Eberron was released in 2004 after winning the Wizards of the Coast Fantasy Setting Search in 2002. To claim that title Eberron had to slay 11.000 competitors and is as of yet the only published campaign setting in D&D history to have to fight so fiercely for its place among the greats. But what makes Eberron great?
At First Sight
I instantly fell in love with Eberron when it was released after following its rise through the Fantasy Setting Search. Having always been a sucker for departures from the norm in fantasy, I jumped in feet first. The setting has heavy influences from steampunk in its treatment of industrial magic, pulp sources like Indiana Jones and the Maltese Falcon in its focus on intrigue, diplomacy and the search for ancient artifacts and classic fantasy literature like Lord of the Realms in its approach to the rich backstory of the Age of Demons and the lost and ruined kingdoms and empires that dot the land. No spot of Eberron is untouched by history and I can think of hundreds of campaigns I will never have the time to play for each time I read Keith Baker’s source material.
But what is it that makes Eberron so dear to me? What sets it apart from, say for instance, the Forgotten Realms, a setting I have recently lambasted as not worthy of its crown as the king of D&D settings? For me it’s a sense of wholeness. Every race and nation has some legitimate connection to both the geography and the history of the area that it occupies. Borders between nations seem natural, not arbitrary. Where they are not formed by natural boundaries, there is a clear reason for it – such as the recent war fought between the nations on the continent of Khorvaire, where most characters will be born. There is the sense of densely woven history. From the aforementioned war, commonly called The Last War, a fantasy equivalent of World War 1, all the way back to the Progenitor Dragons and the sacrifice of the Coutal against the Overlords to end the Age of Demons, Eberron probably has the most detailed history of any published campaign setting I know of.
What works against it in a way is the rule Wizards set during 4th edition that “If it exists in the D&D world it has a place in Eberron” presented as rule #1 in the Eberron Player’s Guide. Some of the weakest material is when they are trying to shoehorn in Dragonborn in Argonnessen and Tieflings and Goliaths in Sarlona, as well as some other wackier ideas like Tri-kreen and Muls from the Dark Sun books in Xen’drik being published for 4th edition at around the same time. Fortunately it’s pretty easy for any good Dungeon Master to ignore this rule and work on their own vision of the setting. Apart from that some of the new races were hit or miss as Warforged almost instantly became a crowd favorite while the Changelings, Shifters and Kalashtar seemed to fall by the wayside pretty quickly. As a reflection of this Warforged got the majority of love when it came to lore extensions as the setting went through new editions while the other races have received very little in the way of background expansions. And to be honest it’s a shame.
Another flaw is the maps of Eberron, Khorvaire for instance is a continent spanning 5000 miles by the account of Wizards, a size that is a hot topic for map nerds. Keith Baker has said that the size of the map is off by a factor of ten and that each nation should be the size of England or France not Russia or China. While this is unfortunate it does not directly impact the work of any Dungeon Master worth his salt so I let it slide.
Vistas of Eberron
Let’s take a look at some of the things that make Eberron so special. The main campaign setting at its core is a look at the aftermath of war. When the standard game begins you find yourself on the continent of Khorvaire in the aftermath of The Last War. During this war the continent wide kingdom of Galifar ripped itself asunder during a succession crisis. Five claimants to the throne of this predominantly human kingdom each found itself at the head of a country bearing his or her name but during the conflict other smaller areas managed to rip themselves away from these five countries claiming independence. During the latter parts of the war one of these kingdoms was destroyed overnight in a mysterious event that is known as The Mourning, an event that left the land a barren magical wasteland choked in fog and suffering a strange effect negating any healing effect within its borders. The shock of this event forced the other nations towards armistice and in the end the Treaty of Thronehold recognised twelve separate nations on Khorvaire with the thirteenth being the wasteland known as the Mournland. This theme of twelve plus a lost one runs all the way through the setting of Eberron and pops up time and time again where you least expect it.
Twelve and One
The most obvious manifestation of this twelve plus one theme is in the moons orbiting Eberron. Currently there are twelve moons orbiting the planet but in ancient times a thirteenth could be found. During a horrible planar invasion from the plane of Xoriat, often known as The Far Realm, Orc druids enacted a massive banishment ritual to seal Xoriat away from Eberron and succeeded, sending it as far away from the material world as possible. As a side effect one of the moons went missing that night and has not been seen again. Some scholars postulate that each plane connecting to Eberron is somehow connected to the orbits of the moons as there are indeed thirteen planes including Xoriat that have been discovered by intrepid mages.
Another manifestation of this theme is in the Dragonmarked Houses. These institutions are large family units akin to the Hapsburgs and Medicis of Europe that each carry magical birthmarks known as Dragonmarks. A Dragonmark bestows magical affinity to a certain task or industry that the family has come to dominate through its exploitation of the marks power and puts these houses above common craftsmen allowing them to dictate how certain trades and production flows in the world. At this time there are twelve know Dragonmarks with one lost to the sands of time when the ancient Dragonmarked house of Vol was exterminated for the crimes of a few of its members. Only one member of the house still exists in the world, the half green dragon lich child Erandis d’Vol, whose existence is the crime House Vol was sentenced for.
Religion in Eberron is also different from a standard campaign world as the gods are distant if they exist at all. Sure there are churches and temples for a multitude of different gods all over the lands and Clerics pray for and receive spells every day but no one has ever confirmed the existence of any divine being so to speak. The most common religion, that of the Sovereign Host and the Dark Six, can be found mirrored in some way by most sentient races on the planet but no priest, no matter how high, has actually communed with a divine being of either collection of gods. Of course there are exceptions such as the elven parliament of The Undying Court, a group of elven ancestors animated by positive energy that as a group manage to function as a god of sorts but the theme of the gods being distant stands. The close presence of gods in settings such as Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance has often been a thorn in my side so having the gods distant or even a figment of believers imagination is a huge selling point for me.
The Draconic Prophecy
Enveloping all of this is the Draconic Prophecy. At the dawn of time there were only three dragons. Syberis, Eberron and Kyber. Together they made the Draconic Prophecy but a falling out between them caused Kyber to slay Syberis and scatter its form across the sky to form what is now known as The Ring of Syberis, an asteroid belt that rings Eberron. Eberron then took Kyber within her body, engulfing him. From Kyber’s blood rose the fiends of the world while celestials rose from Syberis. This resulted in fiends from Kyber being the first rulers of the world while others cowered in the shadows. Creatures of the earth were later born of Eberron and call it home. Kyber in turn forms what would normally be called the Underdark in other settings and if you go deep enough also the Abyss. Eberron’s unique cosmology is one of its strong points and I highly recommend that dungeon masters read up on it and incorporate it in their games.
The Draconic Prophecy is also a useful tool for a storyteller as mere snippets of its text can spur any number of factions to action. The recent, in the eyes of the dragons, occurrence of parts of the Draconic Prophecy on the skins of lesser sentient races in the form of Dragonmarks are a troubling sign and many agents of the dragons are now active on Khorvaire, infiltrating the Dragonmarked Houses and other organisations in hope of better studying this phenomena.
Lay of the Land
The nations on the continent of Khorvaire are each flavourful and unique while sharing several important factors such as a calendar, naming conventions and noble houses. The largest are the four remaining Galifarian heirs, being the magic focused Aundair, diplomatic Breland, gloomy Karrrnath and theocratic Thrane. Each has a distinct flavor yet keeps with a certain central theme common to them all. The other nations are each more distinct and most are heavily populated by non-human species that took the opportunity of war to secede for the good of their own people. These include Droam, a wild land of monsters ruled by a coven of Hags, the Eldeen Reaches, a wooded frontier land now presided over by a circle of Druids, and the Lhazaar Principalities, a stormy coastal realm governed by a collection of pirate princes among others.
Aundair is a country split at its center. Its common folk are simple, rugged farmers but its middle class is bookish and learned. As a whole they have in common patriotic pride that borders on arrogance. It should come to no surprise that the two main schools of magic in all of Khorvaire, Arcanix and the University of Wynarn, are both located within the its borders. Aundair is ruled by a diplomatic queen that was instrumental in dictating the Treaty of Thronehold. It is easy to use Aundair as a setting for stories that focus on high powered mages and their folly while the common man is downtrodden and ignored. Any adventure focusing on some haughty mages magical creation gone wild fits perfectly in Aundair as well as stories that focus on farmers dealing with weird monsters created by magic.
Breland is often the main stomping grounds of heroes because it contains Sharn, the City of Towers. This melting pot of cultures from across the world is built on what is called a Manifest Zone. This zone is a physical connection to the Syrania, the Azure Sky, Eberron’s version of the Elemental Plane of Air. This allows Sharn’s towers to be built impossibly high and even allows for the highest part of the city to be completely suspended in the air on magically treated foundations. The cities lowest foundations reach all the way back to the Daakani Empire and the city itself has been reduced to ruins more then once, allowing for a dungeon crawl like experience just by descending down towards the cities slums. Breland is ruled by an open minded king that used to be an adventurer himself but most day to day running of the country is done through small municipal governments and the country has a well deserved reputation for freedom and democracy. I like Sharn as a starting point for my campaigns and as an extension Breland. In my quarter century of running role playing games I have never seen a city as destined for adventures as Sharn and literally anything can happen within its borders or start there and lead you to any point on Eberron for its conclusion.
Karrnath is a martial powerhouse that is known for its liberal use of undead troops during the Last War as well as the ruthless dictatorship of its king. Aided during the war by the Blood of Vol cult there seems to have been a falling out with Karrnath’s new ruler and the priesthood that allowed the country to recycle its troops on the battlefield. Karrnath is the oldest part of Galifar and as such has a longer history of human settlement then the rest of the kingdoms. Karrnath comes across as part Ravenloft, part WW2 Germany and is very easy to use as a boogeyman of sorts, especially when you need one closer to home or when the flavor warrants a very dark and gloomy feel, backed up by undead monsters.
Thrane’s queen is almost powerless next to the omnipresent power of the Church of the Silver Flame and its young Voice of the Flame. Having fallen on hard times during the Last War the takeover of the state by the priesthood was almost inevitable. The land is dotted with opulent churches and cathedrals and anyone preaching a different religion will be met with suspicion at best. While Thrane does not have a direct analogue among the other settings, its focus on religion is best described as akin to medieval Europe. The church has been instrumental in ridding the continent of lycanthropes of any kind even going so far as to exterminating a huge part of the Shifter population. As being a Shifter is not caused by infection like regular lycanthrophy this is seen by some as either as genocide or as a very heroic deed. Stories of religious oppression and abuse of power are ripe in Thrane but also delicate intrigue as the figurehead queen wants nothing more then to wrest the reigns of power back from the church and might be a great patron for a group of adventurers daring enough to take on the Church of the Silver Flame.
The Exotic Lands
Away from Khorvaire there are several sprawling continents presented as foreign and exotic destinations for adventurers. Closest is the Elven realm of Avernal, a xenophobic superpower obsessed with the afterlife and their ongoing war against a nearby continent ruled by ancient dragons. Because of the elves’ fascination with death they often dress and imitate the dead, leading most non-elves to believe that the island is haunted. As the island is caught in a cold war with the nearby dragons of Argonnessen most elves do not leave the island. Great and creepy adventures could be had visiting the Undying Court and seeing this community of elves through a twisted mirror of ancestor worship. But what is important enough for the Sibling King and Queen to accept a visit from outside adventurers? The fate of Eberron must be at stake.
As mentioned before there is a huge continent called Argonnessen ruled solely by dragons. These dragons rarely act as a group, preferring their own council over any joint venture. This has not always been true as a combined force of Argonnessen laid waste to the jungle continent of Xen’drik in ages past, ending the Age of Giants in fire and blood. They later tried the same thing on the elves of Avernal but the power of the Undying Court was sufficient to turn them back. This has lead to a cold war between the two forces but they have on one occasion worked in tandem, for the destruction of house Vol. Intrepid explorers could want to search this continents shores or higher level adventurers might travel there by magic to seek the help of the oldest dragons but no matter what role in the story Argonnessen takes it will be dangerous and epic.
Xen’drik was once a powerful empire of giants in ages past. That all came to an end when they drew the ire of the dragons of Argonnessen who had been their allies and teachers in the past. The dragon assault on Xen’drik was horrendous enough to shatter not just the empire and the land but some of reality itself as the land itself seems cursed with strange magical phenomena and unnatural geography. In the shattered land almost anything could be found and currently tribes of feral drow battle the degenerate throwbacks of the giant empires for control of the continent. Any type of story can be told in Xen´drik as its land is ravaged by magic that distorts both time and distances. A splendid city of amber and bone can exist one day and then not be found til a thousand years have passed or never before seen monsters can attack settlements without any explanation of how they got there. Above all Xen’drik is wild and unknowable.
Sarlona is the last continent I am going to mention in this overview of the Eberron setting but as the original human civilisation it is one of the most important ones. In ancient times the humans that now control Khorvaire sailed from Sarlona but then dream beings from the strange outer plane of Del Quor took over the kingdoms of the continent and set up societies that are one part Kara Tur and one part North Korea. Now they aim to expand to the rest of Eberron and can function as excellent foils for players that always seem to know too much about the basic monsters found in the Monster Manual. Sarlona signifies what could come to pass if extra-planar creatures get to work their plans unopposed. Any visit to Sarlona should cement the adventurers attitude that even this seemingly perfect society must be opposed tooth and nail.
All this together forms a world so vast but still so tightly interwoven that any dungeon master worth his salt should trip over campaign ideas just by reading this rather lengthy love letter. Its a land of intrigue, high adventure and ancient threats. Its a land ravaged by war and threatened that if that war is rekindled then it might mean the end of human civilization. Its a world of wonder, of ancient empires from a great multitude of creatures, be they goblin, giant, dragon or demon. Its a world that allows you to dive into this rich history and live it, get to know it and love it. I realize that I’ve stirred so many memories of past campaigns that I will be forced to start a new Eberron group soon after writing this. I hope it will persuade more people unfamiliar with Eberron to sample its rich flavors and that Keith Baker gets the credit he so greatly deserves.