Sidebar: Making History

My new book Exploring Eberron is available now on the DM’s Guild. You can find a FAQ about it here. I am currently working on a long article about the Nobility of Khorvaire. This will examine the role of the nobility in Galifar and how this evolved over the course of the Last War and into the present day—writing about what it means to be noble in Khorvaire. However, I’m not going to delve too deeply into the history of Galifar, and one thing I certainly won’t do is provide a complete list of the historical rulers of Galifar; I thought I’d take a moment to explain why.

Creating history is a potential rabbit hole for any worldbuilder. You may have noticed that Eberron: Rising From The Last War barely addresses history before the Last War. In writing Exploring Eberron I wanted to fill in this gap for people who weren’t familiar with the older sourcebooks, and ExE includes a discussion of the Age of Demons, Age of Giants, and Age of Monsters, along with a broad timeline for the modern age. But these are brief overviews, and each section includes an important question: Why does this matter? What about this period of time can drive an adventure or add an interesting element to a player character’s backstory? This is a question I ask myself anytime I’m adding lore to the world. Can I think of three ways that this could inspire or impact a story? Can I think of a reason why a player—or character—would want to know this piece of information?

Beyond the simple point of not wanting to waste time on information that no one has a use for, I also don’t want to overcrowd the world with facts that may end up getting in the way of stories I want to tell. Imagine that I’m running a campaign, and I want the players to have to track down a long-lost artifact—the Codex Ourelonastrix, a book said to have been written by the Sovereign Aureon. One of the adventurers is a Lore bard with proficiency in History, and I start the session by revealing the following information…

The last known owner of the Codex Ourelonastrix was Queen Marala, who ruled Galifar during the fifth century. Marala was known as ‘the Hand of Aureon’ and expanded the schools of Galifar and the Arcane Congress. According to stories, she built a hidden sanctum—an ‘invisible tower’ that held her personal library. The Codex Ourelonastrix hasn’t been seen since Marala’s death, and her library vault has never been found… until now.”

Marala and her invisible tower (which I’m imagining to be an extradimensional space, like a magnificent mansion) didn’t exist until five minutes ago. They exist now because they serve the story: I can introduce a secret library that contain the lost literary treasures of the kingdom. Moving forward, I can expand on Marala and her role in the history of Galifar, and this will be interesting to the players because they have context for Marala. If I introduce her as a lich or preserved as a spirit idol, that’s going to be interesting… but it’s interesting because of their personal experience.

The flip side is that the last thing I want is for a player to say “Fifth century? Well, actually, Five Nations says that King Borotox and King Gorman were the rulers of Galifar in the fifth century, and that they were both illiterate.” The existence of Borotox and Gorman doesn’t help the story I want to tell; it’s just a random piece of canon lore that I never read, and now it’s in the way of my story. As it is, we know that Galifar HAD queens and kings, but because they AREN’T concretely listed out, nothing’s stopping me from creating one that perfectly fits the needs of my story. Likewise, note that I just said Marala “ruled Galifar during the fifth century.” I don’t need to know that her rule began in 435 YK when she took over from King Drego II and ended when she died in her sleep on 4 Olarune 468 YK… and if I DO need to know these things, I can make them up, like I just did. We’re talking about events that occurred hundreds of years ago, to a character who didn’t exist yesterday. If I NEED specifics I can create them; but odds are good that it will never actually matter when she was coronated, and if it DOES matter, it’s useful to have the freedom to create the date that best suits the needs of the campaign.

As an example of this in practice, let’s look at the War of the Mark. We know that the war took place “approximately 1,500 years ago.” But we don’t know exactly when it began, how long it lasted, or or the precise date it ended. We know the names of some of the major figures, but not all of them! We know about the destruction of Sharn, but not the exact date. Page 178 of Rising From The Last War describes ‘The Lady’s Day’, a holiday that commemorates the Lady of the Plague unleashing her death curse on Sharn with plague drills. But it doesn’t actually give the date of the celebration! If you LIKE the idea of the Lady’s Day and want to use it in your current campaign, then congratulations, it’s happening tomorrow. Because what we don’t want is for you to say “This is perfect for my story! Oh, wait, it’s on 5 Rhaan, and that’s six months from now. Never mind.” There’s no reason that it HAS to be on a specific date. I want you to tell ME when the Lady’s Day is celebrated—and then to make a note of that, and use that in your campaign going forward. Likewise, if you want to add a new aberrant champion who fought a campaign in Thaliost during the War of the Mark, go ahead! The history we’ve provided is an overview, not an absolute battle-by-battle account of the war.

Now: I’m not saying that you shouldn’t or can’t create history or set specific dates. In Sharn: City of Towers we say that the Glass Tower was destroyed on 9 Olarune 918 YK. Sharn: City of Towers also includes a list of holidays and special events with concrete dates. Because it can help to have a framework of history that can inspire DMs looking for story ideas… “Hmm, it’s Olarune, does anything interesting happen in Olarune?” It’s the same as how we tell you about SOME of the overlords and SOME of the daelkyr—but we also say that there’s more of them and that we’re never going to give a complete list. I’m never going to give an absolute list of all of the rulers of Galifar. But what I AM going to do as a Patreon-exclusive bonus to the Nobility article is to provide a list of some of my FAVORITE rulers of Galifar… people like Marala, who might inspire a story. Just like we’ve told you about Rak Tulkhesh and Sul Khatesh but not ALL the overlords, I’ll tell you about a few interesting rulers, but I’m not going to lock them all down.

So Exploring Eberron includes a timeline of the modern age that includes a number of interesting dates and events. But I’m not going to create a 200-page History of Galifar that breaks things down in detail, year-by-year. Instead, what Exploring Eberron includes is a table of ideas for Untold History. I’ll let that section speak for itself…

Galifar stood for almost a thousand years before collapsing into the Last War. This section has highlighted some particular moments in history that can be used as inspiration for adventure. But both in this book and in the wider canon of Eberron lore, there are vast stretches of time that remain largely undeveloped.

Within your campaign—whether as player or Dungeon Master—feel free to develop and explore additional moments of history if they enhance the stories you want to tell. The Untold History table provides a starting point for ideas. As a Dungeon Master, this can be a way to add depth to a story. Have the players arrived at a currently unremarkable inn? Perhaps two hundred years ago, that inn was the headquarters of an alliance of peasants that rose up against the monarchy, only to be brutally suppressed—and they still don’t think much of characters with the noble background! Or in developing a character, perhaps one of your ancestors was a wizard who made an important arcane breakthrough—only to have it covered up by the dragonmarked houses.

The crucial point is that established history is a place to start, nothing more. Use the ideas presented here when they can help you. But always feel empowered to expand the world and develop the history of your Eberron, even if it may not match official sourcebooks that come out in the future.

Exploring Eberron, page 13

A key point here is that LOCAL history can be far more important than GLOBAL history. Imagine I’m looking to add a twist to the adventure I planned. Using the ExE Untold History table, I might come up with A brutal battle connected to the Eldeen Druids which was never explained. At some point in the past, there was a bitter battle between druids, and even the locals don’t know why it happened. Here’s just a few ways I could spin out that hook…

  • Purely Cosmetic. There’s a field just beyond the village that is filled with unusual crimson flowers. The locals say that the flowers sprouted where the blood of the druids fell on the field. With a good Intelligence (Investigation) check, players might be able to find a few goodberries growing amid the blood-blossoms.
  • Character Hook. If one of the characters has a connection to a druidic sect, they could have a vision when they enter the field. The battle wasn’t between druids; it was that the druids fought a dangerous foe and the villagers never even knew of the threat. Perhaps the field contains a portal to Khyber, and it’s about to open again.
  • Explanation for Threat. No one knows why the druids fought, but the magics they used had a lasting effect on the region. There are dire or horrid beasts in the region, and one of them is on a rampage…

These are just a few quick ideas. Perhaps there’s an awakened tree left behind who knows the story! The hook can be even more interesting if the region is far from the Eldeen Reaches—how did the druids reach the area? Is there a hidden sect still here? The point is that this ISN’T reflected in the grand scope of history. This isn’t a reflection of a bitter druidic civil war that took place in 734 YK; it’s just a curious piece of local history, something that can add color or an unexpected twist to local history.

If you had to rewrite some parts of Eberron, would you have kept specific dates like the destruction of the Glass Tower more vague? These specific dates seem to clash with your overall design philosophy of leaving specifics up to the GM/players to decide.

It’s a good question. To me, it comes back to the overlords and the daelkyr. I don’t mind providing SOME specifics, because many DMs like having concrete things to work with. If we just said “There’s thirty overlords out there, but we aren’t going to tell you about ANY of them” then we’re imposing a lot of work on a DM to use them in any way. By providing a number of overlords as concrete examples, we both allow the DM to use something quickly when they need it and to show what WE think overlords are like; but we still leave lots of room for you to create your own, rather than providing an absolute list of THESE ARE ALL OF THE OVERLORDS. It’s the same with history. It’s absolutely fine to provide a range of concrete dates and events, because many DMs WILL find those useful and inspiring. I don’t mind providing names, details, and even dates for SOME of the rulers of Galifar. But I don’t want to establish an ABSOLUTE, COMPLETE list of ALL rulers and dates.

So I don’t mind the Glass Tower as a specific date in the past, in part because that specific date really doesn’t matter; it’s not like it’s likely to break a story. On the other hand, a date I DO regret having absolutely established is the date of the Race of Eight Winds, because that’s DEFINITELY an event that as a DM, I want to have happen when I want it to happen; I don’t want to have to say “I was going to do a cool thing with the Race of Eight Winds, but it’s actually six months away.”

So again, I’m not against ANY specifics; I’m just saying that not everything NEEDS to be specific.

With that said, if we were starting from absolute scratch, the main thing I would do is to reduce the OVERALL SCOPE OF HISTORY. There’s a tendency in fantasy fiction—in part because of long-lived beings such as elves — to make use of VAST SPANS OF TIME without really thinking it through. Galifar lasted A THOUSAND YEARS mainly because it sounds more dramatic than “Galifar lasted for 345 years” or “Galifar lasted for 245 years before splitting into two kingdoms for 30 years, after which it reunited but under a council of five princes for a century, and was finally restored to a single ruler for a decade before the Last War.” Shrinking some of the scale of the modern age would allow the colonization of Khorvaire to have a little more of a concrete impact. Beyond that, the fact that the Daelkyr incursion canonically happened NINE THOUSAND YEARS AGO is kind of crazy in terms of having it logically impact the present day. Part of the point of the Uul Dhakaan is to explain HOW the heirs of Dhakaan could maintain their culture over thousands of years. But even so, I’ll say that I tend to blur that number. It’s a little like the population numbers in the ECS, which really don’t make sense. I don’t worry about the precise numbers because THEY DON’T MATTER. What matters is that I have a sense of the relative populations of Breland and Aundair, or of Fairhaven and Sharn. I know that Aundair has the smallest population of the Five Nations, and that’s what I need for my story. Likewise, I know that the Dhakaani Empire fell before humanity came to Khorvaire; I’m not going to dwell too much on the idea that the Dhakaani empire is substantially older than Sumer, because at the end of the day, it doesn’t affect my story; what matters is that it’s OLD.

Since you brought up the population numbers, how about the cartography? The map in Rising not only clearly lacks the requisite number of towns and villages but seems to have a lack of rail lines and rivers.

It’s the same principle as the overlords. The map in Rising is a starting point. It mentions a number of cities, a number of rivers, a number of roads. It’s a place to begin, set of cities we all know and use together. But it was never supposed to be comprehensive. Consider that New York state has 62 cities and 932 towns. Even if we could squeeze that much detail into, say, Aundair, what would be the point? What are you going to do with 932 towns? Consider that even with the small number of communities we have, we still haven’t had time to, say, give a detailed description of Atur. We only present a few because you only need a few to serve the needs of most stories and because the more we mention, the less space we have to actually describe them in any level of detail. But you can assume that there are hundreds of farming villages spread across Aundair and the Eldeen Reaches. If you want to add a city in Breland, add it! Likewise, there DEFINITELY aren’t enough rivers and rails, which is a consequence of not showing all the towns that are on them. So again, it’s like the overlords. We’ve told you about SOME of the cities, and that gives you things you can use immediately and a model for what a Thrane/Brelish/Karrnathi town is like. But it’s not supposed to be comprehensive or realistic, because a truly realistic map would bury us in unnecessary details.

My next article is going to be a lightning round IFAQ addressing questions from my Patreon supporters, followed by the Nobility of Khorvaire. Thanks to my patrons for making this possible, and to all of you who’ve picked up Exploring Eberron!