IFAQ: Nonbinary Elves and More About Githberron

I’m getting ready for PAX Unplugged—more information on that tomorrow—but as time permits I like to answer interesting questions from my Patreon supporters. Questions like…

Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes includes “Blessed of Corellon”—rare elves who can change their sex in a short period of time. How would you incorporate this into Eberron, beyond changing the name to remove the reference to Corellon?

My immediate question is WHY MAKE IT RARE? Why not just make it a standard trait of elves, a reflection of their fey ancestry? Once you do that, I’d just keep in mind that for elves, sex is a form of expression as opposed to an absolute. Some settle on one path that feels natural to them, never using the gift again once they’ve made that choice… or perhaps shifting every century, taking time to explore different paths. Others might shift casually from day to day, reflecting the mood of the moment. Some elves might use it the same way some changelings use personas, developing a set of unique identities and using the one best suited to a particular scenario. A question a DM should consider if incorporating this into the world is whether an elf can only choose from two options, or if there are other forms they can take with this blessing; this might also lead to the Elvish language having a broad range of pronouns.

Personally, I’d keep the core mechanics intact: invoking the blessing requires completion of a long rest and it doesn’t dramatically change the elf’s appearance. It’s a form of personal expression, not a disguise. But with that in mind, and with the idea that people KNOW this about elves, I don’t see why it can’t just be a common trait to all elves. Given that it requires the completion of a long rest and elves trance during a long rest, I’d personally present it as a sort of meditation in which the elf reflects on their self-image and identity, with their physical form shifting to match their thoughts. If it’s something that all elves possess, I’d just call it “The Change” and add it as a trait of the base elf race…

The Change. You may change your sex when you complete a long rest.

In a previous article about obyriths, you said it was possible that “Githberron” had its own overlords and some of them might still exist.

Exploring Eberron presents the idea that the Gith may be the survivors of a previous incarnation of Eberron that was, essentially, wiped and rebooted after being transformed by the daelkyr, which has been refered to in a few places as “Githberron.” What I say in the article is that the Obyriths could be fiends from a prior incarnation of Eberron, but that this wouldn’t have to be Githberron. Here’s the relevant quote from the article:

Exploring suggests that the Gith may be refugees from a previous incarnation of Eberron. An exotic option for the obyriths would be to say that they are fiends from a previous iteration of Khyber… That somehow they escaped into Xoriat and ultimately came to the current incarnation of reality, most likely finding shelter in a shadow demiplane.

This suggests that obyriths may be from “a previous iteration of Khyber”—not necessarily the same one that spawned the Gith. This ties to the idea that the Obyriths are extremely alien—fiends altered by the destruction of their world and by their experiences in Xoriat. The article also calls out that these fiends wouldn’t have heart demiplanes in the current reality, and that while they might be physically immortal they wouldn’t have the true immortality of a native fiend, and a former overlord wouldn’t wield that full power in the current reality.

If Githberron had overlords, did it have its own version of the Silver Flame or some other sealing magic? It’s hard to imagine the Gith’s ancestors being able to build a civilization with unbound overlords running around.

Who knows? The whole point of Githberron is that it’s a previous iteration of reality, one that’s different in substantial ways. There could be a union of celestials much like the Silver Flame, sure. But perhaps in Githberron the heart planes of the Overlords were deeply buried and they never emerged to rule an Age of Demons. Perhaps in Githberron the overlords fought one another so fiercely that they crippled one another. Perhaps a few of the overlords overwhelmed the others and dominate the world in a stable, if fiendish fashion. Perhaps there was a proto-Gith Empress who holds the overlords bound with the awesome psionic power of her unmatched mind. Each one of those is possible, and each would have a very different impact on how the world would evolve.

If there was a celestial binding force in another iteration of reality, do you think this power might still be able to be tapped into by a player character?

Anything’s possible. Githberron presumably had some form of native celestial. It’s possible that some form of native celestial survived that transition. But the point is that it WOULDN’T HAVE THE SAME POWER in this reality that it did in its native reality, because it doesn’t belong here. Just as the Obyriths can be permanently destroyed, the same thing would be true of a Githberron celestial. If it draws too much attention to itself and gets targeted by the Lords of Dust, it could simply be destroyed.

So could there be some sort of lingering celestial that could provide power to a player character? Sure, why not? But it wouldn’t be remotely on the same level of power as the Silver Flame, and it would carry the risk that it could be destroyed if the actions of the player character draw attention to it. I could imagine, for example, using this as the basis for a Aasimar cleric or paladin, saying that their divine power comes from THEIR PERSONAL CELESTIAL—but that it’s a small enough well of power that it couldn’t support other clerics or paladins beyond them, and that there’s a very real risk that it could be destroyed. Frankly, I think this could be a fun story to explore—what does the paladin do when their divine power source is literally extinguished by the Lords of Dust?—but I’d want to match sure the player was prepared for that to be a possibility.

That’s all for now! Thanks again to my Patreon supporters, who are the only thing that makes these articles possible. I hope I’ll see some of you at PAX Unplugged!

IFAQ: Elven Miscellany

My last article discussed the impact the long lifespan of elves has on the elves of the Five Nations. This brought up a few other points I’d like to discuss.

Elves are Old for a Long Time

The elves of Aerenal devote decades or centuries to intense, focused study. In the previous article I said that the elves of the Five Nations don’t do this because the infrastructure doesn’t support it; a Brelish elf is going to the same school or university as a Brelish human, and there’s no decades-long classes in the Brelish core curriculum. This raised the question of whether that means the elves of the Five Nations are more versatile than the Aereni… and if so, if combining greater versatility with longer life meant that they dominated the study of arcane sciences in Khorvaire. The answer to this is NO. It’s not just the culture of the Aereni that’s the issue; it’s the fact that elves mentally mature at the same pace as humans and then are OLD FOR A VERY LONG TIME. Here’s a quote from a previous article…

This ties to the idea that a seven-hundred year old lifespan is both a blessing and a curse. Our fluid intelligence – which fuels our ability to adapt to entirely new things – peaks in young adulthood. You grandfather may be a brilliant doctor, a skilled mathematician, and still have trouble learning to use an iPhone that a three-year-old masters in three days. The child is running on fluid intelligence, which allows them to quickly adapt to new things. You grandfather is working off crystallized intelligence, the concrete skills he has perfected over time. For me, this is the fundamental difference between elves and humans… because in my Eberron, both elf and human peak in fluid intelligence at the same time. An elf’s mental facilities don’t deteriorate due to age as a human’s will, so the 110-year-old elf is still sharp and alert… but they’re is also just as firmly set in their ways as a hundred-year-old human, and it’s difficult for them to adapt to entirely new things.

Eberron Flashback: Aereni and Tairnadal

This follows the principle that older people tend to be more conservative than younger people, and the point I made earlier that Brelish elves are more likely to support the monarchy because they don’t like change. Aereni society is built with this in mind, but the general idea is that elves are more likely to specialize than to be diverse in their skills because it’s harder for them to learn entirely new things—and, just as I don’t remember much of the Latin I learned in college, if an elf doesn’t USE a skill for 50 years, it will atrophy. Focusing on a few skills ensures that they MAINTAIN those skills. So if you go to Arcanix, the 500 year old elf professor is more likely to be the one who’s been teaching the same Siberyan Principles course for 300 years—and who is AMAZING at it—than the young hotshot teaching the course that challenges all established principles. There are always exceptions; Mordain the Fleshweaver is a remarkably innovative elf, though it’s questionable as to whether you can still call him an elf. And your player character elf can certainly defy this pattern. But generally, elves are old for a long time; a 200 year old elf has the same general outlook on life that a 200 year old human would if they could live that long, and they aren’t as flexible in their outlook as a 20 year old human.

Where Did You Get Your Training?

Throughout many editions of D&D, elves, dwarves, and other races have had features that feel more cultural than genetic. All elves have “Elf Weapon Training” with longswords and longbows. All dwarves know how to use axes and they’re either brewers and smiths; in third edition, all dwarves had a bonus to fight orcs. It doesn’t matter if they’d never SEEN an orc or ever picked up a hammer: ALL DWARVES HAVE THIS.

This stems from the same monocultural impulse that says “All orcs are evil,” and from the beginning we pushed against this in Eberron. In third edition we largely just ignored it. In fifth edition we’ve more actively challenged it. The Aereni elf subrace in Wayfinder’s Guide and Exploring Eberron removes the Elf Weapon Training trait, because elves in Eberron DON’T all know how to use swords and bows. In Wayfinder’s and Rising From The Last War we suggested that assigned racial languages could be changed, because dwarves aren’t born knowing Dwarvish; if you’re a dwarf born in the slums of Sharn, you might know Goblin instead of Dwarvish. Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything expanded on this with the optional Proficiency Swap system; they specifically call out the example of an elf who swaps longsword proficiency for an instrument proficiency. So Maza Thadian, the best cook in Sharn, doesn’t know how to use a longbow—because she traded that proficiency for Cook’s Utensils.

So the key point here is that Elf Weapon Training—or Dwarf Weapon Training, or similar features—don’t represent some sort of genetic talent. Which means that if you’re playing an elf and you choose to KEEP Elf Weapon Training, it’s up to you to decide how your character acquired that training. In Exploring Eberron I note that Mror dwarves can base their racial Weapon Training and Tool Proficiencies on their experiences in the War Below. This is an equally logical approach for dwarves and elves of the Five Nations. The Last War lasted for a century. Even if your background is entertainer, you can still say that you served in the last war for a decade back eighty years ago. It didn’t because the focus of your life, which is why you’re a bard instead of a fighter, but you still retain that basic training. On the other hand, if your background is ENTERTAINER, perhaps you worked archery into your act. Or, even if you don’t worship the Silver Flame NOW, perhaps you spent a decade as part of a devout Thrane militia fifty years ago and received your training then. Or you could say that your elf character never touched a bow until yesterday—but YOU have an ancestor who lives in your memories and who’s been training your while you trance. Essentially, the fact that you have skill with these weapons is part of your character’s story, and I want to know the STORY behind it. Three Brelish elves may all have Elf Weapon Training—but HOW they got those proficiencies may be completely different for each of them, and it’s certainly different from the training a Tairnadal ranger received.

Potential Lifespan is Just That

In the last article a question was raised as to whether elves would have a different outlook on the Blood of Vol, because the religion evolved as a reaction to the brutality of life and elves are less likely to see life as brutish and short. Well, the Blood of Vol evolved in the cold, harsh regions of Karrnath and the northern Lhazaar Principalities. It evolved among people who were fighting famine and plagues, and who were oppressed by tyrannical rulers. It is a reaction to the basic question what just gods would allow death and suffering… and SUFFERING is an important word to remember. Because just because an elf can POTENTIALLY live to be 700 years old doesn’t mean they WILL. Elves have no special resistance to cold or disease. They may not sleep, but they still need food and water. They can suffer from the cold, and they can suffer the agony of watching their starving children dying from diseases. The long lifespan can seem like a curse on two levels: first, when an elf child dies of a fever when they are ten years old, it seems more unjust because they COULD have had centuries of life. Second, the elf who does live for centuries while enduring starvation and disease and who has to watch their friends dying around them may well feel that another century of life is just more time to suffer.

Aerenal is in many ways a utopia. It is a peaceful, advanced nation where people DO expect to live out most of their natural life in comfort and health. And yes, the Blood of Vol won’t find much purchase there. But it won’t find much purchase ANYWHERE where people live long and comfortable lives. It takes root in those places where people are surrounded by suffering and loss, places where the cruelty of mortal life is made manifest. And just because elves can potentially live longer than humans doesn’t mean that they will—and it doesn’t protect them from starvation, poverty, plague, or any of the other tragedies that humanity endures.

My Patreon backers have posted a lot of good questions on other topics, so this is all for elves for the moment… I’ll try to get back to it in a century or so! Thanks to my Patreon supporters for making these articles possible.

IFAQ: Elves and Pugs

In the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons, elves can live to be up to 750 years old. In the past I’ve written many articles about the elves of Valenar and Aerenal and how their long lifespans have affected their culture. But what about the elves of the Five Nations, who are part of a culture driven by short-lived humans? This month, my Patreon supporters posed a number of interesting questions on this topic.

An adult elf of the Five Nations is not only older than the current monarch of their nation, they’re older than the NATION, given that Galifar only dissolved a century ago. How does their long lifespan affect their national loyalty?

First of all, we’ve always said that most demihumans of the Five Nations tend to put their national identity before their species. A third-generation Brelish halfling might support the Glidewing in the Race of Eight Winds as a nod to their Talentan heritage, but they consider themselves Brelish, not Talentan. So that’s the first point to consider: elves born in the Five Nations generally embrace that culture. Which comes to the second point: until the Last War, the Five Nations were united as Galifar. But there were still Five Nations, each of which was culturally distinct and maintained traditions that predated Galifar; Galifar united them under a single ruler and code of laws, but it didn’t erase that cultural identity. The point of this is that not only does your 300-year-old Brelish elf think of themselves as Brelish, they’ve thought of themselves as Brelish far longer than a 30-year-old human; they’ve had far longer to invest in the traditions of Breland and to have a very strong sense of what it means to be Brelish. Which ties to the second point. Because their long lifespan means they’ll outlive the humans around them—whether we’re talking about their monarch or their neighbor—the elves of the Five Nations tend to invest in institutions and customs more than in individual humans. An elf invests in the concept of Breland more deeply than in any one ruler. Likewise, they invest in families more than individuals, seeing the living members of the family as the latest incarnation of that beloved family. For an off the cuff example, consider the relationship between humans and dogs. My household is a pug household. We had a pug we loved, and when he passed away we got a new pug—who is very much his own person, but also very much a pug. And when he passes away, I expect we’ll get another pug. We love our pugs, and in the moment, we love our current pug most of all. But we also know that barring tragedy we will outlive him. So we love him in the moment, we give him the best life that we can, and when he passes we’ll honor him by bringing a new pug into our lives. What we’re NOT going to do is suddenly decide to get a St. Bernard; we’ve become pug people, and we don’t WANT a different dog.

This basic principle applies both to national identity and to an elf’s personal relationships with shorter lived races. Breland in this instances is “Pugs” while King Boranel is “The Current Pug.” The elf who has chosen to live in Breland for three centuries loves Breland more than any other nation. Most likely, they also love Boranel; they may fondly remember Wroaan or other rulers, but Boranel is alive and with them now; they will always honor Wroaan’s memory, but they support the current king. Unless, of course, they don’t like Boranel, in which case they may grumble and think “There’s always a bad one in the litter, but in another ten yeas we’ll get a new one that will be better.” That elf doesn’t want to go live in Thrane any more than I want to get a St. Bernard; they’ve become comfortable with Breland and it’s become part of their identity. With this in mind, I would also say that Brelish elves in particular likely strongly oppose the Swords of Liberty and the anti-monarchy movement, because the four hundred year old elf is far more invested in the institution of the Brelish monarchy than the human who’s only lived with it for twenty years. They’ve invested in the idea of Breland for centuries, and part of that idea of Breland is that it’s a monarchy.

As I said, I’d extend this to an elf’s personal relationships with humans. In playing an elf character, I’d consider whether I know the ancestors of one or more of the other player characters. I might ask one of the other players (it’s a collaborative story and I want to work with them, not impose my story on them ) if they’re OK with the idea that my character has had a long relationship with their family. Throughout the campaign, I might discuss my experiences and adventures with their ancestors. It might even be that the reason I’m part of the adventuring party is to look after that character—because their grandfather would never forgive me if anything happened to them. If you’re familiar with Deep Space Nine, there’s a touch of this in the way Dax refers to their previous hosts. As an elf, play up the fact that you may have known Queen Wroaan or met Kaius I. When you’re at a store in Sharn, mention how it use to be a restaurant a century ago and had the best fried spider legs in the city—they just don’t make them like that any more.

It’s suggested that some elf immigrants to Khorvaire came with a plan to marry into human families and essentially outlive their way to power, inheriting family fortunes from their short-lived spouses. Canon lore suggests that this was abandoned out of an initial revulsion for the Khoravar, but how has it played out in the present day?

The canon answer is clear: elves haven’t taken over all the noble families of Galifar, and in fact, very few elf nobles are mentioned. The question, then, is WHY. The answer is that people of Galifar are well aware of the disparate lifespans of their neighbors and that the laws of the land take it into account. Any position with a lifetime appointment will have clauses that allow for the holder to be removed, so you can’t just appoint a warforged to a lifetime position and then have no way to remove them ever. Meanwhile, nobles will always has pre-nuptial agreements to address this; I think the standard one is simply that a spouse doesn’t inherit the title. It passes to the eldest child or, failing that, to a sibling.

Looking at an example of this in play, Kaius III of Karrnath is married to Etrigani, an Aereni elf. As long as Kaius is alive, Etrigani carries the title of queen. When Kaius dies, however, the crown of Karrnath would pass to their eldest child, not to Etrigani. If they have no children (and currently they don’t), it would pass sideways along the line to Kaius’s sister Haydith. A spouse could likely serve as a regent while waiting for a child to come of age, but they can’t claim the title as their own… thus preventing an elf from marrying into a family of human nobles and holding the title for the next five centuries.

There are a few elf nobles in the Five Nations, and it’s certainly the case that if you’re an Aundairian elf with the noble background, you may be waiting a LONG TIME before the title falls to you.

This raises another question. If my elf character is two hundred years old and knew the wizard’s grandfather, how come I’m only a first level character?

The long-lived races are always a problem in this regard, and I’ve talked about this before in this article. First of all, I’ll call out the fact that in REAL LIFE, skill doesn’t progress in a continuously upward line as we grow older. I learned Latin in college, I haven’t used that skill in two decades, and at this point I can recognize some words but I couldn’t write a sentence in Latin. In another 20 years I may have forgotten it entirely, and that’s nothing like an elf living for centuries. Generally speaking, we reach plateaus with skills and have to work to maintain them. I also fenced in college. Guess what? I’m older now and while I still know some tricks, I’m not a better fencer than I was. Admittedly I multiclassed and took levels of writer instead of fighter, but the point remains: age alone doesn’t equate to skill. A second point is simple: How good is your grandfather at making TikTok videos? Now, replace “TikTok videos” with “Modern Techniques of Arcane Spellcasting.” You could absolutely say that your 1st level elf wizard was a cutting edge wizard 300 years ago, but he’s been out of the game for a while—writing novels, perhaps—and now his spellcasting techniques are incredibly out of date and he can’t figure out these fancy somatic components the kids are doing these days. “That thing! With the fingers!”

While that’s a FUNNY option, I would personally be more likely to use my elf character being 1st level to add a hook to their backstory: WHY are they 250 years old and only first level? My immediate inclination is just what I said above but without the comical agism. My elf character trained as a wizard 200 years ago, and then spent the last 200 years as a novelist or a poet—some career that essentially has no concrete bearing on the skills I use while adventuring—and I need to get back in practice. I remember the basics, and it’s all going to come back to me quickly once we get going, but come on people, I haven’t even cast a cantrip since before you were born.

A more dramatic option would be to justify my temporary low level as a form of injury. Perhaps I served in the Last War—possibly even serving with the parents or grandparents of one of the other characters—and suffered “spellshock” from an arcane attack. Or perhaps I was caught in the Mourning and was found in a coma—I’ve recovered, but my whole body feels numb and I haven’t fully recovered my spellcasting ability. OR, perhaps I was on an epic adventure (again, could be with an ancestor of one of the PCs) and was cursed by an archfey. Breaking that curse could be an ongoing story hook, or it could be something that is broken BECAUSE I’m adventuring with the descendant—allowing me to regain my skills. All three of these options would allow me to say that I WAS a fairly high level character a century ago but I’ve temporarily lost those skills. While other characters may feel like they’ve dramatically improved by the time they reach 9th level, I feel like I’ve only just gotten my sea legs back.

The main point here is that you shouldn’t look at the old dwarf or elf and say “It makes no sense that I’m 120 and still have the same skills as a 20 year old human.” First of all, remember that in Eberron ANY player character is remarkable. Second, don’t just say “it makes no sense”—figure out a way that it COULD make sense. An injury, a curse, a century away from adventuring. The fact that you’re only 1st level NOW doesn’t prevent you from having BEEN higher level at some point in the past.

Do the longer lived races like the elves and dwarves view the Blood of Vol differently (insofar as their lives are not as short, cruel and hopeless as the oppressed humans who latched onto it a couple millennia ago)?

This raises an important point: the fact that you CAN live to be seven hundred years old doesn’t mean that you WILL. Elves are just as susceptible to disease and to cold as humans are. They may not sleep, but they certainly need to eat. So if you’re an elf farmer in Karrnath surprised by a sudden frost, you can still be worried that you’re hungry, that your children are freezing and one has a fever, and that if the frost kills your crops there’s no knowing how you’ll get the money you need to survive. Even if you do somehow live through it, the fact that you get to look forward to hundreds of years of watching your friends die may not feel like a blessing. Those people who founded the Blood of Vol, who felt that life was short, cruel, and helpless, weren’t dying of old age. So no, I don’t think it has a notable effect. And also, the Blood of Vol has never been widespread in the Five Nations. The Brelish elf may not see the appeal to the Blood of Vol, but most Brelish HUMANS don’t see the appeal either.

That’s all for now! I am VERY busy with writing deadlines and family matters and I likely won’t have times to answer questions on this topic. Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters for asking interesting questions and for making this website possible!

IFAQ: Aerenal, Continued

The island of Aerenal is home to the majority of the elves of Eberron, including the Aereni and the Tairnadal. I’ve written a number of articles about these cultures, and Exploring Eberron delves deeper still, but my Patreon supporters came up with a few new questions!E

Are the people of Khorvaire aware of the basics of the Undying Court?

I think the common people of Khorvaire are aware that the Aereni worship their ancestors and keep them alive as some form of undead, but that’s about it; I wouldn’t expect a random citizen of the Five Nations to know what a “Deathless” is without making an Intelligence (Religion) check.

Have the Aereni sought to colonize a major Irian manifest zone elsewhere?

It’s never been mentioned in any canon source. The Valraean Protectorate in Exploring Eberron was established to create a secure buffer around Aerenal rather than being driven by a desire for significant expansion. However, just because it hasn’t been done in canon is no reason not to do it in your story. If *I* were to do this, I personally wouldn’t make it AERENAL that’s driving the colony, but rather a specific noble line or dissident group that wants to essentially found a “New Aerenal”—perhaps tied to the Skullborn, the elves who yearn to become deathless but who aren’t willing (or worthy) to follow the long and difficult path this transition usually requires. A secondary advantage to this—making it a smaller faction, not Aerenal as a whole—is that it makes it easier for adventurers to oppose the colony (or ally with it) without affecting their relationship with Aerenal itself.

Is it possible for other non Elven religions or groups to create and maintain positive energy undead like the Undying Court?

Sure. It requires powerful Irian manifest zones, a specific set of rituals and resources, and a population that’s fiercely devoted to the undead—as part of the idea of the positive energy undead it’s that devotion that sustains them when they leave the manifest zone. Like any sort of magic, this isn’t supposed to be easy or trivial; if it was, everyone would be doing it! But it’s not supposed to be something that’s somehow limited to ELVES. I could easily imagine an Irian zone in the Demon Wastes that serves as a bastion for the Ghaash’kala, with a few deathless elders who have protected this haven for millennia.

It seems weird to me how close the Undying Court is to the goals of the Seekers, especially considering the latter were inspired by its enemy.

All of the Elven cultures—the Tairnadal, the Aereni, the line of Vol—were driven by the basic question of how do we preserve our greatest souls? The Aereni created the Undying Court, preserving their heroes with their devotion. The Tairnadal become living avatars of their patron ancestors. The line of Vol noted that the flaw with both of these approaches is they are dependent on their being living elves who continue to practice their devotion. If all elves died—or simply had a change of heart—the patron ancestors would be forgotten and the Undying Court would be trapped in Shae Mordai. So Vol embraced Mabaran necromancy, ensuring that its beloved ancestors would be able to TAKE the lifeforce they needed to survive, whether as vampires, liches, or other undead.

As discussed in Exploring Eberron, the Blood of Vol is a comparatively young religion that was born on Khorvaire and is only loosely inspired by the traditions of the line of Vol (which are preserved more closely by the Bloodsail elves of Farlnen). But actually, the goals of the Undying Court and the Blood of Vol aren’t really that similar. Both agree that death is oblivion. The Blood of Vol believes that all living creatures have a spark of divinity within them—that there is divine potential in life, but that most creatures die before they can master this power. They believe that only the living have this power, and that while undeath may be a way to escape oblivion, undead creatures—both deathless and Mabaran—no longer have the spark of divinity and can never achieve their true potential. The Undying Court essentially believes the OPPOSITE of this; they believe in a transcendental state that can only be attained by the deathless, but the fact that the deathless rely on the living to sustain them prevents everyone from getting to pursue this power. So the Aereni don’t want to live forever; they believe that death and the transition to deathlessness is a necessary part of ascension.

So, they’re similar in “They are religions that believe death is bad and that it’s possible for people to ascend to a higher state.” But the Aereni believe that only a few people can achieve this higher state and that it can only be achieved after death, while the Blood of Vol believe that it’s possible for everyone to achieve divinity, but that death is the absolute end of that journey.

What was there in Aerenal before the elves?

Describing all of the challenges the elf refugees faced in founding their nation and all of the wonders they discovered would be the subject of a major article, not an IFAQ. However, if the question is were there any CIVILIZATIONS in Aerenal before the elves, no. The elves didn’t come to Aerenal as conquerors with the power to sweep aside an existing nation. They were a diverse armada of refugees from different subcultures, fleeing both war and dragonfire. The modern cultures—Vol, Aereni, Tairnadal—evolved ON Aerenal. But the idea has always been presented that Aerenal was an untamed and undeveloped land, a seemingly blessed refuge for these weary travelers.

Having said that, it’s a valid question as to WHY Aerenal was uninhabited. Humanoids are spread across Eberron, and Aerenal is a large and fertile land. Why had no one settled there? Here’s a few possibilities, each of which could support a different story.

  • It wasn’t sheer luck that brought the refugee fleet to Aerenal, and it wasn’t pure chance that the land was uninhabited and ready from their use. A cabal of dragons were responsible for both of these things; they secretly protected and guided the fleet, and they had carefully cleared the land in advance. This surely means that Aerenal has a role to play in the Prophecy, and it would surely be tied to the ongoing Elf-Dragon Wars. Canon sources have already suggested that those “wars” might be Argonnessen honing the skills of the elves in preparation for a true challenge yet to come; it could be that they set this plan in motion tens of thousands of years ago. If this is the case, it both means that the dragons have a plan for Aerenal and that there MIGHT have been a previous civilization on Aerenal, but if so, the dragons destroyed or removed it. Who knows? Perhaps Seren civilization began on Aerenal!
  • Aerenal is filled with powerful Irian manifest zones that support the creation of deathless. It’s possible that there was a previous civilization that achieved the creation of deathless, only to disappear completely long before the elves arrived. Did all of its members achieve some sort of deathless transition? Or, like the line of Vol warned, did the living members of the society die (perhaps due to a plague, perhaps due to dragons?) leaving their deathless to fade away without mortal devotion?
  • Aerenal also holds powerful Mabaran manifest zones. One possibility is that the prior society sought to harness THIS power, and their unwise efforts ultimately resulted in the death of their people. Alternatively, their major cities could have been consumed by Mabar (as described in Exploring Eberron), perhaps still existing there; could this be the origin of the Bone King? If either of these scenarios are true, could the cataclysm occur a second time? Or could the Undying Court hold it at bay?

Are there humanoids that have a significant presence or role in Aerenal beyond elves and half elves—something more meaningful than just traders, ambassadors, or tourists?

No. The 3.5 Eberron Campaign Setting presents the population of Aerenal as 77% elves, 19% deathless, 3% half-elves, 1% other. Both Aereni and Tairnadal are insular cultures unwelcoming to outsiders, and at least throughout the history of the elven presence there’s never been a rival humanoid culture on Aerenal.

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

IFAQ: The Elvish Language

My new book Exploring Eberron is available now on the DM’s Guild. You can find a FAQ about it here. Yesterday I posted an IFAQ about developing languages. In the comments, a question came up about the role of the Elvish language in the world. Since the answers have broader implications on a general philosophy of worldbuilding, I wanted to make it a standalone IFAQ. So…

Elvish is the language of Thelanis. Is that primordially true, i.e. did Elves speak that language prior to their enslavement by the Giants? Also, if Elvish is the language of Thelanis, are Elves born knowing it, or must it be taught to children like any other language?

There are no canon answers to these questions. By the rules of D&D, elves speak Elvish. It’s part of their racial features. There’s no explanation of where the language came from or how they come to learn it. So first, to be clear, everything I’m about to say is what I do IN MY CAMPAIGN. It has no foundation in any canon source, though as far as I know it doesn’t contradict any canon source either; the topic has simply never come up. But if you don’t like it, don’t use it. To me, this is a perfect example of a choice where you need to think about the broader implications—you need to be sure you WANT your story to go down a particular path. So I’ll tell you my answer, but then I want to talk about WHY I’d answer that way.

First: Elvish is the language of Thelanis. That is primordially true. The planes are universal concepts, and their fundamental principles don’t change (setting aside the complications of Dal Quor!). With that said, one of the minor effects of Thelanis is that while you are in Thelanis, you understand Elvish. When you’re wandering through the Endless Weald, you can understand the songs of the dryads singing in the trees; you are part of the story and that means you understand its words. It is only when you and a dryad LEAVE Thelanis that you realize that you can’t understand her any more, and start hearing her words as Elvish instead simply understanding their meaning.

Second: In my Eberron, every elf is born with an innate understanding of the Elvish language. It doesn’t matter if you’re an orphan born in a Sharn gutter or a proud Aereni. You don’t have to be taught; the language a part of you, tied innately to the Fey Ancestry feature. It is impossible to be an elf and NOT understand Elvish.

WHY DO THIS? What appeals to me about this is that in concretely establishes that elves are not human. They aren’t just humans who have pointed ears and live for centuries. They are fundamentally alien beings whose minds do not work the same way as human minds. It further reinforces other things we’ve established about the elf cultures, namely that they are extremely tied to tradition and that they aren’t as innovative as humans. This makes sense if elves have a greater degree of engrained knowledge and instinct than humans. As an elf, you never have to develop a new language. You are born knowing THE LANGUAGE, the language that will allow you to speak to any elf anywhere.

This comes back to one of my basic principles of world building. I like exploring worlds that are unlike our own. To me, it’s fascinating to consider the impact of having a language seared into your brain from the moment of birth. How would that affect the development of culture? It is fundamentally the antithesis of the Babel story—the people of the world are divided by their many languages, but all elves are united by their common tongue.

The original question included this: was Giant the language that the oppressed elves were supposed to use with their overlords, while Elvish was preserved as the language they used among themselves? Absolutely. The giants weren’t going to learn Elvish, so elf servants had to learn at least basic Giant. It’s not that Elvish was preserved, because the elves couldn’t forget it even if they wanted to. But it was unquestionably SUPPRESSED, and elves would be punished for speaking it. But this is also a crucial factor in the eventual uprising. Captives of the giants, descendants of Qabalrin refugees, the unconquered ancestors of the Tairnadal—despite their different cultures and histories, they were united by the Elvish tongue and could always understand one another. Given this, one might well ask what about the Drow? First of all, by the RULES drow speak Elvish. Second, they possess the Fey Ancestry trait. To me, those two facts hold the answer. While altered by the giants, the drow still have their Fey Ancestry, and it is through that ancestry that they know the Elvish language.

This gets to a much deeper and more complicated question: Do the Khoravar (half-elves) innately understand Elvish, or do THEY have to learn it? The reason this is complicated is because it has vast ramifications on the relationship between Khoravar and Elves. We’ve often raised the question can a half-elf become a Tairnadal? Could they join the Undying Court? If all elves innately understand Elvish and Khorvar do NOT understand Elvish, that’s a deep point in favor of the idea that Khorvar are fundamentally not elves… while if they are born with the knowledge of Elvish, that’s a strong argument that they ARE spiritually part of the elf species and COULD connect with Patron Ancestors. PERSONALLY, I would say that Khoravar DO innately know Elvish, for the same reason as drow. Under the rules of 5E, half-elves possess the Fey Ancestry feat and have Elvish as an ingrained language. For me, it’s all about that Fey Ancestry; part of what it means to have Fey Ancestry is to KNOW ELVISH, in the same way that I’ve said that part of being a druid is that you KNOW DRUIDIC. This also explains why the Valenar were so quick to bring in Khoravar administrators; they may not consider them equals, but it’s good to have an administrator who KNOWS THE LANGUAGE. But this is definitely a case where I could see a DM ruling the other way specifically because of how they want to play out that story of the Khoravar who wants to be Tairnadal. We’ve also made a point of saying that many Khoravar communities develop a Khoravar Cant that is a unique blend of Elvish and Common; part of the point of this is that they KNOW Elvish, but they are choosing to speak in a manner that is unique to THEIR people, not simply relying on the language of either parent. Likewise, it adds color to the relationship between Aereni and drow; even though the drow were created to kill elves, they still know the Language.

So this raises another interesting question… what happens when you need a new word? A situation arises where there’s a concept that’s never been expressed in Elvish, or a poet is expressing an entirely new concept. Do they create a new word? If so, wouldn’t they have to teach it to others? Isn’t this exactly how we end up developing unique dialects and new languages? Certainly. But this is where we get back to the point that they’re not human, that they are touched by the Fey, that this is something that fundamentally doesn’t make sense. The poet doesn’t create a new word the way a human poet would. They realize they already know the word, even though it’s never been spoken in Elvish before. And once spoken, every other fey creature also knows that word. Because Elvish isn’t just a mundane, mortal language; it is an immortal, magical language. An elf knows Elvish because fundamentally, they are fey, and being fey means knowing Elvish. The language evolves as it is needed, and all fey creatures know the language. What this DOES mean is that any creature without Fey ancestry who learns Elvish WILL find that new words occasionally appear and they’ll have to learn their meaning, because without Fey Ancestry, they don’t get those automatic dictionary updates.

This is a long discussion of a point that, mechanically, makes no difference. Because by the rules, elves just know Elvish. It’s a racial feature with no inherent story. But the point is that once you add a story you GIVE it meaning. The reason I’d say that they DO all know it, that it is fundamentally tied to Fey Ancestry is because I WANT to explore the impact of that decision—on the Xen’drik Uprising, on the relationship between Khoravar and Aereni, on the idea of elves being bound to tradition. I think it’s interesting to explore ways in which elves AREN’T like humans, and to imagine what it would be like to be born with immediate, perfect knowledge of a language.

So, in conclusion, when there is no canon answer to questions like this—or even if there is!—the question to me is always how will it affect the story, and what story do I want to tell? *I* find the story of innate-knowledge-of-Elvish more INTERESTING that Elvish-is-just-a-mundane-language-like-any-other. But you certainly don’t have to agree with me!

Are there other languages that would work the same way?

Certainly. I’d say that an aasimar understands Celestial the same way that an elf understands Elvish; they don’t have to learn it, and you can’t be an aasimar and NOT understand Celestial (unless you’re an aasimar tied to a power that speaks another immortal language; note that the Court aasimar in Exploring Eberron speaks both Elvish and Celestial, and of course has Fey Ancestry!). All true immortals are born innately possessing all of their basic knowledge, including languages, and I would say that just like I’ve suggested with Elvish, if Celestial needs a new word, all creatures with an innate knowledge of Celestial automatically know that word. Again, MORTALS who have LEARNED the language wouldn’t get that automatic update. This could be an interesting element for archaeologists, being able to date inscriptions in Abyssal or Celestial based on “Note the use of ‘Alael’, which didn’t become part of the language until the Age of Giants.” But in general this would be an aspect of immortal languages. Humans can make new languages; immortals are born knowing their language, and again, can usually make themselves understood when they wish to.

In this article I suggested that Undercommon might be constantly evolving, but that anyone who could speak Undercommon automatically knows the current form of it—essentially the same principle as the Elvish dictionary updates, but that rather than just ADDING to the existing language, the pre-existing words are always changing… and that when you find inscriptions in Undercommon, they may make no sense under the current form of the language or they might have taken on a new meaning. However, this is a pretty difficult concept for us poor mortals to wrap our brains around, and I didn’t actually push it in either the Wayfinder’s Guide or Rising From The Last War.

Before the fall of Xen’drik were there multiple Giant languages for each realm?

This comes back to the whole question of language-in-games in general. Xen’drik is a massive continent and there were multiple, very distinct giant civilizations. Barring some exterior factor—IE Fey-Ancestry-means-you-speak-Elvish—it’s reasonable to assume that these different giant cultures would all have developed unique languages. However, it’s also the case that we haven’t defined those languages; we’ve never mentioned Sulatan or Elevenese. What we’ve said is that the language we know as Giant was the COMMON TONGUE of Xen’drik, widespread enough that it is what you find spoken by the vast diverse range of creatures across the continent. I might very well introduce the idea of Elevenese as a PLOT DEVICE—the adventurers have found an ancient scroll in Risia that’s written in old Elevenese, the pre-Giant language of the Group of Eleven! It’s completely unknown in the modern age, and you’ll need to use Comprehend Language!—but I’m not going to expect a player character to waste a language slot learning Elevenese; Giant is the language you NEED to know to get by in Xen’drik. Again, at the end of the day, it’s the question of how will this decision affect the story you and your friends tell at your table?

What is the difference/relationship between Celestial and Draconic?

In the article that’s been linked a few times I suggested that they might be the same, but I’ve actually backed off from that (and we didn’t include it in Rising From The Last War). I think that there are SIMILARITIES between the two, just as I’ve suggested that Goblin and Orc may have their roots in Abyssal (noting the similarity between Goblin and the names of the Overlords). But essentially, I think Draconic is the oldest MORTAL language, but it’s not an IMMORTAL language.

What about gnomes? Aren’t they fey? Do they know Elvish?

The idea that gnomes are from Thelanis was added into the fourth edition books specifically to address the fact that in fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons, gnomes were fey creatures. This is no longer true in fifth edition, and it’s not something we mention in Rising From The Last War. To my mind, this is in the same category as BAATOR, which was added into the planar cosmology in fourth edition, and REMOVED AGAIN in Rising From The Last War. Canon can evolve, and the latest canon does NOT have gnomes as Thelanian immigrants. What I have suggested is that there are gnomes who have immigrated FROM EBERRON TO THELANIS through the Feyspires, but they are natives of Eberron. They do not have Fey Ancestry and as such don’t have an innate understanding of Elvish. If a gnome knows Elvish, it’s because they learned it like anyone else.

Setting aside the fact that the idea of gnomes being from Thelanis was always a 4E artifact, the gnomes and elves of Eberron have a few very fundamental differences that reflect this. The elves are deeply bound to tradition and not driven toward innovation. They are happy to exist in isolation. By contrast, gnomes are typically extremely inquisitive. They are called out as being explorers, seeking out new lands and discovering new cultures. The Zil try different religions. House Sivis is specifically called out as having created multiple languages. They’ve reverse-engineered elemental binding techniques recovered from Xen’drik. The fact that there’s some gnomes in Thelanis is a reflection of that deeply inquisitive nature—not of Thelanian origins. With that said, as I describe in the Exploring Eberron FAQ, I’m playing a gnome artificer from Pylas Pyrial in my current campaign. But he’s NOT a fey creature; he’s just using the “Magical Thinking” style of artifice tied to his Pyrial upbringing.

Thanks for taking this deep dive into the Elvish rabbit hole. And thanks to my Patrons for making it possible!

IFAQ: The Elves of Aerenal

As chosen by my Patreon supporters, my next major article is going to be on the nobility of Khorvaire. This article is a shorter subject. Last week I wrote about the Tairnadal elves. This article deals with the other culture of Aerenal: the Aereni elves, the servants of the Undying Court. I’ve written about Aerenal in this article and this article, and there’s a section on Aerenal in Exploring Eberron; I’m including the two pages we’ve already previewed below. Let’s consider a few infrequently asked questions!

Image by Matthew Riley for Exploring Eberron

Are Phiarlan and Thuranni elves still considered Aereni? Are they eligible to become spirit idols or deathless? What about the elves with the Mark of Shadow who serve with the Cairdal Blades in Aerenal?

The answer to this is largely spelled out in this article. “Aereni” is a culture; being Aereni means that you honor your ancestors, give your devotion to the Undying Court, and serve the Sibling Kings. The shadow-marked families—Tialaen, Shol, Ellorrenthi, Paelion, Thuranni—were never actually Aereni; they remained independent from the Undying Court, the line of Vol, and the Tairnadal, and traveled between communities of all of these cultures. When the Undying Court eradicated the line of Vol and exiled its allies, the shadow-marked families chose to leave with them. Some feared that they too would be persecuted for their marks; others believed that the supporters of the Undying Court had committed an unforgivable sin in spilling so much elven blood. As this article says, “to mark their departure from elven society, (the shadow-marked families) formally joined their lines into a new alliance: House Phiarlan.

As for those shadow-marked elves who are occasionally seen in the Cairdal Blades? This is also explained in the article: “A handful remained, believing that it was their duty to the kingdom; these elves found themselves largely absorbed into other lines, and this mingling of blood causes the Mark of Shadows to occasionally appear in Aerenal.” The elves who develop the Mark of Shadow in Aerenal aren’t Phiarlan or Thuranni; they are now Jhaelian or Mendyrian. And the mark only appears rarely because unlike the houses, the Aereni aren’t trying to arrange matches to produce the mark; the marked bloodlines are heavily diluted.

So no: the elves of House Thuranni and Phiarlan aren’t Aereni. They intentionally severed their ties to their homeland and have no loyalty to the Undying Court or the Sibling Kings. And since elevation to the Undying Court—whether as a spirit idol or as one of the deathless—is an honor the Aereni bestow on their most celebrated citizens, it is not offered to those elves who have abandoned their homeland and its traditions.

With that said, a Phiarlan elf could return to Aerenal, abandoning the house and embracing the Aereni traditions; they’d just have to find a noble line willing to adopt them, just like the shadow-marked elves who stayed behind when the phiarlans originally left. And as Aereni, such elves would be eligible to join the Court, though again, they’d have to impress the priests and people with their worth. But joining the court isn’t about whether you have a dragonmark; it’s whether you are a devotee of the Undying Court who has proven yourself worthy to join it, and whose talents and achievements justify this gift.


Could someone use a spirit idol as a template to clone a revered ancestor? Perhaps by transferring the soul into a construct body, or even a living elf willing to give their body to the ancestor?

All of this seems possible, but the real question is would the ancestor be happy about it? As noted in the ExE preview, for many Aereni becoming a spirit idol is something they look forward to. When they aren’t interacting with the living, the spirit within the idol exists within a paradise of its own making, dwelling within its memories and ideas. The Aereni see life as something you do to prepare for your afterlife. You don’t want to die too quickly, because then you don’t have enough memories to build a satisfying eternity. But most see life as the chrysalis, with the spirit idol as a blessed ascension, eternity unbound by the physical form.

So COULD the soul within a spirit idol be transferred into some other vessel? Sure, I don’t see why not. But this isn’t a problem the Priests of Transition are trying to solve; they see the spirit idol as being a blessed member of the Undying Court, not as a victim who needs to be saved.

Do Aereni ever join the Tairnadal, for instance one who feels rejected and out of place with their family?

Sure! We’ve mentioned it before. And likewise, zaelantar youths sometimes leave the steppes and become Aereni; this is one path for a Tairnadal youth who doesn’t get chosen by a patron ancestor. This isn’t common in either direction; a would-be Aereni has to be accepted by a noble line, while a would-be Tairnadal has to be chosen by a patron ancestor to truly become Tairnadal. But it certainly happens.

The Tairnadal faith seems fundamentally more demanding than the Undying Court. Both revolve around preserving and communing with honored ancestors, but the Tairnadal faith requires imitation and constant war, while it doesn’t seem like the Undying Court places any demands on its followers (maybe to eliminate Mabaran undead)?

The Tairnadal faith is more demanding than the Undying Court, yes. This is because the end result of the devotion is completely different. Through their faith, the Aereni seek to preserve the Undying Court. But with the exception of the ascendant counselors and divine spellcasters, the Aereni have a very concrete, limited relationship with their ancestors. If you took the Right of Counsel feat in the 3.5 ECS, you had to physically go to Shae Mordai to speak with your ancestor. By contrast, each Tairnadal vessel believes that they are a living vessel for the spirit of their patron. They believe that the patron offers them direct, personal guidance—that their remarkable skills are the result of the patron guiding their hands. So the Tairnadal endures this more demanding service because they believe that they receive a more dramatic benefit in exchange.

Having said that, a critical point is that we just haven’t talked much about what Aereni devotion actually looks like. Only the elite Deathguard are charged to fight Mabaran undead. An Aereni civilian shows their devotion through prayers, which combine expressions of gratitude for the ongoing protection the Court provides with tales that commemorate their deeds and discoveries. But the second way an Aereni honors the ancestors is by following in their footsteps. This isn’t as dramatic or absolute as the Tairnadal revenant. But Aereni do seek to hone a skill that one of their ancestors perfected—to study their teachings and master their techniques. The point is that these skills often have nothing to do with WAR and often aren’t as OBVIOUS as the revenant’s martial devotion. But the Aereni painter is honoring a great painter of the past. The bowyer followers the example of a legendary artisan (and may have served the deathless artisan as an apprentice). As a side note, this is why the WGtE suggested an Aereni variant that sacrificed weapon proficiencies for expertise with a single skill or tool—because that focused expertise is a form of Aereni devotion. Exploring Eberron includes a different approach to this concept.

So Tairnadal devotion is more demanding and intense than Aereni devotion. But the Aereni do offer prayers to their ancestors throughout the day, and they think about their ancestors constantly, reflecting on their lessons and honoring them through the exercise of their skills.

How do clerics of the Undying Court actually MANIFEST? Are they rare? For the cleric, what does it feel like to cast a spell and how do they believe they are doing it?

So under the hood, the Undying Court actually has a great deal in common with the Silver Flame. The Silver Flame was created when a force of immortals bound their spirits together into a force of pure celestial energy. The Undying Court is likewise a gestalt of souls—it is essentially a smaller Silver Flame, whose coherent elements are able to also maintain independent existence (as deathless) while still adding their power to the whole.

When a cleric of the Undying Court casts a spell, they are drawing on that GESTALT, not dealing with a single, specific member of the Court. They don’t send in a request for magic that has to be approved; what it MEANS to be a cleric of the Undying Court is that you have been recognized as a worthy vessel of its power and you have been granted the ability to draw on that well of energy. This is especially important beyond Aerenal, as the Court can’t directly affect the world the way it does in Aerenal; it NEEDS champions to serve as its hands. But essentially, as a cleric of the Undying Court, when you cast a spell, you are reaching out with your mind and channeling the power of your collective ancestors. You can FEEL them all around you, hear dozens of whispering voices, feel their strength and support. But it’s not that ONE SPECIFIC ANCESTOR is with you; it’s the gestalt as a whole.

HAVING SAID THAT, in my campaign I WILL give a cleric or paladin of the Undying Court a close relationship to a particular ancestor. They can’t initiate contact with that ancestor, but it may give them divine visions (something I discuss in this article) and missions. If they use commune or similar spells, it will be that ancestor who gives them answers. It’s a little like the idea of Tira Miron being the Voice of the Flame; the UC spellcaster will have a specific ancestor who acts as their intermediary to the Court. So that’s a unique aspect to worshipping the Court.

As for rarity, in my opinion Aerenal has more divine spellcasters than any nation in Khorvaire, even Thrane. For the Aereni, divine magic IS a science. They CREATED a divine power source, and it’s part of their government! A divine caster of the Undying Court still needs faith; it’s that faith that allows them to channel the power. But they are also, essentially, granted a license to draw on the power of the Court.

Of course, that’s if they ARE legitimate representatives of the Court. You could certainly play a character who is in essence a divine hacker—stealing energy from the Court to cast their spells WITHOUT actually being an authorized agent of the Court. This could be an interesting path for a Divine Soul sorcerer. Another option would be an Undying Warlock, who would have a relationship with a specific ancestor rather than drawing on the power of the Court… which could be because the ancestor is running a rogue operation hidden from the rest of the Court!

Just how many bodily desires do Deathless retain anyways?

In my opinion, none. Deathless are described as desiccated corpses. Consider the description of the ascendant counselor: the corpse of an elf so shriveled and aged it seems no more substantial than smoke. What survives in the deathless is the SOUL, loosely bound to the body. What makes an ascendant counselor “ascendant” is that they have moved almost entirely beyond their bodies; from the 3.5 ECS “They rarely inhabit their physical forms, preferring to explore the universe in astral form.” The body of a deathless is a corpse. it has no biological processes; if you pushed food down its throat it would just rot in its stomach cavity.

However, the counter to this is that the deathless experience reality in a way mortals can’t imagine. They are sustained by positive energy, by the love of their descendants; that is their food and drink. Do they love? Certainly. On a certain level, they ARE love; just as they are sustained by the energy of their descendants, they are defined by the love they feel for them in return. This is why deathless are “usually neutral good.” What we’ve said about Mabaran undead is that they are drawn towards evil because the hunger of Mabar hollows them out emotionally, driving them to become predators; conversely, the Deathless are sustained by love, and this softens a cruel heart.

Meanwhile, spirit idols are sustained by positive energy but live in a world they craft from their memories. They eat, they drink, they love. But they eat anything they can imagine, whether it’s having the memory of their favorite meal or whether they can combine different tastes they remember to create something new. Their companions are likewise the memories of people they knew, so they can return to an old lover, duel with a rival, or share a drink with a close friend. All of which ties to whether either form of deathless would WANT to return to life. The key with the spirit idol is that the elves believe that you need to live long enough to HAVE enough memories and ideas to populate eternity. So they will raise people who die young, even if they are deemed worthy of joining the court, because they haven’t completely the life segment of their spiritual journey. But they see physical existence as, essentially, a chore—something you do in preparation for what comes next, not the highest form of existence.

That’s all for now, but there’s more Aerenal ahead in Exploring Eberron! Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters, who keep this site going!

IFAQ: Who Leads The Tairnadal?


When time permits, I like to answer questions from my Patreon supporters. Joseph asks:

Who actually leads the Tairnadal elves? Is it a theocracy?

It’s an interesting question. The Tairnadal are the elves of the Aerenal steppes, and the elves who have claimed Valenar are Tairnadal elves. The Aereni are ruled by the Undying Court and the Sibling Kings. Valenar has a “High King.” But what of the Tairnadal of Aerenal? Do they have a monarch, or are they ruled by the Keepers of the past?

The reason this hasn’t been answered in the past is because it’s not a question with a simple answer. There is no single monarch or high priest who leads the Tairnadal, and the answer is rooted in their unusual and rigid culture. All the cultures of Aerenal cling tightly to tradition and the past. The Tairnadal came to Aerenal as soldiers—fresh from fighting against the giants of Xen’drik and their minions—and never stood down. What drives and defines the Tairnadal is their devotion to their patron ancestors. This began before the elves even reached Aerenal, as a basic cult of personality: those warriors who’d served with fallen champions being determined to honor their heroes by following in their footsteps. Those who were most devoted to this path swore that they felt a connection to their idols—that the spirit of the champions were guiding them. So this basic element—preserve the ancestors by emulating their lives—was a part of Tairnadal society from the beginning. The traditions and role of the Keepers of the Past evolved on Aerenal, but the patron ancestors were with them from the start.

Tairnadal society is shaped by their religion. This is described on page 147 of Rising From The Last War and I’m not going to retread it entirely here. But to sum up: when an elf comes of age the Keepers of the Past determine which ancestor has chosen them, and “it’s your sacred duty… to live your life as they did and to allow the champion to walk the world again through you.” It’s important to recognize that there’s a twofold aspect to this duty. The first is that through this devotion, the living preserve the ancestors. But there is also the concrete belief that through this devotion, the ancestor can act through the revenant—that the living benefit because they receive their guidance from the dead. The doctrine of the faith is that you can only receive this guidance from the ancestor that has chosen you—which means that if you refuse to accept that bond, you are denying your community the chance to benefit from the ancestor’s supernatural guidance. Essentially, the Tairnadal believe that you will never be as useful on your own as you could be if you embraced the path of your patron ancestor, and that refusing to follow that path is deadly arrogance and selfishness, and there is no place for such selfishness in a tight-knit warband.

So: Tairnadal culture is based on people emulating the lives of their patron ancestors. But these ancestors were fighting a guerilla war. Which means that the Tairnadal have to engage in endless war to follow their example… and with this in mind, they have been engaging in complex wargames for tens of thousands of years. Combatants will spare an enemy when possible—you don’t finish off a fallen foe—there is no point to a battle that doesn’t truly test the skills of the combatants, and battles are fought with spell and steel.

Working with this foundation, there are two basic aspects to Tairnadal civilization: war and peace. the zaelantar and zaeltairn. The zaelantar (“peaceful souls”) maintain the civilian infrastructure, while the zaeltairn (“warrior souls”) serve in an army and fight the endless war.

The zaelantar raise and train both young elves and beasts of war and burden. They craft weapons and tools, and they maintain the settled communities of the steppes. The bulk of the zaelantar are young elves. Remember that an elf receives a patron ancestor when they come of age. But this doesn’t usually happen until an elf is at least 60! In the initial decades of their lives, they train in basic skills (Background! Elven weapon familiarity!), study Tairnadal history, and maintain their community—including carry for the younger elves. Through this process they are effectively auditioning to the patron ancestors. The young elf who excels at hunting expects they will be chosen by a legendary archer or stalker. The elf who becomes a leader in the community hopes to be chosen by one of the great leaders of the past. Nonetheless, you are talking about elves spending at least four decades of what humans would consider adult life working in a zaelantar community. So who performs basic, necessary tasks? The elves who haven’t yet been set on a different path. Other zaelantar include former tairn who are unable to fight—either because of age or some other infirmity—but who can teach the young. The Keepers of the Past are largely zaelantar, serving to train and guide. And finally, there are those who have been chosen by patron ancestors whose legendary skills are tied to the civic sphere: fabled smiths, legendary teachers, the Siyal Marrain (druids who tend the beasts), and so on.

The zaeltairn engage in war, emulating their ancestors in the field. They are split into armies, each of when is further divided into clans and bands. A Tairnadal army is effectively a city-state. It isn’t a temporary duty; once assigned to an army Tairnadal serve until they die or until they retire (or are forced to retire) to train the young. Most armies are mobile; most of the patron ancestors were guerilla soldiers and mobility was vital; they follow migratory paths across the steppes. There are a few that are settled, based on the specialties of the ancestors represented by the army. Notably, each of the great jungles of the region—around Shae Thoridor and Var-Shalas—are home to an army, whose members specialize in jungle warfare and commando operations.

There are three great cities in the region held by the Tairnadal.

  • Var-Shalas is the largest city of the Tairnadal. It is the stronghold of the Keepers of the Past, and it is here that the Shanutar (council of lords) conducts its business.
  • Shae Thoridor is the second great city of the zaelantar. It is smaller than Var-shalas, but nonetheless an important seat of the Keepers of the Past and an industrial center for the goods required by the armies.
  • Taer Senadal is a fortress—but an unusual one. Var-Shalas and Shae Thoridor are surrounded by walls of bronzewood thorns, similar to Taer Valaestas in Valenar. Taer Senadal is a fortress of stone. Because it’s not a fortress built to defend the region from attack; it’s built to be attacked. Senadal can be roughly translated as “whetstone,” and Taer Senadal is a fortress manned by youths in the late stages of their training. Armies take turns attacking the fortress, allowing the youths to hone their skills as they defend it and the tairn to practice attacking fortifications.

All of which finally brings us back to the original question: Who rules the Tairnadal? Are they a theocracy?

Religion is the absolute foundation of Tairnadal culture. Following the dictates of the religion sensible (the faithful receive the guidance of the ancestors), a duty to the dead (it preserves the ancestors), and a duty to the community (as the ancestral guidance makes you a more effective citizen). But the Keepers of the Past are guides, not leaders. The basic leadership role within the Tairnadal is the shan, which can be loosely translated as “lord.” Each band has a lu-shan (“band lord”), clan leaders simply use the title shan, and the leaders of armies are var-shan (“great lord”). On the side of the zaelantar, an an-shan (“young lord”) is a youth who guides a band of youths, while a tar-shan (“peace lord”) maintains a village or a district of one of the great cities. Note that shan is not a gendered term, and any tairnadal can hold this position.

The twist to this is that the characterization of Shaeras Vadallia as “High King” is largely a translation error. Shaeras is the var-shan of Valenar, the Great Lord of the Army of Valenar. it is the highest position of authority that the Tairnadal recognize, but each army has a var-shan of its own.

With this in mind, the structure of Valenar is a general model for the Tairnadal overall. As described in the ECS, there are 45 warclans on Khorvaire; this is the Army of Valenar. At any given time, twenty of these clans are under the direct command of the var-shan (Shaeras Vadallia), while the rest are active in the field. The same is true for the armies on Aerenal: each army has a core of clans that remain close and under the direct command of the var-shan, while others follow general direction but operate independently. Likewise, within a clan a certain number of bands remain under the direct command of the shan, while others may be dispersed on independent operations (scouting, harrying, etc). While the structure of Tairnadal society is relentlessly martial, they actually don’t have a complex hierarchy of ranks. Warbands are essentially families, whose members serve together indefinitely. When there is a split-second military decision to be made, the lu-shan commands and cannot be questioned. But if there are other issues, the band debates them around the campfire and consensus rules. The lu-shan does have the final say, but it is rare for a lu-shan to veto the decisions of the band without clear military reason. And if this is done, the band respects the decision because they respect the lu-shan, not because of the title alone. This ties to an important fact: those appointed to leadership roles are elves channeling the spirits of legendary leaders. Within a clan, of course the Vadallia revenant is the lu-shan, because she’s channeling Vadallia. Taeri is an unparalled swordsman, but he’s not a leader; who would even think of appointing a Taeri as shan? It is also the case that a respected revenant’s word carries a great deal of weight in matters related to that ancestor. A Vadallia lu-shan is a good general war leader, but when planning an ambush they may defer to the Falaen revenant, trusting their expertise in matters of stealth and cunning.

This overall structure flows upstream. If the shan issues a command it must be obeyed. But unless it’s an urgent matter, the shan will seek the consensus of the lu-shan. If it isn’t a question of war, they will seek the guidance of Keepers of the Past or even the tar-shan. Beyond this, each army dispatches two clans to Var-Shalas and one to Shae Thoridor. These clans protect the cities, but the shans also represent their army in the shanutar—a council that includes the tar-shans, and which is overseen by Keepers of the Past.

So once again: Who leads the Tairnadal? When decisions must be made in a moment, a shan’s word is absolute. In other matters, the Tairnadal seek consensus—whether a lu-shan consulting with their band, a shan seeking consensus from the lu-shans, or the var-shan consulting the shans. Beyond this, people respect the ancestors that are channeled; they look to those guided by ancient leaders to channel that wisdom.

All of which is a VERY long answer to what seemed like a simple question, but there you have it!

How do the Draleus Tairn and the Silaes Tairn fit into this structure?

They’re armies. The Draleus Tairn are largely defined by their ancestors; their patrons are heroes renowned for fighting dragons. The Silaes Tairn have some ancestral overlap with the Valaes, but believe that the the battle should be taken back to Xen’drik. Note that bands of Draleus and Silaes Tairn DO make expeditions to Xen’drik; the Draleus are also always preparing for the next time Argonnessen attacks Aerenal.

So are armies all made up of people who follow the same ancestors?

Not at all. Essentially, think of the ancestors as being military specialties. You’re rarely going to find a warband that has more than one Vadallia, because it doesn’t NEED more than one Vadallia. On the other hand, a band with a specific purpose—commandos, archers, scouts—may have multiple elves who channel the same ancestor because they want that overlap of skills. But ancestors are shared among all the Valaes armies, assigned to clans and bands as suits the needs of each unit.

How difficult is it for an ambitious revenant to break the mold of their ancestors and forge their own name in memory? Is this more within the wheelhouse of player characters, or are there examples of exceptional tairnadal who exceed the precedent of their patron ancestor, becoming patrons in their own right?

This is specifically discussed in this article… which gives the example of Carys Daealyth, who is guided by Daealyth Taeri, who was guided by Taeri. The main point is that those champions don’t typically BREAK the mold, they go beyond it. From that article:
So as a Tairnadal elf it is your duty to honor your ancestor and to do all that you can to bring glory to their name; but the hope is that in doing so you will become a vessel for their spirit and that together you will forge NEW legends—and that someday, future Tairnadal will channel YOUR spirit.

How does parenting work among the Tairnadal? Are familial relations important?

Generally, NO. Who your father and mother are is far less important than who your patron ancestor is. Tairnadal don’t maintain property, so you’re not passing your holdings down to a child. Critically, note that the Tairnadal don’t use family names: a Tairnadal elf uses a given name and the name of their patron ancestor. So Shaeras Vadallia may have been the son of Jael Cardaen and Sol Taeri; ultimately, that doesn’t matter. A child is given to the Zaelantar to be raised, and becomes an adult when chosen by a patron ancestor. And it’s worth noting that at this point, almost all Tairnadal are in some way tied to all of the patron ancestors; it’s not like there’s only one bloodline that produces Vadallias, or that you expect to be chosen by the same patron as your parents.

With that said, Tairnadal likely know who their parents are, and there are cases where relatives end up serving together in the same band or clan. So you can have siblings who feel a strong attachment or even a parent and child with a bond. But on the societal level, your personal lineage isn’t as significant as your spiritual lineage.

Can you talk a little about dynamics between Tairnadal elves and Lyrandar/Half-elves in Valenar? Especially with a Khoravar with a Tairnadal parent?

If you can find it, this is discussed in an Expeditionary Dispatches article from WotC called “The People of Taer Valaestas.”

As called out in the previous answer, direct blood lineage is less important to the Tairnadal than spiritual lineage, and it is the belief of the Tairnadal (supported by existing precedent) that no Khoravar can channel a patron ancestor. So essentially, the Tairnadal treat the Khoravar as being akin to zaelantar. They are people with a connection to the elves, and they are willing to do important tasks no tairn wishes to do. However, with most zaelantar there is the understanding that they will become tairn (or that they have been chosen by a peaceful ancestor, which is still an honor and duty), while they don’t believe that to be possible with the Khoravar. So the essential point is that they see the Khoravar as useful children but don’t believe they will ever grow up or be able to undertake the true responsibility of a Tairnadal—to embody an ancestor. That’s not their fault, just a sad fact. Of course, what we’ve said is that if any Khoravar could prove this wrong and channel an ancestor, it would be a player character!

Are there ever cases where a young elf coming of age is not selected by ANY ancestor? If so, how are such elves regarded by their fellows?

The Keepers of the Past aren’t selected by any one ancestor; instead, they have the ability to hear many ancestors, which is what allows them to serve in their role. In one campaign I ran, a PC played a Tairnadal shaman whose role was specifically to channel and remember a host of lesser ancestors who weren’t significant enough to become full patron ancestors, but that deserved to be remembered.

If the elf isn’t chosen by an ancestor and lacks the gift of the Keepers, what it means is, essentially, that they didn’t graduate. I said that MOST elves receive an ancestor at around 60, after they undergo a few decades as zaelantar. If you don’t get picked? Work another decade as zaelantar and we’ll try again at the next time. It would be assumed that if you’re not picked it’s because you haven’t displayed enough value to be chosen; that doesn’t mean you deserve to be shunned, it means you need to go back to work and do better. You’re a disappointment, certainly. But there may well be a case where it’s later discovered that a particular elf didn’t get picked because ALL of the ancestors wanted them and they couldn’t reach an agreement, or something like that; there could certainly be a tale of the elf who was thought to be shunned but who was in fact the most exceptional of all (… and went on to become a player character!). But the typical answer is that they would simply continue on as zaelantar.

Second question: Since the Tairnadal are constantly looking for battles to fight, do they ever seek out manifest zones of Shavarath, or venture to that plane itself?

I write about Shavarath in Exploring Eberron, and that’s a pretty extreme option; it is a vicious meat grinder and it would take exceptional mortals to survive there for an extended amount of time. Consider that the immortals are CONSTANTLY being killed and just reform; it’s a touch road for elves to jump in where angels fear to tread. With that said, it’s entirely possible that the Tairnadal SUMMON fiends or other extraplanar threats so they have worthy foes to fight. They might even use undead! Exploring the actual forms of conflicts the Tairnadal fight on Aerenal is a deep topic that could definitely fill another article.

That’s all for now. Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters, who keep this site going and help choose topics! And if for some reason you’re looking for even MORE information about the Tairnadal, this article answers many questions and has links to many other articles!

IFAQ: Evil Tairnadal Ancestors?

I’m often asked about the cause of the Mourning or the abilities of the Mark of Death, but there are a few infrequent questions worth discussion. Like this one:

Has it ever been the case that the Tairnadal Keepers of the Past have identified a newborn’s ancestral spirit as some great villain from elven history? If so, what happens to them? Are they banished with their family exiled? Are the elves with heroic ancestral patrons forced to attempt to kill the child?

The foundation of my answer lies in a previous Tairnadal FAQ. There’s two key points.

You don’t receive a patron ancestor at birth. The Keepers of the Past don’t determine your patron ancestor until adolescence. The prior FAQ notes “Tairnadal children spend their youth essentially auditioning for the ancestors.” The idea is that the patron ancestors aren’t simply picking you based on your BLOOD—they are picking you based on your talents, your personality, and your spirit. You HELP the spirit by emulating the ancestor, so they don’t want to pick people who aren’t a good fit. In making a Tairnadal character, an important question to consider is were you chosen by the patron you hoped for, or did you have to adapt? Another aspect of this is that the Tairnadal are a CULTURE. Tairnadal can choose to abandon their traditions and become Aereni, and vice versa; if you just DON’T emulate your ancestor, you’re losing the opportunity to receive their guidance, but nothing else happens. So again, the choice happens at adolescence, after you’ve spent your childhood learning about the ancestors and the customs of your people, and training in the skills you hope will make you suitable to your preferred patron.

This ties to the second key point: The patron ancestors only exist because of the devotion of the Tairnadal. The living Tairnadal keep the ancestors from fading through devotion and by emulating them. The patrons REWARD their devotees with guidance, but if living elves simply chose not to revere an ancestor, that ancestor would fade and be lost. This is one main reason that elves DON’T get to choose their ancestors, and why as a Tairnadal it’s your DUTY to honor the ancestor who chooses you—because if everyone played favorites and picked Ancestor A over Ancestor B, we’d LOSE Ancestor B. But the key point here is you don’t get to BE a patron ancestors unless the Tairnadal want to keep you around. The previous article says “Despite being beloved and preserved in memory, did they have any notable flaws? Because it’s the duty of the revenant to embody their flaws as well as their virtues! But an elf wouldn’t be preserved as a patron ancestor unless their virtues significantly outweighed their flaws.”

So you can have a patron ancestor who’s noted for their cruelty or arrogance, and it’s the duty of their chosen to be cruel or arrogant. But they have to have been celebrated heroes IN SPITE of those flaws. If someone was an utterly despicable villain, the Tairandal would simply choose NOT to follow their example, the spirit would fade (as spirits do) and that would be that. So no: following the standard traditions of the Tairnadal, a newborn could never be chosen by a legendary villain, and their family wouldn’t be exiled.

WITH THAT SAID… That’s “following the standard traditions of the Tairnadal.” If you want to tell this story, you just have to be clear that it’s OUTSIDE of those traditions. The Tairnadal sustain their ancestors through freely offered devotion. But this is a world where undead are real. So you could easily create a new form of undead: Tairnadal spirits of infamous villains who AREN’T revered or preserved, and who are instead sustained through involuntary spiritual vampirism—selecting a host and forcing that host to reenact their deeds (as opposed to the standard system where again, the ancestor can reward a good host but can’t FORCE them to do anything). It could be that there’s a much stronger biological factor in their choice of host than usual (as noted in the FAQ article, at this point most living Tairnadal are connected to dozens of ancestors and it’s not a major factor), and that when such a host appears it’s a major concern.

SO: Could an infamous villain choose a newborn elf at birth? Not by the standard traditions. But if you WANT an infamous villain to choose a newborn elf at birth, just make a new threat that supports the story.

Are the elves with heroic ancestral patrons forced to attempt to kill the child?

I wanted to revisit this for just a moment to again reflect on things. It’s important to understand that the Tairnadal aren’t CONTROLLED by their ancestors. They believe that they are REWARDED with spiritual guidance when they do a good job of emulating the ancestor—that the champion can act through them and share its skills. They believe that by emulating the ancestor they preserve it, which adds the point that it’s their civic DUTY to do so… hence the idea that if you’ve been chosen by a cruel ancestor it’s your duty to be cruel, and if you’ve been chosen by an ancestor celebrated for their virtue, it’s your duty to be virtuous. But ultimately that’s about DUTY: you are never actually forced to take an action you don’t want to do. It’s very much like a paladin’s oath: you CAN break it, you’d just prefer not to.

So first of all, MOST Tairnadal ancestors are champions who fought giants, dragons, or goblins. They are heroes to their people, but they are soldiers as opposed to general champions of virtue. With that said, you could easily have a patron ancestor who was known as a demon hunter or ghostbuster—someone who protected the people by hunting down supernatural threats, much like followers of the Silver Flame. And yes, if you were chosen by that ancestor, it would be your duty to hunt down supernatural threats. If you define this evil thing as a form of negative undead, there’s a secondary aspect to consider: rather than being hunted by TAIRNADAL, it might be hunted by the Deathguard of Aerenal, who are explicitly sacred commandos who hunt down and destroy undead.

I’ll be answering more questions in the days ahead: thanks to my Patreon supporters for their support and interesting questions!

iFAQ: Aereni Learning

Until I’m done with Exploring Eberron, I don’t have time for deep dives. My next major article will take a deeper look at the Mror Dwarves. But meanwhile, with all of us trapped inside, I want to do a few daily posts dealing with some interesting questions from my Patreon supporters. Here’s the first!

The elves of Aerenal are supposed to spend decades perfecting the techniques of their ancestors. When an Aereni character starts out 100 years old, it’s not because they spent decades in diapers or because they’re dumber than human wizards, it’s because they’ve spent decades going deep in their studies. But how does this hold up for Aereni adventurers? They advance at the same pace as other player characters. How does an elf go from taking decades to perfect a cantrip to suddenly casting far more complex spells in a much shorter period of time?

First of all, let’s shoot the elephant in the room: character advancement doesn’t make sense. How is it that your HUMAN wizard can spend a decade studying at Arcanix, but exponentially increase their skills after a month of adventuring? How does the halfling rogue get expertise with Persuasion by stabbing a bunch of goblins? It’s a mistake to look at any of this too deeply, because it’s not logical. This also ties to the idea that the way in which player characters advance is part of what makes them remarkable and NOT typical for all inhabitants of the world. There are veterans of the Last War who still use the “Guard” statblock, because for most people that represents an OK level of skill. Player characters are supposed to be heroes, and their ability to quickly skyrocket to a greater level of power is a narrative device, not something that holds up to any sort of close analysis.

WITH THAT SAID: That doesn’t mean we can’t make it make as much sense as possible, and this is a good question. How come the Aereni wizard spent decades studying magic back home but can advance just as quickly as the human wizard? The key point is that the Aereni apprentice didn’t spend decades studying a specific spell; it didn’t take them that long to learn to cast one particular cantrip. Instead, they were mastering techniques of spellcasting. They were studying history, theory, and concretely, they were mastering somatic and verbal components. Arcane magic is a form of science, and somatic and verbal components are the underlying mechanics that make it possible. An Aereni apprentice learns precise accent and inflection of verbal components, and precise performance of somatic components, exactly mimicking the techniques of the masters of their line. They spend endless hours drilling until these techniques come naturally. When an Aereni wizard casts a spell, it looks and sounds exactly the same as the master who created the spell ten thousand years ago. Because they’ve perfected these basic principles, when they learn—or even create—new spells, the basic techniques will carry them forward. They CAN advance quickly precisely because they spent all that time learning to crawl… ensuring that they are building on a perfect foundation.

This same principle applies across all classes. The Aereni fighter is learning the basic techniques of all weapons, perfecting the most basic guards, learning to hold and move with the weapon just as their ancestors did. They are learning the most fundamental martial principles—and then they can quickly build on top of those without losing those core techniques.

Aereni PREFER to take their time with things. An Aereni fighter might spend four hours each night practicing a specific move while the other characters are taking a long rest, and continue to practice that move in their mind while trancing. But the decades they spent learning before created a foundation that lets them advance quickly when needed. They were honing the basic building blocks that they assemble as they advance with the other characters.

Now, ultimately, does all that work actually make the Aereni player character a better wizard? No. Mechanically, there’s no difference between the Arcanix-trained wizard and the Aereni wizard. But THEMATICALLY the idea is that the Aereni wizardry is beautiful and perfect, like watching a dance; by contrast the Arcanix wizard is taking a lot of shortcuts and throwing in a lot of personal touches. It works great for THAT WIZARD and may be more innovative, but the Aereni find it painful to watch. The second aspect of this is the idea that player character classes reflect a level of talent most people can’t attain, and that the Aereni have MORE people with that level of skill. It takes them longer to get there, but Aerenal has more actual wizards than Khorvaire, whereas in the Five Nations most people just spend the few years required to become magewrights.

Taking as given that player character advancement is not logical, mostly a game mechanic construct, can this focus on learning the exact techniques and history of the past account for the slow pace of technological development in Aereni cultures?

Exactly so. This is something that’s discussed in this article and in this episode of Manifest Zone. A critical quote:

This is why, despite Aereni society having been around for over twenty thousand years, humans are beginning to do things with magic that the elves have never done. Elven society is driven by tradition rather than innovation – by absolutely perfecting the techniques of the past instead of developing entirely new ways of doing things. Innovation does happen – and an Aereni player character might be the great elf innovator of this age – but it isn’t enshrined as a cultural value as it often is among humanity…

Part of the idea is that what the elves see as sloppy Arcanix techniques might actually be BETTER than the ancient Aereni traditions; certainly they’re easier to learn. But the elves take comfort in adherence to what they know.

Thanks again to my Patreon supporters, and I’ll tackle another question tomorrow!

Sidebar: Elves of Eberron

While I’m dealing with deadlines, I’ve reached out to my Patreon supporters for questions that can be addressed in short articles, and I’ll be addressing these as time allows. To begin with, I want to take a quick look at the Elves of Eberron.

Elven civilization began on Xen’drik. It’s said that the giants sacked one of the great Feyspires of Thelanis, severing its ties to the Faerie Court and scattering and enslaving its people—and that over generations, these refugees became the elves. Many elves served as slaves of the giants, and this continued for thousands of years. But when the conflict with the Quori weakened the nations of the giants, the elves rose up against them. This was a long and bitter struggle fought over the course of generations. The elves lacked the resources or raw power of the giants, and couldn’t face them in the field; for the most part it was driven by guerrilla war, with heroic bands of elven champions striking against the giants and disappearing into the wilds. The Sulat giants created the Drow to hunt the elves, following them into places giants couldn’t go. There was never a point at which the elves truly stood a chance of defeating the giants, but the escalating cost of the war (both financially and in lives) eventually became unbearable. The Cul’sir giants prepared to unleash devastating, epic magic against the elves—magic on the same scale as they’d employed against the Quori, forces that destroyed a moon and threw a plane off its orbit. And in so doing, they went too far. The dragons of Argonnessen didn’t care about the elves, but they would not allow the giants to threaten Eberron itself. Flights of dragons devastated Xen’drik—giant and elf alike—and employed epic magics to ensure that no great civilization would ever rise again in the shattered land.

The prophet Aeren is known not for their deeds during the war, but for foreseeing how it would end. Aeren gathered together elves of many different clans and traditions, and convinced them to abandon Xen’drik and escape this coming apocalypse. This rag-tag fleet eventually reached a massive island, but Aeren did not survive the journey. Aeren was interred in soil of the new land, which was named Aerenal—”Aeren’s Rest.”

One of the key points in understanding the elves is that the description of their history is often simplified.The common story is Elves were enslaved by giants. Elves rebeled and eventually fled. The mistake is in thinking that “elf” and “giant” describe singular, monolithic cultures—that ALL elves were slaves of the giants, or that “the giants” were themselves a single monolithic force. Neither of these things are true. The giants had three major nations—the Sulat League, the Cul’sir Dominion, and the Group of Eleven—along with many lesser nations. There were elves who labored as slaves of the giants, but there were others who were never directly under giant rule. The Qabalrin elves maintained a city-state in the Ring of Storms that was a match for even the Cul’sir; it was destroyed not by giants, but by the cataclysmic fall of a giant Siberys dragonshard. The ancestors of the Tairnadal elves were largely nomadic tribes, fleeing further into the wilds as the giants expanded. The “Elven Uprising” involved an alliance of the nomadic tribes, seeing the vulnerabilities following the Quori conflict, combined with an internal uprising and acts of sabotage among the slaves. It was vast and long, fought on many different fronts and between many different nations, and was properly less a war and more an extended period of upheaval. It’s quite possible that the giants themselves fought one another during this time; it may well be that the Sulat League created the Drow not merely to hunt other elves, but also to strike against rivals in the Cul’sir Dominion.

The point is that the elves that followed Aeren were drawn from different nations and traditions. The elves now known as the Aereni were largely those enslaved by the giants, while the Tairnadal are descended from the nomadic warriors. This is one reason that the Aereni have a stronger arcane tradition (inherited from their giant oppressors) while the Tairnadal have a stronger role for druids and rangers. Meanwhile, the line of Vol could trace its roots back to the Qabalrin, and clung to some of their necromantic secrets. Aeren’s vision united them, but with Aeren’s death they split apart… and each pursued their own path to ensure they never lost their greatest champions. The Tairnadal preserve their heroes by serving as mortal avatars for their spirits. The Aereni learned to use the Irian manifest zones of Aerenal to create the deathless, preserving their greatest champions as positive undead; as it took thousands of years to accomplish this, it was far too late to use these techniques on Aeren. And the line of Vol and its allies perfected their techniques of Mabaran necromancy, preserving their greatest as vampires, liches, and mummies. A bitter rivalry built between the Aereni and Vol, culminating in the utter destruction of the Line of Vol—a conflict justified by their attempts to perfect the Mark of Death. Meanwhile, the Tairnadal and the Aereni have continued to exist side by side, following different paths without hostility.

If you’d like to know more about any of this, here’s a number of articles:

General Q&A

GENERAL QUESTIONS

In general, Darwinian evolution doesn’t play a major role in Eberron. How did the eladrin become elves?

The ancestors of the elves were the eladrin of Shae Tirias Tolai, and they didn’t become elves through a process of natural evolution. When the giants sacked the Feyspire, they did something to prevent the Eladrin from escaping. Remember that the giants wielded epic level magic and have been shown on multiple occasions to be able to sever planar bonds—on a small scale with the Citadel of the Fading Dream, and on a larger scale with Dal Quor itself. So they somehow severed the eladrin from Thelanis. We don’t know exactly what they did, but the result was that the children of those surviving eladrin were born as elves.

Due to the conflict of lore regarding Aeren’s pronouns between the Dragonshard (and 4E Eberron Campaign Guide) and Magic of Eberron, would it be plausible to say they’re both right, in a way, and that Aeren was genderfluid?

Sure! That seems entirely plausible. With that said, there’s a few larger issues with the MoE depiction of history. It focuses solely on those elves enslaved by the giants, and depicts the entire struggle as being about escape from Xen’drik. It’s depicted as a prison break on a massive scale—”But secrecy… was vital, lest betrayal ruin all their years of hidden labor.” There’s no mention of the active conflict between elves and giants, the struggles that established the legends of the Tairnadal ancestors. Compare this to the original ECS description of the Age of Giants…

The remaining giant kingdoms never quite recover from the events of the quori invasion. Horrible curses and plagues sweep through the land, and the elves use the opportunity to rebel. In desperation, the giants again turn to the same magic they used to stop the quori. Before they can unleash such destruction a second time, the dragons attack. Giant civilization crumbles, the drow go into hiding in the Xen’drik countryside, and the elves flee to the island-continent of Aerenal.

By contrast, Magic of Eberron says nothing about giant civilization being crippled from the quori conflict. It doesn’t present an active war between elves and giants, the conflict that gave birth to the patron ancestors of the Tairnadal. The rebel elves launch a single massive attack and then immediately flee. There’s no mention of the Tairnadal and no mention of what causes the apocalyptic attack of the dragons. It’s fairly easy to resolve this; look to the MoE account as describing sabotage going on within the Cul’sir Dominion at the same time as the Tairnandal attacks, and something that further pushed the giants to that point f desperation. But the point is that the rebellious elves weren’t originally planning to flee; Aeren is noteworthy for foreseeing the actions of the dragons and for bringing together elves of many traditions—not just the Cul’sir slaves—and convincing them to join the exodus.

Magic of Eberron then goes on to say that Aeren became the first of the deathless, developing the techniques while on Xen’drik. The other canon sources maintain that the rituals required to develop the deathless were developed on Aerenal thousands of years after the exodus, in part because they required the powerful Irian manifest zones in that land and in part because this work was driven by the loss of Aeren—and a determination never to lose so great a soul again.

TAIRNADAL AND VALENAR ELVES

What do the Talenta halflings and the Valenar elves have to fight about? They’re both pastoral herding cultures separated by an inhospitable desert. Numerous sources mention Valenar incursions looking for a good fight. I understand why players would want to deal with a culture like that, but why would a culture encourage it on one side, and the other side, not discourage it ‘with extreme predjudice’?

It’s a mistake to think of the elves of Valenar as a “pastoral herding culture.” They are an army, in Khorvaire for the sole purpose of fighting a war that has not yet begun.

As described above, the ancestors of the Tairnadal fought against the giants of Xen’drik. It was a daring conflict against impossible odds, but through remarkable skill, strategy, and cunning the elves won remarkable victories and ultimately drove the giants to the rash actions that brought about their doom. Later the Tairnadal came to Khorvaire, where they fought the Dhakaani goblins at the height of their power. Once again, the elves performed heroic deeds in battle against an overpowering foe. In the end, they weren’t defeated; they were forced to retreat from Khorvaire to run towards an even greater battle, fighting the dragons that were attacking their homeland.

The Tairnadal elves are driven by these ancient conflicts. They believe that every Tairnadal elf is chosen by the spirit of a patron ancestor, a legendary hero tied to these wars with the giants, goblins, or dragons. The mortal elf serves as an avatar of the ancient hero. The more closely the elf emulates the ancestor, the stronger this bond becomes. This is both a duty—preserving the spirit of the ancestor from being lost to Dolurrh—and a privilege, as they believe that through the bond the elf inherits the skills and wisdom of the ancestor. And the greatest aspiration of all is to perform such glorious deeds that the living elf will be venerated as a patron ancestor by the generations yet to come.

The Tairnadal made a pledge to Dhakaan, a promise that they would not return to Khorvaire in force unless invited. During the Last War, Cyre issued that invitation. The elves didn’t come to Khorvaire because they wanted land in which to herd horses. They didn’t come because they wanted or needed the wages Cyre was paying them. They returned in search of a glorious battle, a conflict that would allow them to match the deeds of their ancestors. But they soon concluded that their work as mercenaries wouldn’t give them that. So Shaeras Vadallia seized what is now Valenar as an intentional provocation. Since the Treaty of Thronehold, these Valenar elves have been breaking the terms of the treaty and raiding their neighbors. Why? In part it’s to keep the skills of their warriors fresh. In part it’s because the members of those individual warbands seek opportunities to strengthen their bond to their ancestors in battle. But most of all, it’s because the elves want someone to attack them. Their ancestors weren’t conquerors or mercenaries; they were guerrilla warriors fighting against an overpowering foe. The Valenar want to provoke a mighty enemy—perhaps Karrnath, or a resurgent Dhakaan—into attacking them in Valenar. As elves, they are perfectly happy to wait a century for this plan to play out, and in the meantime they are learning the lay of the land in Valenar, finding ambush points, laying traps. The Tairnadal don’t care about Valenar as a colony; for them it’s a killing ground, and they are just kicking hornet’s nests and waiting for someone to take the bait.

So why raid the halflings? Largely, because they’re there. The Valenar forces in the Talenta Plains aren’t acting on Vadallia’s orders. These warbands are self-sufficient units sent off on their own recognizance. They are searching for worthy foes and violating the Treaty of Thronehold… again, provoking the other nations. These warbands aren’t primarily interested in plunder, and they generally avoid attacking civilian populations; whenever possible they are looking for WORTHY opponents. They’re also attacking swordtooth titans and other deadly dinosaurs. And some are even crossing the Plains to launch attacks into Karrnath… as that’s one of the forces they’d really like to provoke to attack Valenar.

For their part, the halflings have no interest in conflict with the Valenar. The tribes are only loosely aligned and aren’t driven by war. They seek to defend themselves against raiding warbands, but they aren’t prepared to go to war with Valenar. Now again, for this very reason, this is why the Valenar AREN’T particularly interested in fighting the halflings. They provoke them in order to try to draw out their best warriors and hunters, to try to have a challenging fight. But they would RATHER battle the full might of Karrnath, or something similar. The halflings just have the misfortune of being between the two.

So in part, bear in mind that the Valenar elves aren’t a culture as such; they are a Tairnadal army in the field, biding their time as they wait for a more powerful foe to take the bait and attack them in Valenar.

Do the Tairnadal take the namesake of the ancestor they emulate?

Many do, though not all. For example, High King Shaeras Vadallia is an avatar of Vadallia, who was described in the Eye on Eberron article in Dragon #407. But it’s not a requirement, and some consider it to be pretentious.

Are the Tairnadal ancestor spirits literally biological ancestors of the elves that they choose? Or is it more of a cultural line of descent?

It’s more of a cultural line of descent. As noted in the previous question, Tairnadal families are very fluid to begin with. Plus, the original ancestors lived around forty thousand years ago. The lifespan of an elf is about ten times that of a human; can you trace your ancestors back four thousand years? So it’s largely assumed that MOST Tairnadal are related to many of the patron ancestors, and there’s no particular fear of a bloodline dying out. UNLESS, of course, that’s a story you want to explore in your campaign!

Tairnadal ancestors choose their heirs – Why do they pick who they pick? Can there be conflicts between multiple ancestors for one heir?

By default, the patron ancestors move in mysterious ways, and mortals don’t get to know the answers to these questions. It’s up to you as a DM to decide if you want to personify the ancestors more concretely and allow PCs to find these things out. In one campaign I DM’d, one of the PCs was a Valenar ranger. His idea was that he always believed he was going to be chosen by a legendary swordsman, and he’d instead been picked by a champion archer. Furious, he’d stolen the blade of his ancestors and deserted, determined to find his own path… in spite of the fact that he had a bond to the archer and couldn’t force a bond to the swordsman. While we never completed the campaign, the idea of the story was to explore whether he would eventually choose to embrace the archer… or whether he could find some way to change his stars and forge a bond to the swordsman. Had this continued, it would have likely involved a deeper interaction with the spirits themselves and an exploration of why the archer chose him.

It’s also been mentioned that ancestors are chosen for the elf, not by the elf. I’d assume there are some cases of rejection among them, elves who do not want to follow this particular ancestor for whatever reason. What do the Valenar do about these cases?

See the previous answer! This is covered in detail in this article under the heading “Why Should I Do It?” Bear in mind that it’s not that your ancestor is chosen for you, it’s that you are chosen BY an ancestorThe spirit of a champion of legend says “This one’s mine.” You are a soldier in an army being given a command by the highest authority, and you’re a follower of a religion devoted to honoring these spirits. But yes: this means that you could be someone who believes in honor and chivalry, and then you could be chosen by the Butcher and told you must not only be ruthless and cruel, but you must do your best to EXCEL at it. If you say no, you’re a soldier refusing a command and an acolyte turning your back on your faith. So you can expect to be discharged from the army—which means being severed from your culture—and shunned by former people.

In short, it’s a great path for a player character who needs to explain why they are out adventuring instead of serving with a warband. Will you reconcile and accept the spirit that chose you? Will you find a way to forge a bond with a different ancestor? Or will you remain an outcast?

Are there any actions the Valenar do not tolerate in warfare? Things they would consider war crimes? If their patron ancestor would do things considered by society to be immoral, even in war, would they share any of those views?

The Valenar believe it is their duty to emulate the patron ancestors. If you compare it to the Sovereign Host, some of the ancestors are more like Dol Arrah, some closer to Dol Arrah, and a few could be compared to the Mockery. The elves of Xen’drik fought a guerilla war against a vastly superior foe, and there were many who relied on cunning, deception, and terror to accomplish their goals. So there are Valenar who believe in absolute chivalry and honor on the battlefield, and there are ruthless Valenar feel that deception and terror are necessarily tools—who feel they have a religious duty to strike fear into their foes. The point is that a Valenar commander KNOWS what behavior to expect from their troops. They’ll use the Dol Arrahs on the open battlefield, and they’ll use the Mockeries as commandoes and skirmishers… and they definitely won’t put the two side by side. The honorable Valenar are disgusted by the butchers, but they know that the butchers are required to be butchers.

So for example, MOST Valenar won’t kill civilians. But there are then there are a few who will specifically target civilian populations, because that’s something their ancestor was known for doing. The commander knows this, and won’t put that unit in the field unless that’s what they expect of them.

Three subgroups of Tairnadal have been described. The Valaes Tairn believe that glory in battle is the highest goal, regardless of the nature of the foe. The Silaes Tairn are determined to return to Xen’drik and reclaim the ancient realm of the elves, and the Draleus Tairn wish to destroy the dragons of Argonnessen. Do Tairnadal elves choose which group to be in or do they all grow up and stay with their group?

The Valaes Tairn are by far the largest of these three groups. They also receive the most attention because they’re the only ones who generally come to Khorvaire. The Silaes are focused on Xen’drik, and the only reason for a member of the Draleus Tairn to come to Khorvaire is a dragon hunt… and the dragons of Khorvaire generally keep a very low profile.

The first and primary factor in which group you follow is your patron ancestor. If your patron is a legendary dragon hunter, you’re likely to join the Draleus Tairn. Otherwise, the default is the Valaes Tairn, but it’s largely about what you feel your patron ancestor is calling you to do, which is something you might discuss with one of the Keepers of the Past. If you have the support of a Keeper, people will respect your decision.

Bear in mind that you won’t generally “grow up” with one of these groups. They’re all essentially military units, and until you’ve reached adulthood and the Keepers have identified your patron ancestor, you’re essentially not equipped to travel with a warband.

Why aren’t the Silaes Tairn the major sect? Obviously, dragon-slayer heir would want to fight dragons, but aren’t the majority of the ancestors giant-slayers (or drow slayers)? And are the Valaes Tairn the largest sect historically?

Because Xen’drik is a cursed ruin; the giants and the drow aren’t the same as those the ancestors fought. The Valaes Tairn believe that it doesn’t matter WHAT you fight or WHERE you fight; what matters is that you act as your ancestor would act if they were in your place. This is inherently more flexible, and that’s why it’s the most widespread belief. Someone who’s ancestor is legendary for fighting drow COULD feel drawn to the Sileus Tairn, because they want to fight drow; but they could easily say “What defines my ancestor is her courage and her techniques for fighting multiple enemies at once, and I can demonstrate both of those fighting goblins.” Essentially, most see the Silaes Tairn as slightly crazy extremists; the Valaes are the most moderate sect.

ELVES OF KHORVAIRE

What are the religious views of the elves of House Phiarlan? Did they follow the path of Vol, the Undying Court, or the Tairnadal? Do they still follow these traditions? 

Excellent question. This is covered in this Dragonshard article. Here’s part of the relevant text.

The houses of shadow can trace their roots back to the Elven Uprising, the ancient war between the giants of Xen’drik and the ancestors of the modern elves. Many assume that this was a conflict between two monolithic entities, but neither elves nor giants were unified forces. Many different giant nations existed, and there were dozens of sects of elves, ranging from former slaves to guerillas who had fought the giants for millennia. Over the course of the uprising, some elves served as liaisons between the many different tribes. These travelers saw their role in war as being more spiritual than physical: Their task was to uphold morale and maintain the alliances between the scattered soldiers. They called themselves phiarlans, or “spirit keepers.” These phiarlans learned the traditions and customs of all elven sects, and a phiarlan bard could inspire warriors from any tribe. The phiarlans were not generals or military strategists, but their motivational work and the intelligence they carried from place to place was an invaluable part of the military effort.

The article goes on to describe how the Phiarlans continued to serve this role in Aerenal—serving as envoys and mediators for elves of all lines and cultures. In essence, they acknowledged and understood all of the traditions, but they never fully embraced them. A Phiarlan bard knows the stories of the Tairnadal ancestors, but doesn’t seek to embody an ancestor. And looking to the Undying Court, the Phiarlans acknowledge that exists, but they turned their back on it when they left Aerenal; they don’t believe it watches over them and they aren’t aspiring to join it.

Overall, the elves of the House of Shadow typically aren’t very religious. They seek to understand all faiths but rarely commit to one. There are some who embrace the Sovereign Host or the Dark Six, but in general they are a pragmatic people devoted more to their work and their traditions than to abstract forces.

Is there a particular culture and history for Khorvaire elves among other regions, such as in cities or the Five Nations? How did it come to be that those elves left their Valenar and Aerenal roots, to the point that half-elves were in large enough numbers to be considered their own distinct race (Khoravar)?

As the Undying Court rose to power, there were always elves who opposed it and chose to leave Aerenal to explore other opportunities. There was a greater wave of migration following the eradication of the Line of Vol. The Vol bloodline was the only one that was exterminated; her allies had to choose exile or to swear oaths to the Court, and many chose exile. While others, like the Phiarlans, were disturbed by the conflict and left of their own accord. That was 2,600 years ago. So there are places like House Phiarlan and the Bloodsail Principality where elves maintain a unique culture, but many of these immigrants fully integrated into their nations. A typical Brelish elf is Brelish first, elf second. Elves in Thrane are likely to be devoted to the Silver Flame; it’s just that an elf elder devoted to the Flame might have personally known Tira Miron. But the short form is that elves in Khorvaire could trace their roots back to followers of Vol or immigrants driven by curiosity, but for most those roots are long buried and they have assimilated into the local culture.

Meanwhile. the reason half-elves are considered their own distinct race is because they ARE their own distinct race. Most Khoravar are children of Khoravar, and their original elven ancestors could be buried so deeply in their family trees that they don’t even know who they were. Khoravar are more fertile than elves, and so over the course of thousands of years, they’ve spread more rapidly.

Do elves still constitute a sizable portion of the Blood of Vol’s faithful and if so do they have a different take on the religion as they are only a few generations separated from the initial mixing with humans in Lhazaar?

It’s important to recognize that the religion known as “The Blood of Vol” was never practiced by the line of Vol. This is a critical point about Erandis, because she doesn’t follow the faith. The Blood of Vol is a religion that emerged over the course of centuries, inspired by the words of Vol’s allies who settled in the Lhazaar Principalities, but interpreted and adapted by the humans… and then continuing to evolve as it traveled into Karrnath, which became its heart. So no, elves don’t constitute a sizeable portion of the Seekers. Some of these refugee elves fully integrated with the cultures they joined. The place where they’ve held to their traditions—and where they still practice the ORIGINAL teachings of the line of Vol—is in the Bloodsail Principality in Lhazaar, based on the island of Farlnen. The Bloodsails were described in detail in the Eye on Eberron article in Dragon 410.

With that said, it’s been more than just a few generations. An elf can live up to 750 years, but by the 3.5 tables they are considered “Venerable” — the most extreme age category — at 350. It’s been 2,600 years since the line of Vol was wiped out. If we set the generational length at 350 (which is somewhat generous, as the human equivalent of venerable is 70, but we typically set human generations at around 25), we’re still talking over seven generations. The issue is that in following the traditions of Vol, Farlnen is home to many vampires and liches who have unliving memory of the past and maintain those ancient traditions.

 

If you have questions or thoughts about the elves of Eberron, post them here!