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A Nerd's Love Letter to Eberron

by Doug Hall 3 months ago in gaming

A World of Airships, Warbots, and Corporations

How can you not love this?

Dungeons and Dragons is a longtime hobby and love of mine. I was introduced to the game in my last year of high school and instantly fell into running games for my friends, which I continued to do on a regular basis for the next 17 years. Over the years I’ve played in a number of different settings and systems, each with their own quirks and charms. I ran my players through classic dungeon delves, grand swashbuckling adventures, grimdark military campaigns, cyberpunk dystopias, intergalactic intrigue, and zombie apocalypses. Out of all of the settings I’ve played in, there is one that I keep coming back to however; one world that has stood out and captured my imagination like no other, Eberron.

Eberron came onto the scene around 2002, shortly before I started playing the game at all actually. Wizards of the Coast started a competition putting out an open call for writers to create their next big fantasy setting. They initially received around 11,000 entries of a single page document outline, which was then cut to 11, and finally 3. Those last three entries were submitted by Phillip Nathan Toomey (Who later contributed to a few sourcebooks), Rich Burlew (Author of the Order of the Stick webcomic), and finally Keith Baker with his world of Eberron. The Eberron Campaign Setting book was then published in June 2004, just as I headed off to university, completely not tracking this at all. In fact I never saw anything about Eberron until 3 years later when I returned from my basic training and retrieved a stack of “Dungeon” magazines that I had been subscribed to while I was away. In amongst the stack of about two dozen nerd bibles was Dungeon Magazine #143, and touted on the cover was one of the featured adventure modules “Foil the Great Train Robbery.” Immediately interested I flicked to the article, written by Christopher Wissel. The adventure had the players attempting to stop a pulp-fiction style robbery, evoking images of Indiana Jones, on a magical train powered by an entrapped angry storm elemental. I was irreversibly hooked at this point.

What started it all

There was many ways to play a game in Eberron, a sentiment laid out beautifully in the introduction to the campaign setting. It listed a number of influences amongst tips for players and DMs to make the most of their experience. You could send your players gallivanting around the map on lightning powered railways or swashbuckling airship battles fighting over high powered magical mcguffins, akin to Pirates of the Caribbean or The Mummy. You could imitate the Maltese Falcon or Casablanca if you wanted a noir style investigative game full of red herrings and political intrigue set in a metropolis of soaring skyscrapers. You could take part in a continent spanning world war, fighting in WW1 inspired trenches alongside zombie soldiers, fighting off bands of tribal warrior elves and sentient magical robots. You could even dip your toes in some cosmic horror and see what insanity the Orcs had been trying to hold back.

Up to this point most of the Dungeons and Dragons games I had experienced were set in what I would call “Vanilla” D&D, the world of Greyhawk. This was the default setting of the 3rd edition books, whereas later editions would shift to using the Forgotten Realms and the world of Faerun as their introductory point for players. Both of these worlds shared a number of fantasy tropes that had become expected around the table. Elves were ancient and wise, goblins were maniacal and evil, orcs were bloodthirsty savages, and great wizards battled fierce devils to decide the fate of their worlds and dragons ruled over ancient treasure filled dungeons. Good and Evil, Law and Chaos, were easy black and white concepts and every creature fell into the axis somewhere. For me, Eberron was the first world I had found that deliberately subverted that and put real genuine thought into the interaction between the various fantasy races, governments, magic, gods, and monsters. Every creature from the Monster Manual had a defined and deliberate place in Eberron that really made me think about how I was using my characters within the narrative. I couldn’t just drop in a band of Orc raiders in the badlands for them to be ambushed by, because Eberron Orcs were proud druidic guardians, standing watch over interdimensional gates to a plane of utter madness that would swallow reality. You could take nothing for granted, you had to think as a DM, and you had to think as a player. You couldn’t just hack and slash your way through everything, you might even be forced to, dare I say it… roleplay. One of my favourite moments in a D&D game to date was seeing my players have to choose between protecting an innocent village of lycanthropes who had gone into hiding, or siding with a contingent of murderous overzealous paladins intent on destroying those affected by the evil curse. Neither side was evil, in fact both would be traditionally considered good, so it was up to the players to decide who to support and how far they would go to do so.

Eberron introduced a number of new races as well, and none more iconic to me than the Warforged, but in order to explain them we need to talk about the war which demanded their creation. These shiny metal boys were created in the last few decades of a century old conflict known as the Last War. The Last War was sparked as almost all great wars are, by squabbling over succession. The nation of Galifar under King Jarot split into five nations upon the King’s death, with each nation being headed by one of his heirs, and then over time every region on the continent was pulled into the war in some capacity. Alliances were forged, broken, reforged, betrayed, and every variation. This was honestly pretty standard as far as any fantasy warfare goes, but what made Eberron stand apart was the thought which went into the effects that a century of warfare would have on a world, and what the catastrophic loss of life would look like on the ground. The nation of Karrnath is augmented by various undead soldiers as they simply ran out of living bodies to hold their pikes. Monstrous creatures such as trolls and ogres are hired as mercenaries to fight alongside humans. International corporations begin hiring out mercenary adventurers and contracting military equipment such as airships and even rudimentary magical tanks, and one such corporation, House Cannith, creates the Warforged, sentient constructs created solely to fight in place of humans. This leads to horrifying moral dilemmas as Warforged are set upon other Warforged hired by opposing nations, killing each other in their employers name, sometimes having only been built mere days apart.

The Last War drew to a close after a hundred years when an unexplained cataclysm called the Mourning completely destroys one of the five nations, Cyre, leaving it a shattered wasteland known as the Mournland, warped by leftover mutation and magic, echoing the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The major difference in Eberron is that unlike the end of WW2, nobody knows who killed the country of Cyre, only that it was destroyed in less than a day. This means that the peace between the surviving nations is unbelievably fragile and only held by the fear that it could happen again. Conflict could spring up again in a heartbeat for any number of reasons, and so peace is precious and sacred at this time. Now everyone had to learn how to survive and thrive in a recently post-war world. The setting start date is only 2 years after the peace treaty was signed and so everyone the players will interact with has been touched by the war in some way. Whether this comes out as battle-scarred veterans with prosthetic limbs, young orphaned rogues trying to scrape by, or a lack of able bodied persons to help work the farms, everyone is struggling and there simply isn’t enough people for anything to work as it’s supposed to anymore.

We see the impact of this extended fighting in one other major way unique to the setting; magic. Magic in Eberron is described as broad, not high; meaning that rather than it being common to see wizards throwing fireballs at devils like in other settings, it’s more common to see magic used to fix small everyday problems. This was both a way to advance the technology level of the setting slightly as magic becomes a stand-in for early steam power and electricity, and a direct result of the main major magical powerhouses of the setting having died during the war. You can only throw so many meteors at one another before the wizards start dying out. The turnover of magic-users was so high that by the time the treaty was signed anyone of even moderate ability was employed within key powerful positions or employed by the dragonmarked houses which function as international corporations within the world. The control of this magic ability by the houses leads to a corporate monopoly over different technologies, such as the aforementioned airships, lightning rail, and even a sort of telegram. Imagine if Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Steve Jobs were actual wizards and they patented their spells instead. Corporate espionage is a hallmark of the setting and an open secret amongst the populace to the point where some even suspect that one of the houses was responsible for the Mourning itself.

Tolkien Terminators boarding a train from an airship, just another day at the office right?

Now before I get back to where the Warforged fit in, I need to explain where this fits into my life as they are very connected. I started playing this in 2007, and in 2008 I deployed to Afghanistan on my first tour as an infantry soldier. While deployed we played over 30 games of D&D set in Eberron whenever we had a chance. I ran all of our games whenever we had some downtime in between patrols at our main base outside of Kandahar. We had a rotating group of about a dozen players, with anywhere between 3 to 8 players at each game based on who was on base at the time. We would often meet in the common room, snacks and dice on the table amongst disassembled pistols we were cleaning as we played. It was an almost surreal experience, an island of nerdy normalcy in the middle of a literal warzone. It provided an excellent escape from the constant stress of deployment and was a great way to keep our sanity. I used to go on patrol with Eberron based novels in my LAV to read while on the move, and I have one very tattered copy of City of Dreams as proof of that. I even met a true friend from another military who had heard we were playing, another D&D nerd who needed an outlet for his creativity, named Sgt Scott Stream. Unfortunately, after 5 months of playing our campaign, Scott was killed by a roadside bomb on patrol. Our game ended because we just couldn’t sit down at the table without him there. It would be several years until I could work myself up to playing in Eberron again.

It’s easy in retrospect to see the influences of the war on terror, Afghanistan/Iraq, the war weariness of the general population, and the high importance of the Last War itself on the setting when you consider the setting was developed in the years immediately following 9/11. At the time, I just saw cool airships and wanted in. Now I look at the setting and I see the parallels, especially this year as we see the Taliban retake the country I once served in. It’s at this point that I identify so deeply with the living weapons, the Warforged. They were created 30 years before the end of the war, and were continuously produced throughout to feed the war effort. Most didn’t have names, only serial numbers or designations, often their names were nicknames given to them by their fellow fighters. Once the treaty was signed the warriors no longer had a purpose. Many took up mercenary work or adventuring, using their skills in battle to protect their comrades. Some took up less violent pursuits, becoming craftsman and attempting to reinvent themselves rejecting their past. Some fell into despair and looked for someone to lead them, and others were haunted by the things they had to do over the conflict. I could not think of a more perfect representation of how I and my fellow veterans have felt following our service. They were literally created to fight, they were named after the weapons they wielded, and now they were done but still had to figure out what kind of life they could possibly lead. It’s a question many of us struggle with whether we still serve like myself, or whether we’ve retired like many of my friends. The war is over, so now what? Who are you if not a weapon? Who are you if not a soldier?

Now in an extremely odd coincidence, it has been 13 years since I explored Eberron in Afghanistan. To anyone familiar with the setting, 13 is a special number and connected in a myriad of ways. Thirteen dragonmarked houses, thirteen moons orbiting the planet, thirteen planes of existence, and so on. Thirteen years after playing this with my friends in Afghanistan I am writing about it as the country falls. I think that this connection is what makes Eberron so special to me above all. Cinematic moments, complex villains, and intricate political plots aside, Eberron is where my personal war began and in many ways where it still is; I can’t think about one without the other. It’s been therapeutic in that regard, as I can use the Warforged and the characters of the setting to stand in for my own feelings and personal battles and I think that shows how valuable RPGs can be in dealing with trauma, grief, and loss. Finally, the airships are just plain awesome. Thank you Mr. Baker for all the adventures you've inspired, and for the much-needed escape which kept me tethered for 13 years.


Doug Hall

35 Year old member of the Canadian Army with a serious case of ADHD and more hobbies than I can count. Giant nerd, history geek, gamer, and grappler, with a lifelong passion for writing and learning new things.

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