Not Really a Review of the Eberron Book
The newest, shiniest Dungeons and Dragons hardcover is out… excitingly titled “Eberron: Rising from the Last War”, and you’re not going to get a review of it here. Why not? Well, because I only review books that I actually buy and read, or that have to do with campaigns and adventures I have actually run, or intend to run, or am currently running. Some of you might remember the hissy-fit that I threw when I found out that the designers had sneaked guns into Dragon Heist, so you can guess how I feel about Eberron, where such things are commonplace. In fact, magic in general is commonplace in Eberron, no matter what they happen to be calling it, and that’s why you’re getting an article that isn’t actually a review of the new Eberron book. Eberron has been around for quite a while in previous editions of D&D, and from the sales copy and other promotional information, this is the same old Eberron. This article will be about magic, and technology, and how Eberron completely makes a hash of all of it… because in Eberron, magic is commonplace. Or so the designers would like to you believe, and accept, all because they say so. Pull out your umbrellas to deflect my spittle of indignation, and read on.
Technology in D&D: a Recap
As I mentioned in the teaser, I have already written an article concerning technology, magic, alchemy, steampunk, and the way those things do not all belong together as a big happy family in D&D. You could go back and read that article if you wanted to, and it’s a good read, but to save everyone some time I’m going to provide a really brief recap of the main points in that article that pertain to this one. All of you laughing because I said I was going to be “really brief” about something… well, you’re probably justified in your mirth.
In the previous article, what set me off was that Dragon Heist had guns in it, but they “weren’t really guns” because they worked by magic. They looked and functioned exactly like guns: metal tube with something to hold it by, metal projectile travels down said tube and damages target, said projectile propelled through said tube by rapid combustion of explosive material, said combustion initiated by application of fire to said explosive material. That’s how a gun works, and we call that explosive material “gunpowder” and we make it with chemistry, by combining sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter in a particular way.
However, in Dragon Heist, the explosive material was (very creatively, I might sarcastically add) called “smokepowder” instead, and it was made with alchemy. Aside from its being a “magical substance”, it was functionally identical with real-world gunpowder, and it was used to create a device that was functionally identical with a real-world firearm.
At this point in the previous article, I started talking about Arthur C. Clarke and how sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and how that works both ways, and how alchemy is just magic with lab equipment, and how steampunk is just magic with gears and things. And I said that having things in D&D that are basically technology, derived from physics and chemistry and actual science, but somehow handwaving all of that because they don’t work by science, instead they work by magic that is identical to science in all respects except for being arbitrarily declared magic (deep breath) is a Bad Thing.
And that’s all you really need to remember about the previous article, because this article isn’t about just all of that rehashed because I have a hate on for Eberron. Yes, Eberron includes a lot of that same science-but-actually-magic thing, but it has a problem of extension that’s worth a dedicated article to explore.
Before we get to that feature, and the real reason for this article, I’m going to say two things and get them off my chest. That Artificer class, that they actually come right out and say combines magic and technology? Well, you probably can tell how I feel about that already. And Warforged, who are basically steampunk beings? Yep, already know how I view that situation. Now let’s get down to what we really came for.
A World of Magic(k)
Eberron is a world where magic is all over the place. Or is it? We’re going to need some terminology conventions to even talk about this mess, before we can actually discuss what’s actually bizarre and problematic for Eberron.
Magic and Magick as Terms of Art
I’ve already brought up and explained the guns in Dragon Heist in this article and in the other one, so I’m going to use them as the example to define a term of art for this article. This term of art is going to let us talk about the normal sort of magic that we’re all familiar with in D&D, and also about that other sort that the smokepowder guns are made out of, without my having to vaguely pontificate every time I bring up one or the other in order to distinguish them.
Call it jargon if you don’t like “term of art”, because after all both “jargon” and “term of art” are actually examples of each other (and themselves). I’m going to use “term of art”, because I like the way it sounds better when I’m writing about a fantasy game. Aesthetics are important.
As a term of art for this article (and in fact for this website from now on) when I talk about “magick” with a K in it, I’m talking about the kind of magic that is actually handwaved science to make it okay to include in a fantasy game like D&D. I’m talking about those Dragon Heist guns that are actually the exact same devices as real-world guns, except that they have been conveniently defined as working because of magic, as if that makes the whole problem go away.
The guns in Dragon Heist are magick devices: the only thing that places them in the realm of magic is an appeal to authority… Wizards of the Coast’s game designers said that they’re magic, so that’s what they are, despite all appearances and in defiance of all reasoned thought. That’s what we mean by magick.
I think there’s actually some kind of Thelema terminology that uses a K to denote something special involving magic, but I’m not talking about whatever that means for the Crowley set. If you’re into that sort of thing, well, Love is the Law, so I’m going to press on. Love Under Will, guys.
The Many Magicks of Eberron
Now that we know what we mean by magick, and how it isn’t the same thing as magic no matter who says it is, it’s easy to see that Eberron is full of magickal things. Magick stuff is everywhere.
There’s magickal mass transit, with trains and airships powered by magick instead of physics and chemistry. There’s magickal architecture, with skyscrapers supported by magick instead of reinforced concrete and structural steel. There are professionals who specialize in creating magick devices with eerily familiar functions and mechanisms of operation, but which operate by magick. There are people who are made of cogs and sprockets, but are totally not robots or androids, because magick is what makes them alive.
Anywhere you look in Eberron, you will find magick. And that’s a problem, because either magick with a K is the same as magic without a K, or it isn’t. You can’t have it both ways, but the Eberron setting kind of relies on having that equivalence, in order to maintain its fantasy cred as part of Dungeons and Dragons, which is a fantasy roleplaying game.
Keeping it in the Fantasy Family
I’m not going to get into how we know that D&D is a fantasy game. If you can’t tell from the dragons, and wizards, and magic swords, and floating castles built on earth motes, and paladins in shining plate armor, and all the rest… well, let’s just say that anyone who wants to argue that D&D is not a fantasy game is either playing a very facetious devil’s advocate, or just isn’t paying attention.
I’m also going to say here that D&D is not only a fantasy game, but that the D&D rules don’t allow for it to be anything other than a fantasy game. Everything in the core rulebooks is geared towards fantasy adventure, from the classes to the equipment to the magic spells. You can make rules for almost any genre of game you want with the d20 system (one of the most brilliant bits of design ever conceived), but that doesn’t mean that any set of rules that uses the d20 system can be used for any genre of game. D&D is specifically set up for fantasy, and not anything else. Whether it can be stretched to apply to non-fantasy settings is debatable, but stretchable or not, that isn’t what it’s made to do.
But, let’s get back to Eberron, and whether magic and magick are the same thing after all. It’s a tricky question, and an important one, and the Eberron setting is highly invested in one answer only.
Eberron is kind of stuck saying that magick and magic are the same thing, because it wants to be part of D&D, which is strong on magic, and not strong on magick. Yes, you have things like the guns in Dragon Heist that are actually magick, but they crop up very infrequently, or at least they have cropped up infrequently so far, knock wood. Occasionally you find a modern item hidden away in some dragon’s trove or lich’s lair, like a Colt Peacemaker, but because D&D is a fantasy game you are left to wonder how such an item found its unlikely way through the multiverse to land in such an alien environment, and its inclusion is more of a curiosity than a disruption. And you do not need to remind me that there are some stats and mechanics for handling modern or futuristic weapons included in the DMG; a few lines of table in an obscure section of one rulebook, set alongside hundreds of pages of rules and information on fantasy adventures, does not mean that D&D should have machine guns and laser cannons in it.
These are outliers, because, ultimately, D&D trades on normal, fantasy-world magic, and if Eberron wants to claim its place under the D&D umbrella, magic and magick have to be the same thing. But, of course, there’s a problem with this, because of the vast scope of magick in Eberron. As we said, it’s everywhere. And if magick is actually magic, that means that magic is actually the thing that is everywhere. It’s in the hands of the masses, everywhere you go, everywhere you look. Except magic can’t work that way… not without badly upsetting the balance.
The Makings of a Hero
Let’s take a big step back, and think for a bit about creating a D&D character. Just a normal D&D character, the kind that you would play in a Forgotten Realms campaign, or a Greyhawk campaign, or even maybe a Dark Sun campaign. Actually, nevermind about Dark Sun. Let’s stick to Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk, at least for the moment, and let’s think about making a character. Even a really stereotyped one: dwarf fighter, elf wizard, halfling rogue.
Even the most prosaic characters have a special spark from the moment of their creation, even as lowly first-level adventurers who might or might not survive their hunt for rats in the cellar of the tavern where they all met. These weaklings, ignoramuses, and incompetents are destined for greatness… if they manage to survive, they will become heroes, and more. The whole point of D&D is to create heroes. The game is designed around the concept that player characters are different and special and uncommon. They are by definition out of the ordinary. Even the most boring PC is cut from a far different cloth than most of the NPC’s in the world, and that’s a vital and deliberate piece of game design.
That’s a bold statement…
… and here’s some justification for you.
Near the end of Chapter One of the DMG, there’s a section on “Tiers of Play”, which is mostly there to help DM’s who are building their own adventures and campaigns to get an idea of the scale of heroism appropriate to characters within a certain range of levels. Characters from levels 1 through 4 are Local Heroes, and they save villages and investigate haunted houses and brave the dangers of the standard mildly-hazardous forest. Levels 5 through 10 are Heroes of the Realm, and they get into ancient ruins and drow tunnels and mind flayer enclaves, and the fate of a large city or even a city-state or region might rest on their abilities and courage. Levels 11 through 16 are Masters of the Realm, levels 17 through 20 are Masters of the World. If you make it to level 21, then you become a Master of the Universe and get to have a Power Sword and a Battle Cat.
Okay, that last bit isn’t in there, but you get the idea here. D&D characters aren’t just nobodies, although they might come from humble beginnings. Even from their earliest adventures, they are doing heroic deeds. Maybe defeating the kobolds who are keeping the local miners from working and feeding their families isn’t a mighty conquest in the grand scheme of things, but it sure means a lot to those miners and their starving wives and children. And starving husbands, too, because D&D is an equal opportunity multiverse, and women can totally be miners. Point is, even the lowliest characters at the lowest levels are still Local Heroes.
If that’s not enough to show that D&D adventurers are somehow special from the very beginning, let’s flip over to the PHB and look at the different classes that are available. And no, I am not going to belabor the point about the obvious fantasy flavor that they all share, but thanks for noticing. The reason we’re looking at the classes is because they each start with a class description, and each class description contains a particular variety of caveat…
“Not every member of the city watch, the village militia, or the queen’s army is a fighter.”
“Not every minstrel singing in a tavern or jester cavorting in a royal court is a bard.”
“Fighters are rare enough among the ranks of the militias and armies of the world, but even fewer people can claim the true calling of a paladin.
“Not every acolyte or officiant at a temple or shrine is a cleric.”
“Wizards’ lives are seldom mundane.”
In other words, adventurers are set apart from everyone else because they have special skills and abilities that those around them lack. They are destined for great deeds. And this makes perfect sense because D&D isn’t just a fantasy game… it’s a fantasy adventure game, and players don’t want to create characters who live out their lives as cobblers and blacksmiths and farmers. D&D players create characters who transcend the ordinary. They create heroes, and then they go forth and do mighty works for good or ill. Doing those things is what makes the game fun, of course, and that’s why player characters are created to be special.
Magic as a Mark of Heroism
It might seem as though D&D games take place in a very magic-heavy world, and that’s a reasonable impression to get. There are pages and pages of spells. If you were to make a file containing one of each of the spellbook cards that you can buy, that file would be a full 6 inches thick; I know this because I just got out a ruler and measured mine. Also, eight out of the twelve classes in the PHB have primary spellcasting abilities: only the barbarian, fighter, monk (let’s not debate whether ki is actually magic), and rogue do not have spellcasting abilities from their main class. Of these, the fighter, rogue, and monk all have sub-classes that grant spellcasting ability, and even the barbarian gains the ability to cast a couple of spells through the Totem Warrior path.
But, as we already established, player characters are well out of the normal population of the world. Even if all PC’s could have the ability to cast spells at some level, and even if there’s an exceptionally wide variety of spells, the vast majority of the people in the world are not only unable to use magic themselves, but might have only vague or questionable access to magic at all. The priest at the local temple might have some magical healing arts granted by a deity, but the town herbalist relies entirely on mundane nature lore, and the cave-dwelling shaman is a fraud who sells worthless charms and divinations to credulous villagers.
In short, access to magic, either through one’s own powers or by association with friends and comrades who are adept with magic, is a rare thing. And that makes sense, because heroes are a rare thing, and D&D parties are made up of adventurers who are by definition rare and talented heroes.
And if Magick is Magic…
This is where Eberron runs into problems. Magick is commonplace in Eberron, and I won’t belabor the point with a long list of examples. Trains, airships, Warforged. The usual suspects. If magick is the same thing as magic, then what’s left for the heroes? Player characters, who represent the rare and special people in the D&D world, the heroes and champions destined for greatness, have magical ability and access to magic as a common thread. What happens when everyone has access to magic, because magick is the very same thing?
Nothing good. But there’s something else that needs straightening out, and it’s the relationship between magic and technology. I beat the daylights out of this dead horse in the other article, but I’m going to revisit the idea here, because the context is sufficiently different.
When the issue was the intrusion of magick (and the technology it attempted to explain away) into a world otherwise free of it, the conclusion I reached was that the reason for the magick to exist in the first place, the reason for the initial handwave, was an attempt to bring technology into a fantasy world without breaching the fantasy barrier. The fantasy world in question was, specifically, the Forgotten Realms campaign setting, which is based around a fairly standard high-fantasy model. And the solution that I offered was to leave technology out altogether, and that included anything that acted like technology but was actually magick. For the Forgotten Realms setting, that makes sense, but Eberron is a different setting, and has its own considerations.
The situation with Eberron is different because the Eberron setting is full of magick, as well as magic, already. Nobody is trying to graft it on after the fact or shoehorn it in where is doesn’t belong, because it’s always been there. The magickal bits in Eberron, included from the outset, are the ones that act the most like technology: trains, airships, Warforged. The usual suspects. The fact is, although I didn’t need to get into it in the last article, that technology and magic can coexist, as long as they each stay in their own niche.
A Detour through Star Wars?
Okay, confession time. I am a Star Wars geek as well as a D&D geek. I really love Star Wars, and all of my t-shirts that aren’t D&D related are pretty much Star Wars related. I’ve been watching the original trilogy since I was a tiny child, and I’ve seen all of the newer ones as well. More than once. I even try to come up with nice things to say about the prequels. That is how much of a Star Wars geek I am. And this is a good thing, because Star Wars pulls off a trick that Eberron misses: technology and magic have a peaceful coexistence, because although technology is everywhere, magic is still the province of heroes.
Luminous Beings Are We
Of course, in Star Wars, magic is called the Force, which as we all know is a mystical energy field that surrounds and connects all living things. (Don’t even get me started on midichlorians, which is the worst thing among a great many really bad things to come out of those damned prequels. We’ll pretend that they don’t exist, because the universe was better without them.) Knowledge of the Force grants powers like telekinesis, accelerated reflexes, and spontaneous creation of lightning bolts… mage hand, foresight, and chain lightning, anyone?
So yes, for our purposes, the Force is magic. Its “spell list” isn’t as varied as D&D’s, but it does the same job. There are powers that reach beyond the mundane and even beyond technology, and these powers are granted only to special individuals with inborn ability to perceive and control the Force. Once there were hundreds of Jedi Knights with an entire hierarchical quasi-religious structure, but even then the number of normal folks in the galaxy was vastly greater than the Jedi Order. That worked out fine, though, because not being a Jedi wasn’t that much of a handicap, and the reason for that was widespread technology.
Hokey Religions Are No Match for a Blaster
In Star Wars, everyone gets to use technology. It provides speeders, starships, weapons, droids, the whole smash… everything that the common person needs to keep up with everyday life. It also provides a way for non-Jedi, which is to say people without magic, to participate in the kind of heroic adventures that are usually going on. After all, during the Clone Wars, the Jedi were in charge of leading the military, but the troops didn’t travel around and win battles by using the Force. They had starships and blasters, which allowed them to participate without having to skew the balance and make Force abilities a common thing.
So magic and technology can coexist perfectly well, and create a plausible and workable fantasy world. And yes, Star Wars is fantasy, not science fiction. And no, I have no interest in having that debate here or in the comments, so please don’t get started. The point is that Star Wars manages to give technology to everyone in order to better tell a story… the story of how the Skywalkers’ family troubles got out of hand and caused galactic war, genocide, and all around bad happenings for a lot of people who otherwise would have been living quietly and happily.
Back to Eberron. Whew.
What can we learn from Star Wars that pertains to Eberron and its multitudinous troubles? It’s okay to give some wildly impressive abilities and benefits to the general citizenry, but with a few conditions.
The first condition is that no matter what the general populace can do, there has to be a certain level of skill, ability, or access to power that only a few people have. Those people are the heroes, and their ability beyond the ordinary is what sets them apart. It’s what makes them the player characters, who are destined for greatness and mighty deeds from the very beginning. They’re the ones who are a step above everyone else from the moment of creation, just like the excerpts in that blue box indicate.
The second condition is that whenever extraordinary benefits are provided to the non-heroes, the normal folks, those benefits must work towards the purpose of creating opportunities for adventure for the heroes. If the heroes need to lead an elite army unit into battle on a far frontier, coming up with a way to move soldiers quickly over distance makes sense, and even supports the concept of a battlefront so vast that even the ordinary troops need fast transit for strategic movement.
The Dangers of Enhancing Tone
There is actually another reason to include extraordinary benefits to the masses that doesn’t involve direct contribution to the heroes’ exploits, and that reason is enhancing the tone of the world. If adding floating airships as part of the background of the world, in order to add the feeling that this is the kind of world where that sort of thing exists (think the His Dark Materials books, or the movie Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow), that might be a reason to include them even if they don’t actually play a part in the party’s adventures.
However, there’s a hazard here as well. Let’s stick to the airships example: you, the DM, include them because they help to create a vibe that you want. That’s fine, but then something like this happens:
DM: Okay, in order to reach the Mausoleum of Furious Ghosts, you must first cross the Desert of Unbearable Thirst, and then make your way through Deathwood Forest.
Players: Wow, that sounds both inconvenient and dangerous. Let’s take one of those airships we’ve seen floating around, and we’ll just fly over that desert and forest and make it to the Mausoleum without all that trouble.
DM: Uh, well… um… well, you can’t take an airship, because the airships only run along certain routes, and there’s no airship that goes from the city to the Mausoleum. Sorry, you’ll just have to walk there.
Players: We still don’t want to walk. We’re just going to hijack one of those airships and fly it to the Mausoleum ourselves. If we return the airship undamaged, and pay some kind of fine, we shouldn’t get into too much trouble. We’ll do that; where’s the nearest airship port?
DM: Ah. Well… no, the airships can only follow certain routes because they’re built to only navigate along certain lines of travel. So, yeah, you’re going to have to walk through the desert and the forest.
You see what’s going on here: the airships were meant as background elements to establish that this is that kind of world, but now the players want to actually use them. Even worse, they want to use them to avoid having to deal with obstacles that the DM included and planned for as part of the adventure. Sure, maybe skipping the desert and the forest will just mean wasted planning, but maybe the PC’s were supposed to find a magic key to the secret side door of the Mausoleum somewhere in the forest, and now they’ll miss out on an important part of the story.
And, in order to make the players take the walking route through the desert and forest, the DM has to keep inventing reasons why using the airship won’t work, and the reasons are getting thinner and thinner.
So the caveat for you DM’s is this: don’t put anything in your world that you aren’t prepared for the players to try to use. Because they will eventually latch on to one of your tone elements as part of a plan, and then you’ll be in a tricky situation.
The final condition, and the one where Eberron trips, is that the magic of the heroes and the extraordinary benefits for everyone else need to be kept separate. The existence of the things in Eberron that work by magick is not the issue. The issue is that they work by magick, which has to be the same as that they work by magic… and that places magical power in the hands of the masses. What’s left to set the heroes apart?
Well, there are other things that set the heroes apart without magic, like Action Surges and Sneak Attacks, but the fact is that the ability to use magic to achieve their goals is a benefit that has been reserved for the great heroes and their arch-nemeses in D&D from the beginning, and it should not be easily discarded, or casually diluted into a world where it can be found just about anywhere and in use by just about anyone.
The Fix, and Why You Have to Make It Yourself
The entire problem comes down to magick: magick is taking a piece of technology and declaring by fiat that it now works by magic instead, and it causes all kinds of difficulties because it involves redefining something that doesn’t belong in a particular world into something that does belong in that world, by brute force. The fact of the matter is that Eberron doesn’t need to have this problem.
The reason that magickal smokepowder guns were a problem in Waterdeep is that firearms just don’t belong in the Forgotten Realms setting, but that they were strong-armed in because some idiot designer thought it would be cool to have drow gunslingers. The person who wanted the drow gunslingers didn’t stop to think about why it would be necessary to shoehorn them in, before doing it anyway with a ham-handed magickal solution. The reason that they resorted to using magick is that the thing that they wanted didn’t belong in that world, but using a cheap magick trick would somehow make it all okay.
Eberron doesn’t even need magick, much less to be so jam-packed with it. We already know that technology can coexist peacefully and productively with magic, so why not take all of the magickal things in Eberron and make them work using science instead? The Forgotten Realms setting’s level of technology generally falls right about the level of the mechanical clock or even rather lower, but there’s no reason that Eberron’s level of tech couldn’t be more like the steam engine, or even early machinery (look up the “power loom”) for example. Replacing magick with science isn’t even a difficult thing to do, especially when you consider that a lot of magick was invented initially to oust science from its rightful place.
Of course, Eberron has a certain level of investment in magick, because they need everything in the world to work by magic, because Eberron is a D&D setting, and D&D is a fantasy game that uses magic but steers clear of science. Why does it need to bend the rules on technology by breaking the back of magic? I’m sure there’s a corporate reason involving finances, because D&D is big business now and keeping Eberron under the D&D name and using the existing 5th Edition rules is going to make money. There’s probably also an appeal to tradition, because the Eberron setting has been around for a long time, and bringing it back hearkens back to the good old days. Of course, the reason it was originally invented back in the good old days was probably for the same reasons of financial gain; there’s money to be made in expanding your product into adjacent markets, even if some contortions are required to make it fit. We won’t even start on Spelljammer, at least until they come out with hardcover for that.
All of that being said, I can understand how some DM’s can really like the Eberron setting. It has a certain amount of steampunk appeal, and a different vibe from the more high-fantasy material that’s come out recently, and it does open up some doors for new types of adventures. If you want to have a murder-on-a-train detective story, for example, you’ll need a train, and Eberron can provide you with one.
My advice to DM’s who want to use Eberron is to get rid of the magick, because that’s what’s really the problem with Eberron. Take the magickal things and turn them into technology, which is really what they want to be in the first place. Float your airships with hydrogen, and power your trains with coal-burning steam engines. If you want guns, just have gunpowder instead of some magickal fakery like smokepowder. There might be a good use for that Artificer class here, if the Artificers are the ones who understand magic well enough to come up with ways to duplicate it using science.
The magic in the setting needs to be real, and it needs to be the province of the greatest heroes and the deadliest enemies. Wizards of the Coast may need to dilute the magic and twist the system to maintain brand identity or somesuch nonsense, but that doesn’t extend to the DM’s who actually run games. Eberron isn’t my thing, but if it’s yours, go for it… but take my advice: leave the magick out, and keep the magic as it’s always been intended. Technology isn’t so bad, if it lets you run the game that you and your players want to have, and having the game that you all want is what has always mattered the most.
Not Quite a Clean Getaway
This final part of the article is kind of a tag-along, but I think it’s important to address another issue regarding how Eberron can be finagled to work harmoniously with 5E rules. The previous part of the article is about the differences between the hero types and everyone else, and how magic and magick and technology play into those differences. No matter how you account for those differences, there’s still a problem lurking, and it’s a problem mostly of aesthetics.
Whether you decide to make Eberron’s magick into actual technology or to leave it the way it is, you have another problem to deal with, and the problem is disparity of tone. Look at it this way: maybe you have a magickal airship that floats and moves using some kind of levitation enchantments, or maybe you have a complex but mundane airship that floats using a hydrogen-filled envelope and moves using a steam-driven propeller. Either way, you’ll probably end up with a fairly similar-looking construction, and with the same problem: high-fantasy style character races and classes are going to seem out-of-place next to technology, or next to magick that looks like technology. D&D is full of elves and halflings, clerics and druids, shortswords and longbows, and all kinds of solid fantasy content that just seems awkward in a setting that isn’t quite fantasy. And not everyone can be a Warforged Artificer, after all.
The short example is this: imagine a hulking half-orc barbarian carrying a blood-stained greataxe and wearing nothing but a loincloth and some bits of fur. Now put that barbarian on a train. That’s weird. More than weird… dissonant. It’s like playing minor seconds on a piano; those notes were never meant to be played together, and when you do it anyway, the result is ugly.
The fantasy tone of D&D is going to have to be adjusted, if it’s not going to have this ongoing dissonance with the more technological tone of Eberron. I’m not going to figure this out, because I don’t plan on using Eberron myself, and I have no need of my own to fix 5E’s fantasy tone to fit comfortably in Eberron. I’m also not going to buy the book and read it and come up with tone adjustments as a public service, because I’d rather spend my money on dice, and I really don’t care to spend time reading about a setting I never liked anyway.
Tone Modification: Wuxia
However, I will provide an example from a campaign that I designed for 3.5, but which I never actually got to run. At the time I had a group of friends who wanted me to run a game for them, and they wanted some kind of Asian theme to it. This would be right around the turn of the century (ha!), when Jackie Chan and Jet Li were making popular American movies, and the Matrix was out and changing how everything looked with lots of martial arts visuals, and you even had films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon which were hitting the mainstream and pushing the boundaries of what martial arts movies were like. So I agreed to come up with a campaign that would have that flavor, and I got as far as figuring out how to change the overall look and feel of the 3.5 rules to make it work, but not as far as actually writing the story, which is good because that group of friends broke up and the campaign never got any use.
And, because telling you about a lot of changes to make it work in 3.5 won’t do a lot of people much good, I’ll translate the work into the broad strokes for application in 5E instead. And the whole point of this, and the reason its in this article instead of somewhere else, is because I think DM’s who want to run Eberron games without it being really weird are going to want to do something along these lines. Not exactly along these lines, but I think the example will be instructive. Of course, if you’re planning on running a campaign with Asian tone elements, this will be immediately useful, rather than just tangentially useful.
First, let me say that I deliberately decided not to be too concerned about separating out different Asian cultures when designing my tone elements. That’s not because I don’t appreciate the fact that Asian cultures are very distinct from each other, but because I didn’t want to have to become an expert in Asian cultures in order to run a D&D game. I decided that I wanted to go more or less for something like feudal Japan, but that elements like martial-arts monks (which are more in the Chinese tradition) would be allowed without much modification. Again, the idea here was not to duplicate a particular culture or era, but to develop a setting which would place fantasy adventure in a world with a general vibe that would play to the Asian culture and martial-arts tropes that American twenty-somethings were carrying around in their heads.
Figuring Out “The Look”
The first step, a step important enough to get its very own blue box, is to develop a mental picture of the world you’re creating. When I was developing the tone elements for my Asian-inspired setting, I was mostly inspired by an antique Japanese lacquered screen that I saw in one of the Smithsonian art galleries. It depicted lots of flowing clothing, kabuki makeup, pagodas, cherry blossoms, that sort of thing.
With that mental picture, I had a solid place to start, and an immediate method for comparison: if I can’t imagine (or reimagine) a D&D element in that scene from the lacquer screen, then it doesn’t go in.
The changes that made the setting different were all based around using the existing rules, so I wouldn’t have to hack mechanics very much; if something in the existing rules didn’t seem to fit without forcing it, that thing was eliminated from the setting. Aside from that, it’s easy to make cosmetic changes that don’t affect mechanics at all, but make things seem more in keeping with the inspiration for the setting.
So, if I were going to do this in 5E, here’s how it would work:
Changes to Character Races
In this world, all characters are human. That being said, players can choose from many of the basic PHB races anyway, to create “human” characters who have features that are normally ascribed to fantasy races like dwarves, elves, and halflings. If you want to play a tough and resilient human with an aptitude for close combat, go ahead and use the dwarf traits, or at least most of them. If you want an agile and nature-wise human, use the wood elf traits. This allows for character customization, taking advantage of the already developed mechanics. What it avoids is having gnomes and halflings wandering around on my lacquered screen: they don’t belong there, so they have to go.
Changes to Character Classes
The trick here is redefining some of the character classes from the PHB to work better in this new world that’s being created, and using existing concepts to reframe the class roles is a good way to do that. The classes work pretty much like they always do, although there are some classes and subclasses that don’t fit, and are best eliminated.
So, all barbarians, fighters, paladins, and rangers now fit a kind of samurai model, although their specialties within that model vary based on the normal classes; maybe we’ll call the barbarian class the Mountain School samurai, who value physical endurance and heavy weapons. Rangers are the Wind School, whose training focuses on agility and marksmanship with ranged weapons. That sort of thing allows the fighting classes to be part of the setting, and to function mostly as the rules as written allow.
Rogues are changed into the archetypal ninja role, which has nothing to do with the actual social and historical context of ninja, but has everything to do with hiding and stealth, and sneak attacks, and climbing on rooftops… the stuff that rogues do. Again, the rules as written need very little change, if any, for this.
Clerics and warlocks keep their class abilities, except for that all deities and patrons stop being the normal sort of gods, fiends, fey, and that sort of thing. Now, clerics and warlocks are associated with ancestral or nature spirits instead, which gets us out of the standard pantheon of gods and into something less like Western religions (historical or otherwise).
Instead of having intellectual and scholarly wizards, and sorcerers who are basically like wizards gone off the rails, both of those classes fit the role of wandering sages, seeking greater knowledge by traveling the lands and meditating on what they find there.
Monks are pretty much okay the way they are, remembering that they don’t have to fit in with ninjas and samurai in a historical context as long as they fit the general tone.
And there are no druids or bards. I just can’t see how to fit them in without making significant changes to the PHB rules, and I don’t want to make changes to how the game works, but instead to how it feels. I’m not going to break my back trying to find a way to shoehorn elements into the game that really don’t want to be there. If you’re working too hard to make things fit, it’s possible that maybe they just aren’t meant to.
Cosmetic Changes Using Different Words
This is the easy part, because sometimes all you have to do to make interesting changes to how the world looks is to use different words to describe the things in it. If I want a weapon that fits better in the setting than the sickle, for example, I just call it a “kama” instead… which is actually the same item (literally, it was an Okinawan farm implement before it became a weapon) but with a name that evokes the tone for the setting. There’s a whole chart of Japanese and Chinese names for the D&D weapons in the DMG, but that doesn’t mean you have to substitute all of them… just enough to change the flavor.
The point is to avoid putting elements into the setting that are awkward or weird there, and to get back to Eberron, integrating certain classes and races as they are traditionally imagined often creates some rather jarring oddness. But that doesn’t make it impossible to handle, it just requires a little more care in implementation. The further you get from the classic fantasy roots of D&D, the more changes you’re going to have to make to keep the picture consistent.
Everything Has a Cost
What all of this comes down to is that if you want to play in a setting like Eberron, there are a couple of decisions to be made, and they’re not always easy.
Dealing with magic (and magick) is a tricky one, because access to magic is an important distinguishing feature of D&D heroes, and putting magic in the hands of too many people dilutes its importance. Even if you’re just putting magick in the hands of the masses, remember that you need to decide whether magick and magic are the same thing. Wizards of the Coast might have to be committed to the position that they are, but they have books to sell instead of games to run. Changing magick into actual technology isn’t a bad idea, all things considered.
However, with significant changes to the setting, and specifically changes that make it different from standard D&D fantasy fare, you’re not going to be able to pull out your good old core rulebooks and use the material there just the way it is. At least not without things getting a little odd at times. That doesn’t mean you need to throw out the rules, and in fact you should keep as many as you can, and keep them the same… just adjust the look and the feel to match the new setting.
And that will conclude the article that is not actually a review of the new Eberron book: a book that I do not plan to purchase or read, but which is probably a good resource for DM’s and players who like Eberron and its particular different flavor. Like anything else, though, integrating the new with the old sometimes takes extra work to make it go smoothly. If you’re going to get into the Eberron setting, you have some decisions to make, and I hope that I’ve been able to at least help show where the decision points are lurking. And, if you have no desire to get into Eberron, and you don’t care about the philosophical ramifications of universal access to magic in a hero-driven story structure… well, I hope you liked the wuxia section.