the heresy that has caused the Stormreach church to be severed from Flamekeep; the section specifies that it’s the opposition to the theocracy that’s the major problem, and the quote here specifies that the priest only speaks of his beliefs to those close to him. It’s not that these beliefs are heretical, but they are unusual. However, the 4E Eberron Campaign Guide introduces the concept of Silvertide, saying “This highest holy day of the faith celebrates the sacrifice of the couatls and the birth of the Silver Flame.” So Stormreach says that the idea of the couatl sacrifice is a secret the priest only shares with his most trusted friends, while the ECG says it’s the basis of the most important holy day the church has. How do we reconcile this contradiction?

The Age of Demons ended a hundred thousand years ago, the precise details of what happened then frankly aren’t as important to most of the people of Khorvaire as the things that happened a few centuries ago. In my opinion, the tales of the Age of Demons and the story of Tira’s sacrifice can be seen as similar to the Old and New Testaments. While the two are directly related, different religions place different weight on the two books. The Serpent Cults are primarily interested with the ORIGINAL story and see Tira’s sacrifice as a recent and relatively minor development. But to the people of the Five Nations, Tira’s sacrifice is the most important story, because it happened to them. Tira saved the people of Thrane from a fiendish apocalypse, and as the Voice of the Flame, she continues to guide them today. They know the general stories about how the Flame was kindled in the dawn of time to bind the overlords and they are grateful for that first sacrifice, but it’s just too long ago to have deep personal meaning; while Tira is the Voice that speaks to them today, and her sacrifice is the reason Thrane even exists.

With this in mind, you can see how I describe the festival of Silvertide on my ongoing Threshold campaign. A key point is that the priest doesn’t actually describe that original sacrifice as the COUATL sacrifice, because those details are largely irrelevant; she speaks of the battle between the forces of light and darkness and of the sacrifice of those first champions to kindle the Flame. Because the LESSON of Silvertide is the power of sacrifice—to respect the first champions whose sacrifice lit the Flame; Tira, whose sacrifice allows us all to draw upon it; and anyone whose sacrifices have made a difference in your own personal life. A key part of the festival is to call out and honor sacrifices others have made for you, and to consider what sacrifices you can make for others. So as the ECG says, it IS a festival that honors the couatl sacrifice; but it honors the SACRIFICE, not the COUATL.

This brings us to the idea of serpent cults. A number of canon sources describe serpent cults—sects found across the world and throughout history. What differentiates a serpent cult from a Silver Flame faith is the direct focus on the couatl as opposed to the Flame. A Flame sect focuses on the Silver Flame as it exists today—a conglomeration of countless noble souls of many species. Most honor the couatl as emissaries and servants of the Flame, but they are secondary to the Flame itself. A serpent cult focuses on the couatl, honoring them as the first children of Siberys and emphasizing their role in creating the Flame. Serpent cults often downplay the idea that other creatures can join the Flame and instead emphasize the Flame as the pure light of the couatl. Looking at key named sects, the Sarlonan nation of Khalesh was a serpent cult devoted to the couatl; the Ghaash’kala, on the other hand, are a Flame sect. They may call it the Binding Flame instead of the Silver Flame, but it is the FLAME that they honor above all; couatl are its tools.

So looking back to Stormreach, again, the priest’s beliefs aren’t dire heresy; they’re just unorthodox views that most followers of the modern Church don’t share or care about. To the typical Thrane parishoner, emphasizing that the first sacrifice was entirely couatl would be a slightly eccentric belief that undermines the moral of the story—that we all have the power to make a difference through our sacrifices, and that any noble soul can strengthen the Flame. This is reflected in the original statement on page 303 of the Eberron Campaign Setting

Ultimately the couatls sacrificed most of their number in order to seal the overlords within their combined souls. Scholars have theorized that this is the ultimate source of the force worshiped by the Church of the Silver Flame. The Church ministry is ambivalent about this theory, stating that regardless of how the Flame was first kindled, there is a place within the Flame for all noble souls.

Encountering Couatls

There’s three main ways to encounter a couatl in the present age.

Ancient Guardian. The quote from the ECS states that most of the couatl joined together to found the Flame. Most isn’t all; a handful remained as incarnate individuals to accomplish vital tasks that couldn’t be entrusted to mortals. Keep in mind that they use mortal agents when they can—the shulassakar, the Masivirk’uala lizardfolk, and the Ghaash’kala, even Tira Miron are all examples of this. A few reasons you might need an actual couatl are to preserve knowledge that can’t be trusted to a mortal; to oversee a project that will take many generations to unfold; do accomplish a task that requires the innate celestial powers of the couatl; or to guard an area that’s either too hostile, isolated, or corruptive to entrust to a mortal. An ancient guardian is an immortal who has existed since the Age of Demons; they don’t have heart demiplanes and typically are reborn in the location where they are destroyed, with the length of time this takes depending on the strength of the couatl and the manner in which it is destroyed. While they are incarnate spirits of light, the fact that they have usually existed in intense isolation can make these guardians more intense than their temporary counterparts; they often have tunnel vision tied to their vital task. A temporary couatl has watched humanity grow; a guardian may not have seen another living creature since before human civilization existed.

Temporary Emissary. When a priest of the Silver Flame casts summon celestial, they aren’t pulling a couatl from some other location in the world. Instead, the spirit is directly manifesting from the Silver Flame itself, and when its work is done it will return to the Flame. The Silver Flame is a mass of hundreds of thousands of souls, but within the Flame those spirits exist as a transcendent gestalt, not as individual personalities. When a temporary couatl manifests, it will employ the personality of one of the original couatl; this could allow adventurers to actually speak with Hezcalipa, for example. But Hezcalipa doesn’t exist as an individual while she’s part of the Flame, and her actions when she does appear are moderated by being part of that gestalt; she is first and foremost an emissary of the Flame, shaped by the memories of a couatl who sacrificed itself long ago.

Channeling and Visions. You don’t have to meet a couatl in the flesh. The CR 4 fifth edition couatl can cast dream, a useful tool for guiding and advising mortals. The 3.5 ECS also explored the idea of divine channeling…

A mortal who channels a celestial becomes a mortal manifestation of the celestial’s power. The celestial can draw on all the mortal’s memories, and the celestial senses what the mortal senses. The mortal and the celestial can communicate telepathically, but neither has complete access to the current thoughts of the other.

Looking to the tale of Tira Miron, the original idea was that most of the time Tira was channeling the couatl; it was guiding her, but it wasn’t just flying along next to her. In other places we’ve suggested that her guiding couatl was actually bound with her sword Kloijner. This is why in the image above, you can’t see the rainbow feathers of the couatl; it’s a spiritual presence. When it comes to a dream vision or channeling a couatl, there’s still the question of whether the spirit is an ancient guardian that has always been separate from the Flame or if it’s a temporary emissary sent out into the world to accomplish this task. In the case of emissaries, an emissary who grants dreams might never fully manifest as a physical couatl; think of it as an antenna extended from the Flame to broadcast a signal, after which it is retracted.

With any use of visions in dreams, a valid question is how this relates to Dal Quor. In my opinion, couatl visions don’t occur in Dal Quor; they effectively intercept the dreaming spirit before it reaches Dal Quor. This ties to the idea that they actually isolated the dreams of the Masvirik’uala, as described in this article. If you embrace this idea, it’s possible that they could actually give visions to mortal who sleep in some way but don’t actually dream, such as Kalashtar or elves—but that’s definitely up to the DM to decide. The general idea is that couatls have an affinity for mortal minds, something reflected in earlier editions by their psionic abilities; but they are native celestials, not creatures of Dal Quor. With that said, a scheming quori could definitely impersonating a couatl when manipulating someone with its own dream visions…

So, how can you encounter a couatl? You might find one as the guardian of an ancient vault, sworn to keep the cursed items within from falling into mortal hands… or to guide mortal champions to reclaim these deadly artifacts after the vault is breached. You could be visited by a couatl who has emerged from the Flame to assist you in overcoming a great threat, but it can only remain at your side for a brief time—or, potentially it can only assist you through dreams, or a moment of divine channeling. The main thing to keep in mind is that all of these are incredibly rare. There are only a handful of ancient guardians in existence, and they are dealing with tasks no mortal could handle. As for emissaries, the Silver Flame is a machine designed to do two things: to bind overlords and to empower mortal champions. Short term spells like summon celestial are part of that machine—tools that work through mortals and lasts briefly. For a couatl emissary to emerge from the Flame is like pulling a random gear off the machine; it’s difficult and potentially dangerous to the machine itself. It’s the sort of thing that happens to people like Tira Miron—heroes who can change the fate of the nation or the world. But overall, the Silver Flame deals with problems by empowering mortals, not by deploying celestials. This ties to that fundamental principle: Eberron is a world that needs heroes. The physical appearance of an emissary is a legendary event… but player characters have the potential to be legends.

That’s all for now! Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters for making these articles possible.

Dragonmarks: Common Knowledge

As time permits, I like to answer interesting questions posed by my Patreon supporters. One question that often comes up is “What do people in the world actually know about (subject)?” As players and DMs, we have access to a tome of absolute knowledge that tells us all about the Lords of Dust, the Dreaming Dark, the Empire of Dhakaan, and so on. We know that characters may know about these things if they have appropriate proficiencies and make successful skill checks. But what do people know WITHOUT making any skill checks? What things are just common knowledge?

This article reflects the common knowledge of a citizen of the Five Nations. Common knowledge will vary by culture, and I can’t account for every possible variation. People in Stormreach are more familiar with drow than people in Fairhaven. Shadow Marchers will have heard of the Gatekeepers, while Karrns won’t have. In general, you can assume that things that have a direct impact on the lives of people living in a region will be part of common knowledge. For example, the people of the Mror Holds don’t know a lot about the daelkyr in general, but they DO know about Dyrrn the Corruptor, because they’ve been fighting him for decades and he signed his name with Dyrrn’s Promise in 943 YK. So determining what things are common knowledge will often require the use of common sense.

With that said, the people of the Five Nations can be assumed to know the following things.

Planes, Moons, and Manifest Zones. Everyone knows the names of the planes and the moons, and the basic attributes of the planes (IE, Shavarath is the Eternal Battleground and is filled with celestials and fiends fighting). Think of this a little like knowledge of the planets of the solar system in our world; most people can name the planets and know that Mars is the Red Planet, but only someone who’s studied them can tell you the names of all of the moons of Jupiter. The main point is that the planes have real, concrete effects on the world through their manifest zones and coterminous/remote phases, and people understand these things. A common person may not be able to tell you the precise effects of a Shavarath manifest zone unless they actually live by one, but they know Shavarath is the Eternal Battleground and could GUESS what such a manifest zone might do.

The Creation Myth. Everyone knows the basic story: Khyber, Eberron, and Siberys created the planes. Khyber killed Siberys and scattered his pieces in the sky, creating the Ring of Siberys. Eberron enfolded Khyber and became the world. Whether people believe this is literally true or a metaphor, everyone knows the myth and everyone understands that magic comes from Siberys, natural creatures come from Eberron, and fiends and other evil things come from Khyber.

The Sovereign Myth. The Sovereign Host is deeply ingrained into daily life in the Five Nations. Even if you don’t BELIEVE in the Sovereigns, you know the names and basic attributes of the Nine and Six. Likewise, everyone knows the basic story that in the dawn of time the world was ruled by demons; that the Sovereigns fought them; and that the demons were bound. The Dark Six are largely only known by their titles—The Mockery, the Keeper—and their original names are something that would only be known by someone with a tie to a relevant cult or with proficiency in History.

The Silver Flame. Tied to this, everyone knows the idea that the Silver Flame is the force that binds demons. People do NOT know where it came from. Many vassals assume the Sovereigns created the Silver Flame. Those who follow the faith assert it is a celestial force that is strengthened by noble souls.

Dragons. Everyone knows that dragons exist and that they are terrifying and powerful creatures. People know stories of dragons guarding hoards of treasure, and if you’re from Thrane you know of the Bane of Thrane, the dragon who slew Prince Thrane. There are also a few stories about heroes making bargains with dragons, or dragons possessing secret knowledge. People know that Argonnessen is a land of dragons, but they know almost nothing about it beyond “Here there be dragons” and the fact that people who go there don’t come back. Some people know that dragons occasionally attack Aerenal, and know that the giants of Xen’drik were destroyed in some sort of war with dragons. So everyone knows that dragons exist; that they are extremely powerful; and that they can be deadly threats or enigmatic advisors. Most people don’t ever expect to see a dragon. The idea that there are dragons secretly manipulating humanity is a conspiracy theory on par with the idea that many world leaders in our world are secretly reptilian aliens; there are certainly people who believe it, but sensible people don’t take it seriously.

Evil Exists. Everyone knows that there are fiends, undead, aberrations, and lycanthropes in the world. They know that ghouls may haunt graveyards, that the creepy stranger in town could be a vampire or a werewolf, and that dangerous things could crawl out of Khyber at any time. This is why the Silver Flame exists and why templars are generally treated with respect even by people who don’t follow the Silver Flame; people understand that evil exists and that the templars are a volunteer militia who are ready to fight it.

The Overlords and the Lords of Dust. Everyone knows that the overlords were archfiends who dominated the world at the beginning of time. Regardless of whether you believe in the Sovereigns or respect the Flame, you know that the overlords are real because one broke out and ravaged Thrane a few centuries ago. Most people have heard stories of a few of the overlords and may know their titles—the Shadow in the Flame is the one most people have heard of—but would need to make checks to know more. But critically, everyone knows that there are bound archfiends that would like to get out and wreck things.

Most people have never heard of “The Lords of Dust.” People have certainly heard stories of shapeshifting demons causing trouble and know that this is a real potential threat, but the idea that there is a massive conspiracy that has been manipulating human civilization for thousands of years is up there with the idea that dragons have been doing the same thing. If you have credible proof that someone in town is actually a fiend or is possessed by a fiend, people will take the threat seriously; people know that such threats can be real. But few people actually believe that there’s a massive conspiracy that secretly controls the course of history, because if so, why haven’t they done anything more dramatic with it?

As a side point to this, most COMMON PEOPLE don’t differentiate between devil, demon, and fiend and treat these as synonyms. People know of rakshasas as “shapeshifting demons,” even though an arcane scholar might say “Well, ACTUALLY ‘demon’ refers specifically to an incarnate entity of chaos and evil, and the rakshasa is a unique class of fiend most commonly found on the material plane.” But the Demon Wastes could be called “The Fiend Wastes;” in this context, “Demon” is a general term.

Khyber and the Daelkyr. Tied to the creation myth and to the idea that evil exists, people know that BAD THINGS COME FROM KHYBER. They don’t know about demiplanes, but they know that if you find a deep hole there might be something bad at the bottom of it. Critically, most people just know that THE DRAGON BELOW IS THE SOURCE OF BAD THINGS and don’t actually differentiate between aberrations, fiends, and monstrosities. This is why the Cults of the Dragon Below are called “The Cults of the Dragon Below” even though a cult of Dyrrn the Corruptor really has nothing in common with a cult of Sul Khatesh; as far as the common people are concerned, they are cults that worship big evil things, and big evil things come from Khyber, hence, cult of the Dragon Below.

With this in mind, most common people don’t have a clear understanding of what a “daelkyr” is. Anyone who’s proficient with Arcana or History has a general understanding of the difference between the daelkyr and the overlords without needing to make a skill check. But for the common person, they are both powerful evil things that are bound in Khyber.

Fey and Archfey. Everyone knows that the fey exist. Everyone knows about dryads and sprites, and everyone knows that they’re especially common near manifest zones to Thelanis. Beyond this, everyone know FAIRY TALES about fey and archfey, and knows that there’s some basis to these stories. So people know STORIES about the Lady in Shadow and the Forest Queen, and they know that somewhere in the planes, you might actually be able to meet the Forest Queen. But they don’t actually EXPECT to every meet one. Most people have no way to easily differentiate between an archfey and some other type of powerful immortal. Notably, you could easily have a cult of the Dragon Below that’s bargaining with Sul Khatesh but BELIEVES it is bargaining with an archfey, or a cult of Avassh that thinks it’s blessed by the Forest Queen. If a cult worships “The Still Lord” or “The Queen of Shadows”, they don’t have some kind of special key that tells them whether that power is a fiend, a fey, or a celestial; that distinction is ACADEMIC, and would require a skill check.

Specific knowledge of the fey is more prevalent in regions that are close to Thelanis manifest zones or where people have a tradition of bargaining with the fey; notably, Aundairians know more about fey than most people of the Five Nations.

The Dreaming Dark and the Kalashtar. Everyone knows that when you dream you go to Dal Quor. Everyone accepts the idea that “There are demons that give you bad dreams!” Very few people believe that those fiends are manipulating the world. People have had bad dreams FOREVER. If bad-dream-demons were going to take over the world, why haven’t they already done it? As with the Lords of Dust, people will listen to credible threats that a specific person could be possessed, but few will believe stories of a massive dream conspiracy bent on world domination.

Looking to Sarlona and the Inspired, everyone knows that the Riedrans have a strict culture and they’re ruled by beings who they say are channeling celestial powers. Few people have ever met a Riedran, let alone one of the Inspired. Those who have met kalashtar (which for the most part only happens in major cities) know that the kalashtar have been oppressed and driven from Sarlona, but largely assume this is about political and religious differences, not a war between dream-spirits. It’s relatively common knowledge that people from Sarlona study some form of mind-magic, but most people don’t know the precise details of how psionics are different from arcane or divine magic.

The Aurum. While it’s a stretch to say that everyone’s heard of the Aurum, it’s about as well known as, say, Mensa in our world. It’s generally seen as an exclusive fraternal order of extremely wealthy people. Because it IS exclusive and because many of its members are minor local celebrities, there are certainly lots of conspiracies theories about what it’s REALLY up to… but even if there’s people who SAY that the Aurum wants to overthrow the Twelve or that it engineered the Last War, at the end of the day people know it’s that fancy members-only club on Main Street that always donates generously to the Race of Eight Winds celebrations.

Secondary Religions. Aside from the Silver Flame and the Sovereign Host, most of the other religious are relatively regional. The Blood of Vol is the best known of the secondary religions because of the role it played in Karrnath during the Last War, but outside of Karrnath most people think it’s some sort of Karrnathi death cult. Everyone knows druids exist, and the Wardens of the Wood are relatively well known because of their central role in the Eldeen Reaches, but the other sects are largely unknown outside of the areas where they operate; the Ashbound are likely the second best known sect because of sensationalized reports of their violent actions. The Path of Light is largely unknown aside from people who have direct interaction with kalashtar.

Goblins and the Empire of Dhakaan. Everyone in the Five Nations knows that goblins were on Khorvaire before humanity, and that they had an empire that fell long ago. Most people don’t know the name of this empire or exactly how it fell. People generally recognize Dhakaani ruins as being goblin creations, and know that many of the largest cities of Khorvaire are built on goblin foundations, but there’s certainly a lunatic fringe that asserts that those structures are clearly too sophisticated to be goblin work and must have been built by some forgotten human civilization. However, most people understand that these “forgotten human” stories are ridiculous conspiracy theories, on par with the idea that shapeshifted dragons are secretly manipulating the world.

The History of Xen’drik. People know that Xen’drik was home to a civilization of giants. Most people believe that the giants were destroyed in a war with the dragons. Many people know that the elves were originally from Xen’drik and fled this destruction. Without History proficiency, most people do NOT know the name of any of the giant cultures or that there were more than one, and they definitely don’t know anything about giants fighting quori. The idea that arrogant giants destroyed the thirteenth moon is a common folk tale, but it has many forms and it’s something most people know as a serious fact.

Spies. When people in the Five Nations talk about spies, they’re usually thinking of The Dark Lanterns or the Royal Eyes of Aundair. Both are well known spy agencies known to operate covertly in other nations, similar to the CIA and KGB during the height of our cold war. Most people in the Five Nations have heard of the Trust and understand that it’s some sort of secret police force that maintains order in Zilargo, but don’t know much more than that and they aren’t concerned about Zil spies. House Phiarlan and House Thuranni are known as providers of ENTERTAINMENT and aren’t generally seen as spies. The assertion that Phiarlan runs a ring of spies is like the idea that Elvis worked for the CIA; not IMPOSSIBLE, but not something people see as a particularly credible threat.

Exotic Player Species. Most people know that drow come from Xen’drik. People know that lizardfolk and dragonborn come from Q’barra, but most people in Khorvaire don’t know that these are two different species. Tieflings are generally understood to be planetouched; as discussed in Exploring Eberron, aasimar are generally so rare that they won’t be recognized by the general populace. With that said, overall people are fairly accepting of species they’ve never encountered. In a world where people DO deal with humans, orcs, shifters, goblins, warforged, elves, kalashtar, ogres, medusas, and more every day, people who’ve never seen a goliath before are more likely to say “Huh, never seen that before” than to panic because it’s some sort of alien giant-man; exotic characters will generally be targets of curiosity rather than fear.

Dragonmarks and Aberrant Dragonmarks. The dragonmarks have been part of civilization for over a thousand years. The houses provide the major services that are part of everyday life. Everyone in the Five Nations knows the names of the houses and the common twelve marks. Without proficiency in History, people won’t have heard of the Mark of Death. Common knowledge is that aberrant dragonmarks are dangerous to both the bearer and the people around them, and are often seen as the “touch of Khyber.” Without proficiency in History, they won’t know much about the War of the Mark, aside from the fact that the aberrants were dangerous and destroyed the original city of Sharn.

The Draconic Prophecy. Most people have heard of “The Draconic Prophecy” but know almost nothing about it aside from the fact that it’s, y’know, a prophecy. When such people talk about the Prophecy, what they’re usually talking about is the Caldyn Fragments, a collection of pieces of the Prophecy assembled by Korranberg scholar Ohnal Caldyn (described in City of Stormreach). Most people definitely don’t understand that it’s an evolving matrix of conditional elements or that it’s the key to releasing the overlords.

Aerenal, the Undying Court, and the Tairnadal. Aerenal is an isolationist culture that has little interest in sharing its traditions with others. However, the elves do trade with the Five Nations and there’s been enough immigration over the course of history to provide a general knowledge of their culture. Most people know that Aerenal is ruled by the Undying Court, and that the Undying Court is made up of ancient undead elves. Most people don’t have a clear understanding of the difference between deathless and other undead. In Five Nations, most people have never heard of “Tairnadal” and assume any Tairnadal elf is from Valenar. They know that Valenar elves are deadly warriors who are always looking for fights and who worship their ancestors, but they don’t know any specifics about patron ancestors or the Keepers of the Past.

Q&A

What do most people believe about the connection between shifters and lycanthropes?

Most people believe that there is some sort of distant connection between shifters and lycanthropes. Shifters are often called “weretouched,” and some people mistakenly believe that they get wild when many moons are full. However, few people few people believe that shifters are capable of spreading lycanthropy or are sympathetic to lycanthropes. Those negative stereotypes exist, especially in rural Aundair or places where people have never actually SEEN shifters, but they’re not common.

What do followers of the Silver Flame believe about the Sovereigns? What does the Church teach about them? Is it normal to venerate both, at least among the laity? Do they even believe the Sovereigns exist?

Nothing in the doctrine of the Church of the Silver Flame denies the existence of the Sovereigns. It’s entirely possible to follow both religions simultaneously, and templars are happy to work with paladins of the Host. However, the point is that the Church of the Silver Flame doesn’t CARE if the Sovereigns exist. Their general attitude is that if the Sovereigns exist, they are vast powers that are maintaining the world overall. Arawai makes sure there’s rain for the crops. Onatar watches over foundries. That’s all great, but SOMEONE HAS TO DEAL WITH THE GHOULS IN THE GRAVEYARD. It’s notable that the Church of the Silver Flame, for example, doesn’t have a unique creation myth because at the end of the day it doesn’t MATTER where the world came from, what matters is that the people who live in it are threatened by supernatural evil and we need to work together to protect them.

I’ve said before that the Church of the the Silver Flame is more like the Jedi or the Men in Black than any religion in our world. It is EXTREMELY PRACTICAL. Evil exists, and good people should fight it. The Silver Flame is a real, concrete source of celestial energy that can empower champions to fight evil. Noble souls strengthen the Flame after death, so be virtuous. If you want to believe in some sort of higher beings beyond that, feel free. What’s important is to protect the innocent from supernatural evil, and faith in the Flame will help you to do that. So the Church doesn’t teach anything about the Sovereigns and it doesn’t encourage its followers to believe in them or incorporate them into its services in any way, but it doesn’t specifically deny that they exist or forbid followers from holding both beliefs.

That’s all for now! Feel free to ask about other general information topics in the comments, but I won’t have time to address every topic. Thanks again to my Patreon supporters who make these articles possible!

Dragonmark: The Tricks of the Lords of Dust

Art by Rich Ellis and Grace Allison from Phoenix Dawn Command

Looking at the power of the Council of Ashtakala, people might wonder why the Lords of Dust haven’t conquered the world. A rakshasa’s first answer to this would be, “Haven’t we?”

“Eternal Evil,” Dragon 337

This month is challenging for many reasons, so rather than writing a long article I planned to write a number of smaller articles addressing questions posed by my Patreon supporters—questions like…

How do the Lords of Dust actually manipulate the people of Khorvaire, considering that their mental manipulation magics are not quite on par with, say, the Dreaming Dark? What’s the edge that allows them to compete with even mundane intelligence agencies such as the Dark Lanterns or House Phiarlan?

The problem is that sometimes questions that SEEM like simple topics turn out to have a lot of layers, and this turned out longer than planned. But let’s start with the shortest summary. How do the Lord of Dust manipulate the people of Khorvaire?

  • The Lords of Dust have been manipulating the people of Khorvaire since before there were people on Khorvaire. They don’t need to subvert people as the Dreaming Dark does, because they have a vast network of pawns that have been serving them for many generations.
  • Because of this, they already have people in influential positions in most major institutions and organizations in Khorvaire. They generally don’t directly control any of those organizations, but they are able to control the flow of information, burying reports, guiding the leaders in particular directions, and so on. And they do have Thuranni assassins, Dark Lanterns, and Trust agents (among others) who are directly loyal to them if they need them.
  • They have amassed vast wealth over the course of a hundred thousand years. Their top agents are mind-reading fiends. When they do need to put pressure on someone new, they can use both gold and secrets to do so.
  • They know possible paths of the future. They can start political movements that they don’t directly control because they know that in a century that movement will accomplish the thing they want it to. They have the Butterfly Effect on their side; they DO know that this one butterfly flapping its wings will cause a hurricane across the world in a decade. Now, that knowledge isn’t ABSOLUTE. They don’t know the impact of EVERY butterfly. But they know a few of them, and use those to their benefit.
  • A fun way for the Lords of Dust to manipulate people in the present is Faustian bargains: Give me your soul and I will grant you great wealth! Beat me at fiddling and I’ll give you this golden fiddle, but if you fail I take your life! The point is that FIENDS CAN LIE. Sul Khatesh can actually form warlock pacts, but a normal rakshasa CAN’T actually claim your soul. The point of this is the butterfly effect. What the fiend WANTS is for you to have this golden fiddle or to have wealth (which the Lords of Dust can easily grant through their connections and amassed resources) because somehow those things advance the prophetic path they are trying to lock in. But they want you to think that you WON the fiddle, or that they have claim to your soul… when both of these were just set dressing so people wouldn’t try to understand their REAL motives.

That’s the short answer. But as I said, there’s a lot more to this. So if you’d like to know more, read on.

An important step in planning an Eberron campaign is to decide which major villains you want to use, because you don’t have to use them all (and I personally wouldn’t). There’s nothing wrong with saying that it’s going to be a century before the Lords of Dust have an opportunity to release an overlord, that the stars aren’t right for any of the daelkyr, or that the Dreaming Dark is content in Riedra for the moment. So first of all, keep in mind that there’s no rule stating that the Lords of Dust HAVE to be actively competing with the Dreaming Dark, because it could be that the Lords of Dust aren’t trying to accomplish anything significant at the moment.

In choosing which villains you want to use, you want to consider the difference in their goals and methods, something I briefly discuss in this article. The Dreaming Dark is an alien force that seeks to conquer through subversion and infiltration, and this is why its tools are mind seed and possession. The story of the Dreaming Dark is a story of people you trust being turned against you, a story of secret invasion. The Lords of Dust tell a very different story. They have immense power in the present day. They have resources they’ve been amassing for a hundred thousand years. They have access to artifacts and eldritch machines. They have agents in place in every major house and organization. But they don’t care about the present day. Look back to the quote that opened the article. The Lords of Dust aren’t trying to conquer the world, because from their perspective they already have. They don’t want the trouble of openly ruling pathetic mortals, but through their vast network of pawns, they already have all the power they need in the present. Their goal isn’t to infiltrate existing organizations, because if they need to infiltrate an organization, they’ve already done it. Their goal is to shape events that will in turn shape the path of the future. Let’s take a quick look at the resources they have available.

  • The Lords of Dust are immortals who have been present since time began. They have been planning their schemes for a hundred thousand years. This has given then time to amass vast resources and to shape civilizations on both a large and small scale; the “Eternal Evil” article notes that when Lhazaar planned her expedition to Khorvaire, a rakshasa was advising her.
  • Through their studies of the Draconic Prophecy, they not only know the paths that will release their overlords, but they have a general roadmap of the paths the future can take. So that raksahsa guiding Lhazaar wasn’t acting blindly; they KNEW the consequences of pointing Lhazaar at Khorvaire and were intentionally shaping the future. The Lords of Dust are the organization who could build a vault in the wilderness because they know that THREE THOUSAND YEARS LATER it will be important. Again, think of them as time travelers; they just have to live their way forward to their desired future instead of jumping back and forth.
  • The central core of the Lords of Dust are rakshasa. Their leaders—Hektula, the Wyrmbreaker, etc—are exceptionally powerful rakshasa. But even the default rakshasa is a shapeshifting, mind-reading fiend with a range of enchantment and illusion abilities and potentially, the ability to return after death. But in many ways, the most powerful rakshasa ability is their spell immunity. A rakshasa cannot be “affected or detected” by spells of 6th level or below unless it allows it. That includes things like detect evil and good, see invisibility, and even true seeing. It allows them to walk through magic circles and forbiddance as if they weren’t there. They can ignore the vast majority of tools that would normally be used to detect the presence of fiends or to defend against them. It’s up to the DM to decide what it means that you “can’t be affected or detected” by, say, true seeing or zone of truth. In MY campaign I say that both spells appear to work normally even though they don’t; so a truthteller BELIEVES the rakshasa has been affected by zone of truth even though they haven’t, and true seeing shows the rakshasa’s disguise self as it it was its true appearance. So again, the point is that the rakshasa have a huge advantage because the magic we rely on for our highest security doesn’t work on them; the rakshasa CAN lie in a zone of truth and can look a top Medani agent in the eye without its true nature being exposed.
  • The majority of the agents of the Lords of Dust are mortal “pawns.” Some of these are what Exploring Eberron calls loyalist cultists, who know the power they serve and and proud of this allegiance. But just as many are devoted to SOMETHING or SOMEONE but don’t realize that this is a fiend or a creation of fiends. Again, the Lords of Dust have been working at this since before human civilization existed, and they are shapeshifting, mind-reading fiends with a map of the future. They have created political movements, art movements, devoted groups of friends, what have you — all to gain pawns who will do a favor at the precise moment it’s needed, likely never knowing the full significance of that favor. One of the most important functions of a pawn is to be in a useful position that allows a rakshasa to temporarily take their place at critical moments. It’s a waste to have a rakshasa working as a clerk in the royal archives of Breland for thirty years. But the Lords of Dust may have a PAWN working as a clerk, and on the three days where there’s something vitally important that the Lords of Dust need in the archives, a rakshasa can take the pawn’s place and accomplish those tasks. Again, it’s almost impossible to identify these pawns, because FOR THE REMAINING THIRTY YEARS that pawn is just a loyal clerk doing their job and they don’t even KNOW what the rakshasa did or why it did it when they let it take their place.

So the story of the Dreaming Dark is one of aliens infiltrating our world. The story of the Lords of Dust is one of discovering that aliens infiltrated our world thousands of years ago and have been secretly pulling the strings ever since. The goal in dealing with the Lords of Dust isn’t to UTTERLY DEFEAT THE LORDS OF DUST. They’re simply too deeply entrenched, not to mention immortal, and again, they are actually part of the status quo of society as we know it. You’ve lived alongside them all your life, and they NEED the world to generally be stable; if they need you assassinate Queen Aurala in order to free Sul Khatesh, they need there to be a Queen Aurala. So the goal is to disrupt their immediate plans so that they will go back to the drawing board and scheme for another two centuries while our lives go on as normal.

When dealing with the Lords of Dust, part of the question is what you’re actually dealing with. You can use them in small ways or as major villains. Here’s a quick overview.

  • Lone Wolves. The schemes of the Lords of Dust unfold over the course of centuries. What do they do to pass the time in the space in between? Adventurers could clash with a fiend who, while technically tied to the Lords of Dust, is pursuing an entirely personal agenda. A lone rakshasa could be playing a game with a mortal family—say, killing the second child of each family member when that child reaches their 22nd birthday—just for fun. They could start a cult of serial killers because it amuses them to do so. They could seek revenge on a dragon that annoyed them a thousand years ago. In creating lesser fiends, consider that they are likely to share some traits with the overlord they serve. Minions of Sul Khatesh may be interested in arcane experiments, minions of Rak Tulkhesh may enjoy murder and cruelty, and minions of Eldrantuklu love intrigues. So essentially, you can have a villainous fiend—even a member of the Lords of Dust—without the adventure being about THE LORDS OF DUST.
  • Doing What They Love. Mordakhesh and Rak Tulkhesh love to spread war and hatred. Hektula and Sul Khatesh love to have people using magic in ways that sow fear. These schemes don’t necessarily AMOUNT to anything; they are literally just a way to pass the time for a few centuries while they wait for their next release-the-overlord possibility to come around. In general, you can think of this as “feeding the overlord.” It’s not like Rak Tulkhesh can starve to death, but if Mordakhesh can feed him war he is HAPPY and that in turn pleases Mordakhesh. So he LIKES to sow hatred even when there’s no world-shattering threat involved, as long as he doesn’t cause so much chaos that it interferes with future plans. So you can fight an evil wizard who’s empowered by Sul Khatesh and do something good by defeating them, but the FATE OF THE WORLD was never at stake and Hektula herself doesn’t care too much. You did a good thing that protected the local community from that wizard, but it’s not like Hektula will vow vengeance because she has literally done THOUSANDS OF TIMES. Sometimes the seeds grow into beautiful bloody flowers, sometimes troublesome adventurers stop them. No big deal… she’ll plant more.
  • Butterfly Collectors. It’s possible that one or more of your characters has a critical role to play in events that will trigger the release of Sul Khatesh… two hundred years from now. The whole idea of manipulating the Prophecy is that it takes generations to play out. As such, it’s possible that a Lord of Dust needs the adventurers to do something that doesn’t threaten them or the world in the present day, and that could even be useful to them. Consider The Hobbit: Gandalf could be a disguised rakshasa, who brings the dwarves to the Shire, convinces Bilbo to join their company, and helps them defeat Smaug because he knows that if Bilbo joins them he WILL find the One Ring, and he’s just laying the groundwork for the events of The Lord of The Rings, which will occur a century later. But in the short term, Bilbo and his friends defeat a dragon, find a magic ring, have great adventures and become friends. This is exactly the sort of thing a Lord of Dust could set in motion; it not only SEEMS innocent, it IS innocent… until a century later, when the fate of the world is determined by these events. Remember that the Lords of Dust are limited by needing the correct mortals to fulfill the Prophecy, because they need things to happen in the proper way. In this example, Hektula might know EXACTLY where the Ring is the whole time, but she needs BILBO to defeat Golumn in the battle of riddles and to claim it himself.
  • Loyalist Cults. Many pawns work for the Lords of Dust without knowing it. But all of the overlords have cults that DO know who they work for and revel in it. The Carrion Tribes of the Demon Wastes are examples of this, but there can be fiend cults throughout Khorvaire. If you need a quick minor villain, great, use an overlord cult. This is in the middle of this list because it can go in either direction. The cultists could be engaged in a scheme that will lead to the release of an overlord, or they could just be in that “doing what they love” role. Rak Tulkhesh loves to have cults shedding blood, and it could be that’s all that’s going on—and you stopping that cult is just a good thing for everyone. Or it could be that the actions of that cult are part of an early stage of releasing an overlord. The question there is whether a) by the time the adventurers defeat the cult, they have already done the critical action they needed to perform to push the prophecy to the next level or b) whether the cult being defeated WAS PART OF THE PLAN ALL ALONG. Because that’s the way the Lords of Dust work; they may have pushed their cult into your path because they NEEDED you to defeat them. Exploring Eberron discusses the cults of five different overlords.
  • Releasing an Overlord. This is the main event: the idea that the Lords of Dust are working toward the release of an overlord, and that a release—or at least a partial release—could occur in the course of a campaign. This requires the Lords of Dust to get a particular path of the Draconic Prophecy to pass; this is discussed in this article. The critical point is that these are things that have MANY steps and you’re just coming in at the end; they have likely been working on this for centuries, and these are the last steps. So usually this is something that adventurers will discover at a critical point and then have to fight on multiple steps. The challenge is that the rakshasa have a map of the future and the adventurers don’t. As noted above, it could be that by the time the adventurers defeat a cult they’ve already accomplished what they needed to do, or it could be that defeating the cult was part of the plan.
  • Rebinding an Overlord. Here’s the thing: preventing the release of an overlord isn’t nearly as much fun as rebinding an overlord that has been partially released. If you successfully keep the plan from succeeding, you never actually get to see how bad things could be. History is full of moments when the plans of the Lords of Dust were blocked and NOBODY KNOWS ABOUT THEM. But everybody knows about Tira Miron’s sacrifice to rebind Bel Shalor, because the Shadow in the Flame WAS partially released and terrorized Thrane for months before Tira figured out how he could be defeated… which meant identifying a different path of the Prophecy (she needed to be channeling a couatl; to be wielding Kloijner; to fight him at a particular place and time; to be working with specific allies). A campaign involving the partial release of an overlord gives all sorts of opportunities to battle fiends and unravel mysteries, and to ultimately fight an aspect of the overlord (which is what the stat blocks in Rising represent, though they are MUCH weaker than the overlords presented in third edition)… While a campaign in which the adventurers just block the release can feel anticlimactic.

You might well say “If the Lords of Dust are so powerful, why don’t they just kill the player characters the moment they become a threat?” Because sure, from a mechanical standpoint they easily could. They have hundreds of rakshasas—possibly thousands—epic magic and countless pawns in positions of power. The reason they don’t turn all the power against the adventurers is because they need the player characters—or at least, believe that they MIGHT need the player characters. You know how we always say that player characters are remarkable and that they’re the heroes of the age? That’s because they are PROPHETICALLY SIGNIFICANT. It may be that the Lords of Dust have specific plans that they need to use the PCs for (Hektula needs you to kill Queen Aurala to release an overlord) or it could be that they are just the first dominos in a long line (Hektula needs your wizard’s GREAT-GRANDAUGHTER to kill Aurala’s great-grandsonand your wizard doesn’t even have any children yet). They may not even KNOW what role they need you for, but they know you’re significant and they’re figuring it out. This is why pawns of the Lords of Dust tend not to be the people IN power, but rather the advisors, the scribes, the people in the background. The Lords of Dust can’t force the actions of prophetic lynchpins without derailing the prophecy. They couldn’t just replace Lhazaar with a rakshasa or use dominate person (which any raksahsa can cast) on her; they needed her to CHOOSE to go to Khorvaire. It’s the same here. They can manipulate the adventurers by manipulating the events around them, but they can’t just mind control them or replace them.

One way to think about it is rats in a scientist’s maze. Your PC is a rat and the Wyrmbreaker wants you to go down a particular path. He can try to lure you to go the way he wants—drop a piece of cheese down the right path—but he can’t just PUSH you down the path or the experiment becomes invalid. Should you at the final moment FAIL to go down the proper path, he’s not going to kill the rat; what’s the point? Instead he’s going to put you back in the cage and start figuring out the next experiment. Because that’s the thing: there will ALWAYS be a way to release the overlords. The moment Tira rebound Bel Shalor, a new path for his release began to take shape. It could take centuries for the Lords of Dust to identify that new path, and a thousand years before they have a chance to make it happen, but they WILL figure it out. Dustoran has tried and failed HUNDREDS OF TIMES. When you foil his plot, he’s going to just move on to the next one. And let’s face it, even if he was certain he has no further use for you, he doesn’t NEED to kill you. You’re mortal. If you’re human, you’ll be dead in a few decades; he’ll still be here in ten thousand years.

That’s all for now! Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters for posing this question and for making these articles possible!

Dragonmarks: Avassh, the Twister of Roots


You call her the Twister of Roots, for you cannot see the beauty in her works. Open your mind and your body to the Bloody Cornucopia. Let her plant her seeds in your thoughts and your fertile flesh and show you wonders you cannot imagine.

Avassh is the terraformer of the daelkyr. Poisonous blooms unfold at its touch, and fungus spreads in its wake. Dhaakani accounts of the wars against the daelkyr speak of blighted fields where rotting crops rise up to consume the farmers, and jungles where the screaming trees drink goblin blood through barbed roots. The Dhakaani on the western frontier had to burn their dead to ensure that the corpses didn’t rise again, overflowing with fungal blooms. Those Dhakaani facing Avassh were ordered to be extraordinarily vigilant. Terrifying as Dyrrn’s mind flayers may be, when an illithid is slain the threat is over. Avassh’s minions often scatter spores when they are destroyed; unless preventative measures are taken, a single shambling mound could give birth to a new legion. The Gatekeeper druids helped the Dhakaani to contain Avassh’s influence, but there weren’t enough druids to protect the vast empire; in many regions, fields and forests had to be razed to utterly expunge this alien threat.

Today Avassh is bound in Khyber, and mercifully, its influence is severely restricted. Avassh is most active in the Towering Woods of the Eldeen Reaches; the Wardens of the Wood watch for its general influence, while the Children of Winter contain its threats in the Gloaming. However, it’s quite possible it has a foothold in some of the other vast untamed jungles of Khorvaire—or that adventurers could discover an alien oasis beneath the surface. Beyond this, there are seeds that were scattered across Khorvaire thousands of years ago still waiting for the right moment (or cult rituals) to bear deadly fruit. Some sages believe that the Barrens of western Khorvaire—the area now known as Droaam—was brutally defoliated to counter the influence of Avassh, and if so there may be many forgotten seeds there waiting to be recovered and cultivated.

THE TWISTER OF ROOTS

Avassh doesn’t embody mortal fears of nature; rather, it transforms nature to create alien terrors. This transformation appears to be the primary motivation of the daelkyr. Many of Avassh’s creations are deadly threats. Blights will kill creatures of flesh and corrupt natural vegetation. The compelling scent of Avassh’s blooms may be poisonous, or could carry a more insidious threat—psychic spores that take root as powerful psychoses. But some of the things that Avassh has created, while certainly unnatural, are actually quite useful. Brightwort is a faintly luminescent plant that is immensely useful in the creation of potions of healing or vitality. Most casual botanists assume that brightwort is connected to Irian—like Araam’s Crown, another potent medicinal herb. But unlike Araam’s Crown, brightwort doesn’t grow in Irian manifest zones, and there’s nothing natural about the way this herb promotes flesh to knit and blood to clot. Avassh’s creations will be unlike anything that exists in OUR world, but it’s possible these alien resources can be harnessed to serve the greater good. Avassh doesn’t care if its plants help you are harm you. Avassh is reshaping the world in its image, and whether or not you thrive in this new environment is incidental.

Brightwort is a fairly minor and benevolent example of Avassh’s work. Other creations of the Twister of Roots range from dangerous to bizarre. The classic mandrake—a plant with a human-shaped root that screams when it’s dug up—could definitely be in Avassh’s garden. Carnivorous plants, flowers that smell like your most painful memories, angry trees with razor leaves—these are just a few of Avassh’s creations. Consider these possibilities…

  • Mourning Roses. These flowers cry in the darkness, a haunting sob designed to lure people. The thorns on its vines are charged with a powerful venom; those who search for the source of the cries will usually fall prey to the poison, and their corpses will fertilize the roses. The plant only cries when it is in bloom, and it is actually a psychic effect rather that actual sound; the voice feels familiar, even though it’s impossible to identify.
  • Bone Orchards. Bone orchards sprout from humanoid bones. They appear to be dead trees, with closely interlaced, leafless boughs. However, their bark has the texture of bone. The trees feed on the last vestiges of spirit that linger in the bones that spawned them. A bone tree counts as the source corpse for purposes of speak with dead, and even without the spell, the whispers of the dead can often be heard in a bone orchard. These are typically found on ancient Dhakaani battlefields or mass graves, but new orchards can be found in areas with active Avassh cults or places close to the daelkyr’s prison.
  • Tree of Knowledge. Each of these trees is unique—deciduous in appearance, but often strange in color and texture. A tree of knowledge might appear to be made of glass, or it could bleed if its bark is cut. As its name suggests, the fruit of a tree of knowledge imparts information, something the person who consumes the fruit knows to be absolutely true. Each tree holds a particular piece of knowledge, and it’s possible that this information could be entirely useful; a tree of knowledge could grant understanding of the Goblin language, or proficiency with woodcarver’s tools. But a tree could also grant absolute understanding of secrets mortals weren’t meant to know—secrets that might drive someone to start a cult devoted to the Twister of Roots, for example. This is often how Avassh cults spread, and NPCs may be powerless to resist such infection. However, if a player character encounters such fruit, they should be granted a Wisdom save to resist its effects (which are to be charmed by other Avassh cultists), and be able to repeat the saving throw if they are harmed by Avassh cultists and after each long rest.

These are just a few examples. The Twister of Roots also creates many plant monsters, described in the Forces section below.

THE BLOODY CORNUCOPIA

While Avassh creates new foms of plantlife, it also explores the line between animal and vegetable, often creating strange hybrids of the two. This can be reflected by its symbionts (see the Gifts section below), but it often involves an actual transformation rather than the use of a temporary symbiont. Most cultists welcome such transformations, seeing it as ascension to a higher state. Here’s a few examples of cult transformations.

  • Wooden Soldiers. While the cultist appears normal, beneath the skin their muscles become flexible roots and their organs transform into wood. These wooden soldiers use the statistics of warforged. They don’t have the ability to attach armor, but they gain the +1 AC bonus of Integrated Protection while wearing armor and when they are wearing no armor they have an AC of 13 + their Dex Modifier. They are considered to be both plants and aberrations.
  • Rootbound. The cultists become bound to a wooden object—typically a living tree, but there are cases where cultists have been bound to the wooden structure of a building. These cultists cannot venture more than a few miles from the object they are bound to. They use the statistics of dryads, but are considered to be plants and aberrations rather than fey, and speak both the languages they knew in their prior life and Deep Speech. Rootbound dryads can’t cast druidcraft or shillelagh, but they know the primal savagery and acid splash cantrips (spitting the acids from their mouths). The rootbound’s “Fey Charm” can target one humanoid and up to three plants or aberrations at a time; it doesn’t affect beasts.
  • Dolgaunts. While Avassh has servitors with the abilities of dolgaunts, they are quite different from those created by Dyrrn the Corruptor. Avassh’s dolgaunts begin with a seed being implanted in the spine of a cultist. The seed grows and spreads roots throughout the cultist’s body; two of these pierce the skin, becoming the long tentacles of the dolgaunt. The cultist’s eyes turn into dead wood, and are eventually pushed out of their sockets by roots. By this point, the original cultist is dead and what’s left is a dolgaunt servant of Avassh. These dolgaunts are both plant and aberration.
  • Myconids. There have been a few cases of cults that have voluntarily infected themselves with a consuming fungus and become myconids. These cults are often peaceful, interested only in their own fungal communion; however, they may decide to aggressively share this bliss with others. Avassh myconids are discussed further under Forces.

THE FORCES OF AVASSH

Avassh’s cults typically begin with a seed. Sometimes this is a relic of the Dhakaani conflict that suddenly sprouts—perhaps watered by a particular emotion or simply by contact with humanoids. In other cases a cultist might be compelled to perform rituals that create the seed without truly knowing what they are doing. The form of the cult depends on what seed they have sprouted. Cults that know Avassh as the Bloody Cornucopia are similar to Dyrrn’s Transcendent Flesh cults, yearning for an unnatural transformation. Cults that know Avassh as the Twister of Roots may cultivate deadly gardens. It could be that this is all that they do—that they cultivate a garden of mourning roses but have no sinister plans—or it could be that they are tending a blood mother (see below), caring for it until it can unleash a blight.

Transformed cultists have been described above, but here are other creations of the Twister of Roots. These forces could be found working with cults, or could be encountered on their own in regions influenced by Avassh.

Blights. Blights are a bioweapon originally unleashed against Dhakaan. Blights kill humanoids and transform the vegetation of their region, spreading poisonous brambles, slimy vines, and other disturbing vegetation. The Dhakaani called the trees that spawn blights khaar’niianu, “blood mothers.” The sphere of influence of a blood mother is based on its size and age. Most ancient blood mothers were destroyed by the Dhakaani. Occasionally a new tree sprouts—a relic of the Dhakaani conflict that never germinated, or the result of cult rituals—but such young trees have a limited range. A new blood mother might destroy Sharn, but a single young tree couldn’t engulf Breland.

Gas Spores and Dolgaunts. Avassh created the first gas spores. Some scholars believe that this is a key to understanding the relationship between daelkyr—that the gas spores are in some way a reflection of the relationship between Avassh and Belashyrra—but there is a continuing debate as to whether this reflects cooperation or if it is a form of mockery or humor. This is also reflected by Avassh’s dolgaunts; as described earlier, they resemble dolgaunts but are actually a fusion of plant and animal; they are considered to be both plants and aberrations.

Myconids. The only known account of a civilization of myconids comes from Boroman ir’Dayne, who describes a subterranean expedition that discovered an ancient Dhakaani vault inhabited by these creatures. Boroman describes the creatures existing in a state of “ecstatic union” and says that they were awaiting the coming of “The Harvester”, who had sown them long ago and would one day harvest them to serve a greater purpose. Boroman theorized that these myconids (a term coined by ir’Dayne and not used by the creatures themselves) were the remnants of a Dhakaani kech that had been targeted by Avassh—possible centuries after the downfall of the empire on the surface. While this is the only account of a myconid civilization, myconids can be encountered in Avassh’s cults—as described above—and as unique creatures spawned by the Mourning or created by Mordain.

Shambling Mounds. The shambling mounds of Avassh form around the bones of dead sentient creatures. Most are just rough shapes, but occasionally a shambler more closely recognizes its original form; there’s at least one case of an Avassh cult leader being restored as a shambling mound and retaining his memories of his mortal life. As with treants and other creatures, these are Avassh’s shambling mounds; shamblers can also be created by primal forces, and such shambling mounds aren’t associated with bones.

Shriekers. Little is known about shriekers. Most sages believe that they are nonsentient fungi that only react to the presence of light and motion. However, Boroman ir’Dayne reports hearing a “haunting choir of shriekers” that seemed to be singing to one another across great distances, though he was unable to make any sense of the song or induce individual shriekers to replicate it or to communicate in any way. There have also been a few examples of “shrieking cults”—a seeming variation of Kyrzin’s gibbering cults—who use the bodies of their dead to fertilize shriekers and claim to be able to hear the voices of their loved ones in the shrieks. It’s possible that Avassh is linked to shriekers, and can speak through any shrieker—if it ever has any reason to speak to adventurers. If this is true, Boroman’s mysterious choir could be the equivalent of Avassh humming to itself…

Treants. During the Xoriat incursion, Dhakaani fortress in what is now Aundair were assaulted by living siege engines they called the Gaa’avassh, the “Children of Avassh.” Since then, these creatures have been encountered in the depths of the Gloaming and the swamps other jungles and forests touched by Avassh. Most gaa’avassh have the broad appearance of classic treants blended with willow trees; however, their bark has a slick texture, they have nothing resembling a human face or head, and the dangling “willow branches” are actually a mass of prehensile tendrils. Mechanically, they grapple any smaller creature they strike with their Slam attack (DC 18 to escape); they can grapple up to six creatures at a time. The only language they all know is Deep Speech; ancient gaa’avash will know Goblin, and may have learned other languages from the creatures around them. The consider animals of all types to be an infestation, and see no difference between humans and squirrels. They are reclusive creatures that largely dwell in the deepest woods. While this describes the traits of the common gaa’avassh, there are certainly more exotic examples. One Dhakaani account speaks of a massive gaa’avassh that also served as the blood mother of a blight infestation, and there is an old Aundairian folk tale that seems to describe a gaa’avassh that falls in love with a parasitical dryad.

Assassin vines, violet fungus, and similar creatures can all be attributed to Avassh, and cults of the Twister of Roots may cultivate such creatures and even have the ability to control them psychically. it’s possible that there are other plants with similar statistics that have other origins, but any dangerous and unnatural plant could be the work of Avassh.

THE GIFTS OF AVASSH

The most common gifts of Avassh are potions—elixirs brewed using the alien properties of Avassh’s creations. Typically cult herbalists are driven by unnatural intuition and don’t really understand the alchemy they are working. While Avassh’s potions are potent, they may well have side effects ranging from minor hallucinations while the potion is in effect (you hear strange music whenever you come close to a living plant) to actual physical transformations. These effects could be very minor on a single dose—so an adventurer can use the potion of giant strength they obtained from a cultist and only have green skin for a few hours—but repeated doses of the same potion will come with more serious side effects, which explains why adventurers won’t want to embrace an Avassh cult as a friendly pharmacy.

Symbionts of Avassh are made of wood or other vegetable matter. As discussed in Exploring Eberron, any existing magic item could be flavored as an Avassh symbiont. A symbiont cloak of protection might be made of interlocked leaves; it feeds off the blood of its host, which can be seen in the veins of the leaves. Avassh cultists may use hungry weapons made of wood and studded with thorns, or a tongueworm that’s a thorn-tipped vine. Nonsymbiont tools of Avassh could include enchanted prosthetics, or a dagger of venom made of an Avassh variant of livewood. If you are using Magic of Eberron, Avassh could definitely be a source of plant grafts.

CHARACTER IDEAS

Avassh cultists aren’t all destructive; some wish to pursue their own vegetative communion or evolution and have no interest in letting you in on the action. On the other hand, a character could be a former cultist who’s broken free from Avassh’s influence but retained the powers they gained in the process. Consider the following ideas…

  • With your DM’s permission, you could play a wooden soldier of Avassh using the statistics of a warforged. You can’t attach armor, but you can wear it normally and gain the +1 bonus of Integrated Protection when you do. To you enjoy your wooden condition, or are you searching for a way to return to your original form?
  • As an alchemist artificer, you could be drawing your magic from the strange herbs of Avassh. Are you a cultist who cultivates your own sacred garden, or are you a scholar who recovered plants grown by an Avassh cult and seeing what you can do with them?
  • As a diviner, you could draw your talent for divination from an elixir made from a tree of knowledge. Do you have ongoing access to the tree, or are you worried what will happen when you run out?
  • With your DM’s permission, you could play a Circle of the Moon druid who wildshapes into plant forms instead of animal forms. You gained your gifts through communion with Avassh; do you still believe that the Bloody Cornucopia is benevolent, or do you now oppose the Cults of the Twister of Roots?

STORY IDEAS

Avassh isn’t hard to work into a story. If adventurers wander into a deep, untamed region—the Towering Woods, the King’s Forest—they could discover that Avassh has influence in the area. Alternately, they could have to deal with a cult or a war-seed that has sprouted in a town or city and needs to be dealt with. Here’s a few other ideas.

  • The adventurers find an ancient Dhakaani ruin that was destroyed long ago in conflict with Avassh. It could be occupied solely by aggressive plants, or it could have myconids or wooden soldiers based on the original inhabitants. One canon example of this is in Five Nations—Yarkuun Draal, a Dhakaani fortress in Breland. Five Nations says that the ruin is held by “the daelkyr Bhodex’av’gr” but I would personally say that Bhodex’av’gr isn’t a daelkyr, but rather an ancient, evolved cultist of Avassh—a powerful lieutenant who may not be a daelkyr, but is something very powerful and inhuman.
  • The adventurers find the ruins of a cult stronghold wiped out sometime during the golden age of Galifar. Texts in the ruin speak of the gifts of the Garden of Knowledge, and the adventurers find that at least one tree of knowledge remains intact. Will anyone taste its fruit?
  • After clashing with wooden soldiers, a PC artificer notices a disturbing similarity between the root-like musculature of the fallen soldiers and the body of a warforged. Is House Cannith drawing on Avassh’s power to create the warforged, and if so, do they know it? Could the warforged be controlled by Avassh?
  • Adventurers stumble upon evidence that proves that Oalian, the Great Druid of the Eldeen Reaches, is a creation of Avassh. Can they determine whether Oalian is a plant—a long, long-term mole waiting to enact an ancient scheme—or if the Great Druid is truly as noble as it seems?

What would you use as a stat block for Avassh?

I don’t have the time to develop a full stat block for her. However, you can cobble something serviceable by combining Zuggtmoy’s block from Out of the Abyss with Dyrrn from Eberron Rising From The Last War. Start with Zuggtmoy’s base block, and make the following changes:

  • Avassh should be a medium aberration as opposed to a large fiend.
  • Add the Alien Mind and Teleport traits from Dyrrn.

That will WORK. It’s not ideal; personally, I’d be inclined to give Avassh more transformation or summoning powers. Zuggtmoy is heavily infested in the fungal/spore theme, which is fine; the mind control abilities aren’t INappropriate for a daelkyr. But I’d like to see Avassh invest more strongly in the idea of CHANGING or CREATING things.

That’s all I have time for now, but I’m including a table of trinkets tied to Avassh as a bonus for the inner Circle on my Patreon! Thanks to my Patreon supporters for choosing this topic and for making these articles possible. Feel free to discuss the topic in the comments, but I am dealing with major deadlines at the moment and most likely won’t have time to address complex questions.

Dragonmarks: Sphinxes of Eberron

She had the body of a great black cat, with the neck and head of a beautiful elf-maiden – though if that head was on a humanoid body, she’d have to be nine feet tall to match the scale. Her skin was flawless cream, her eyes glittering gold. Her long hair was midnight black, dropping down and mingling with the vast raven’s wings folded on her back. The black of her fur and hair was striped with bands of brilliant orange, and these seemed to glow in the dim light; when she shifted these stripes rippled like flames.

“Why are you doing this?” Daine said. “If you know so much about our destinies, why the riddles? Why not just tell us what you know?”

The sphinx smiled. “What answer do you wish to hear, Daine with no family name? That I am bound by divine and arcane laws, and have told you all that I can? That I have told you what you need to know to fulfill your purpose in this world? Or that I have my own plans, and I am shaping your destiny as much as any of the others who watch?”

“Which is true?”

“Which will you believe?”

City of Towers

Sphinxes are enigmatic and inscrutable. For all their cryptic insights and challenges, in some ways the greatest riddle of the sphinx is the sphinx itself. Where do they come from? What is the source of their knowledge, and most of all, what is their motivation? In most tales a sphinx is found guarding some arcane site or artifact, only sharing its treasure or its knowledge to those who can pass its test. Why does it do this?

No sphinx will answer these questions. No power on Eberron can read the mind of a sphinx, and divinations shatter against their inscrutable nature. And so the sages of Eberron are left to ponder the riddle, studying the clues that are available. The first and most popular theory about sphinxes was presented by the loremaster Dorius Alyre ir’Korran. In his Codex of All Mysteries, ir’Korran asserted that sphinxes are living embodiments of the Draconic Prophecy. Their oracular abilities are tied to the fact that they are manifestations of the Prophecy and innately know the paths of the future. They are bound to their duties and found in portentous locations because they are literally instruments of destiny, positioned to guide and challenge the people who will in turn shape history. They slip through time and space because they exist beyond it. Ir’Korran suggested that although they appear to be individuals, sphinxes are in fact all part of a greater entity, fingers on a hand too vast for mortals to see.

For centuries most scholars have supported ir’Korran’s theory. Magister Mara ir’Lain observed that sphinxes often appear to be guarding tombs, temples, or treasures, but there are no reliable accounts of a sphinx being assigned such a task. An androsphinx that identified itself as Silverstorm challenged Harryn Stormblade in the ancient Dhakaani citadel below Cazhaak Draal, but the only Dhakaani account that mentions sphinxes is the story of Jhazaal Dhakaan outwitting a sphinx to obtain its secret knowledge. Ir’Lain believed that this supported the Codex: that as Silverstorm wasn’t posted by the Dhakaani, its stewardship of Cazhaak Draal must be tied to the Prophecy.

However, over the centuries, scholars have learned more about sphinxes. In his paper “The Sphinx in the Library”, Professor Cord Ennis of Morgrave University made the following observations (summarized for the terrestrial reader; Ennis doesn’t mention the Monster Manual):

  • Sphinxes are powerful and varied spellcasters. The androsphinx in the Monster Manual is a divine spellcaster, using Wisdom to cast cleric spells. the gynosphinx is an arcane spellcaster, using Intelligence to cast wizard spells. While it’s possible that this is tied to the species of sphinx, it’s equally plausible that these are learned skills—that an androsphinx could master arcane magic, or a gynosphinx could channel magic through faith.
  • While they often appear to be bound to some sort of duty, sphinxes seem to have personalities and even a desire to learn. The most well-documented sphinx of the modern age, Flamewind, resides at Morgrave University and often spends her time reading; she has been known to attend parties and theatrical events.
  • Sphinxes are monstrosities, not celestials, fiends, or fey. This suggests that they are creatures of flesh and blood, rather than immortal incarnations.

Ennis challenges the Codex on multiple points. If sphinxes are extensions of the Prophecy, are they monstrosities rather than some form of celestial or fiend? Why do we see what appear to be both wizards and clerics among them, rather than a single path reflecting the channeled power of the Prophecy? Why did Flamewind attend the premiere of Five Lives, and even shed a tear in the final act? There are certainly reports of Flamewind assuming the role of the imperious oracle—as she did when first encountered, and as in the account quoted at the start of the article—and yet, she also seems to be capable of more casual interactions.

Cord Ennis believed this proved that sphinxes could have a more mundane origin: that they are mortal creatures, that they can study and learn, that they have more personality than the typical celestial. But as critics were quick to point out, no one has ever discovered any evidence of a civilization of sphinxes. There’s only a single account (discovered in Cul’sir ruins) of multiple sphinxes being encountered at the same time. All of this supports the Codex. There’s no signs of a sphinx civilization because sphinxes are tools of the Prophecy.

A team of researchers in the Arcane Congress presented a new theory, seeking to bridge the two: that sphinxes are creatures of Thelanis. The premise is that sphinxes aren’t instruments of destiny, but rather that they exist to drive the plot. Thelanis is the plane of stories, and its archfey often seem to enjoy seeing echoes of their stories in the world. Under this theory, the reason sphinxes show up at such dramatic times and locations is because the story needs them to—that they are some form of servants to the archfey, helping to guide the world in ways that echo the story of their masters. This ties to the fact that Thelanian creatures often show more personality and quixotic behavior than many other creatures, and that lesser fey aren’t immortal. While a compelling theory, opponents countered with the point that sphinxes don’t share the typical traits of Thelanian entities—which is to say, they are monstrosities rather than fey.

Most recently, Cord Ennis returned with a refinement of his thesis. Ennis suggests that sphinxes are mortal, civilized creatures, but that the reason there’s no evidence of any sphinx civilization is because they aren’t from this time. There are a number of accounts in which people facing sphinxes in their lairs are shifted through time—the apocryphal tale that Breggor Firstking was a beggar who was given a chance to relive his life and used his knowledge to become a king, or the story of the man who sleeps in a sphinx’s lair without permission and awakes a hundred years later. According to Ennis’s theory, the idea that sphinxes can move through time helps to explain both their seemingly oracular abilities and their interest in seeming cryptic actions; that their enigmatic behavior shapes future events in ways we don’t see, but they do. The lack of any signs of sphinx civilization is because it doesn’t exist in the scope of history as we know it. And further, the fact that sphinxes only manipulate time in their lairs suggests the use of some form of eldritch machine as opposed to the innate powers one would expect in a living manifestation of the Prophecy—that they accomplish time travel using a tool, rather than personal power alone. Ennis asserted that this could explain Flamewind’s observed behavior—at times the cryptic oracle, and at other times almost more of a curious tourist.

While intriguing, Ennis admitted that there was one piece of the puzzle that still escaped him. When do these time-traveling sphinxes come from? His first thought was the distant future—that they could even be some sort of mystically evolved descendants of the modern races. Yet if that were the case, is there no risk of their meddling changing their own future? Given this, he ultimately favors the idea that the sphinxes are from the very distant past—that they could potentially be the citizens of the FIRST civilization of Eberron, a society that predates the Age of Demons and whose existence was wiped from history by the dominion of the overlords. With this as a foundation, Ennis suggests that the actions of the sphinxes might not be the absolute demands of destiny one would expect from embodiments of the Prophecy, but rather a grand game. As their time is long past, the sphinxes don’t actually care what about the ultimate outcome; whether the overlords rise again or the daelkyr are unleashed doesn’t actually hurt them. Ennis further suggests that this could reflect the different techniques seen among sphinxes. The “divine” sphinxes—those wielding clerical abilities—could see their actions as being a divine mission, potentially even one mandated by the Progenitors (because what other gods were there at the dawn of time?) while the “arcane” sphinxes could be the scientists of their time. Thus, Flamewind could be in Sharn because she knows it is a nexus of elements she wants to deal with—events or people she wants to observe or influence—but that between those key events she is simply enjoying studying this time and place, so alien to her native time.

While these are all intriguing possibilities, as long as sphinxes remain inscrutable they will remain a mystery. Servants of the Prophecy? Agents of the archfey? Travelers from the dawn of time? All three are possible, and the only way to learn the truth is through adventure. Within their lairs, sphinxes have the ability to manipulate time and travel the planes.

Why Does This Matter?

The mystery of the sphinx is an important part of the creature, and something I want to maintain rather than simply providing an absolute answer. Are sphinxes time travelers? Agents of Prophecy? Shapers of story? All three are possible—but each has a different impact on both the role a sphinx may play in a campaign and on the mechanics of the sphinxes themselves. Most critically, the rules of the sphinx’s lair action state that the sphinx can shift itself and others to “another plane of existence.” It doesn’t specify which plane of existence or that the sphinx has multiple options. This answer—along with the circumstances under which the sphinx would USE its lair actions—likely depends on its origins. Because again, always remember that just because a sphinx CAN do something doesn’t mean it WILL. A Prophecy sphinx my have the POWER to shift people through time, but it may never use it if it isn’t required. So, let’s briefly consider the theories presented above and the ways these would impact a story.

Time Travelers. One of the core elements of sphinxes as time travelers is the idea that they are a mortal civilization. They are advanced beyond any civilization that exists today, but they are individuals using magical tools to accomplish these things—they are arcane scientists and divine spellcasters, capable of observing the tapestry of time and playing a great game they are playing with it. If this is the case, Flamewind in Sharn may indeed have very specific events she wants to observe and people she wishes to drive down specific paths, but at the end of the day she is a mortal wizard. She may play the role of being enigmatic and all-knowing, but there’s a touch of the Wizard of Oz; she DOES have knowledge of the future and of the potential destiny of the characters, but she’s not in fact infallible, she is playing her own game, and she also enjoys being a little bit of a tourist between those critical events. Should you follow this path, there’s a few points I’d consider.

  • The spellcasting abilities of a sphinx reflect whether they are a divine or arcane spellcaster—essentially, a wizard or a cleric. Under this approach, gynosphinxes and androsphinxes are simply male and female sphinxes, and it should be possible to encounter an androsphinx wizard or a gynosphinx priestess. A key question is what divine power sphinxes serve; personally, I like the idea that they might have a different sort of relationship with the Progenitors than people of the present day.
  • In shifting themselves or others to another plane, I would specifically use XORIAT. We’ve established that Xoriat is the key to time travel, and I’d assert that the time travel techniques being used by the sphinxes are based in this. The sphinxes aren’t creatures OF Xoriat and have no love for the daelkyr; they are scientists who are USING Xoriat. But they can also toss you into it for kicks.
  • The lair abilities of a sphinx are tied to a form of eldritch machine. Most likely this is specifically linked to the sphinx and cannot be used or even understood by any other creature… But it’s POSSIBLE that someone who’s figured out the mystery of the sphinx and has access to their lair could find a way to hack their time machine. A second specific question is where Flamewind has her lair. If the lair is a machine, it’s not likely to be something she could build in Morgrave University. In the novel City of Towers, this is why she deals with the protagonists in the abandoned temple in Malleon’s Gate; she hangs out at Morgrave, but her LAIR is in Malleon’s.
  • The final point is that time-traveling sphinxes are manipulating events, but they don’t have the same sort of agenda as heralds of Prophecy or Archfey emissaries. They aren’t invested in the outcome in the same way as, say, the Lords of Dust or the Chamber. Ultimately, this isn’t their time and the outcome won’t actually AFFECT them; it’s more intriguing than vital. However, divine sphinxes are more likely to be driven by a divine mission, while arcane sphinxes are more likely to be scientists and researchers.

Agents of the Archfey. If Sphinxes are tied to Thelanis, they are a form of fey; it’s up to the DM to decide whether to add the fey subtype or simply to say that you don’t HAVE to be fey to be from Thelanis. Sphinxes would effectively be Greater Fey—not truly immortal, but with a loose relationship to time and reality. A few thoughts about Thelanian sphinxes…

  • The plane they can travel to is Thelanis. Their ability to manipulate time is something that they don’t use with great precision and essentially only use when it serves the story; they aren’t truly time travelers, but they can throw Rip Van Winkle ahead a century when it fits the story.
  • A sphinx will be tied to a specific archfey, and its goals and the role it plays—guarding a location, posing a riddle—are tied to the story of that archfey. A Thelanian sphinx will be bound by fey logic: if it eats anyone who fails to answer its riddle, that’s not a CHOICE, it’s what it HAS TO DO. It MUST follow its role in the story.
  • While they draw on wizard or cleric spell lists, sphinxes aren’t actually clerics or wizards; their spellcasting reflects innate fey powers rather than arcane science.

Incarnations of Prophecy. If they are incarnations of the Prophecy, sphinxes stand sideways to the conflicts of the Lords of Dust and the Chamber. They don’t seek to manipulate the Prophecy: they ARE the Prophecy. While they may not be celestials or fiends, neither are they mortal creatures: they appear when and where they are needed, and likely disappear back into the Prophecy once their purpose has been fulfilled. If you want to explain the curious behavior of Flamewind, one possibility is to say that while a Prophetic sphinx has a limited existence, during the time it does exist it is a conscious entity; that Flamewind has spent eons as a disembodied thread of the Prophecy and is enjoying this incarnate period while she waits for the purpose that has caused her to be made manifest comes to a point. Key points about Prophetic sphinxes…

  • A Prophetic sphinx has no tied to any specific plane; as such, the planes it can access are likely tied to its specific Prophetic role.
  • This likewise ties to its ability to time travel. Essentially, a Prophetic sphinx has no free will. It exists for an absolute purpose. It CAN manipulate time or transport people to the planes, but it won’t and can’t use this power unless it is necessary for the purpose it’s manifested to fulfill. If adventurers must travel to Shavarath, it will transport them to Shavarath. If they must go forward ten years, it will take them forward ten years. But it can’t just decide that it would be INTERESTING to take them forward ten years to see what happens, as a time-traveling sphinx might.
  • The spellcasting abilities of a Prophetic sphinx are an innate part of its purpose and not skills it has learned.
  • The sphinx only exists to fulfill a purpose, guiding or guarding a particular node of the Prophecy. It is quite possible that part of its purpose is to prevent the Lords of Dust, Dragons, or other forces from interfering with that Prophetic lynchpin. But it has no wider goals, and it will discorporate once its purpose is fulfilled.

Essentially, time traveling sphinxes are the most free-spirited and are essentially playing a game with their riddles and challenges, while Prophetic sphinxes are the least free-willed and most bound to an absolute agenda, with Thelanian sphinxes falling in between.

Don’t Time Travelers Break The Game?

The fifth edition sphinx has the ability to travel in time, and to take others with it. From a purely abstract perspective, this throws all sorts of wrenches into a campaign. If adventurers fight a sphinx, why doesn’t it just go back in time and kill their grandparents? If the daelkyr rise, why don’t the adventurers get a sphinx to take them back in time and undo everything?

First of all, that last point is an excellent argument for having that power: it IS an ultimate escape hatch. It means that you CAN put failure on the table. You CAN have have Rak Tulkhesh break its chains and drown the Five Nations in blood, and the only hope is for the adventurers to fight their way to Sharn and convince Flamewind to give them a second chance. From a narrative perspective, that option is a great thing to have. The trick is that it shouldn’t be something that trivializes every defeat… “Oh, Flamewind, I lost at cards last night. Can we redo that?” Which brings up a number of points: when they can travel in time, and when they will travel in time.

First of all: time travel is a LAIR ACTION for a sphinx. You may not meet a sphinx in its lair… and a particularly sphinx might not even HAVE a lair. In Sharn, Flamewind definitely can’t call Morgrave University “her lair.” Presumably, her lair was in the Xen’drik ruins where she was first found. I’ve suggested that she might have built a NEW lair in some abandoned part of Sharn, but it’s equally plausible to say that she just doesn’t have a lair in Sharn; if she wants to help you time travel, you’ll all have to make a trip to Xen’drik (and hope nothing else has taken over her lair!). So keep in mind that when you meet a sphinx guarding a tomb, there’s no rule saying that the tomb is actually its LAIR.

Second: Even if a sphinx COULD solve all your problems with time travel, why would it? The Thelanian sphinx is there to nudge the story in a particular direction, not to completely rewrite it; as said earlier, it’s likely doesn’t have full free access to time travel, and can only actually use the power when it fits the narrative (IE: it can toss Rip Van Winkle forward a hundred years, but it can’t take you back in time to murder King Jarot). The Prophecy sphinx is even more limited, bound by unbreakable bonds of fate to only do the things it’s supposed to do, and taking you back in time isn’t an option. The wild card is the time traveling sphinx, but here’s the catch: it doesn’t care about your problems. From the perspective of the time traveler, it sees the full scope of history, filled with uncountable deaths and tragedies. From your perspective, the release of Rak Tulkhesh is a horrible tragedy that could be stopped and hundreds of thousands of people could be saved. From the time traveler’s perspective, the rise of Rak Tulkhesh and those tragic deaths are just one page in the book of all http://windhampharmacy.com/ history, one filled with countless tragedies and countless deaths; what the time traveler knows is that HISTORY GOES ON, and that in three thousand years these events will only be a memory. The time traveler’s job isn’t to defeat Bel Shalor for Tira Miron; it’s to challenge Tira Miron to realize that she has the power to do it herself. Or they might even just be here to watch! The release of Rak Tulkhesh in 998 YK is a fascinating moment in history and they’re just here to watch it unfold.

The short answer I’d give is that when dealing with a time traveling sphinx, decide EXACTLY WHY IT’S HERE. If it’s a divine sphinx it may have what it believes to be a divine mission. If it’s an arcane sphinx, it may be a tourist here to observe history or it might be playing a game, seeing if it can engineer a very specific outcome. Whatever the goal, nothing else matters to it. Everyone around it is simultaneously already dead and haven’t yet been born. You may want it to solve your problems, but your problems are no more important to it than the problems of every single other tragic person in history, and if it’s not helping them it won’t help you. It’s not here to beat Rak Tulkhesh for you—it’s here to give you the clue or the challenge, and then see if you do succeed… or take notes on exactly how things play out when you fail and then go home to the dawn of time, where that failure is just an entertaining anecdote.

Of course, there’s a third even zanier option to consider, following the model of The Magicians: How do you know that sphinxes HAVEN’T been resetting the timeline? Is it in fact possible that Flamewind is in Sharn to engineer a very specific outcome—and if it somehow fails, she will take the entire city back in time and replay the entire scenario until you dummies get it right? It could be that the adventurers somehow realize that Flamewind has prevented Rak Tulkhesh from being released thirty times already—but again, she can’t solve the problem, she can only pull everyone back a year and hope that this time you’ll figure it out. Or, on a smaller scale, you could have a Groundhog Adventure where each day ends with a second Mourning and the adventurers starting over again… Once again, Flamewind is reseting Sharn each time they fail, but she can’t actually solve the problem for them, because it’s their history. But again, it’s easy enough to say that this is the single reason she’s in Sharn… and once you to get it right, she’ll return to her own time for good.

Essentially, yes, unlimited time travel would cause all sorts of problems. So limit it. Limit what they can do (no lair, no travel; no violating the laws of the Prophecy; etc) and limit what they are willing to do. Your horrific apocalypse is just one page in a very big history book, and for the time tourist it’s a cool event to observe happen, not something they need to fix.

Looking the time travelers from the past, How do they handle and reconcile the fall of their civilization? They can go back to their home at the dawn of time, but eventually that time runs out on their civilization?

Certainly. It’s something we see in various versions of Atlantis. Imagine that they know that their civilization will end in one year. The overlords are going to rise and that is absolutely, 100% inevitable: Krypton WILL explode. They don’t have the resources to project their entire civilization beyond the Age of Demons; they can only support, say, one hundred time travelers. And it may even be that they can only support them for a certain amount of time, that they will eventually be pulled back to the doomed dawn. So those one hundred time travelers are essentially stretching that final year out for as long as possible by dwelling in other times — seeing as much as they can of a future their people will never know, cataloguing the wonders of eternity and doing what they can to be a part of legend—to create stories that WILL be remembered—before they are gone.

On the other hand, if you want a more activist story, consider this: what if the reason the sphinxes are tweaking history and shaping stories is because they are creating a point in the distant future that they CAN move their civilization to? Essentially, it’s an even longer game than the Lords of Dust. Each shift—each hero tested—is shifting the number of a combination lock. At some point they will create the future they are looking for, five thousand years from now, when Sphinx Atlantis can leap forward in time and be saved. So they could, essentially, be from both the past AND the future.

But What About Zenobaal?

Dragons of Eberron presents the idea of Zenobaal, a rogue dragon who refers to itself as “The Prophecy Incarnate”. One aspect of Zenobaal is that he has an alliance with a gynosphinx named Maris-Kossja, and that they have a brood of half-dragon gynosphinx offspring. How does that fit with this idea?

There’s a few factors: first and foremost, this article is based on the fifth edition interpretation of sphinxes, which positions them as being more rare and unique — as opposed to the default 3.5 approach, by which sphinxes are just part of the world. This article notably doesn’t address hieracosphinxes, for example. The second point is that I didn’t create Maris-Kossja or Zenobaal, and this article is based on how *I* use sphinxes — which is more reflected by Flamewind. With that said, I have no issues with Zenobaal, and I think it can work in this interpretation. The simplest approach is to use the time travel idea, because under that concept sphinxes ARE mortal and could have offspring; Maris-Kossja has come from the past or future, is fascinated with Zenobaal, and has chosen to produce offspring with him… creating that rare time when you could encounter multiple sphinxes. That’s pretty straightforward. The more exotic option is to go with the Prophetic Sphinx and say that this is evidence of Zenobaal’s deep ties to the Prophecy. Zenobaal is so bound to the Prophecy that it has literally manifested a mate for him—and that his half-dragon offspring are flesh-and-blood manifestations of the Prophecy.

In general, however, this article is based on the 5E interpretation of sphinxes and will not necessarily apply to all 3.5 uses of sphinxes. You’ll have to decide how to address other contradictions. If you go with time travel sphinxes, and interesting option is to say that criosphinxes and hieracosphinxes are MODERN sphinxes — that they are either the primitive ancestors of or devolved descendants of the time traveling sphinxes.

A warning: I am working on multiple deadlines at this point in time, and will not be answering as many questions on this topic as I often do. Feel free to post questions and thoughts below and to comment on other peoples’ questions; just keep in mind that I may not have time to answer them.

Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters, who chose this topic and the next one in the queue: Avassh, the Twister of Roots!

Dragonmarks: Airships, Expanded

The airship is an iconic element of Eberron. I’ve recently wrapped up a series on Arcane Industry and I’ve discussed Flight in Eberron in a previous article, but I’ve received a lot of questions about airships that aren’t covered in current material and I want to share my thoughts on them. A few disclaimers: this is not a deep mechanical breakdown of all aspects of airships and airship travel, and notably doesn’t delve into airship combat in any way. Likewise, this is quite different that what’s suggested in the 3.5 Explorer’s Handbook, which I didn’t work on. This how I use airships in MY campaign; it’s up to you to decide if you want to use this approach in yours.

THE BASICS

First and foremost, it’s important to understand that airships are a recent development. Lyrandar’s first airships went into service in 990 YK, just eight years before the default starting date. All of this ties to the idea that the science of air travel is very recent and that there’s a lot of room for improvement. From a narrative perspective, we don’t WANT airships to be perfect. We want it to be easy for airships to crash, because adventurers having to escape from crashing airships is an excellent drama. We want them to have limited range so that there are still places you can’t get to easily—that you can’t just fly your airship to Ashtakala. We want them to be largely limited to House Lyrandar because that gives Lyrandar power and adds another source of dramatic tension. So always keep in mind that airships aren’t perfect and that this is intentional. This is the DAWN of air travel; again, Eberron is closer overall to mid-nineteenth century Earth than to twentieth century Earth.

An airship is made using a soarwood hull. Soarwood is effectively weightless, though it’s not lighter than air. So a piece of soarwood will naturally float in the air, but it won’t rise. The crucial point here is that the soarwood hull is weightless… But an airship is more than its hull. Cargo, crew, and the elemental engine all do have weight, and these are sufficient to pull an airship to the ground. It is the elemental engine that provides lift and keeps an airship in the air; if the ring is shut down, an airship will crash.

So what IS the elemental engine? The heart of it is the elemental core, an engraved sphere of brass and mithral with a khyber dragonshard at the center. A raw elemental is bound to this dragonshard—”raw” in the sense of “general elemental, not an anthropomorphic entity like an efreeti or azer. The elemental is absolutely anchored to the core and can’t be easily released; what the engine does is to pull it out from the core, stretching it out across the ship’s systems and the ring. This doesn’t release the elemental; it’s still anchored to the khyber shard, and if the engine is fully shut down, the elemental snaps back into the core.

Mark Tedin’s original airship from the 3.5 Eberron Campaign Setting.

AIRSHIP SYSTEMS

The elemental engine provides both lift and motive power. As long as the engine is active, an airship can hover or move forward. But there’s a lot more going on with an airship than just the ring. Here’s a few of the secondary systems that are vital to airship operations.

  • Elemental Veins. The elemental engine uses engraved strips of metal to channel the power of the elemental through the vessel and out to the ring. You can think of these as the veins of the ship, channeling power through its body. In addition to directly connecting the core to the elemental ring, these channel the secondary enchantments of the focusing nodes and the wind wards. There is a great deal of redundancy to the patterns of the veins, so severing a single line will have minimal impact on the ship; it could cause a particular section to lose heat or create a gap in the wards, but it would taken massive damage to cause the ring to break down. The metals used in the veins vary based on the type of elemental involved.
  • Focusing Nodes. These are metal polyhedrons, typically 8 inches in diameter, engraved with engraved with sigils and inlaid with Eberron dragonshards. They’re superficially similar to the conductor stones used in the lightning rail and serve a similar role; they are placed at critical vein junctures and help to draw out and stabilize the power of the core. Focusing nodes also maintain an enchantment that maintains a consistent temperature within the vessel, even at high altitudes that would typically be bitterly cold. As with the veins, the loss of a single node generally isn’t disastrous, but the crew needs to monitor and maintain them.
  • Wind Wards. An airship is an open-deck vessel that moves swiftly through the upper atmosphere. What keeps people from being blown off the deck? How can people breathe at high altitudes? How does an airship handle turbulence? The wind wards are the answer to these questions. An airship is enveloped in a ward that shunts both wind and small objects (such as birds) around the vessel, as well as maintaining air pressure within the wards. The wind wards are also play a role in maneuvering the ship; the ring provides forward thrust, but the envelope of winds helps the vessel turn. While the wards are controlled by the Wheel of Wind and Water, they draw power from the focusing nodes and have their own system of “ward wings” that must be maintained and adjusted by the crew. In the current design, the wind wards suffice only to ensure the safe operations of the vessel and don’t provide any special protection in combat; projectiles can penetrate the wards. However, it’s possible that a future design could strengthen the wind wards to serve as a form of defensive shield.
  • The Wheel of Wind and Water. This is the dragonmark focus item that controls the ship. It has two purposes: it allows the captain to interface with the elemental, helping to calm it and to direct speed and thrust; and it also allows the captain to maintain the wind wards, and use them to direct fine maneuvering.

THIS IS NOT INTENDED TO BE A COMPLETE LIST OF SYSTEMS. Airships are complicated, and a DM can certainly add greater complexity to fit the needs of the system. But this provides a general overview of major systems and things that can go wrong.

WHY LYRANDAR?

The classic airship uses a fire elemental in its ring… so why is the Mark of STORM useful for controlling it? What is it that gives Lyrandar the monopoly on air travel?

The Mark of Storms gives its bearer a general affinity for elemental forces that is enhanced by the wheel of wind and water. However, that’s a secondary aspect. It’s the wind wards that are specifically tied to the Mark of Storm, and every airship relies on these WIND wards, regardless of the form of elemental that provides thrust. As noted above, the wards both protect the ship and its crew and play an important role in maneuvering. An airship without the wind wards would have to operate at lower altitudes and slower speeds, and couldn’t maneuver as effectively as a Lyrandar vessel. The wheel of wind and water serves both purposes: controlling the elemental and drawing on the pilot’s mark to maintain the wind wards.

While a wheel of wind and water typically LOOKS like a classic ship’s wheel, the pilot doesn’t actually steer by turning it; instead, the pilot enters into a trancelike state where they commune with the elemental and wards. It’s not that they issue specific orders to the elemental, it’s that they experience the ship as an extension of their body.

So what happens when a ship loses its Lyrandar pilots? Most people simply can’t interface with a wheel of wind and water, but player characters aren’t most people. Someone with a strong personality and understanding of arcane science could essentially try to hack the system, using their sheer force of will to direct the elemental. Personally, I’d allow a player character who’s proficient with Arcana to bond to the wheel; while it doesn’t follow the normal rules of attunement, this connection does require the pilot to devote one of their attunement slots throughout the process. An unmarked pilot must make make regular control checks; this is performed when they first bond to the wheel, whenever they make a significant change to speed or course, and every hour they remain connected. A control check is a Charisma check with a base difficulty of 12, though the DM can adjust this based on current conditions (it’s more difficult to maintain control in a storm, for example); they could also choose to increase the difficulty each hour, if the goal is to model an emergency situation that can’t be sustained indefinitely. Every time the pilot fails a check, both the pilot and the elemental suffer a level of exhaustion (the effects of elemental exhaustion are described below). An unmarked pilot can’t maintain the wind wards; this forces the vessel to operate at lower altitudes, typically cuts its maximum speed in half, and makes storms and other weather effects considerably more dangerous. A pilot can choose to use Intimidation when making a control check—forcing their will upon the elemental—but if the check fails, the elemental suffers two levels of exhaustion.

A pilot with the Mark of Storm has a far easier time controlling an airship; all of the systems are designed to interface with the marked heir. They only need to make a control check once every four hours. Complex maneuvers or adverse conditions could require a Charisma (Air Vehicles) check, but failure doesn’t impose exhaustion on the pilot, though depending on the conditions calling for the check it could impose elemental exhaustion.

ELEMENTAL EXHAUSTION AND ONGOING COSTS

Elementals bound to airships aren’t entirely aware of their condition. While technically sentient — possessing Intelligence and even language— “raw” elementals are extremely alien beings that don’t perceive reality or the passage of time in the same ways that creatures of the material plane do. More than anything, a raw elemental wants to express its nature. A fire elemental wants to BURN. When an airship is operating at peak efficiency, that’s what the elemental experiences; the fire elemental in the ring doesn’t even realize it IS bound, it just knows that it’s BURNING. The challenge to the pilot is essentially to keep the elemental calm. The more excited it gets, the more energy flows into the systems… and while this might seem like a good thing, it actually runs a risk of overloading the focusing nodes and burning out the elemental engine—initially causing the loss of secondary systems, and eventually causing the elemental ring to collapse and the ship to crash.

The brings us to the ongoing costs of maintaining an airship. Eberron: Rising From The Last War notes that “many powerful tools—such as the lightning rail and elemental airships—require an ongoing expenditure of Eberron dragonshards to maintain their enchantments.” The key phrase there is to maintain their enchantments. Dragonshards don’t function as FUEL for an airship; again, the motive power is provided by the elemental, and that movement doesn’t directly require any expenditure of dragonshards. However, dragonshards must be expended to maintain the elemental engine—both periodic infusions of residuum to the main engine node and replacing focusing nodes that burn out (new shards can be implanted in a burnt-out node, so it’s not that the entire node is disposable). So dragonshards aren’t analagous to gasoline in a car; instead, it’s about adding oil to keep the engine running and replacing fuel. But, the more restless an elemental becomes, the more of a strain it places on these systems. This is measured by the concept of Elemental Exhaustion. With no levels of exhaustion, the ship runs at peak capacity. At six levels of exhaustion, the elemental must be confined to the core, which means the elemental engine (and ring) has to be shut down. The levels in between don’t have the standard effects of exhaustion, but they require an increasing expenditure of residuum to maintain the engine and focusing nodes will burn out; at high levels of exhaustion, it’s likely that sections of the ship will be without heat and it might become impossible to maintain the wind wards. This is a simple system, and if I was planning to make extensive use of it I’d add more concrete details to the consequences of each level—but this is the basic idea.

This brings up two important questions I’ve been asked, Can airships hover? and Why are docking towers so important? Yes, airships can hover. The elemental doesn’t particularly care if it’s moving or standing still as long as it’s generating the ring. Which means hovering places the same strains on the elemental engine as moving—and that a hovering airship is still going to generate elemental exhaustion and consume shards. The most important function of a docking tower is to calm the elemental. Every eight hours spent at a docking tower removes a level of elemental exhaustion, and it’s also possible for an airship to hover indefinitely while connected to a docking tower.

This in turn explains the current limitations of air travel: It’s dangerous to go too far from a docking tower… And currently there AREN’T THAT MANY DOCKING TOWERS; they’re primarily in the big cities. This isn’t something that I particularly want to put strict ranges on, because it’s not entirely reliable (a skilled pilot can keep the ship in the air for a longer period of time) and because it might well vary based on the design of the ship itself; certain ships may be designed to endure longer journeys and higher rates of exhaustion, while a small “commuter” ship might fail with just two levels of exhaustion. Ultimately, the point is that this is a tool that allows the DM to place limits on what a vessel can do. If a group of adventurers hijack an airship and want to fly to Ashtakala the DM can say “This ship won’t make it that far“—perhaps adding “… But that bigger ship over there could!” Though as a second note, I’d think that just being in the Demon Wastes might be something that upsets the elemental and significantly raises the difficulty of control checks. This is something the pilot would definitely notice—the elemental doesn’t want to be here.

UNORTHODOX AIRSHIPS

The standard Lyrandar airship designs are the work of collaboration between Zilargo and the Twelve, specifically House Lyrandar and House Cannith. Zil shipwrights create the hulls (using soarwood from Aerenal) and Zil binders produce the elemental cores, while Cannith artisans install the elemental engine and the veins. It was Cannith and Lyrandar working together who produced the first working wind wards, it is this that currently provides Lyrandar with dominance over the industry. Cannith doesn’t know the secrets of Zil binding, because they aren’t actually involved in the development of the elemental core; and meanwhile, the Zil don’t have the expertise to create the elemental engine or to produce wind wards.

With that said, these airships have been operating for less than a decade and the science is still evolving. Lyrandar and Cannith are continuing to evolve their design, improving speed, maneuverability, and range; they’ve certainly been experimenting on aerial warships as well. On the other side of things, the Arcane Congress and the Zil themselves are exploring other approaches to air travel, building on the principles of the skystaff (broom of flying) or carpet of flying. Currently these are largely limited to small, low-altitude vehicles—like the skystaff—but the work is ongoing. As a DM, if you WANT to introduce an airship that breaks some of the rules described here—notably, an airship that doesn’t require a Lyrandar pilot or that has an indefinite range—go ahead! The main things to think about are HOW it manages to be more efficient than the Lyrnadar vessels and where it came from. Is it a single prototype that can’t be efficiently reproduced? Or are there more of them? In general, House Lyrandar doesn’t care about one-offs; the fact that one group of adventures has a superior airship doesn’t threaten their business. On the other hand, if the adventurers or their patron actually seek to create a fleet of airships that will challenge Lyrandar’s economic monopoly they could have to deal with saboteurs or other troubles. But again, a single group of adventurers with their own unique airship isn’t a problem for Lyrandar.

GENERAL Q&A

What do the of crew an airship do to assist their respective pilot? More specifically, what are the most interesting things you have the crews do in your games?

In my opinion, an airship is just as complicated to run as a sailing vessel. You have to make adjustments to maintain the wind wards. You have to monitor the focusing nodes and adjust less crystals that maintain the ring. The engineer monitors the elemental engine, which includes adding residuum but also just performing minor rituals that keep the systems running. In my games I largely have the crew stay out to the way and do their jobs, because they’re too busy to chat with adventurers. I’ve run a one-shot set on an airship a number of times over the past year, and the main NPC the adventurers encounter is the steward, because it’s his job to deal with them. When there’s a dramatic combat scene, I may call out a number of NPC crew members in the scene who are doing their jobs and note that if these innocents die bad things could happen; if a fireball takes out the guy maintaining the local wind wards, things could get very unstable!

How volatile is an elemental core?

In my opinion, the elemental core itself is quite stable. The elemental CAN’T easily be removed from the core; it’s stretched out of it, but if the engine breaks down, it snaps back into the core; when not engaged, it lies in a dormant state. So more often than not, an elemental core can actually be recovered from a crashed airship. On the other hand, there can be effects that target the core itself. In one adventure I ran, when an airship passed through an airborne Lamannian manifest zone it broke the containment and caused the elemental to burst free (noted as a risk of zones with the Elemental Power trait in Exploring Eberron). In my novella Principles of Fire, terrorists specifically break the containment of one of an airship’s elemental cores (it was a double-ringed ship and the other survived the crash). So GENERALLY the cores are stable, but nothing’s stopping a DM from creating a specific threat that can break one.

What’s the difference between different kinds of elemental rings? Why do some ships have more than one?

In my opinion, different types of elementals should provide different benefits and drawbacks. I don’t have time right now to get into a full breakdown of different airship designs and the specific effects of rings, but my most basic thought is that fire is faster (more FORCE) and air is more maneuverable. Multiple rings can be added for speed, but what we’ve suggested in the past is that they are used by especially large ships—that essentially, one ring is devoted to LIFT and the other to THRUST.

Is there anything you do use from the airship section in Explorer’s Handbook?

I think most of the material in Explorer’s Handbook can overlap with the ideas I present here. The maps are good, the basic concept of the “arcane matrix” is similar to what I do with the elemental veins, and all the rules about shiphandling, manueverability, and such are things I don’t address here that work fine. I use life rings and like the sidebar on “How To Survive A Crashing Airship.” We mainly differ in the idea of elemental consciousness, the process of controlling the elemental, and the ongoing costs of maintaining an airship—along with the idea of the wind wards.

Soarwood isn’t lighter than air? What about the soarwood skiffs from Five Nations?

This is a reference to the following quote…

Karrnathi soldiers stormed the city of Shadukar in 959 YK. The city’s defenders were not expecting a Karrn attack from Cyre, especially one accomplished using soarwood skiffs that could glide across the Brey River.

Five Nations, Page 149

These soarwood skiffs weren’t FLYING vehicles; they were simply so exceptionally light and buoyant that they allowed the invading force to glide across the surface of the river, both more quickly and quietly than traditional boats. But Karrnath does not have a fleet of flying skiffs.

How does this work with the Wind Whisperers, who have stolen airships? If they don’t have docking towers, how can they maintain them?

The Wind Whisperers are a force in the Lhazaar Principalities that include half-elves with the Mark of Shadows. I think they have managed to create a single functional equivalent of a docking tower in their home harbor. But beyond that, I’d assert that they’ve found a way to calm elementals that is different from what the house uses; the most logical answer is that they have a few allies from Lorghalen that worked with them on this. As someone noted on Discord, “one gnome with a flute vs precision Cannith engineering.”

Can a pilot develop a bond or connection with the elemental of their ship?

I think they can, yes. The piloting process I’ve described is essentially a trance where they do connect to the elemental. It’s a little like working with any kind of mount; you can ride a horse without feeling any empathy for it, but you’ll have a better experience if you’re able to establish a connection. I think the best pilots are those who do feel a tie to their elemental companion. Note that this would not satisfy the Power of Purity — as noted in the next question — who would point out that the elemental is still BOUND and has no choice; the fact that the pilot may empathize the elemental with it doesn’t mean they are treating it as an euqal.

What are the moral issues with binding elementals into Khyber dragonshards? How sentient are they?

(Reposted from a previous Dragonmark) There’s no easy answers in Eberron. The elemental binders of Zilargo claim that bound elementals are perfectly content; that elementals don’t experience the passage of time the way humans do. All they wish is to express their elemental nature, and that’s what they do through the binding. The Zil argue that elementals don’t even understand that they ARE bound, and that binding elementals is in fact MORE humane than using beasts of burden. An elemental doesn’t feel hunger, exhaustion, or pain; all a fire elemental wants to do is BURN, and it’s just as content to do that in a ring of fire as it is in Fernia.

On the other hand, an Ashbound druid will tell you that this is a fundamental disruption of the natural order. And any random person might say “When a bound elemental is released, it usually goes on a rampage. That means it was unhappy, right?”

Maybe… or maybe not. In my opinion, the “raw” elementals — the “fire elemental” as opposed to the more anthropomorphic salamander, efreeti, or azer — are extremely alien. They don’t experience existence in the same way as creatures of the material plane. They are immortals who exist almost entirely in the moment, making no plans for the future or worrying about the past. My views are pretty close to the description from the 5E Monster Manual: “A wild spirit of elemental force has no desire except to course through the element of its native plane… these elemental spirits have no society or culture, and little sense of being.”

When the fire elemental is released, it usually WILL go on a rampage. Because what it wants more than anything is to burn and to be surrounded by fire… so it will attempt to CREATE as much fire as possible. If it burns your house down, there’s no malice involved; it literally doesn’t understand the concept of a house, or for that matter the concept of YOU.  In my short story “Principles of Fire” one of the characters interrogates a bound air elemental; he advises a colleague that the elemental doesn’t really understand its surroundings, and sees humans as, essentially, blobs of water.

So: there’s no absolute answer. Some people are certain that the elementals are entirely happy, and others are certain that it’s a barbaric and inhumane practice. What I can say is that MOST of the people in the Five Nations don’t think about it at all; to them, it’s no different from yoking an ox or using a bonfire to cook dinner. If you want to create a story based on a radical group that has proof that bound elementals are suffering, create that story. But the default is that there are extreme views on both sides, but that the majority of people just ride the airship without giving a thought to whether the ring has been unjustly imprisoned.

Follow-Up: A question was posed about how this relates to the Power of Purity, a group of Zil binders that seek to understand elementals and to work more closely with them. This still works with what I’ve described here. Elementals ARE sentient. It is possible to communicate with them. They simply are sentient in a very alien way. They have language, but that doesn’t mean they think like we do. In my vision, “raw” elementals generally don’t speak with one another; the elemental languages represent the ability to interface with the elemental and to draw its attention in a way that usually doesn’t happen. An airship pilot needs to interface with and guide an elemental, and a Purity binder does this as well. Most binders DISMISS the need to understand the elemental consciousness; Purity binders feel that truly understanding elementals is the secret to vastly better results. And if you want someone to suddenly reveal that elementals are being tortured and to upset the industry, the Power of Purity would be a good place to start.

That’s all for now! Thanks again to my Patreon supporters for making articles like this possible!

Dragonmarks: Powerful Characters and Campaigns

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 ideaI’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.

Recurring Characters

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!

Dragonmark: Flight in Eberron

My Patreon supporters have chosen Arcane Science and Industry as the topic of the month. I’ll be writing a more extensive article on the topic later in the month, but now I want to address questions on a related topic: The role of flight. Before I go any further, I’ll note that you can find more of my thoughts on airships in this article, and that the 3.5 sourcebook Explorer’s Handbook is the primary canonical source. With that said…

Outside of the skycoaches of Sharn, how prevalent are airships in the other nations? Were they used in the last war? Are there nations with growing fleets of them? Do the goblins of Darguun have any?

One of the basic principles of Eberron is that arcane magic is a form of science, and that like any science, it evolves as people unlock its secrets. The idea was always that there should be a sense of evolution. In particular, the Last War drove a number of arcane breakthroughs: warforged, wandslingers, and airships. According to the timeline in the original Eberron Campaign Setting, the first airships went into service for House Lyrandar in 990 YK—less than ten years ago. In addition, Lyrandar airships are the only form of airship currently in mass production and they require a Lyrandar pilot to reliably control the elemental. The point of this is that air travel is a very recent development and it is dominated by House Lyrandar. So at the moment, NATIONS don’t have significant numbers of airships; LYRANDAR has them, and even it doesn’t have very many. Only major cities have the docking towers required by Lyrandar airships; combined with the relatively small fleet, this is why airships haven’t completely overshadowed the lightning rail.

It’s quite possible that the King’s Citadel of Breland has an airship produced in secret and piloted by a Lyrandar excoriate, or that Aundair has been working on an airship that doesn’t require a Lyrandar pilot. But no nation has fleets of airships, definitely not the Darguuls. Likewise, there were a few Lyrandar airships that were designed for military service—the Stormships”—but they played a very small role in the war, appearing only at the very end of it.

So the science behind the airship has been established, and from this point going forward airships will play an increasingly significant role. But for now they are still few in number and rely on House Lyrandar… and House Lyrandar would like to keep it that way. The point is that ongoing developments with airships can be an important plot point of a campaign. IF the Darguuls somehow start producing a fleet of airships, that would be a major mystery—how are they doing it? What do they plan to do with them?—that could be an important plot point.

As the skycoaches of Sharn were mentioned, it’s important to remember that skycoaches are nearly unique to Sharn; they rely on the magical effects of the manifest zone surrounding Sharn, and will crash if they’re taken more than a few miles from the city. You could find skycoaches in other cities in similar manifest zones, but you couldn’t fly a skycoach between those two points.

With all of that said: airships are a new development. Aerial combat is not. Galifar the Dark—the third ruler of the united Galifar—is said to have created the Race of Eight Winds as a way to test various aerial mounts, and the skyblade tournaments of Sharn likewise are a reflection of a traditional of aerial combat. But this is a tradition of mounted combat—not large vessels such as the modern airship. More on that later.

What sort of flying magical items do you see across Khorvaire? Brooms exist as D&D canon, but it seems like different countries would have different sorts of flying apparatuses.

First, let’s review my previous discussion of the broom of flying.

By the rules of Fifth Edition, a broom of flying is an extremely useful item. It’s an uncommon magic item, putting it within the range of Khorvaire’s wide magic. Unlike wings of flying, there’s no time limit on the use of the item, and critically, it doesn’t even require attunement. What’s been suggested is that Aundair used these for elite units and that other nations developed them in smaller quantities—so they aren’t commonplace in civilian life, but they are in the world.

With this in mind, the first question I’d ask is are they brooms? While the core magic item is a broom, I see no logical reason that they should be actual brooms in Eberron; remove the mythology of Earth and there’s no particular reason a broom is associated with flight. So I’d actually call them skystaffs. Keep the same essential shape—a short wooden haft—but remove the bristles, add a seat, and perhaps handles that fold out from the shaft. Essentially, make it a tool clearly designed for its function as opposed to a household item that does something unexpected. I’d then say that while anyone can use one, they require Dexterity checks for tight maneuvers or sustained balance at full speed, unless the rider has proficiency in air vehicles—so anyone CAN use one, but it requires some training to actually use one effectively. As a final element, I’d say that a skystaff is made using soarwood, which is a crucial factor in why there aren’t more of them in service at the moment. The enchantment isn’t that difficult—again, “uncommon” level in terms of its power—but the actual components required to create one are in limited supply, so there aren’t that many around. Having said that, they are most often seen in Aundair, and you’ll certainly see a few in the skies above Fairhaven or darting around Arcanix.

This further reflects the idea that Aundair is the most mystically advanced nation. The aerial cavalry of the Five Nations has relied on hippogriffs for centuries; Aundair’s introduction of the skystaff was an early innovation in the war, and they became more common as the conflict continued. So more on that later, but in my opinion the skystaff was introduced early in the Last War. It predates the airship, but only by a century. The advantages of the skystaff are that it’s very portable. As it doesn’t have to eat or breathe, you can keep a skystaff in a bag of holding indefinitely, making it an excellent tool for covert operatives. But with a top speed of 50 ft, it’s slower than a hippogriff (60 ft) and considerably slower than a pegasus (90 ft).

Another uncommon form of flight is winged boots. In my opinion these predate the skystaff (in Khorvaire) by a few centuries. They were first created in Sharn by artificers experimenting with the property of the manifest zone, and these early models only worked in Sharn. However, by 812 YK an artificer had developed winged boots that could be used beyond the City of Towers. Because the boots are limited to the wearer’s walking speed and can only be used for up to four hours, they are more limited than flying mounts and aren’t widespread. They’re typically found in Breland, as they’re still most often used in Sharn—but all of the spy agencies of Khorvaire make use of them, along with some elite commandos and thieves.

Other magical tools of flight are more exotic. The cloak of the bat and wings of flying are rare items, which means that they CAN be found in the Five Nations but that they’re rare and unusual. A few stories I could see for such items:

  • The Narathun flesh-crafters of the Mror Holds have created a form of wings of flying with the symbiont quality—a living creature that bonds to the body of the wearer. They’ve only produced a few so far.
  • The Seeker spy organization known as the Raven Corps had an elite unit outfitted with cloaks of the bat when they served Karrnath during the Last War. A person attuned to such a cloak must expend 1 hit die after completing long rest, as the cloak drains a bit of their blood.
  • The Church of the Silver Flame has an elite order of templars who wear cloaks of flying that transform into the rainbow wings of a couatl. These are driven by faith as opposed to arcane magic, and only people with great faith in the Flame can attune to them.
  • Druidic magic can create wings of flying that use the principles of wild shape. Rather than being cloaks, these are often torcs or necklaces; the wings sprout from the back of the bearer. There’s a Tairnadal ancestor whose revenants employ such tools, and a unit of the Wardens of the Wood—the Gray Owls—who use these tools.
  • Thelanis can be the source of any sort of flight magic, from wings of flying to winged boots. Each such item has its own unique story. One pair of Thelanian boots might be birds turned into boots, that still sing when they’re happy; another might be a pair of boots without wings, that allow the bearer to walk on sunbeams or shadows.
  • Other forms of flight items could be found that have limitations. House Lyrandar could have cleared a form of wings of flying that harnesses a minor elemental for lift, but that can only be attuned by someone with the Mark of Storm; another cloak might only work in a particular manifest zone, just like the skycoaches of Sharn.

The main point is that these items are rare and unusual but can be found in the Five Nations, and there were a few elite units in the Last War that employed them.

As very rare items, carpets of flying are not commonly found in the Five Nations. When encountered, these may be the product of more advanced civilizations (Aerenal, Argonnessen, the Lords of Dust), or be extraplanar in origin (Syrania, Thelanis).

Keep in mind also that feather tokens are actually common items. Paratroopers weren’t that common for most of the war because hippogriffs can’t carry many people. But Thrane certainly delivered paratroopers by wyvern, and later in the war airships could carry paratroopers with feather tokens.

What sort of air forces did each nation deploy during the Last War?

At the beginning of the war, the standard aerial cavalry of Galifar was the hippogriff rider. There were a few other forces based on local traditions, notably the dragonhawks of Aundair and the wyverns of Thrane, but the hippogriff was the mainstay of aerial combat. Such hippogriffs were primarily used as scouts and skirmishers, and there had never been an effort to field a mass aerial force. Each nation followed different paths during the war.

Aundair had three distinctive elements: dragonhawks, skystaffs, and floating citadels. 

  • Aundair developed skystaffs at the start of the Last War. While other nations replicated them over the course of the war, Aundair has always had the most significant number of them. The skystaff has the advantage of not being alive, thus removing the complications associated with maintaining a living mount.
  • The dragonhawk is the symbol of Aundair. Larger, faster, and more powerful than hippogriffs, the primary limitation of the dragonhawks is their slow rate of reproduction. However, Aundair employed them to great effect during the Last War, and their dragonhawk cavalry played a key role in defending the nation from Thrane’s wyverns.
  • Aundair has a few floating towers. The best known of these is Arcanix—though what can easily be forgotten is that Arcanix isn’t ONE floating tower, it’s FOUR. As discussed in this article, the reason you don’t see many of these towers is that the effect is unstable and requires considerable ongoing arcane maintenance—which is easy to do when you stock the citadel with the finest wizards in your nation, as is the case with Arcanix. But the Arcane Congress does have a few other floating towers. While the towers float, they don’t MOVE under their own power; moving them during the Last War required massive teams of dragonhawks.

Breland always had the best hippogriff riders. Due to the Race of Eight Winds and the popularity of skyblades, Breland had the strongest tradition of hippogriff riding and many of the riders in the army of Galifar were Brelish. As such, while Breland’s air force lacked the raw power of Aundair’s dragonhawks and Thrane’s wyverns, its hippogriff forces were known for their daring and their skill. Late in the war, Breland employed a few of House Lyrandar’s stormships.

Cyre was relatively weak in the air. It had a small corps of hippogriff riders, and encouraged House Cannith to work on flying constructs, few of which made it beyond the prototype stage. It largely relied on siege staffs and long rods to deal with enemy fliers.

Karrnath had the weakest air force throughout the war. It relied on its strong evokers to blast enemy fliers, and relied on its dominance on the ground. The Blood of Vol experimented with undead flying units; while dramatic, these were never produced in large numbers. As a result, many of Thrane’s greatest victories involved air superiority, and Korth still bears the scars of Thrane’s aerial bombardment.

Thrane has a strong, versatile air force tied to a number of elements.

  • Wyverns are to Thrane as dragonhawks are to Aundair. For tens of thousands of years, the cliffs around Flamekeep have been home to wyverns. The least of these are typical wyverns as presented in the 5E Monster Manual… generally Large in size and incapable of speech. But there is an exceptional strain of wyverns—typically known as elder wyverns, regardless of their age—that are both more intelligent than their cousins and grow to far greater sizes; as presented in the 3.5 Monster Manual, these wyverns can grow to Gargantuan size. While they are on average less intelligent than humans, elder wyverns are capable of speech. The early settlers of Daskara made peace with the elder wyverns and the rulers of Daskara always had wyvern “advisors.” During the Year of Blood and Fire the wyverns were also threatened by the forces of Bel Shalor, and Tira Miron rallied the elders to her cause; the wyvern Ashtarax carried her in her final confrontation with the forces of Bel Shalor. Following Tira’s sacrifice, the wyverns themselves adopted the faith of the Silver Flame; they consider the defense of Flamekeep to be a sacred duty. The wyverns have relatively little concept of the wider Five Nations and don’t care to know; they serve the church because they believe it serves the Voice of the Flame, and they say that Tira continues to guide them. So, Thrane can field lesser wyverns in battle, but it is the gargantuan elders who spread terror. An elder wyvern can can carry a crew into battle, and early in the war Thrane pioneered new techniques of aerial combat; their trademark was the use of vast bags of holding to drop massive rocks and divinely-infused explosives on their enemies. While the great wyverns lack the powers of dragons, some of the elders have such deep faith that they can channel the power of the Silver Flame; a wyvern might strike at enemies with sacred flame, or even greater powers.
  • Angels are templars equipped with wings of flying. This version of this rare item is created through a ritual that draws on the faith of the bearer; only the most devout templars can become angels, and typically the item will lose its power when the character attuned to it dies. These wings typically appear to be the rainbow wings of a couatl. Because of these elite templars, Thrane was often believed to have recruited actual angels to fight for them. While Thrane did occasionally deploy celestials formed from the Flame, the majority of its winged warriors were these mortal templars.

Thrane also employed a corps of hippogriff riders. Often a few hippogriffs would be harnessed to the back of a gargantuan wyvern, released to engage any flying enemies that sought to interfere with bombardment.

How common is/was technological powered flight (blimps, dirigibles, or balloons) in Eberron?

None have ever been mentioned in canon that I’m aware of. If I were to introduce some, I’d consider a magical aspect: a dirigible filled with Thelanian clouds, or an alternative form of elemental binding using a harnessed air elemental, which sacrifices speed but doesn’t need a Lyrandar pilot. I might also consider giving dirigibles to the Dhakaani (perhaps created by the Kech Aar’ar, the Keepers of the Air) as another way to show the Dhakanni pursuing a different path than the arcane science of the Five Nations.

How does House Vadalis relate to dragonhawks and wyverns?

House Vadalis is the primary breeder and trainer of hippogriffs. It supplied Galifar with these mounts and continued to breed hippogriffs for all nations during the war. Other creatures are bred and magebred to serve regional markets. For example, the bear is to Breland as the dragonhawk is to Aundair; so in BRELAND, House Vadalis has long worked to build a better bear, with results seen in the magebred bears unleashed on the battlefields of the Five Nations. It is also the case that Vadalis has long worked with creatures that are actually intelligent, as pegasi and the giant owls of Sharn. Such creatures are actually treated as members of the house. They are raised and trained by Vadalis, and Vadalis doesn’t SELL them; it temporarily places them, and the mounts have to agree to the service.

So that’s background: Vadalis has certain beasts and creatures that it supplies to all of the Five Nations, and others that are regional specialties. Vadalis does breed dragonhawks in Aundair, but it is not involved with the wyverns of Thrane—although it does provide Thrane with hippogriffs.

As an interesting side note, the 3.5 sourcebook Five Nations calls out that in the wake of the Eldeen secession, druids in the Reaches have awakened a number of dragonhawks and sent them east, where they may be a fifth column that can disrupt Aundair’s air forces.

What about griffons?

Griffons reflect the challenge of changing systems. In 3.5, the griffon (flight speed 80) was considerably slower than the hippogriff (flight speed 100). In fifth edition that is reversed; the griffon is both stronger AND faster than the hippogriff. With this in mind, I would consider griffons to be used by most nations as an alternative to Aundair’s dragonhawks. However, I would maintain that the griffon is more difficult to control and requires more maintenance—so hippogriffs remain the common aerial mount, with griffons as heavy support.

With the changes in Fifth Edition, how does the Hippogriff fare in the Race of Eight Winds?

Traditionally, the Hippogriff and the Pegasus are the top competitors in the Race of Eight Winds. The Pegasus remains at the top. With the hippogriff’s dramatic reduction in speed in fifth edition, the question is: do you change the lore to match the mechanics, or do you change the mechanics to match the lore? Personally, I’m going to do the latter and say that while wild hippogriffs have a speed of 60 feet, the magebred hippogriffs of House Vadalis have an air speed of 80 feet—call them zephyr hippogriffs. They are no longer FASTER than the Griffon, but the fact of the matter is that the Griffon is still usually more interested in taking down other competitors than in WINNING the Race, so the Hippogriff usually comes out ahead.

What about Aerenal? It’s the source of soarwood—does it use it for flight?

Yes. Aerenal is the source of soarwood, and it’s also significantly more mystically advanced than the Five Nations. I mentioned that Aerenal is a possible source of carpets of flying; those might be woven in part from fibers from the soarwood trees, and there might be massive carpets used as a form of transit. Brooms of flying are more common in Aerenal than even in Aundair. Here again, I’d make them skystaffs rather than BROOMS, but as is typical of Aerenal I wouldn’t see them as uniform in design and mass produced. Instead, I’d imagine them as being sort of like hobby-horses, with fanciful designs; one might have the carved head of a dragon, other the head of an eagle, with similar engraving along the shaft and a seat designed to resemble the creature’s wings. Despite all of that, we’ve never mentioned the Aereni as using airships or elemental binding, and I don’t think they do.

That’s all for now. Feel free to ask questions, but understand that I may not have time to answer them. In other developments, my latest D&D supplement Eberron Confidential is available now on the DM’s Guild, I’m continuing to work with my Patreon supporters to develop my Threshold campaign, and this Friday (November 20th) at 6 PM Pacific time I’ll be playing my new Adventure Zone game with Griffin McElroy, Laser Malena-Webber and Damion Poitier on my Twitch channel! Thanks for your support!

Ghost Stories of Eberron

What are the stories that the people of the Five Nations tell during the nights of Long Shadows? Who are the equivalents of Dracula or Strahd, infamous undead whose tales are told across Khorvaire?

In looking to the bogeymen of Eberron, an immediate answer is the Daughters of Sora Kell. Consider the following exchange from the novel The Queen of Stone:

“It was Zarantyr of 972 when she came to our gate. She was a refugee. She told us that her husband and children had been killed by trolls. I’ll never forget her: Tall and thin, hair as black as a crow’s wing and just as ragged, surrounding her like a shroud woven from the night itself. I could see that her skin was flawless beneath the dirt, and her eyes were as dark as her hair.

“But it was her spirit that impressed me the most—the determination that had carried her out this far from Sharn and Wroat, the courage that kept her going after her family was destroyed. She said she was hungry, and asked if she could stay the night beneath our roof before continuing east. The commander agreed. But I didn’t stay for the evening meal. Cainan and I were sent on a scouting mission, to search for our lady’s village and to track the aggressive trolls.”

“And what did you find?” Thorn said.

Beren studied the cold fire dancing along his enchanted torch. “There was no trail to follow. It was Zarantyr, and it had snowed the day before, but there were no tracks save ours… and the snow was stained with blood. Yet there were no signs of struggle. No smashed doors, no burned buildings. Just the bones of twelve settlers, picked perfectly clean and stacked neatly by the town well. Every bone… except for the skulls. Those were nowhere to be found.”

“And the woman?”            

“We returned as quickly as we could, but it was past midnight by the time we arrived. I’d called on Dol Arrah, begged the Sovereigns to let that woman be a ghost, a restless spirit who’d simply wanted her remains to be found. But I knew what we were going to find. We’d left thirty people in that fort, veteran soldiers among them. All that awaited us on our return was bones, picked clean and stacked on the table in the great hall. The skulls were gone. She’d told us the truth: She was hungry.”

This is a story of Sora Maenya. Another section of the book relays a shorter tale about her:

Maenya eats the flesh and drinks the blood, but she saves the soul, binding it forever to the bones of her victim. She sleeps on a bed made from the skulls of children, and their ghostly cries ring through the cavern, now and through the end of time…

Sora Katra is less of a brute, but also the subject of terrifying stories. Typically her tales involve the deadly consequences of making foolish bargains or trying to outwit her. But it’s often said that she weaves curses on her loom, and that she can see the moment of your death when she looks at you—“See it, or set it in stone.”

So the Daughters of Sora Kell are certainly the subject of scary stories and campfire tales. But they aren’t ghost stories. In this article I want to look specifically at the undead. Because of the limits of time and space, I am not going to actually write full stories about these figures, as we have with Sora Maenya; but I want to take a look at some of the major types of undead, with infamous example of each.

The Reality of Undead

One of the first things to keep in mind is that Eberron is not our world. It is a world in which the undead are an absolute, concrete fact. Karrnath fielded LEGIONS of the dead during the Last War. Ghouls are a public menace. There are concrete examples of villages that have been destroyed by wights. This is an important aspect of the Church of the Silver Flame; while it is a religion, it’s also very much a volunteer militia prepared to protect the innocent against the undead and other unnatural threats. Because of the efforts of the templars and the paladins of Dol Arrah, most people hope that they never will be menaced by undead. Most people haven’t actually ever seen a vampire, let alone a lich. But they still know that these things are real—and if someone says a place is haunted, people will take it seriously.

A second thing to keep in mind is the two most common sources of undead: manifest zones related to Dolurrh or Mabar. Exploring Eberron has this to say…

Manifest zones tied to Dolurrh… are still close to the Realm of the Dead and exceptionally haunted, though not blighted, as Mabaran zones typically are. Shadows move in disturbing ways, and travelers may hear whispers they can’t quite make out. The restless spirits of Dolurrh yearn to return to the Material Plane, and it’s easier for them to do so in manifest zones. They might manifest as ghosts, or animate the corpses of people buried in the zone, causing them to rise as revenants or zombies.

The key points about Dolurrhi zones and undead is that they don’t share the blighted aspect of Mabaran zones and that Dolurrhi undead aren’t driven to harm the living. Dolurrhi undead are restless, pulled toward Dolurrh and yet somehow kept from it. This can be the classic trope of unfinished business; they can’t rest until they have revenge, or until their fiancee knows the truth, or until their treasure is found. It could be a powerful emotion that keeps them tied to the world. The main thing is that Dolurrhi undead aren’t necessarily hostile or evil, but they also are often incomplete. They don’t possess the full memories or sentience they had in life; they are clinging to one sliver of their life and that utterly defines them. Tied to this is the fact that most Dolurrhi undead don’t realize they’re undead; again, they have a limited form of sentience and can’t necessarily process or retain new information. So the classic ghost-lingering-in-the-house-wanting-the-truth-about-its-murder-to-be-revealed is a Dolurrhi ghost. It doesn’t WANT to hurt anyone (except perhaps the murderer), it’s incapable of making grand schemes, and it has no opinion about, say, the destruction of the Brelish monarchy. It’s defined by the ONE STORY that is holding it from Dolurrh and as soon as that story is resolved it can finally rest. This also ties to a key point in the general discussion of undead: the Aereni believe that Mabaran undead inherently pose a threat to the living. They don’t believe that the same is true of Dolurrhi undead. But the point is that you shouldn’t aspire to become a Dolurrhi undead. A vampire or lich has its full consciousness and memories from its life. A Dolurrhi ghost is just a fragment, trapped between worlds; it’s not a satisfying alternative to life.

As for Mabar, here’s what Exploring Eberron has to say about Mabaran manifest zones…

Mabaran manifest zones are infamous and almost universally shunned, for nearly all are harmful to the flora and fauna of the region. In some zones, life withers and dies. In others, it’s twisted in strange ways; plants may seek the blood of living creatures, or grow unnaturally pale and cold. Rot and decay are often accelerated, and disease can thrive… While Mabaran manifest zones rarely serve as gateways to the plane, they are powerful sources of negative energy and produce undead. Skeletons, zombies, and ghouls can all spontaneously rise in Mabaran manifest zones, and more powerful undead can be created under the proper circumstances.

Mabar is the embodiment of entropy and despair. It seeks to consume light, life, and hope. As such, those undead produced by Mabar are driven to prey on the living. A Dolurrhi zombie may not be hostile, and could just try to complete some lingering task from its life. But barring the influence of some form of necromancer, a zombie spontaneously created by Mabar will be hostile toward living creatures; it can sense their spark of life and mindlessly seeks to extinguish it. Undead raised by necromancers elsewhere won’t automatically have this killer urge, and Seeker communities in Karrnath use zombies and skeletons for manual labor; but those that are spontaneously raised by the power of Mabar are driven by its malevolent hunger.

The major point here is that many ghost stories are likely to be tied to manifest zones to Dolurrh and Mabar. There are definitely other options—independent necromancers, the overlord Katashka—but if you’re looking for an infamously haunted castle, well, perhaps it was unintentionally on a manifest zone tied to Dolurrh. If you consider Pet Semetary where “The ground’s sour” and those buried there return as malevolent undead—that’s a Mabaran manifest zone, for sure.

Why are some undead sensitive to sunlight while others aren’t?

Sunlight is a dilute form of positive energy, and exposure to sunlight can disrupt the negative energy that sustains Mabaran undead. This effect is especially strong in certain undead, especially wraiths and specters (who are essentially pure negative energy) and vampires. Others, like skeletons and zombies, have a weaker connection to Mabar; this is also reflected by the fact that their touch doesn’t drain life energy. Such creatures may not lIKE being exposed to sunlight, but it has no mechanical effect on them. Ghosts typically aren’t actually connected to Mabar.

How does the spell create undead factor into this? Wouldn’t people be used to ghouls?

Create undead is a 6th level spell, which means that it’s beyond the standard limits of everyday life in the Five Nations (under which 1st-3rd level spells are reasonable common and 4th-5th spells are known of but rarely seen). The ability to create ghasts or wights requires an 8th level spell, which is even more rarely seen. So this is not how these creatures are normally encountered in the world.

Skeletons and Zombies

Mindless skeletons and zombies are the workhorses of any necromancer. They CAN be spontaneously animated in Mabaran manifest zones, and such undead are malevolent. However, after a century of war with Karrnath most people are familiar with the concept of skeletons and zombies that are bound to mortal’s will. There’s two factors that a necromancer will have to deal with.

  • Even though people know skeletons and zombies aren’t necessarily dangerous, few commoners LIKE being around them. Outside of Karrnath, many businesses refused to allow such undead on their premises.
  • Most people associate skeletons and zombies with Karrnath. Thus, if the townsfolk suffered at the hands of Karrnath during the Last War, they’ll transfer that aggression to the necromancer.
  • While necromancy isn’t ILLEGAL under the Code of Galifar, grave robbing is. While it’s rarely enacted, an officer of the law could demand that a necromancer present proof of their ownership of the corpses in their entourage. Karrnathi necromancers authorized by the Ministry of the Dead are issued warrants that authorize them to “compel the corpse of any Karrnathi citizen into service” and that will be recognized as legitimate. Likewise, established precedent allows priests of the Blood of Vol to raise the corpses of followers of the faith. But if you kill someone and then raise them as a zombie, the Sharn Watch can prosecute you as a corpse robber; this will usually result in a fine and the confiscation (and destruction) of the zombie.

A typical zombie story is driven by the Dolurrhi zombie, who despite its limited intellect doesn’t realize it’s dead and strives to complete one last task or to reach a loved one. However, there is one popular zombie tale currently in circulation. The Late Count is a comic opera by the bard Kessler; this tale revolves around a Karrnathi count whose servants resurrect him as a zombie, attempting to use the undead noble as a puppet while they have the run of the estate. Thanks to the popularity of The Late Count, zombies currently have some comic appeal in Sharn and Wroat; if a necromancer is accompanied by a single zombie dressed in fancy clothes, they can play it off as a hilarious jest.

Ghouls and Ghasts

The halflings of the Talenta Plains tell the stories of the Hungry Hunter, Oralasca. The greatest hunter of his age, Oralasca swore to eat every creature that he killed. When he was forced to kill another hafling, his oath compelled him to consume his enemy… and he developed an insatiable appetite for halfling flesh. After he slew his own tribe, Orlashka was finally slain. But so great was his hunger that his spirit lingered, slipping into the forms of weaker creatures and trying to work its way up to halfling form. One of the basic Talenta taboos is never consume the flesh of a creature that eats its own kind—because that allows the spirit of Oralasca to pass into you and transform you into a ghoul.

Ghouls are the most commonly encountered undead threat in the Five Nations. They are especially common in Mabaran manifest zones, but they can spontaneously spawn when Mabar is coterminous, when powerful necrotic forces are unleashed, or seemingly, anywhere where large numbers of people die at once; massive battlefields often spawn ghouls prowling among the corpses. While technically sentient, Mabaran ghouls have no memory of their former lives and are driven by their hunger. The Restful Watch and the templars of the Silver Flame both patrol cemeteries and sewers watching for ghouls, and most cities in the Five Nations have a bounty on ghouls, the value of which varies based on the extent of the threat. After skeletons and zombies, ghouls are the easiest undead to create; it’s largely a matter of binding a corpse to Mabar. However, such ghouls are more aggressive than zombies or skeletons, and unless they are directly controlled they will seek to sate their endless hunger. Karrnath experimented with ghoul forces during the Last War, but the resources required to control them were too great; however, on a few occasions they used bags of holding to drop packs of ghouls behind enemy lines, sowing terror among their enemies.

While Mabaran ghouls are savage, there are other strains of ghoul. There are ghouls in the Talenta Plains that inhabit the forms of beasts, and the Talenta say that all of these creatures are guided by the spirit of Orlasca; this can result in surprising cunning and pack tactics, or a pack of ghouls all speaking with one voice (note that Orlasca ghouls speak Halfling, not Common).

Another strain of ghoul can be found among the cults of Katashka the Gatekeeper. These cults revolve around the idea that the practice of ritual cannibalism will protect the cultists from disease, aging, and death. And it does—but over time, the rituals transform the cultists into ghouls. These ghouls retain their full memories and intellect, but are increasingly consumed and driven by their unnatural appetites. Some of Katashka’s ghouls can maintain their original mortal appearance as long as they are well fed, but if they food supply dwindles, their undead nature becomes increasingly apparent. Such ghouls can potentially form mutually beneficial partnerships with vampires; the vampire needs the blood of the living, and the ghouls consume the flesh that remains.

Ghasts are for the most part old ghouls. The longer a ghoul survives, the deeper the power that animates it sinks into its flesh. Mabaran and Orlasca ghasts have greater intellect than ghouls, and can make more cunning plans. Katashka ghasts retain their mental ability scores from their former life, and also have the ability to control their foul odor; they are typically leaders of ghoul cults.

Wights and Wraiths

The people of the Lhazaar Principalities tell tales of the Ship of Bones, not to mention the haunted vessels of the Bloodsails. But the sailors of Stormreach speak of the Crimson Shadow. It is the name of both a vessel and its captain, a Khoravar pirate with a swift sloop. Rather than taking a vessel in open conflict, the Crimson Shadow would approach a target under cover of darkness. In some tales the Shadow had a crew of swift and silent killers, but most say that the Crimson Shadow would board an enemy vessel on her own and kill its entire crew—taking its most precious cargo aboard her sloop, and abandoning the vessel to drift lifeless. The Crimson Shadow was revealed to be Jola Wylkes, daughter of the Harbor Master of Stormreach. Her lineage couldn’t save her, and she was hanged for her crimes. But two months later another ship was found adrift, its crew butchered. The common tale is that the Keeper recognized talent when he saw it—and that he returned the Crimson Shadow to the seas, for as long as she continues to send him new souls and the treasures he desires.

A wight is a mortal that has made a bargain with a dark power after death. Wights were invariably effective killers in their mortal life; some wights are bandits or serial killers, but over the course of the Last War warrior wights rose in every nation. One of the deadliest wights of the last century is Azael Vadallia, a Valenar wight who’s said to be searching for warriors worthy to join his undead warband.

The typical bargain of a wight is simple: you continue to exist as an undead creature as long as you continue to kill. However, different wights operate under different restrictions, and their powers may vary as a result. The default wight of the Monster Manual reflects a typical warrior or bandit. However, wights retain much of their memories and skills from life, and can be considerably more dangerous. According to the Monster Manual, a wight raises its victims as zombies, and is limited to twelve of them. But historically, Malleon the Reaver is said to have led an army of thousands when he rose as a wight. And Azael Vadallia has only raised a few of his victims, but the members of his warband are also wights, not zombies.

In common folklore, wights are thought to make their bargains with the Keeper. However, most wights actually forge their pacts with the Bone King of Mabar, one of the Dark Powers of the Endless Night. Some wights remain continuously active, but most wights go through periods of torpor that can last for years or decades; during this time, the wight’s body appears to be a corpse, while its spirit resides in the Kingdom of Bones in Mabar. This often leads to wights being dismissed as folktales, because the wight can disappear for a generation before returning to kill again. When the wight is finally destroyed, its spirit remains in the Kingdom of Bones; an exceptionally strong-willed wight may eventually return as a wraith.

One question is what fate befalls those killed by a wight. If the victim is merely allowed to die, its soul travels to Dolurrh. But if the victim’s corpse is raised by the wight, the victim’s soul may be claimed by the wight’s patron—bound in miserable service in the Kingdom of Bones, or perhaps trapped in the Lair of the Keeper. If a DM chooses to enact this rule, then the only way to raise such a victim from the dead is to free its spirit from this bondage.

The defining feature of a wight is that it was a killer in life and continues to kill in undeath. While many wights were soldiers or bandits, a wight could have been a serial killer, a pirate, an assassin—anyone whose achievements draw the attention of a dark power and is willing to bargain with it. It’s possible that there could be a templar wight who is determined to pay its tithe to its patron with the blood of evildoers, but the wight is suffused with the essence of Mabar and bound to its Dark Power, and this tends to erode any compassion or empathy the victim once had.

Wraiths and Specters

A wraith is a spirit that has become deeply intwined with Mabar and that is unable to ever truly find oblivion in Dolurrh. Wraiths are often the end result of other forms of undead; wights, mummies or vampires whose physical forms degrade or are destroyed may linger as wraiths.

A wraith’s behavior and abilities often depend on its original form. Wraiths formed from mummies continue to be bound by the oaths that hold them on Eberron. Wraiths formed from wights likewise continue to be bound by their pacts with their patron. Such wraiths are generally tied to the Bone King or the Queen of All Tears, and like wights they can be pulled into Mabar for extended periods of time; eventually, most are permanently drawn into the Endless Night. This is the classic source of the wraith who only manifests when its tomb is disturbed; at other times, it dwells in Mabar.

The Bloodsail elves of Farlnen have devised rituals that can transform a mortal creature into a wraith. Such wraiths aren’t bound by the oaths and pacts of wights or mummies, but they this means that they sustain their existence with pure will; essentially, the wraith only endures as long as they can remember who they are, and over time many lose cohesion and fade, becoming specters. Lady Illmarrow knows the techniques to create wraiths, and has created a number to serve her in the Emerald Claw. Many of these lack the will to maintain their existence for decades, but they serve her purposes for now. The most infamous wraith of the Bloodsails is the Grim Lord Varonaen, one of the founders of the principality; though his physical form was destroyed in a clash with the Aereni Deathguard, through sheer will he persists as a wraith.

Specters are a lesser form of wraith. As described in the Monster Manual, “A specter is the angry, unfettered spirit of a humanoid that has been prevented from passing to the afterlife. Specters no longer possess connections to who or what they were, yet are condemned to walk the world forever.” Specters possess traces of memory from their mortal life, but unlike a wraith they don’t possess full consciousness or memory, and lack the skills of their mortal life; they can remember just enough to be tormented by what they’ve lost, and they are drawn to consume the life energy of mortals, destroying what they cannot have. Another form of specter is the never-living; these are pure extensions of Mabar, negative energy shaped into a humanoid form. Mechanically identical to those who were once mortal, such specters have no human memories and seek only to feed. Never-living wraiths can be generated by powerful necromancers, and can be found serving Katashka cults or lingering in the domain of the Keeper.

Ghosts, Banshees, and Dawn Specters

Ghosts are typically tied to Dolurrh, as discussed earlier in this article. In Khorvaire, ghost stories are as plentiful as they are in our world, and tell similar tales; souls trapped between Eberron and Dolurrh, driven to complete their unfinished business or held fast by emotions or memories they can’t let go. While they have at least some of their memories from life, most ghosts aren’t fully aware of their condition or the passage of time, and they generally can’t retain new information. They are a remnant of someone who has died, but existence as a ghost isn’t something most people would aspire to; it’s a half-life. Even where there are unusual ghosts with greater consciousness and awareness, most are bound to something—a location, an object, a bloodline—and they can’t roam freely. Ghosts have no connection to Mabar and no innate desire to harm the living. Some may, especially if they are driven by anger or were hateful in life, but being a ghost is driven by the bond that keeps them from Dolurrh, not be a hunger to harm the living.

The typical banshee is a form of ghost, tied to Dolurrh rather than to Mabar. A banshee is bound to Eberron by an intense tragedy. It’s the pain of this tragedy that drives the banshee to lash out at the living (reflected by its typically evil alignment), and it’s this intense, focused pain that empowers the banshee’s wail; it’s not that it drains the life from its victims, but rather that it inflicts such intense emotional trauma that most creatures die of heart attacks or are rendered catatonic. Like most ghosts, banshees are generally trapped in their tragedy and largely unaware of the passage of time, unable to fully process new things.

Dolurrhi banshees can be formed from humanoids of any species or gender; one of the classic Dhakaani ghost stories is of the dirge singer who will not die. In creating a Dolurrhi banshee, replace Elvish with Languages known in life. However, the Dark Power known as the Queen of All Tears has created a strain of Mabaran banshees specifically drawn from elf woman who have suffered great tragedies. These handmaidens of sorrow have more in common with wraiths than with ghosts. They are typically fully conscious and aware of their surroundings, and they split their time between haunting the place of their sorrow and the Court of Tears in Mabar.

Dawn specters are a variety of ghost commonly found in Aereni; they’re a form of deathless. Dawn specters must be bound to something—either a location or a spirit idol. Beyond this, a dawn specter’s ability to manifest is tied to the devotion it receives from the people of a community. So you might find the dawn specter of a bard entertaining patrons in an Aereni tavern; the joy of the patrons is what allows it to maintain its form and interact with world. A dawn specter uses the stat block of a ghost, with the following changes: it has no immunity to necrotic damage and is immune to radiant damage. Its Radiant Touch is similar to the Withering Touch of the ghost, but deals radiant damage rather than necrotic. Instead of Horrifying Visage, its Glorious Visage charms victims rather than frightening them, and there is no threat of aging. A dawn specter can possess a mortal, just like a ghost; however, most dawn specters can’t go more than 10 miles from the object or location they are bound to, even while possessing a mortal. Some Aereni willingly allow dawn specters to possess them, to allow the dead elf to interact directly with its descendants; however, there are limits on how long the spirit can maintain such possession.

Vampires

Surely you’ve heard of Haldon d’Cannith, the Vampire Prince of Starilaskur? When he took over the post of Cannith viceroy, he began running his factories at all hours to meet the demands of the war. He chained his workers to their stations, and those who challenged him were publicly tortured… and he drank the blood from their wounds. The common folk begged the duke for aid, but he was deeply Haldon’s thrall and turned a deaf ear to their cries. Later, Haldon began using prisoners of war in his factories, and that was when he truly began working his people to death… and who cared what became of their corpses and their delicious blood? Here we are sixty years later, and Haldon is still viceroy. He can’t use prison labor any more, but I hear he’s taken on Cyran refugees…

While most people have never seen a vampire, everyone knows about them. As a result, it’s common for people to see vampires where none exist. Is something especially cruel or bloodthirsty? Have they lived longer than seems plausible? Sounds like a vampire to me! Haldon d’Cannith might well be a vampire, who uses his workers to slake his thirst. On the other hand, he could simply be a ruthless industrialist, and all those stories of his imposing a blood tax on his workers are just sensational rumors. If he truly has held his post for sixty years, it could be that he’s been taking experimental alchemical treatments to extend his life… or it’s possible that the current Haldon d’Cannith is the SON of the man who inspired the tales, and the rumor-mongers just ignore that aspect of the story. Essentially, people SAY Haldon is a vampire… only the DM knows if he actually is.

Vampires don’t occur naturally, which is to say that they aren’t generated spontaneously by Mabaran manifest zones. Creating a vampire is an act of epic necromancy that infuses a humanoid creature with the power of Mabar. The first known vampires were created by the Qabalrin elves in the Age of Giants, and the line of Vol resurrected these techniques to create a number of vampire bloodlines on Aerenal. When the Undying Court eradicated the line of Vol, its allies were allowed to flee; some settled on the island of Farlnen and founded the Bloodsail Principality, while others spread west, helped to establish the Blood of Vol in what’s now Karrnath. These elves brought vampires with them, and most vampires in Khorvaire can ultimately trace their bloodlines back to Aerenal. With that said, there were vampires in the line of Vol for tens of thousands of years, and some came to Khorvaire long before the Mark of Death appeared in Aerenal. One of the oldest vampires on Khorvaire is the hobgoblin dirge singer Iraala of the Kech Nasaar, who became a vampire through dealings with the line of Vol before the Empire fell. So it’s possible that a vampire in western Khorvaire could trace their lineage to the Nasaar bloodline—but ultimately, that too leads back to Aerenal.

Once you have one vampire, it’s easy to make more. So why aren’t vampires more common? The primary reason is that it’s not easy being a vampire. A vampire is bound to Mabar, and Mabar is hungry. It is this that fuels a vampire’s thirst for both the blood and life energy of the living. Over time, it becomes increasingly difficult for a vampire not to see all living creatures as prey. A weak-willed vampire will quickly devolve into a feral predator; such creatures use the statistics of vampire spawn, but their Intelligence is more a measure of cunning than of rational thought. It takes strong will to maintain your personality as a vampire, and stronger still to maintain any empathy or compassion for other creatures. This is why vampires are seen as monsters; many do become ghoulish killers that need to be hunted down by templars of the Silver Flame, the knights of Dol Arrah, or the Aereni Deathguard. This is an additional reason most vampires don’t make legions of spawn; all it takes is one spawn going feral and drawing templars to town to lead to a deep purge. Undead have no rights under the Code of Galifar, and destroying a vampire isn’t considered murder; you’d just better be sure your target is a vampire before you kill the mayor.

The Qabalrin are the common source of vampires, but there are other paths…

  • The Bone King of Mabar can transform a mortal into a vampire. Such vampires cannot spawn other vampires; most instead transform victims into ghouls. When they are destroyed their spirits are drawn to the domain of the Bone King, where the exist as wraiths.
  • There are a few examples of devotees of the Keeper becoming vampires. Such vampires cannot create spawn at all. Their hunger is a manifestation of the greed of the Keeper, and the souls of creatures they slay may be bound, similar to the effect of a Keeper’s fang.

At the DM’s discretion, these three strains—Bone King, Keeper, Qabalrin—could have different weaknesses. For example, it could be that the vampires of the Bone King aren’t harmed by running water, but are vulnerable to fire; while it may be that the Qabalrin vampires don’t require permission to enter a dwelling, but also can’t assume bat form or control bats. I’m not personally going to assign these things, in my opinion it’s best for the DM to decide and for players do have to discover these using the Arcana or Religion skills of their characters. But it’s definitely reasonable to say that there are unique aspects to different bloodlines, and that things that are commonly accepted as weaknesses may not apply to all vampires—though if I remove a weakness, I’d be sure to add a new one.

Other forms of vampire—such as the penanggalan—are tied to rituals developed by different cultures, and simply aren’t as widespread as the Qabalrin techniques. In adding such variant vampires, consider the source. Are they tied to an overlord, like Katashka the Gatekeeper? Were they created by one of the princes of Ohr Kaluun?

Mummies

Most people are familiar with the concept of undead guardians bound to protect tombs or temples. The people of Karrnath have more practical experience with these oathbound, as they are the most common form of sentient undead associated with the Blood of Vol; the Crimson Monastery of Atur has been staffed with mummies since before the founding of Galifar. While they may be the most common form of undead, they still aren’t COMMON and even most Karrns have never met one; they just are familiar with the concept of oathbound, and know that they’re generally guardians as opposed to ravening monsters.

Mummies are discussed in more detail in this article. Many different cultures and traditions have produced mummies, and like vampires their abilities could vary based on the culture that produced them and the oaths that bind them to undeath.

Liches

Lady Illmarrow is older than bones. Some say she came to Khorvaire with the elves, but the way I’ve heard it, she was a queen of the Forgotten People, the humans who ruled this land before there ever were goblins or orcs. She’s forgotten more about magic than the wizards of Arcanix have ever learned. People say she weaves a grand tapestry made from souls—that when she’s quiet, it’s because she’s got all she needs to keep her busy, but when she runs out of thread it’s time to harvest more. It was Lady Illmarrow who set the Talons of Ice ravaging the north during the reign of Marala ir’Wynarn, and she’s made the boneclaw wyverns that nest in the Icewood. What’s that? Why hasn’t some bold hero faced this villain? Oh, many have, and many are frozen into the walls of her palace. Haryn Stormblade surely did slay Lady Illmarrow, and brought her crown to his king. But you can’t kill a thing that’s already dead, and it was Illmarrow that created the shadow plague that killed the king—and it was her shadow that reclaimed her crown. Illmarrow can’t die, and if she’s stirring again, all we can hope is to wait it out.

Common folk aren’t familiar with the specific abilities of the lich, but people understand the basic concept of ancient undead wizard who can’t die. With that said, liches are among the rarest of all undead, rivaled only by death knights. Setting aside the notable example of Minara Vol and Lady Illmarrow—which is an extremely unusual situation involving one of the greatest necromancers of the last 20,000 years—the idea is that a necromancer can’t make you into a lich: YOU have to perform the ritual yourself, and it requires both tremendous will and a deep understanding of necromancy and arcane science. This is why all liches are powerful spellcasters: because you have to be a powerful spellcaster to become a lich. And even more so than a vampire, becoming a lich requires the most iron will imaginable: not merely mystical knowledge, but an absolute will not to die, defying the pull of Dolurrh with your sheer conviction. The oldest member of the Crimson Covenant, Duran, began as a lich and has become a demilich over time. But he can’t just make other Seekers into liches; he can teach the rituals, but the aspirant has to be able to perform them.

The default lich in the Monster Manual is presented as an arcane spellcaster, but there is certainly a divine path to lichdom. The people of the north know about Lady Illmarrow, but the Brelish tell stories of Gath. In life, Hogar Gath was the high priest of the Sovereign Host, infamous for his love of luxuries. After his death it was revealed that Gath had also been leading a cult of the Keeper in lower Sharn… and that he was still leading it. Champions of the Silver Flame rallied and destroyed the undead priest. But thieves who sought to pillage his “mausoleum”—effectively a mansion he’d built in Sharn’s City of the Dead—rarely returned. Typically this was attributed to the deadly wards and traps, the finest and most expensive House Kundarak could survive. But stories circulated that Gath himself had risen again, and still dwelled in the mausoleum. This was a pattern that would continue for centuries. Once he was revealed to be behind a new criminal organization that was challenging the Boromar Clan. Another time he was exposed as the force behind a smuggling ring being run out of the Pavilion of the Host itself. Sometimes he’s destroyed, sometimes he flees; whatever happens, he always returns eventually.

The typical lich must be a master of arcane science, and most are consumed by their obsession with eldritch knowledge. Divine liches are rarer and more unique. Gath didn’t become a lich by accident. He prepared for it, which is one reason his mausoleum was so richly appointed and heavily secured. And those preparations required him to perform sacrifices that were both horrific and expensive. His love of luxuries is just a surface manifestation of his absolute and relentless GREED—which is ultimately what makes him such an effective servant of the Keeper. Where the arcane lich is sustained by will, in many ways Gath is sustained by that greed—by the desire to expand his hoard, to have the finest things; in many ways, he is more akin to the classic dragon than any dragon of Argonnessen. He doesn’t care about conquest and has no inherent desire to kill others: but he will do ANYTHING to satisfy his greed, and he will NEVER be satisfied with what he has. He does also continue to serve as a talon of the Keeper, training new priests and serving as an intermediary for those who would bargain with the Sovereign of Death and Decay. And adventurers could be surprised to find that the mysterious patron who funded their expedition wants them to deliver the treasure they recovered to the City of the Dead. He is absolutely EVIL, but his schemes are always driven by greed, and might not actually pose a threat to the world at large… and he can pay his agents VERY well. Gath uses the stat block of a lich, but his spells should be chosen from the cleric spell list (along with those spells available to the Trickery domain).

Death Knights

The Nightwood didn’t always stretch as far north as it does today. Back before Galifar, it was the domain of a family long devoted to the Blood of Vol. The rulers, they were champions of the Blood of Vol, and those around ’em didn’t think much of that. But the lord and lady, they were unmatched on the battlefield. Came a time that they were fighting a plague of warlocks, foul cultists sworn to the Queen of Shadows. The lady, she cuts her way through them, but the last one speaks with the voice of the Queen and curses her: if she says even one word, her children will die. Now, this victory over the warlocks was a glorious thing, and the lord insists that they have a grand celebration. Warlords come from all about, and in the midst of the feast, the lady sees an assassin drawing a knife by her husband. She’s got time to shout a warning, but she puts her children before her lover and holds her tongue, has to watch him die. It’s a massacre; the lord and lady are killed, the castle razed, the land itself shunned and soon overrun by the Nightwood.

Not an uncommon story in old Karrnath. Except for the fact that over the next year, each of the scheming warlords was slain—and no one ever saw or heard them die, even those just on the other side of a door. There’s them that say that it was the lady, risen to take vengeance, and that she still rules over her ruined castle in the Nightwood. But the curse is still on her, that if she speaks her children—or their descendants now—will die. So you’d best not harm any Seeker child that you meet; if you do, the Silent Knight will come for you. Nothing will stand in her way, and no one will hear you die.

The rarest of all undead, a death knight blends aspects of ghost and wraith. A death knight is forged when someone of deep devotion and martial skill—typically, a paladin—suffers intense tragedy leading to their death. This tragedy typically involves the character breaking their own oaths, blending loss with shame. A death knight can’t rest, in part because they won’t allow themselves to forget their shame. The divine power they once channeled is replaced by the pure power of Mabar. Some find brief solace in taking vengeance on mortal enemies, but largely a death knight spends its time meditating on its pain.

The Silent Knight is one known death knight, and she is a member of the Crimson Covenant of the Blood of Vol. She still acts to protect her descendants, but she’s also believed to have killed descendants who have in her eyes brought shame to their house—perhaps by abandoning the Seeker faith, by becoming a warlock, or by forming a romantic attachment to someone of one of the bloodlines that betrayed her. She does not speak and can extend an aura of magical silence at will, though this silence doesn’t prevent her from casting spells.

Another infamous death knight is Prince Moren of the Lhazaar Principalities. Once a bold swashbuckler and beloved prince, he betrayed his beloved and his treachery resulted in the destruction of his principality. Murdered by his own crew, he now he sails the Lhazaar Sea in a ship of bones, hunting treacherous captains and forcing them to serve his vessel.

That’s all for now! I know that this doesn’t cover every possible type of undead, but I’m afraid I don’t have time to go into further detail; if you’ve done something interesting with other undead in your Eberron, tell the story in the comments!

This topic was chosen by my Patreon backers, whose support makes it possible for me to spend the time it takes to write articles like this. The main topic for November will be determined by a poll on Patreon, which I’ll be posting shortly!

Dragonmarks: Svirfneblin

Gnomes Beyond Zilargo was the topic my Patreon supporters chose in September, and there’s a lingering question: What would you do with the Svirfneblin in Eberron?

In my personal campaign I tend to limit the number of unique species and subspecies in the world. For example, in my campaign, Hill Dwarves, Mountain Dwarves, Ruinbound Dwarves, and Mark of Warding Dwarves are all just “dwarves”—a character from the Mror Holds could use any of those subraces and I’d just describe the character as a “Mror dwarf”, not a “Mountain dwarf.” Essentially, the Mountain Dwarf subrace represents early military training—it’s a secondary background, not a genetic disposition.

So with that in mind, I have a set of questions I ask when adding any exotic race to Eberron: Why do you want to add this race to the world? Is it simply that you want a character that has its mechanical advantages? Could your character be UNIQUE—perhaps a creation of House Vadalis, Mordain the Fleshweaver, or the daelkyr? Or do you want to add the CULTURE to the world—because you specifically want to be part of the society associated with that species?

With that in mind, the next step is to look at the svirfneblin and identify their defining features in Fifth Edition. As a subrace, they don’t actually have a lot of abilities: they have Superior Darkvision, Stone Camouflage, and speak Undercommon. If we look further to the Monster Manual description, Deep Gnomes have innate spellcasting abilities, and can cast nondetection, disguise self, blur, and blindness. This ties to their existing story: they are a society of subterranean gnomes who have close ties to earth elementals and who largely use their magic to avoid contact with outsiders, hiding themselves away. Keeping both sets of abilities in mind, here’s a few ways I might use them in MY Eberron.

The Gnomes of Lorghalen

Earlier I wrote an article about the Gnomes of Lorghalen, presenting them as a reclusive culture with strong ties to elementals. I wouldn’t say that ALL Lorghalen gnomes are svirfneblin; most dwell on the surface of the island and have no use for Superior Darkvision, the Lorghali work with a wide range of elementals, and I don’t see any reason for the Lorghali to be physically distinct from their Zil ancestors. However, I think it’s entirely plausible to say that there are a number of Lorghali families who took up residence in deep caverns below the island—caves with an especially strong tie to Lamannia, specifically the element of earth. It’s this that drew these families down there—it’s much easier to perform earth magic and work with earth elementals in the depths—and that over the course of generations, the energies of the caverns mutated these families, creating the genetically distinct Deep Gnomes. Essentially, it’s a variation of the genasi. I think these Deep Gnomes would be a fully integrated part of Lorghali society, even if they largely chose to remain in their caves; the Lorghali are a close-knit society, and I don’t see the unusual appearance of the svirfneblin being an issue.

If I went with this approach, I would replace Undercommon with Primordial; the Lorghali have no contact with the daelkyr or their followers, while they use Primordial in their dealings with elementals.

Agents of the Trust

The Trust is known for its secrecy. There’s even rumors of “ghost agents” who use rings of invisibility and sustenance to live their lives entirely unknown. What if evidence surfaced that the Trust wasn’t just training and equipping spies, but that they had magebred a subspecies of gnome, born into the service of the Trust and innately imbued with the ability to evade divination? If you don’t wish to hold on to the culture of the Deep Gnomes, this is a story you could explore. Per the Monster Manual, the svirfneblin can cast nondetection at will—an exceptional tool for a spy. And disguise self and blur are both excellent tools for espionage.

There’s two ways to take this. The first is more benevolent—the process of becoming a Deep Gnome is voluntary, and involves both training and alchemical, arcane treatments—more Captain America than Doctor Moreau. If I went this way, then a player character svirfneblin might be an active agent of the Trust: James Jalius Bonde.

A second approach is to emphasize that the process used to create these Deep Agents is horrifying and that they are forced to serve through lifelong indoctrination and psychological conditioning—that the people of Zilargo don’t know about the svirfneblin and would be horrified if they found out. In this case, I’d emphasize that this is the work of a small sub-branch of the Trust—a semi-rogue agency who has hidden their work from the Triumvirate. The reason for this is to emphasize that if a player character is a svirvneblin who’s broken free, that they aren’t being pursued by the entire Trust, which is a crazy burden to place on a PC; rather, they are dealing with a secret agency WITHIN the Trust, which has limited resources. My inspiration here would be the Bourne Identity series—The hero is hunted by Treadstone, not the entire US government. I’d suggest that the player character is presumed dead, and is trying to stay off the grid. With that in mind, I’d actually be willing to give the Svirfneblin Magic feat, but emphasize that they NEED to stay hidden or they will be targeted by assassins. While it’s a powerful ability, there’s a limited number of scenarios that will actually be broken by nondetection, and I think it’s a fun story to explore.

A third possibility would be to make the svirfneblin a society of gnomes WITHIN Zilargo who managed to magebreed themselves to induce the natural nondetection and other talents, as a way to avoid being watched Trust. Essentially, a secret enclave of brilliant alchemist artificers who believe that the Trust is watching EVERYONE with divination magic ALL THE TIME—sort of a tinfoil hat conspiracy taken to an amazing extreme!

Q&A

Would these Eberron deep gnomes still be gray and bald?

The Lorghali deep gnomes would. The idea is that it’s a physical mutation similar to a genasi. In the case of the “Captain America” agent of the Trust or the “Tinfoil Hat” gnome, I’d be inclined to give them the abilities of the deep gnome but not the traditional appearance; in which case Stone Camouflage might be a sort of limited invisibility (given that it works regardless of what the character is wearing, it’s presumable not just based on skin color). With the “Bourne Identity” version of the Trust agent, I personally WOULD keep the gray-and-bald appearance to emphasize how dramatic the experiments were—that they largely DO stay hidden (though again, Svirfneblin Magic gives them limited use of disguise self!). Of course, in that storyline almost no one knows what a deep gnome is; they’d be a curiosity, quite possibly mistaken for some sort of goblin.

Have you used svirfneblin in an Eberron campaign? If so, share your approach in the comments! And if you’ve missed any of the previous gnome articles, check out the Gnomes of Lorghalen and the Gnomes of Pylas Pyrial! And if you want to vote on the topic of the next dragonmark article, check out my Patreon!