IFAQ: Nationalism, Ancient Sailors, Merfolk and Masked Fey

Every month, I answer interesting questions posed by my Patreon supporters. Here’s a few that came up this month!

What is the basis of nationalism in Khorvaire? Everyone speaks Common. Ethnicity doesn’t seem to be a factor, considering that you can be Brelish while being a dwarf or elf, let alone human. If it’s about shared history and traditions, can an Aundairian adopt Brelish ways and become a Brelishman? If an overwrought Sword of Liberty is setting out on a terror campaign against foreigners, what is he looking for to determine who is and isn’t a “foreigner”?

First, let’s talk about language—something I did in this article. One of the basic points is that the Common tongue is an artificial construct we use because it makes stories easier; it’s not especially FUN to have the story come grinding to a halt because no one speaks Karrnathi. So, everyone in the Five Nations speaks Common. But as I note in that article…

I prefer to limit the number of languages I use, but also to play up the idea of regional dialects and slang. Common draws on all of the old languages of pre-Riedran Sarlona, so you can definitely get variation from place to place. When the paladin from Thrane is in a small Karrnathi village, he might have to make an Intelligence check to perfectly understand the conversation of the locals or a Charisma check to communicate clearly… unless, of course, he has a local guide to help out. It allows for the challenge and potential humor of limited communication while still allowing for the possibility of communication with no help. If a character has the Linguist feat or is from the region, I’d allow them to act as that local guide — so we’ve got a little fun flavor because the Karrn PC can joke with the locals at the expense of the Thrane.

Then there’s this article on “The People of the Five Nations.” A key note: “Rather than being judged by the color of your skin, you’ll be evaluated by your ACCENT, ATTITUDE and FASHION.” (highlights added). So again, everyone may be speaking Common, but in my campaign, unless someone is actively trying to disguise it it’s obvious from their accent where they’re from (unless part of their story is “I went to Arcanix and worked hard to ditch my small-town Brelish accent.”)

To look to a real world example, consider the US Civil War. Consider how people in a small town in Mississippi would feel about someone from New York City moving into town four years after the war. He might look just like most of the townsfolk; he might even have a great-grandfather from the town. But he doesn’t dress like them, he doesn’t sound like them, he doesn’t share their customs, and the people in the town lost a lot of good boys in the war. Even if that outsider does his best to lose his accent and to adopt local customs…. do you think the locals will say “Oh, that’s OK then?” Or might some of them even be angrier, thinking he’s mocking them?

So: it’s NOT about blood. You can be a Brelish dwarf or a Brelish elf. It’s about customs. It’s about the way you speak and the sound of your name. It’s about your values and your traditions. Can you quote Beggar Dane? Are you willing to help a friend pull one over on the tax collectors? If you ditch everything about you that defines you as Cyran, then congratulations, they might even let you join the Swords of Liberty. But that’s not something most Cyrans WANT to do; the people of High Walls and New Cyre believe that they WILL regain their nation, and they are proudly holding on to their accents and their customs. And that draws the ire of the Swords of Liberty.

Why are merfolk native to Lamannia? In my musings about them, they seem to be (in our real-life mythology) more akin to dryads and other fey spirits.

In OUR world, merfolk are mythological. In Eberron—or in Fifth Edition in general—they’re not. A dryad isn’t a natural creature; it’s fey, and part of what that means its that it’s not bound by the limits of nature. Many fey are essentially immortal. They don’t reproduce in the way humanoids do, and for the most part, they don’t evolve. There’s no nation of dryads in Eberron; where they are found, they are tied to their stories, and time essentially passes through them.

None of this is true of the merfolk of Eberron or Lamannia. They’re not fey; they’re humanoids. They live, they raise families, they die. Those that live in Lamannia are influenced by the primal nature of the plane. According to Exploring Eberron,There are merfolk in Eberron—such as the Kalamer of the Thunder Sea—but their people began in the Endless Ocean of Lamannia, and are still found there. These primordial merfolk remain close to their elemental roots and instincts. They wield druidic magic, but don’t craft tools or structures. Other humanoid natives of Lamannia are much the same; any race with a strong primal connection could be tied to Lamannia, but they’re driven by instinct and avoid the trappings of civilization.” But once they arrived in Eberron, they evolved and they changed. The Kalamer of Eberron have many distinct cultures, and Karakala engages in diplomacy and trade with the other nations of the Thunder Sea. If you have an immortal siren who has nothing better to do than sit on a rock and lure sailors to their doom, that could be a Thelanian fey who happens to have the general appearance of a merfolk. But that’s the point—it would be fey, content to play out this somewhat pointless role for centuries. So you could definitely have fey that LOOK like merfolk—but that’s not what the Kalamer are.

Regarding Fey—many of the Archfey lords, especially in your novels, have masks hiding their faces but the enchanted disguises still move with emotions. Was there anything in particular that inspired this custom for Eberron fey of importance?

It largely ties to the idea that the Archfey are STORIES rather than PEOPLE. The stories inspired by the Lady in Shadow can be found among the dar, the dwarves, and humanity; the Lady herself isn’t human, dwarf, or dar. With some Archfey I’ve suggested that people see them in different ways, interpreting them in a familiar form; others appear masked, leaving what lies beneath to the viewer’s imagination. At the same time, the masks generally animate because the point of the mask isn’t to conceal emotion; it’s to leave room for the viewer to add details.

With some groups like elves and gnomes sailing the seas at the same time as Rhiavaar slaver ships, it would be interesting to know what impact or presence western Sarlona had on eastern Khorvaire. Would the Zil merchants have been surprised by human ships coming west?

So first of all, it’s important to keep in mind that we’re discussing events that occurred thousands of years ago, are almost entirely undocumented, and that have a minimal impact on any modern nation. So the discussion is extremely hypothetical. Having said that that, let’s talk about what ways going on in the Lhazaar Sea when Lhazaar showed up. First of all: Lhazaar wasn’t the first Sarlonan human to land in the region that now bears her name. She was the first to lead a serious, large-scale force there… but the reason they were willing to take that risk was because they knew of the land from other Rhiavhaarans who’d made the crossing and even established outposts on some of the islands. Essentially, Lhazaar was coming because it was clear there was profit to be made. Keep in mind that at this time, Rhiavhaar wasn’t some sort of disciplined empire. Rhiavhaarans were known as coastal reavers and pirates, and when asking “what ships did they attack with their piracy” — in part they clashed with vessels from the Syrkarn nations, but they also clashed with OTHER RHIAVHAARANS; the Provinces of Riedra article notes that during the Sundering, the Dreaming Dark brought down Rhiavhaar by exacerbating existing clan feuds. Part of what was remarkable about Lhazaar’s expedition was the number of people she convinced to work together.

The original question asks if Zil merchants were surprised by humans arriving, because they were trading with the Mror. But the Zil WEREN’T trading with the Mror before Lhazaar, because Zilargo didn’t exist then. Per this canon article, Zilargo specifically formed in response to Malleon’s reaving along the southern coast. Exploring Eberron notes that humanity largely ignored the Mror until Galifar, while “Zil explorers” came to Mror in the time known as Dul Krok—the time in which humanity was spreading across Khorvaire. There may have been a few ships from Trolanport exploring the east coast when Lhazaar arrived, but Zilargo as we know it didn’t even exist and didn’t yet have established trade with the Mror. Likewise, the Aereni have always been insular. I expect the Aereni traded with Khunan and Sunyagir, so their ships would have clashed with Rhiavhaaran pirates in the south, but I doubt they would have been frequently encountered in the current region of the Lhazaar Principalities. So around the time Lhazaar landed, most likely the majority of the sea traffic in the region would have been other Rhiavhaarans, either opportunist raiders or smaller-scale settlers.

What kinds of alcohol / drinks are popular in Adar?

Alcohol exists in Adar, but it isn’t especially remarkable or beloved. The more distinctive regional beverage is varit, pure water infused with a liquid form of sentira that conveys a pure emotion. Why get drunk when you can simply drink joy? Pure varit is quite intense, so it’s usually watered down; a few drops in tal to start the day off with a positive feeling. For the most part, Adaran varit is distilled from positive feelings, but there’s a distillery in Raan that specializes in sorrow, for those who wish to wallow in grief. As it hasn’t been mentioned canonically, I don’t think it’s currently well known in Khorvaire. I’d think imported varit would be a rare and exotic beverage—the sort of thing Aurum concordians would brag about drinking—but that there could be varit distilleries starting up in Overlook or other Adaran communities.

That’s all for now! Feel free to discuss these ideas or to share what you’ve done with any of these things in the comments, but as this is an IFAQ, I won’t be answering further questions on these topics. Thanks to my Patreon supporters for asking interesting questions!

Dragonmarks: Svirfneblin

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

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

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

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

The Gnomes of Lorghalen

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

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

Agents of the Trust

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

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

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

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

Q&A

Would these Eberron deep gnomes still be gray and bald?

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

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

Dragonmarks: The Gnomes of Pylas Pyrial

In September, my Patreon supporters chose “Gnomes Beyond Zilargo” as the topic of the month, and I partially covered the topic with this article on The Gnomes of Lorghalen. It’s no longer September, but I wanted to address the Gnomes of Pylas Pyrial before moving on to the next topic.

The Glamerwind River connects the Zil city of Oskilor to the Thunder Sea. There’s only a few small villages along the banks of the river. But choose the right time to sail down the Glamerwind and you may hear ethereal music coming from the Shimmerwood. At night, you might see swarms of glimmering lights dancing among the trees—flights of pixies creating dazzling displays of illusion. If you abandon your boat and follow the music or the dancing lights, you may find a massive tower rising up in a vast clearing, a spire of glowing white stone entwined with threads of gleaming gold. This is Pylas Pyrial, the Gate of Joy—a citadel of the Faerie Court, a wonder from Thelanis momentarily in the mortal world.

Pylas Pyrial is a feyspire. Most of the time it rests in the Moonlit Vale of Thelanis, at certain times it is drawn into Eberron. Usually this occurs when the moon Rhaan is full, but this alone isn’t the determining factor; according to Shan Pyrial, the ruler of the spire, it is the “tides of joy” that draw it to the material plane. Even when it is present, it can’t always be found; people have wandered in the Shimmerwood for days, trying to follow the music and yet never finding it. Additional information about the feyspires can be found in the 4E Eberron Campaign Guide. In general, most feyspires remain hidden from the nations that surround them and are known only from stories. Pylas Pyrial has been known to the gnomes since long before Zilargo was founded, and the majority of the inhabitants of the feyspire are gnomes. Many Korranberg scholars believe that the gnomes of Eberron are most likely descended from gnomes who left Pylas Pyrial long ago; this explains the natural talents for illusion and wild speech that many gnomes develop, both of which are common among the gnomes of Pylas Pyrial. The question is why these ancient gnomes would have left Pylas Pyrial in sufficient numbers to create a beachhead for a new species on Eberron… and adding to this mystery is the fact that Shan Pyrial refuses to discuss it.

While Pylas Pyrial is known to the Zil, they haven’t spread the news of its existence widely. It’s generally seen as a family secret shared by the Zil—told as a story that they know is real. But given how sporadically it appears, one can’t ever be sure of finding it. The region of the Shimmerwood surrounding the tower is a powerful Thelanian manifest zone, and those who have tried to clear the forest or build too close to the spire have always suffered disasters; and those who come to the spire driven by greed cannot pass through the gates. There are a few villages along the Glamerwind, whose people maintain ties with the spire and rejoice when it returns… and there are agents of the Trust in these villages, who monitor the tower and make sure the fey don’t pose a threat to the nation. But by and large Pylas Pyrial is allowed to be a wonder. While it’s shown on OUR maps, the Zil don’t mark it on the standard maps they produce; after all, most of the time it’s not there!

THE GNOMES OF JOY

When the Prince of Summer was betrayed by his lover, his heart froze and he became the Prince of Frost. So bitter was he that he tore the sun from the sky, swearing that there should be no light in the vale while there was no light in his heart. None of the lords of the court challenged him. Some remained silent out of fear, but most found that they preferred to live in moonlight, and so the Moon Court found its name. But there was a gnome who loved to dance under the sun and sought a respite from the somber shadows. She went to the prince’s palace of frozen tears, and found the doors frozen shut. She sang a happy song, and caught the notes as they rose to the sky, carrying her to the highest tower. The prince’s servants barred her path, but the gnome danced with them and melted their frozen hearts. She found the prince on his glittering throne, and begged for him to return the sun. The Prince challenged the gnome to dance for him, to maintain her high spirits while he spoke of every tragedy of the past and of those yet to come. The Prince was certain her heart would freeze as his had, but the gnome held fast to her hope and her light. At last the Prince relented, telling her: You shall be the Prince of Joy, keeper of the summer sun. But you must keep it within your own tower until all of the lords of the Moon Court ask for its return. And you must keep joy bright in your heart, for if it ever fades, the sun will fade with it.

Consider the basic attributes of the Forest gnome. They’re quick, they’re clever, they have a talent for illusions and the ability to speak with small beasts. Add to this mix strong curiosity and a general love of life. These are the gnomes of Pylas Pyrial. In dealing with a Pyrial gnome, imagine that they have stepped right out of a folktale—because in a very real sense, they have. They live in a world that is defined by storybook logic, a world where a good heart and noble intent will allow the reckless hero to overcome those who would do them harm. Some Pyrial gnomes are idealistic and naive, easily deceived; however, others are far more clever than their enemies expect, affecting trust to convince an enemy to lower their guard. However, even such cunning gnomes are never cruel or driven by selfish goals. Joy is the defining principle of Pylas Pyrial. The spire and its people celebrate life, embracing the brightest moments and pushing through the dark.

If this sounds extremely optimistic for the noir-touched world of Eberron, it’s because it is. Pylas Pyrial isn’t a mortal city. It’s an idea, a story about the happiest place on Eberron. It’s a place where the sunlight never fades, where there is always music and laughter. It’s a city where everyone looks out for each other, where people give the happiness of a neighbor the same weight as their own. If it’s hard to imagine how this works, the answer is to not look at it too closely. Because again, on a certain level it’s not real. The gardens always produce a surplus. The golden light of the Summer Sunbanishes disease. Most of its people have never experienced hardship or bitter loss. Some are artisans, creating the wonders that are part of everyday life in the Spire. Some are entertainers, tasked to sing and dance, raising the spirits of those who see and hear them. Others tend the gardens and work in the kitchens, for in Pylas Pyrial every day ends with a grand feast and celebration. Regardless of their position, the people of Pylas Pyrial love what they do, and love bringing happiness to those around them.

Pylas Pyrial typically only appears in Zilargo for a few days each year. Its people welcome guests, but those carrying greed or cruelty in their hearts cannot pass through the Gate of Joy. This is a trait of the gates themselves, not something the guards can control; generally, the guards will talk with those who cannot enter, trying to learn what burdens them and help them to find a path to joy. Once within the spire, strangers are celebrated. The people of Pylas Pyrial are always curious to learn more about the “Sunlit World” (their name for Eberron, in contrast to the Moonlit Vale where the spire spends most of its days). Visitors are encouraged to tell stories, and display whatever talents they might possess. Entertainers will find an enthusiastic audience, and the day always ends with a glorious heroes feast.

The people of Pylas Pyrial trade with the local villagers, and it’s possible to obtain wonders here; common magic items truly are commonplace, and more powerful items can be obtained. But the Pyrial gnomes have no need of gold and no interest in profit. They seek things that bring joy, and may be willing to trade a magic item for a fantastic joke or a heirloom that has brought delight to many despite having no real value. They may also trade things in exchange for promises—a promise to spread joy or to help those dwelling in darkness. But bear in mind that those driven by greed cannot pass the gates, and further that as Pylas Pyrial is on the edge of Thelanis, promises made here carry great weight. While the spire can be a source of wonderful magic items, the creations of Pylas Pyrial cannot easily be replicated in the Sunlit World of Eberron; Zil artificers have long tried to reverse-engineer these gifts, but the magic woven into them is tied to Thelanis and defies all logical arcane science.

The spire itself is surprisingly reminiscent of one of the great towers of Sharn; it is a vast hollow cylinder, with people living on ledges around the edges and platforms and bridges crossing it. At a glance, it seems that the sun itself is at the top of the spire, but in fact this is a globe in a golden cage. The Pyrials say that this is the sun the prince plucked from the sky in Thelanis; on closer examination, it seems to be a crystal sphere about the size of a wagon wheel. Flights of pixies and sprites fill the air. There is always music, and yet it can dramatically change from platform to platform. The temperature is perfect, and there are delightful scents in the air… but both those scents and the temperature vary to match what delights you. On some platforms people play games; on others people dance, dine, or contemplate things of beauty. Many visitors might wish to remain forever, but few can. Most creatures of the Sunlit World will find themselves left behind when the spire departs, suddenly standing in the Shimmerwood. Those who do remain within find it easy to be lost in the endless celebration, losing track of time and whatever goals they might have had. However, those who keep their wits about them can venture out into the Moonlit Vale. In this way, Pylas Pyrial can both provide a passage to Thelanis and a safe haven for adventurers who wish to explore it or negotiate with the Moon Court.

Trouble In Paradise

At a glance, Pylas Pyrial is a magical wonderland… A literal embodiment of joy. Those with evil in their hearts can’t cross its threshold. But there are a number of ways to challenge the joy of Pylas Pyrial. Consider the following ideas…

  • Wounded in War. During the Last War Aundair launched a sneak attack against Zilargo, targeting a production facility in the Shimmerwood creating alchemical weapons for Breland. This force—which included ground troops, siege staffs, and a team of bombardiers on skystaffs—successfully made it up the Glamerwind, but mistook Pylas Pyrial for its target. The spire withstood the fierce siege, but sustained damage before it disappeared, and a number of residents of the spire who’d been wandering in the woods were left behind. Shan Pyrial was injured in this attack and her wound will not heal; some fear that the vision of war has wounded her sense of joy, and should that fade the tower will crumble and perhaps, the sun itself will be extinguished. It may be that the spire has not returned to Eberron since then, or that if it has the inhabitants have refused to open the gates.
  • Stranded on Eberron. The 4E Eberron Campaign Guide proposed the idea that a number of Feyspires have been trapped on Eberron since the Mourning, and that the cataclysm also stripped the towers of the defenses that have kept them hidden—along with the enchantments that keep those of evil intent from entering the spire. In the past, the people of Pylas Pyrial knew that visitors had to have good intent and that the visit would only last a few days. Now the spire is trapped, possibly forever. And the longer it remains, the more its fairytale magic may also begin to fade. What do they do if their gardens begin to fade and they don’t have enough food for their endless feasts? Can hope sustain the Gate of Joy even if its magic fades? Will they join the Triumvirate, and if so, will they accept the Trust, or will they defy it?
  • Hidden Serpents. The effect that prevents those with evil intent from entering Pylas Pyrial is powerful magic, but that doesn’t mean it’s impervious. Perhaps some evil force has taken root inside the citadel. One possibility is rival fey: the Prince of Frost may still yearn to see Shan Pyrial thrown into despair, and his agents could try to trick adventurers into being their tools. Or perhaps a rogue dragon has plans for the tower—or the Trust has managed to get a foothold, not realizing that their malign intentions could poison the spire itself. Perhaps someone seeks to steal the Summer Sun; this is a powerful artifact and immense source of power, but its removal could doom the spire.
  • Magical Mystery Tour. The spire rejects those who come with greed in their hearts, and the Zil don’t spread word of its existence. But the gnomes who dwell on the Glamerwind love the spire, and a Zil might want to bring friends to the Feyspire. Or perhaps House Ghallanda has learned of the spire and begun to arrange a few expeditions for those seeking something truly exotic; the tour guide’s heart may be weighed down by greed, preventing them from entering the spire, but they can still bring others to it! Pylas Pyrial doesn’t follow an entirely reliable schedule, but there are times it’s most LIKELY to appear. So adventurers could be invited to visit the spire by Zil friends or asked to accompany a Ghallanda tour, perhaps to protect high-paying celebrities from across Khorvaire…

Pyrial Characters

The first question with any Pyrial character is why you’ve left the Gate of Joy to walk the decidedly unjoyful world. A few possibilities…

  • Curiosity. You’re that storybook hero whose curiosity draws them into endless danger. You’ve always been fascinated by the Sunlit World and chose to leave the spire of your own free will. You may have a particular mystery you want to see or solve—Have tea with a dragon! Find a fey artifact stolen long ago! Meet every king or queen!—or you may have no agenda at all, merely trusting that the road will lead you where you need to go.
  • Agent of Joy. Shan Pyrial has charged you with a mission vital to the safety of the spire. If you’re using the Wounded in War plotline, you could be searching for something that will cure the wounded shan. If you’re using the Stranded on Eberron plotline, you might be searching for a way to return your home to Thelanis… perhaps by unraveling the mystery of the Mourning itself. Alternately, you could be trying to recover a treasure stolen from the spire by some clever mortal. A key question is how urgent this quest is. Is it the driving force of the campaign? Or do you have time to explore the world and pursue other quests—just always making sure to keep your eyes open for something that will help you as you go about other adventures?
  • War Orphan. Following the Wounded in War plotline, you could have been stranded in Eberron during the siege of Pylas Pyrial. You might have fled from the Aundairian forces, or you could have even been captured and taken back to Aundair as a prisoner. In both of these cases you may hope to return to Pylas Pyrial, though you may have realized that something’s keeping the spire from returning. Can you maintain your optimism even in the face of unrelenting adversity? Alternately, it could be that you were just a child when you were stranded, perhaps growing up as an urchin; you barely remember the Gate of Joy, but you still have the ability to weave its storybook logic into your artifice or spells.

Pyrial gnomes are defined by their optimism and their fey worldview. While they understand that evil and greedy people exist—most stories have a villain, after all—they hold to hope and to the broader belief that the world is a place of wonders and joy. Even when outwittng or battling a foe, a Pyrial gnome is never cruel. Cruel and greedy behavior on the part of those they consider friends will deeply disturb them, though they may try to draw their friends onto a brighter path rather than simply abandoning them. The key element is that Pyrial gnomes are used to living in a world that meets their expectations. The longer a Pyrial gnome dwells in the Sunlit World, the more they will have to come to terms with the cruelty and suffering that is a part of it. The question is whether hope and optimism will prove stronger than despair, or whether the gnome will be broken by the misery of the mortal world. A Pyrial gnome who’s been overcome by despair could serve as an interesting villain, as they seek to steal the hopes of others.

The second important aspect of Pyrial gnomes is that they carry a touch of Thelanis with them. They are used to operating under storybook logic… and often, that continues to work even beyond their spire. This is especially relevant with Pyrial artificers. These characters use the approach that Exploring Eberron calls “Magical Thinking”. A Pyrial Alchemist might use Cook’s Utensils as a spellcasting focus, producing baked goods with magical effects (have you ever seen someone killed by a catapult pie?). A Pyrial artillerist might use painter’s tools to paint bolts of fire that then become real. A Pyrial urchin artificer can use tinker’s tools just like any other artificer, but create things out of garbage—things that logically shouldn’t work, and yet somehow do.

While artificers are an obvious example of this, Pyrial gnomes can follow many other paths. The gnomes of Pylas Pyrial are gifted illusionists, although they generally use their magic to entertain others, not to harm them; but a Pyrial illusionist will happily use their magic to trick those who would harm others. A Pyrial rogue can describe their class abilities as being tied to remarkable luck; Sneak Attack and Evasion could both reflect being in the perfect place, an enemy stumbling, or something else that follows the story of the lucky gnome. While gnomes are naturally suited to being illusionist wizards and artificers, a Pyrial gnome could easily be an archfey warlock—especially if they’re following the path of the Agent of Joy.

Ultimately, the Pyrial gnome provides an opportunity to play a character who’s literally out of this world—a character who’s stepped out of a fairy tale and who expects the world to act like one. It can serve as a beachhead for a campaign that involves exploring Thelanis, allowing the characters to travel to the Faerie Court and serving as a safe haven while they’re there. If you explore the Wounded In War or Stranded On Eberron plots, it can be a tragic location, with its optimistic people being forced to deal with harsh reality.

Characters don’t have to be gnomes to have a connection to Pylas Pyrial. While gnomes make up a significant portion of the population, the spire is also home to eladrin and to a wide range of fey. Beyond that, any bard or archfey warlock could say that they were drawn to the spire and went with it to Thelanis, learning their skills from fey mentors.

Q&A

So are the Pyrial gnomes just normal gnomes? Or are they fey?

That depends where they are. Part of the idea is that the mortal inhabitants of Thelanis become more mortal when they leave it. Note that the 5E monster stat blocks for eladrin generally count them as fey—but eladrin player characters are simply humanoids. The gnomes of Pylas Pyrial generally use the traits of Forest gnomes, and they are especially adept with their illusions, which they use constantly to entertain; while in Pylas Pyrial, most residents also possess the abilties of prestidigitation. At the DM’s descretion, Pyrial gnomes could be considered as fey while in the spire. But when they are walking in the Sunlit World, their magic fades a little, and they are largely indistinguishable from their Zil cousins.

Has the Trust infiltrated Pylas Pyrial?

Most Zil assume that it has, but ultimately it’s up to the DM. It’s not a simple matter; agents have to be able to get past the gate, which means that they can’t have evil intent. So you could certainly have agents who just want to protect Zilargo by observing the spire—and again, protecting Zilargo is the mission of the Trust—but you couldn’t have people who hoped to somehow steal the power of the spire or profit from it. Second, you can’t be sure that your agents will remain with the spire when it returns to Thelanis; they could easily be left in the Shimmerwood. Third, for those that are taken with the spire there is a very real risk of them going native. The joy of the spire is infectious, and many would-be spies have likely been swept up in it and forgotten their original missions.

Having said that, there’s no question that the Trust MONITORS Pylas Pyrial and that it has agents in the Glamerwind villages. Someone who receives a remarkable magic item or has some sort of unusual dealings with the spire could be intercepted by Trust agents after leaving Pylas Pyrial.

Do the Dragonmarked Houses have dealings with Pylas Pyrial?

Ultimately this is up to the DM. The general idea is no: the Zil haven’t publicized it; the Pyrial gnomes don’t WANT to have a Gold Dragon Inn opening in the spire; and those driven by greed can’t enter. Given that the spire appears sporadically and that its wonders can’t easily be duplicated, it’s not the most logical investment. If I were to pursue this idea in a campaign, I wouldn’t say that the houses already have dealings with the spire—I’d focus on the idea that they have just learned about it and WANT to have dealings with it. Following on the idea of the Magical Mystery Tour, Ghallanda and Sivis could establish a Glamerwind village—a sort of amusement park on the doorstep—while Cannith could be determined to crack the secret of how fey magic works. All of these create possibilities for active interaction NOW that could involve player characters, rather than just saying that the houses have been working with the spire for centuries.

How do you pronounce “Glamerwind”?

As with anything in Eberron, you can be sure that there are people who pronounce it different ways. However, it’s “wind” as in “wind a clock”—because it’s the river that winds down to the Glamer Bay.

The Zil gnomes don’t identify themselves by clanholds like the Mror, but they do maintain deeply connected and widespread familial connections, yes? Are there family names you use when highlighting Pylas ties?

Zil don’t have clanholds, but they do have HOUSES, which are deeply established alliances of families (note that Sivis was a Zil house before it waas a dragonmarked house). However, the Pyrial gnomes don’t have any sort of concept like this, in part because Zil houses are often a foundation for intrigue and competition and the Pyrial gnomes don’t devote their energies to such things. It’s also a very small population, so a Pyrial gnome is more likely to have a name like Big Halan (because there’s only two Halans and he’s the big one) or Jala the Butcher’s Daughter. This adds to the general chicken and egg mystery of whether Zil gnomes were originally Pyrial immigrants, because you don’t have clear family links.

Do Pyrial gnomes speak the gnome language, Elvish, or Sylvan?

I consider Sylvan and Elvish to be dialects; Elvish uses Sylvan as its base, but has drifted and has a number of slang words and new concepts, and has lost other words. So anyone who speaks Elvish can understand Sylvan and vice versa, but there’s a noticeable accent and a few things that don’t perfectly translate. Meanwhile, we’ve said before that the Gnome language is an artificial, intentionally constructed language created by the early gnomes to replace what they considered to be their original, inferior language (presumably Sylvan). So yes, Pyrial gnomes speak Sylvan by default, not Gnome. There could well be some denizens of Pylas Pyrial who speak Sylvan and Gnome but don’t actually speak Common.

Regarding the Gate of Joy barring those with evil in their hearts: given Eberron’s take on alignment, does this apply to all creatures with an evil alignment or is this protection more particular than that?

It’s more particular. Note that when I first mentioned it I didn’t use the word evil, I mentioned greed and cruelty. The Gate rejects anyone who comes to the spire with evil or selfish INTENT, regardless of the alignment written on their character sheet. An evil character who truly means no harm to the spire and has no desire to profit from their visit could be allowed in, while a good character who’s there with a commercial agenda would be kept out, even if they BELIEVED their goal was a good one. You can’t come into the spire if you intend to cause harm, spread sorrow, or to take advantage of the spire or its people; it’s about purity of purpose, not just alignment.

That’s all for now! Thanks to my Patreon supporters for choosing the topic and keeping the site going. Voting on the next Dragonmark topic is starting now!

IFAQ: Marchers, Zil, and Borders

This has been a busy month. I’ve been focused on supporting Exploring Eberron and I just posted a long article about the Nobility of Galifar, along with a supporting IFAQ and an exclusive article for my Patreon supporters. But at the start of each month I ask my patrons to present interesting, short questions, and I’d like to answer a few more before August comes to an end. So…

How Dhakaani heirs see orcs? Do you think that after fighting together with orcs, Dhakaani heirs have a better vision of them? At least about Gatekeepers?

On page 96 of Exploring Eberron, the song of the duur’kala says…

Our empire was so grand that even the spirits grew jealous. The Lords of Madness crawled out of the shadows. They made monsters of our children and sought to break our people with terror. But no power could stand against the champions of Dhakaan. Our heroes blinded the Lord of Eyes and cut the roots of the Rotting Queen. They fought the great Corruptor and brought him down…

On the one hand, this can be seen as the “winners” writing history. The Dhakaani systematically oppressed the orcs and drove them into the barren places of Khorvaire. The Kech Dhakaan have lived in isolation for many centuries and subsisted on tales of Dhakaani glory. The last thing the duur’kala want to do is to inject a story of how the Dhakaani COULDN’T win on their own and needed those very people they oppressed to defeat the enemy, even if that’s the truth. But there’s a bigger issue here, which is that most dar likely never knew the role that the Gatekeepers played. The conflict against the daelkyr raged across the entirety of the Empire. But the Gatekeepers were only active in the west. They didn’t join up with Dhakaani forces across the land; if they had, we’d SEE evidence of Marcher and Gatekeeper culture spread further, whereas instead the orcs we see in the east are an entirely different culture. We know that the Gatekeeper seals don’t need to be “on site”—the Gatekeepers didn’t have to be physically adjacent to the daelkyr to perform the rituals that bound them. Essentially, even though the Gatekeepers performed the crucial ritual that ended the daelkyr threat, they did in in the Shadow Marches—and the dar in what is now Darguun never knew what the Gatekeepers had done.

There are exceptions. As the sages of the empire, I would expect the Kech Volaar to know about the Gatekeepers and their contributions, though even they might assert that the empire WOULD have found a path to victory even without the Gatekeepers. The Kech Ghaalrac DID fight directly alongside Gatekeepers, and there are orcs among the Ghaalrac; so they are a Kech that feels a close kinship with the orcs, but they’re also a Kech that has had very little contact with the other Keepers. If I were to place one of the new Kechs in the region of Droaam—most likely the Kech Nasaar, as it’s mentioned in that region in the comics—I’d likely say that they worked more closely with the orcs during the war and respect the Gatekeepers. But most dar know little about the orcs and may have never heard of the Gatekeepers.

Ultimately, it’s up to what you want to do in your Eberron; a case can be made for different paths. The dar known that the orces are native to Khorvaire and thus not chaat’oor, and you could say that this is sufficient to create a bond between them in these difficult times. Nasaar or Ghaalrac dar could take this further and view them as valuable allies. But in general, I’d say that while they aren’t chaat’oor, they’re not dar; they are a people that the ancient dar defeated and drove into the dark corners of the land.

Is the Shadow Marches considered part of Breland? Have the Marchers always called themselves Marchers, or did they ever consider themselves Brelish (or Wroatish)?

Consider this: The Mark of Finding existed in the Shadow Marches for five hundred years before it was discovered by “House Sivis explorers” in 498 YK. In my opinion, that’s a pretty strong indicator that there was essentially no contact between the Marches and the Five Nations up to that point; the Sivis who discovered the mark are called explorers, not, say, merchants. To me, the intent has always been that the Marches are a highly inhospitable region with a low population density on the other side of the monster-infested Barrens—that the people of the Marches never had any interest in the outside world, and up until 498 YK, the outside world never had any interest in them. The people of Breland might have laid claim to it on a map, but they barely settled past the Graywall Mountains during the time of Galifar, and no one IN Galifar had ever made it past the Watching Wood; even if some lord THEORETICALLY held a claim to that territory, they’d never EXERCISED it and the people of the Marches were entirely unaware of it.

So definitely, the Marchers never considered themselves to be part of Breland or Wroat, and it is the intent that the Marches are not a Thronehold nation and that Marchers aren’t Brelish citizens. With that said, that’s not a fact that’s typically INVOKED; the common people of Breland don’t stop Marchers in the street and say “Wait a second… you’re not a Brelish citizen, I bet I could just murder you right now with no consequences!” In part this is because most Marchers encountered in the Five Nations are associated with House Tharashk, whose heirs do have the rights of citizens… and even if a Marcher ISN’T tied to the house, most people will ASSUME that they are.

What’s your take on the Library of Korranberg? Is it one big Tardis of a building, a collection of structures that cover a campus, a borough of books? Are certain places within the library subject to smaller manifest zones or planar connections?

This is covered in the 3.5 sourcebook Player’s Guide to Eberron, which is available on the DM’s Guild. The Library of Korranberg isn’t a building; it’s an institution and an organization, supporting thousands of students and scholars and with active agents across Khorvaire. Per the PGtE, the Library is comprised of eight separate colleges, in addition to the corps of sages, librarians, and agents who work for the unifying foundation. I’d be happy to explore this further in a deeper article, but for now the PGtE is the best source for further information.

Does the Library of Korranberg being eight colleges essentially make Korranberg itself a university town, or that the city of Korranberg has one or more districts that are entirely the Library while other districts are more traditional?

The latter. Korranberg is one of the three ruling cities of Zilargo. It’s the ancestral seat of House Sivis, and home to the largest temple to Aureon in Khorvaire (the Codex Vault) and to the Korranberg Chronicle. The Library is an important, major part of the city, but there’s more to Korranberg than just the Library.

I really like the idea of the Trust as an organization and I have a decent sense of how people in Zilargo view the trust, but less of a sense of how people outside Zilargo view the Trust. So my question is how do the citizens of other nations on Khorvaire view the Trust, how much would an average person, or as a contrast a person in power, know about the organization, and what are some potential region specific rumors that people believe about the trust (say in the Mror Holds and in Thrane).

Most people in the Five Nations don’t take Zilargo terribly seriously, which is just how the Zil like it. Remember, on the surface, Zilargo looks like a cheerful, colorful gingerbread village (that’s an exaggeration, but you get the idea). The Zil don’t WANT to be seen as a threat. They’re librarians! And scholars! They make great glamerweave and do the elemental binding! That’s the extent of what the COMMON person knows; Zilargo is seen as useful (everybody deals with House Sivis!) but not powerful or dangerous.

People with a little more knowledge know that Zilargo is a ruthless police state. But a lot of people who have never been there don’t really believe that. A vast network of ruthless gnome assassins? That’s ridiculous. Next you’ll say that there’s a secret order of Ghallanda vigilantes who use the Mark of Hospitality to poison people. People who have been to Zilargo or who deal with the nation directly know that it IS true, and we’ve suggested that most find it horrifying and are amazed that the Zil don’t. But again, the Zil don’t, so it’s not like THEY are running around talking about it.

So in general, if non-Zil have heard about the Trust at all, they tend to think it’s an exagerated fairy tale. Ooooh, watch what you say, invisible Trust assassins could be listening in. On the other hand, people who are actually IN the business of espionage—Dark Lanterns, Royal Eyes, House Phiarlan or Medani, etc—know all about the Trust and take them very seriously. They know how capable the Trust is, especially in Zilargo itself. They don’t know how strong its influence is beyond Zilargo, because hello, that’s why they’re called secret agents, but they know enough to treat them as a serious potential threat and as someone to be treated with respect in negotiations.

So generally, I’d say the typical commoner in Thrane has never even heard of the Trust. The people of the Mror Holds might have heard of it just because they have a closer relationship with the Zil, but they’d still know it as “That’s the spooky police in Zilargo, right? My Zil buddy says they see everything.”

Surely the Twelve know about the Trust. Does this mean they’d avoid putting anything too important—like research facilities—in Zilargo?

Anyone who does business in Zilargo knows about the Trust, and the Twelve are surely well aware of the Trust. The curious counter argument is that this might be why they’d choose to put important facilities IN Zilargo. The Zil don’t have any sort of monopoly on spies. Before the Last War, the King’s Dark Lanterns operating across Zilargo, and now you have the Royal Eyes, the Argentum, etc. The Trust are especially good at what they do, and yes, I would assume that the houses take the approach that there are no secrets in Zilargo; that if they are doing something in Zilargo, ASSUME that the Trust will find out about it. But with that in mind, so what? The beauty of the Twelve’s research is that it can’t be stolen because it relies on use of dragonmarks. Zilargo couldn’t steal Cannith’s techniques for creating warforged because you need the Mark of Making to operate a creation forge. The second point is if you assume that SOMEONE’S spies will find out what you’re up to, who would you rather it be: the Royal Eyes, the Dark Lanterns or the Trust? The Royal Eyes and the Dark Lanterns are active participants in the cold war and will seek any advantage that will help them against the other nations. But Zilargo is largely neutral. It’s not trying to claim the throne of Galifar. What are they going to DO with the knowledge that Cannith is creating a new weapon? The purpose of the Trust is to maintain order and ensure the security of Zilargo. As long as it doesn’t threaten either of those things, they don’t care if Cannith is building a new bomb; they’ll make note of it, file it away, and be done with it. The strong ties between Sivis and the Trust strengthen this; as a general rule, Zilargo wants to work WITH the Twelve, not fight them. This has come up in previous discussions of “Why doesn’t House Cannith steal elemental binding from the Zil?” The key answer is that for now, both sides would rather maintain an alliance that benefits both parties rather than to start a war that would cripple everyone involved. With that in mind—the idea that if SOMEONE is going to know your house secrets, it’s better for it to be the Trust than for it to be the Royal Eyes—that’s where the exceptional talents of the Trust HELP the Twelve with their Zilargo research facilities… because the Trust will target any other spies that try to infiltrate Zil facilities. Not to mention that Zilargo has a lower crime rate than any other nation!

Essentially, the Twelve will assume that there are no secrets in Zilargo, that the Trust will know about anything they’re doing. But they will also assume that unless that work poses a direct threat to the Zil people, they won’t DO anything with that knowledge. And they know that Zilargo values a good working relationship with the Twelve. SO: If the Twelve are working on a secret scheme to conquer all nations? Yeah, don’t work on that in Zilargo. But if they’re just working on a more efficient lightning rail or a new form or Lyrandar weather control? They don’t CARE if the Trust knows about it—and in the case of the improved lightning rail, odds are good that they’ll want Zil artificers working with them!

What’s the climate/environment like in the Demon Wastes? I’ve always envisioned it as a desert wasteland like Dark Sun.

I recommend you read this article if you haven’t already. And you might want to listen to the latest episode of Manifest Zone, which covers the Demon Wastes. Beyond that, it’s been described as “A plain of blackened sand and volcanic glass… among the ruins of shattered fortresses and the open pits to Khyber… Amid rivers of lava, bubbling pits of noxious stew, and barren wasteland, a few barbaric tribes of orcs and humans struggle to survive.” So generally, yes, desert wasteland; but also, a key point is that it is deeply unnatural. Part of the point of those “open pits to Khyber” is that reality isn’t what you’re used to. The fiendish influence doesn’t just manifest in the fiends you fight; it imbues the plants and land itself.

How strict is border enforcement in the Five Nations?

The Five Nations are just two years out of a century of war, and there are many people who don’t believe that the peace will hold. Borders shifted in the Last War, and some are still contested; so it’s not like there are vast walls separating the nations, and they can’t stop a party of adventurers from making their way across the border unseen. But there are definitely keeps and watchtowers along the borders, and checkpoints on the main roads where caravans may be searched. The original Eberron Campaign Setting says “Anyone who travels across national borders is usually required to carry traveling papers identifying them, their residence, their destination, and their reason for travel.

Having said that? I have never in sixteen years told a group of my players “Oh, sorry, Bob’s a Marcher and doesn’t have traveling papers, so I guess she can’t go with you to Aundair.” Ultimately this comes back to what is going to make a fun story for you and your players? If it would be FUN for the adventurers to figure out how to smuggle Bob across the border or how they can get her papers, then OK, maybe I would make it part of the adventure. If one of the PCs is specifically wanted by the Aundairian authorities if could be fun for them to have to acquire fake papers. Otherwise, I generally assume that the party’s patron has provided them with the papers they need, or that they just take a minor detour to avoid a checkpoint; getting hassled at the border because a passport is my something I associate with a bad vacation, not an epic adventure.

That’s all for now! Thanks again to my Patreon supporters for asking interesting questions and for keeping this site going!

Bonus Dragonmark: Zilargo vs House Cannith!

This began as a question on the Dragonmarked post, and was expanded in questions from the WotC forums. While it deals with a dragonmarked house, it’s also about Zilargo and its goals and reach, and given the scope of it I decided to move it to its own post. Even more than usual, this is MY Eberron. It’s not that you missed all of this in the books; this is my take on these things and how they make sense to me. So, with that said…

I have always been curious as to why the Zils bind the elementals and not Cannith? It seems from nearly every Eberron source that Cannith has the top Artificers and Wizards, from above it sounds like you believe that the Mark of Making sound give them a HUGE advantage in this area. Plus it doesn’t seem to be magic that would be all that complex for Cannith to pull off, Cannith did create a new sentient race, creation forges, and genesis forges for goodness sake!

I’ve underlined the key point here. It’s related to the last question in this post – the fact that in Eberron, magic is treated like science. One of the key points here is that different forms of magic are as diverse as different fields of science. You can be the best metallurgist in the world; that doesn’t somehow make you an amazing biologist. The priests of the Blood of Vol are experts at necromancy. No one’s come close to matching Mordain’s understanding of transmutation. And the Zil are Khorvaire’s foremost experts on alchemy. And strange as it sounds, elemental binding is a highly magical form of alchemy; it’s based on understanding the elemental nature of things and the ways in which the elements interact. Cannith excels at creation. They are the house of Making. The Genesis forge is a tool that allows production of finished goods from raw materials. The creation forge assembles warforged. Cannith plays a role in the creation of the focus items used by most other houses – but they can’t create those items alone; they need the unique magicks of the other houses.

Don’t get me wrong: Cannith has alchemists. In 4E, it’s a possible benefit of the Mark of Making, and it’s something we’ve mentioned as a focus of Cannith West. I’m just saying that in my mind, it’s a Zil specialty – something they developed before the first Cannith tinker developed his mark, and the secret weapon they’ve always had. It ties into everything from their exceptional love of poison to the weapons they sold to Breland during the war. The Zil can’t pull together an army to match any of the Five Nations, but they’ve got many a basement vault full of wildfire! Quoting the ECG entry on Zilargo: “Though the gnomes committed few troops to the war effort, their alchemical and elemental weapons were devastatingly effective, and Zil spies were said to provide substantial intelligence to Breland.”

I read somewhere that the Zils brought back the technique from Xen’drik and reverse engineered it, which is silly to me since if a bunch gnomes can reverse engineer a thousnd year old relic, the Cannith should have no problem reverse engineering the actual working device they see everyday.

The first part is a misunderstanding. The Zil didn’t simply find a Sulatar firesled and say “Oh! Why don’t we do that?” Zil binding isn’t a copy of Xen’drik techniques. Rather, the discovery in Xen’drik was like Newton’s apple – the inspiration that helped a genius make a mystical breakthrough, which built on the pre-existing alchemical traditions of the Zil. You’ll note the Sulatar don’t have airships, and they’ve had their form of binding for thousands of years; they are stuck at a more limited level of development.

As for the second part: Why doesn’t Cannith just reverse engineer the object in front of them? Because it’s more complex than just taking apart the gears of a watch. Cannith can look at an airship and say “OK, that’s clearly a class three ward; that’s a omega level elemental. We can create the ward, we can summon an elemental… but how in Onatar’s name are they getting the damn thing to interact with the ship?” Think of it as building a nuclear reactor. If you don’t understand the science behind it, you’re going to have some trouble just understanding what the components are for. And even if you do figure out the science, you still need fissionable material – which brings us back to the fact that the Zil are the best alchemists in Khorvaire. There is a secret to Zil binding that Cannith can’t crack; essentially, it’s the Philosopher’s Stone – a substance that can only be created using Zil alchemy. Then you get to the fact that the Zil do have one of the most efficient network of assassins in Khorvaire and they are very willing to kill to keep their nation’s monopoly on elemental binding.

So short form: You can be absolutely sure that Cannith has tried to crack the elemental binding code, and that more than one Cannith research team has met with an unfortunate end in the process thanks to the Trust (those substances are very volatile – it’s too bad the workshop blew up!). For now, it’s easier for Cannith to continue to do the things they do best and that the Zil cannot match than to fight to master every field of science.

Now moving on the the WotC forum expansion of this discussion…

If a Cannith heir cracked the method of binding elementals, what would the fallout of that be?  Would it spark a Hatfield-McCoy type feud?  What side (if any) would any nations or other Dragonmarked Houses take?

This was clarified…

I meant a scenario where Cannith figures out how to bind elementals, so the house as a group knows.  Thinking about it I would think the gnomes would be powerless to do anything about it.  Not that they couldn’t try an assassination or two, or even succeed.  But politically NO ONE else can afford to alienate themselves with House Cannith, nations need them in case the current cold war ever goes hot, and the dragonmarked houses need them for items to keep their competitive advantage.  On the other hand no one really needs Zilargo.

Before I answer the question of what Zilargo could do if Cannith fully mastered elemental binding, I want to look at what it would take to get to that point. Let’s talk about that “Philosopher’s Stone” I mentioned above. Essentially, there’s two vital things you need to do to make elemental binding work. You need to understand the techniques of binding the elemental – but you also need the right substance to bind that elemental to, and that is a substance that simply doesn’t exist in nature: A Khyber dragonshard altered through alchemical techniques. And bear in mind that one of the things Zilargo is noted for is its mines. So, posit this:

  • While Zilargo is publicly known for its jewel mines, its deep mines are one of the richest existing sources of Khyber shards in Khorvaire.
  • The Zil have developed the technique for transforming Khyber shards into suitable vessels for elemental binding.
  • They have built up a considerable stockpile of these altered shards.

So Cannith doesn’t just have to learn how to bind the elementals to the altered shards and integrate those shards into the control systems of an enchanted object; it has to learn how to manufacture the shards themselves and build up a sufficient supply to use in its initial tests and eventual production runs (or, of course, acquire them from Zilargo). Can it do this? Certainly, given enough time. As noted, Cannith artificers are exceptionally talented. Once they know what they need, they can hire House Tharashk to search for new sources of suitable Khyber shards. But this is not something that could possibly happen over night. They have to learn enough of the one technique simply to know they need the unknown shards; they have to learn what the base shards are, and figure out how to synthesize the philosopher’s stone; they have to develop a mine that produces the base shards. And because magic operates like science, this is going to require trial and error. It’s going to require tests, and facilities constructed for testing.

In short, it really is very much like a new nation deciding to develop a nuclear weapons program in our world. It’s absolutely possible, if you have scientists who understand the concepts, if you can build the facilities required, and if you can acquire sufficient fissionable material… but even once you’ve done these it will take time for you to put it all together. And in the meantime, the Zil will likely use the same techniques modern nations use to deal with new nations developing nuclear weapons.

Diplomacy. Remember the Zil maxim: five words can stop a thousand swords. They’ve got sticks and carrots. Until it has its own program, Cannith does rely on Zilargo for their elemental tools. The Zil can threaten an embargo, or offer better terms if Cannith will stand down. Then there is the other currency of the Zil: Information. You can bet that the Zil have been gathering dirt on all the leaders of the Dragonmarked houses. They don’t need to assassinate a Cannith leader if they can ruin him by exposing his secrets (say, an illegal creation forge being maintained under a certain major city)… or alternately, they can offer to ruin one of his rivals, which given Cannith’s political situation could be quite valuable. Carrot and stick. Beyond this, there’s the issue of what nation would choose to take the side of the Zil over Cannith. Well, none would voluntarily. But again, what sort of stick can the Trust bring to bear? Say they tell Kaius III “We know your secret, and we’ve liberated a certain prisoner from Dreadhold. Tell Cannith you don’t support their elemental research and that you won’t purchase elemental goods from them, or we’re going to make the political situation in Karrnath very interesting.” Last but not least, don’t forget that Zilargo produces the most trusted chronicles. Does Cannith really want the Korranberg Chronicle delving too deeply into its questionable business practices?
Sabotage. ​No one understands binding and the techniques involved as well as the Zil. So, no one is as well qualified as they are to sabotage a developing program while leaving few traces. I’ll point to the computer virus used to interfere with the centrifuges in the Iranian nuclear program; that’s the sort of subtlety you’d get from the Zil.
Assassination. ​Personally, I think they’d try diplomacy before assassination, because they’d rather have Cannith as an ally than an enemy. But if it’s a matter of eliminating a program in early development, and if it can be pinned on someone else (Aundair, the Lord of Blades, Dragons, Lords of Dust, whatever) they are certainly very very good at it. I’ll point to Madra Sil Sarin in Sharn: City of Towers – one of the highest level characters in the city, an assassin who always wears rings of sustenance and invisibility, receiving her orders via a telepathic bond with her superiors; she’s a deadly ghost.

This brings us to a vital question: ​Just how close IS House Sivis to the Trust? ​The recent Trust Eye on Eberron suggests the following possible adventure hook: The adventurers discover evidence that the current Proctor is a Sivis lord and that House Sivis has secretly controlled the Trust for centuries. Personally, that’s what I play with. Which helps address the question of Zilargo’s influence and just how effective the Trust is at gathering information: they’re tapping the phone lines. This has a few impacts. Set aside Zilargo negotiating with House Cannith: what you’d get is Sivis negotiating with them. And Sivis can threaten an embargo of its own; loss of long-distance communication is a serious blow. Neither house would want to lose the services of the other, but this leads us to the question: just how important is it to Cannith to have this secret? As it stands, they can get elemental binding services from the Zil. If they are talking about starting a shadow war with one of Khorvaire’s deadliest leagues of assassins and potentially alienating Sivis and breaking the Twelve… is it worth it? Even if in the end they’d win – is it worth the cost of the struggle?

Let’s assume it is, and lets assume they DO make it through all these hurdles, figure out the techniques, and start producing their own bound elemental goods. What can Zilargo do at that point? They certainly can’t engage in open war. As you say, no one is going to completely sever ties with Cannith to maintain relations with Zilargo. But again, what the Zil have always excelled at is subterfuge and intrigue. Go back up to the point on Diplomacy and consider what I said about Kaius. They don’t have to threaten Cannith if they can threaten all of its customers. They don’t have to demand that people break ties with Cannith completely as long as they insist people don’t purchase their elemental goods. The short form is that Zilargo’s power is subtle and rarely brought to bear, but if they are pushed to the edge they could do some very destructive things. Could they win a “war” against Cannith? Perhaps not. But is it worth it for Cannith to start that conflict? I don’t think so. Now that we’ve examined the issue in more detail, I think the most likely scenario is that a brilliant PC artificer might crack the first piece of it, and go to the Patriarch with this exciting news… only to have the Patriarch shake his head and say “Forget it. Drop it. We started down this path a century ago and it was a terrible mistake – we’re not going there again.”

Again, that’s just MY take.

On the other hand no one really needs Zilargo.

Well, no one needs Zilargo once Cannith has mastered all their techniques. Until then, they do. Beyond that, remember the other things that Zilargo provides. As noted above, they are the foremost alchemists of Khorvaire. Airships aside, they produce a range of elemental weaponry. They are a source of precious stones, both raw and fashioned. They are a source of information, both secret and through the medium of the chronicles. If Sivis stands with Zilargo, its services are a vital part of modern life. And most of all, it’s all about the damage Zilargo can do if you piss it off. Again, you don’t see the power of the blackmailer until he has reason to blackmail you. Zilargo prefers to keep its power hidden until its needed… but the power is still there.

How could Sivis negotiate with Cannith on this matter? I’m fine with the idea that Sivis runs the Trust, which is really cool, but Sivis relies greatly on the trust of others and their own position of neutrality. If Sivis let it slip that they were connected to the Trust, or far worse, actively feeding information to the Trust, then their business would be devastated. No one is going to use your service if you’re feeding everything they say to an intelligence network.

Really? Let’s look to our world. In the US, the fact of the matter is that the NSA can monitor any phone call. They can do searches for particular words. Meanwhile, Google is dissecting my searches and mails to figure out things I like. And yet… I’m still using my phone. I’m still on Google. In part, because I have nothing to hide. In part, because even if they can, that doesn’t mean they are. And in part, because what else am I going to do? Could I just stop using the phone and the internet? All of this applies to the idea of Sivis and the Trust. How many communications actually DO matter to Sivis or the Trust? Zilargo is a neutral country, and really, the secret of elemental binding is pretty much the only thing they have to protect – which is precisely why it’s a hornet’s nest Cannith shouldn’t kick. Is the tenth lord of Somethingsville having an affair? They don’t really care. Hence the point that if provoked, they potentially have access to vast power… but the odds of them ever using it are very, very low.

And bear in mind, Sivis would never say “Oh, we’re allied with the Trust.” They say something like this. “Merrix, our friends in the Triumvirate have asked us to talk to you about the elemental binding program you’ve got going under Wroat. As you know, elemental binding is a crucial industry for our people, and while we may be mere merchants, we feel a sense of loyalty to our nation and are deeply disappointed you’d seek to undermine them in this way after working together for so long. While we’d never condone such things, we’re concerned as to what consequences this could have for you – we don’t have to tell you how ruthless the Trust can be in protecting our national interests. Perhaps we can work as mediators to solve this problem. If you abandon this effort, we think we can get the Binder’s Guild to lower their rates by 5% for the next 20 years. If not… well, I’m afraid we really can’t support this effort to steal our nation’s one great gift. We’d hate to have to sever our bonds to Cannith South… especially since Jorlanna’s been so reasonable recently.” Note that they’ve said the Triumvirate came to them with the information; not that they passed it along. Spies have all sorts of ways to get information in the world. Heck, perhaps they hired Thuranni.

Another problem is how exactly Sivis is supposed to reveal that they know about Cannith’s experiments, and how they know. You can just threaten to reveal the creation forge in Sharn, but now Cannith knows that Sivis can’t be trusted. They levy their own embargoes against Sivis…

Again, Sivis doesn’t say “The Trust knows because we told them”; they say “We know because the Trust told us.” So first of all, that’s not how the conversation goes. Second… Cannith DOES know that Sivis can’t be trusted. The houses are ALWAYS engaged in this kind of delicate balance. And you are absolutely right about the consequences… that’s what I meant when I said “do they want to break the Twelve” above. If Cannith and Sivis go to outright war, the other houses will have to take sides, and they won’t all choose Cannith. Kundarak is closely tied to Sivis. Tharashk doesn’t rely on Cannith’s services as much as the other houses, and it’s got the biggest aspirations to power; the opportunity to weaken Cannith would be extremely appealing… which in turn means that Deneith would side with Cannith, as they hate Tharashk. Likewise, you’d probably see Lyrandar and Orien on different sides – one trusting Cannith, the other hoping that the gnomes will provide an elemental vessel that doesn’t require Cannith in the equation and generally willing to spit on their own personal rival. This would be terrible for EVERYONE. Which is exactly why I don’t think it’s worth it for Cannith to pursue it, especially at this point in their history. There’s more or less nothing else that would provoke the Zil to this extreme. It’s a service Cannith has access to at a reasonable cost – and again, a simple answer is to use an agreement not to pursue research as a way to drive down the cost of that service. Why kick that hornet’s nest when there’s so many other fields of magic to research?

Beyond that, in the situation described above, I think Cannith would simply fall apart. Assume it’s Jorlanna doing the research; Cannith West has always been the stronghold of Cannith alchemy. Why on Eberron should Merrix back her in this insane civil war when he could just step in and say “I condemn my greedy cousin’s behavior. I am glad to work with the binders of Zilargo in a fair manner, and ask this council of the Twelve to join me in sanctioning Jorlanna and recognizing me as the one true representative of my house.” Soon you have another Shadow Schism, only with House Jorlanna as one no one wants to do business with. And when it comes to spreading rumors, remember that Zilargo and Sivis essentially maintain the press and the phones. The other major player in that game is Ghallanda. But spreading rumors isn’t a Cannith specialty…

All their blackmail and secret hoarding seems like a double-edged sword, because once they reveal ‘what’ they know, they’ve revealed ‘that’ they know, and screwed their own neutrality.

Sivis wouldn’t engage in blackmail. They’d only engage in mediation, and even then only with their business partners, House Cannith. Any action beyond that would be performed by agents of the Trust or Zil diplomats, depending who they are talking to and the nature of the discussion.Which would hardly come as a surprise, any more than the Citadel acting on behalf of Breland. So it’s likely a representative of Zilargo who comes to Kaius and makes that statement. It’s a matter of national security, and Kaius has already shown that he is just as ruthless in his policies; frankly, of all the leaders, he’s the one most likely to appreciate the move.But you’re right; once you make the move, they know that you know and can start coming up with contingencies. So you don’t do it unless you have to. The question is whether Cannith would be foolish enough to push them that far.

There’s only so far you can push someone with blackmail, at a certain point the fact that they have more guns than you is going to come into play.

That depends on your threat. Consider the threat I’ve suggested about Kaius. If they could back that up, how do any of his guns help him? If they can truly unleash that, suddenly half those guns – or more – will be pointed at Kaius. Karrnath is already a highly unstable region; many of Karrnath’s warlords don’t like their king’s policies and would love an excuse for change. You are correct that there’s only so far you can push… so don’t push that far. Note that I never said they’d tell him not to trade with Cannith; I said they’d tell him not to support or purchase any Cannith elemental goods. If Cannith can’t sell those goods, why make them?

I would think that deep down the Zils knew that Cannith would unlock all their secrets someday. After over 2,000 years Cannith are hardly upstarts, and as you said they are pretty sharp. Plus being dragonmarked seems to mean you are chosen by the gods, the multiverse, or random dumb luck to be the apex of something… In accordance with the power of their mark, a dragonshard focus item for crafting alchemical items could likely be developed, further putting the Zils behind. In the end the gnomes remind me of a mom and pap store on main street trying to stay in business selling the same goods against Wal-Mart. They might have a few connections, bring up some zoning issues, appeal to the masses, but in the end are just delaying the inevitable.

As I said in my mind the question isn’t whether Cannith can do it – it’s whether it’s worth the trouble of doing it. Someday it might be. With everything going on – and the house at its weakest moment politically in pretty much its entire history – it doesn’t seem like the best time to be trying to steal the livelihood of a powerful partner.

To be clear: Cannith has the potential to not only learn the secrets of the Zil but to improve upon them. There’s no question in my mind that they could create a dragonshard focus item for converting shards, for example… and that once created, it would be far more efficient than the Zil technique the Zil are using. That’s what gives the houses their power: the dragonmarks simply let them do things others can’t match with mundane techniques. But it’s still a science. You can’t create an entirely new dragonshard focus item overnight; it can take years or even decades to develop a new tool, especially one dealing with an unfamiliar and advanced form of magic. They could do it, but it would be something that would require a research center, a supply of shards, a handful of highly capable artificers, and time. And if you couldn’t keep it hidden from the Trust (and possibly Sivis) throughout that time, you’d have to be able to defend it. The Trust doesn’t have to go to war with the house if they can simply sabotage every effort to create that focus item. And as long as they can, that research effort becomes a costly process. And who’s funding it? Remember, Cannith is on the verge of a three-way schism. You’re Merrix. You’re engaged in a bitter political struggle with Zorlan and Jorlanna. You’re sitting on a big secret that you don’t really want exposed. Is this the best time to devote your resources to a project that a) is likely to be sabotaged; b) duplicates services you CAN buy right now; and c) is likely to cause a very powerful intelligence agency to work to ruin you and aid your two rivals?

Long term? Sure. They CAN do it. But I don’t see it happening until Cannith is reunited and the benefits outweigh the many risks. And as for being dragonmarked meaning you’re chosen by the gods, well, tell it to Erandis Vol. Being destined to be the best at something doesn’t mean things will always work out the way you want them to…