Friday, August 1, 2008

Eberron Forever!

My long overdue D&D blog post!

This week I'm beginning a new sword n' sorcery game with my college buddies, so watch out for updates and even pictures here. You know, it's funny how times change. When I was an awkward overachiever in High School, I hung out with my fellow acne-covered members of the Mathematics Honors Society (mostly Asian, of course) and spent my Friday nights playing AD&D, telling calculus jokes, and ordering out for pizza, and dreaming what it would be like to smell a girl's hair. Things are totally different these days, naturally. For one thing, we no longer have acne.

My game setting of choice is, naturally, Eberron. I've loved EBERRON since it came out in 2004 and became the dominant D&D game setting, and I'm not alone: a recent poll showed it to be the most popular of all third edition products. The tale of how Eberron came about is nothing short of gaming legend, the story of a wannabe that got to be. Wizards of the Coast, owners of D&D, created a contest: they were looking for someone to design a setting that would be the new centerpiece for D&D. Over 10,000 one-page proposals for a setting were sent in from all over the world.

I was one of the 10,000 game masters that submitted a setting idea for the contest. A lifelong game master, I sent in a one page proposal of my homebrewed D&D third edition setting that I was running a game in at the time, a mostly underwater world of archiapelagos and sunken civilizations called UNDERSEA KINGDOMS, which combined dark horror with an underwater setting, sort of "Conan the Barbarian in Atlantis." My proposal didn't make the cut...which is a shame, because I think my game was a lot of fun and the gang loved it. It would take Kurt Busiek to realize the potential of setting horror Sword and Sorcery underwater with his series AQUAMAN: SWORD OF ATLANTIS.

(Intriguingly enough, in the original proposal, Eberron was to have a significant aquatic component as well, something that didn't make it to the final setting. According to Keith Baker, the underwater elements were not where WotC wanted for their keystone setting and requested he leave that part out. Well, if only I had known!)

I bear no ill will against Keith Baker, because Eberron is nothing short of a spectacular and unique achievement very different from the cookie-cutter Tolkien worlds standard for D&D. It was, instead, a very pulpy, Indiana Jones style world of ancient secrets that had elements of dark Middle Ages detective stories (think IN THE NAME OF THE ROSE), and unusual twists on the very stale traditional D&D elements. For instance, Hobbits are a race of Dinosaur-riding barbarians. This is the only setting I'd ever consider playing the lamest of all Tolkienoid races, Elves. There are two Elven countries: one an aggressive group of Mongol-style horseclans, the other an Ancient island civilization that worships their dead ancestors, who incidentally live as wise zombies in Necropolis, and who often tattoo their entire face with skull tattoos.

Eberron's dominant characteristic as a setting is the widespread use of magic. After all, if magic exists, and it obeys consistent rules, it stands to reason that magic would assume important functions in the world, like communication, transport, and so forth. What's important to realize here is that this is not magic used to approximate the 1930s or technology. There are no "magical dishwashers," as Keith Baker put it, nor does anyone use magic cars or anything like that. Eberron is fundamentally a world in the Middle Ages. In fact, it offers a pretty good explanation for why technology isn't getting any higher in a world with such a long history: because of how spectacular magic is, all the research and development and scholarship goes in that direction (as opposed to things like gunpowder and the printing press).

There are some pretty spectacular examples of magic on display in the world of Eberron. One of the "sexiest" are the elemental-bound airships, sky-galleons with elementals bound in them that allow for flight. Now, it must be remembered these airships are a very unusual part of the world, and usually only the super-rich can afford them.

A big part of the visual "look" of Eberron is a sort of magical technology, with clockwork monsters, constructs, and Guillermo del Toro-style diabolical, occult machines.

Likewise, because of the advance in low-level magic, Eberron is, at least in the cities and urban regions, a far more sophisticated setting than the usual Middle Ages world. For instance, banking is a big part of the world, credit exists, and with large sums of money it is more common to write checks and bank notes. Imagine the heroes of Lord of the Rings carrying travel and identification papers!

There are a few other distinctive elements to Eberron as well. One is the idea of the Warforged. They're a race of magical golem-like constructs made of wood and metal that were designed for war, and now that the Last War is over, they have no reason to exist. They have full sentience and rights as living beings, but that's not the same as social acceptance. Like modern-day war veterans, society would rather pretend they don't exist, an ugly memory of a bad conflict. The war was the Warforged's entire reason for existing, and now they have to choose their own purpose. Some of them work 24/7 at mindless jobs so they don't have to consider questions of this kind. There are labor tensions with Warforged as well: they're strong and never get tired or ask for breaks, so naturally employers are keen to exploit them and workers are keen to resent them, sometimes justifiably and sometimes not.

Warforged are not only the most distinctive player race besides humans, but also the most popular: I've never run a single Eberron game without at least one or two Warforged.

A few more distinctive elements include the Dragonmarked Houses. Dragonmarks are magical birthmark tattoos that give magical powers, that have allowed the families that use them to become rather like the Spacing Guild from DUNE: families with jealously guarded monopolies with vast economic influence that are (theoretically) politically neutral.

I've often found that when playing with D&D vets that haven't tried Eberron before, the easiest way to incorporate their character into the setting is to make their characters members of a Dragonmarked House.

Then there's the idea of Dragonshards. Dragonshards are unique magical gems that make magic possible. Wizards place their spells in Dragonshards over spellbooks, usually. This is an example of what settings should do: introduce distinctive world specific magical treasure. In fact, to bring home the fact this isn't your garden variety D&D world, I've often given out nothing but Dragonshards as treasure awards the first few adventures.

Another thing I like about Eberron was how the setting was designed with gaming in mind. I've always felt that even though roleplaying games have an element of interactive storytelling, they are GAMES first and stories a distant second. One example of the overlap is in the continent of Xen'Drik. It's sort of like an H. Rider Haggard or Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp version of Africa, with all the racist and colonial elements removed in a fantasy context. Xen'Drik is a continent that is barely explored where, in the undiscovered jungle and desert interior, there could be, literally, ANYTHING. A lost city of gold? A dragonshard the size of a mountain? Ding! Any kind of spooky monster you like? If a race of Bee People lived on the same continent as human civilizations, history would be different to reflect their presence. But the Bee People could be placed into the depths of Xen'Drik in their own nutty ERB-style lost city with no problem.

In other words, Xen'Drik was created with a game purpose in mind. I can respect this a great deal, because it is world background and story that explains how something can be used for a game, instead of the other way around: how something is used is determined by world background and story.

Another example of this phenomenon would be how, despite the fact Eberron is a setting with distinctive characteristics from the garden variety D&D world, everything that is in D&D has a place in Eberron. This is an innovation that is absolutely terrific, especially from the point of view of a DM: it means you don't have to throw anything out. Even absolutely weird supplements like ORIENTAL ADVENTURES have a way they can be used in traditional D&D: the civilization of hobgoblins have an ancient martial tradition, so a character class like Samurai would be very much at home there. The idea of a Kung Fu goblin made my day, by the way.

This attitude is especially helpful if you're a Dungeon Master, and you just got a fantastic new adventure supplement you want to use. I've been able to insert a great many non-Eberron products into Eberron. For instance, the adventure in the back of Frostburn for 5th Level characters and the recent FORTRESS OF THE YUAN-TI adventure (which incidentally, I placed as a lost city in Xen'Drik).

I have one other nice thing to say about Eberron: for the first time in a very long while, gaming fans have had the touchstone of a shared experience. Let me explain what I mean by that. In the beginning of roleplaying games, it was very rare for a game master to create their own world or adventures, and there were a set selection of buyable Adventure Modules to run your players through. So, it was very common for two different players from two different regions of the world, one from New York City and the other from Norway, to meet and chat about how they handled the Gargoyles in room 14-B.

With the variety of campaign settings (some of which are vastly different), homebrewed rules, and the realization among Game Masters that they too can create their own dungeons and monsters, suddenly every single gaming group was a totally unique experience. This is not necessarily bad, of course: one of the great advantages of roleplaying games over the traditional forms of media like television and movies, and why I think RPGs are perceived as a threat, is because roleplaying games are interactive instead of passive activities. Yet, it is a shame this shared touchstone of game experience is lost. Until Eberron, the only shared activity gamers had were experiences with the rules themselves, the one thing that is usually more or less consistent: how Wizards tend to start off low-powered but eventually come to dominate the game in the upper levels, for example.

Eberron though, had an adventure for first level characters right in the campaign setting book itself, which left a big fat "to be continued" for further adventure modules that the game setting published. Almost every Eberron group I know ran through that first level adventure (so did I!) and ran through the others like WHISPERS OF THE VAMPIRE'S BLADE. What's interesting about the adventure supplements was how important they were to the setting. For instance, the rules for handling the all-important Lighting Rail carriages first appeared in SHADOWS OF THE LAST WAR.

My one problem with the adventures was, because a lot of the supplements had the responsibility to introduce the unique elements of the setting, so the writers made a decision to throw in "everything but the kitchen sink." The worst by far was GRASP OF THE EMERALD CLAW by the otherwise wonderful Bruce R. Cordell (who did SEA OF BLOOD, my all-time favorite adventure modules for 2nd Edition that I rewrote for my aquatic horror game), which had elements of the Dragon Prophecy and an appearance by the Lord of Blades that was totally un-needed. My group had a great time in GRASP OF THE EMERALD CLAW story, but it's one of the few times I've had to rewrite an adventure module with a big black marker, going "okay, not gonna do that, it doesn't go anywhere..."

Finally, I think I should end this article by talking a bit about the future of Eberron now that D&D has entered into a fourth edition. A lot of the FIU gamers have already dropped to their knees to suck off D&D 4th. From what I've read of D&D 4th, it's a mixed bag that I'll probably eventually get used to, just like I did when 3rd came out. In fact, the fact there is no Eberron for 4th is part of the reason I'm slow to adopt it.

All I have to say is, thank God there are no longer any Grapple checks. I really hate those moments when someone wants to do something and everybody at the dinner table whips their books out simultaneously to look it up. It's a little thing, but I like that there are no longer any racial ability penalties. Even in 3rd, that was an anachronistic throwback to the old days of game design when you could never have an advantage unless you were slightly annoyed by something.

Then again, D&D now shows elements of video game thinking. For instance, there are Encounter Powers that can only be used once per encounter. An example of this would be Tripping an enemy. You can only do that once per encounter? I don't get it. I suppose it can be rationalized by saying that tripping is a maneuver dependent on surprise, and so once enemies see you do it they get wise, and that maneuver just won't work again on them. Still, an extremely awkward way to represent a combat move.


JasminC said...

Eberron is amazing, but 4th edition is not.

Anonymous said...

Planescape beats Eberron

Tukadian said...

Just started running my 3rd campaign in Eberron. It's housed at if you want to check it out.
I absolutely love Eberron, before it came out I always played in custom made settings because Faerun just didn't do it for me. Eberron's style is just great though, especially the fact that you can do or be anything in Eberron and it fits; Want to be a half-giant psyschic warrior? Why not?! Every other setting just sort of barely touches psionics whereas Eberron embraces it, every supplement put out for 3.5 can be be used. Which means my massive library doesn't go to waste.
Oh and I got the 4th edition Eberron Campaign Setting, not worth the money at all. I almost cried. I hope to god that they don't let Keith Baker's baby die.