Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition gets its second full campaign setting with the release of the Eberron Campaign Guide, a setting that combines pulp, noir and everyday magic and offers a sharp break from standard D&D fare. It’s a setting in which civilization advances not through technological breakthroughs, but arcane ones, giving rise to trains, airships and naval vessels powered by bound elementals, sentient golems known as warforged, and guilds which use magic and steel to forge their products.
Initially released under D&D 3rd Edition as the winning entry in a world-wide setting search, Eberron’s 4th Edition release shows that Wizards of the Coast learned from its missteps with last year’s Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide. It deftly weaves the 4E rule set into the updated campaign setting, avoiding the catastrophic upheavals visited up on the Forgotten Realms and staying true to the elements that made Eberron such a compelling setting in its first iteration.
Eberron’s opening chapter – which features the same introduction that has graced most of its books, regardless of edition – goes out of its way to assure readers that everything in the core rule books can be found in the setting. That said, the appeal of Eberron is how different it is from the norm, and the introduction lays out those key differences: source material inspired by pulp-style action adventures (Doc Savage, THe Mummy, Pirates of the Caribbean) as well as supernatural noir (From Hell, The Maltese Falcon, Casa Blanca).
Keeping with the original Eberron source book, this one opens four years after The Last War, a terrible 100-year-long war of succession fought by the five nations who once comprised the kingdom of Galifar. It ended not because any one side achieved victory, but because a magical cataclysm destroyed one of the combatants, transforming the nation of Cyre into the devastated Mournland. A cold war now exists between the surviving nations as each struggles to recover from The Last War while simultaneously preparing for the next one.
The nations’ squabbles unfold against the larger tapestry of the Dragon Prophecies, a collection of often-contradictory predictions that spontaneously appear throughout Eberron on buildings, natural landmarks, and even its people. When these manifestations appear on individuals, they are known as dragonmarks, and confer certain magical enhancements. A good example is the Mark of Scribing,, which grants additional languages, a bonus to Diplomacy checks, and access to Mark-specific rituals.
Characters gain dragonmarks by taking certain feats, but the Campaign Guide leaves the details on those to the Player’s Guide. Instead, it focuses on detailing the 12 dragonmarked houses that have arisen around each mark. These guild-like organizations serve as a counterbalance to the four nations while simultaneously serving as the engine for Eberron’s techno-magical advancement. It is the dragonmarked houses that provide the arcane services that make magic such an everyday occurrence in Eberron, but said magic is never overwhelming. While heroes in Eberron might encounter a magewright who uses magic and hammers to craft weapons, they’ll rarely run into Forgotten Realms-style super non-player characters. As the campaign progresses they, and not the NPCs, will be the heroes everyone is talking about.
Eberron is a big world to cover in a single book, but the campaign guide pulls it off. The book’s divided into chapters for the Five Nations (including the ruined Mournland), the myriad breakaway nations that formed during The Last War, and an overview of the lands beyond the main continent of Khorvaire. Each write-up begins with a brief history followed up by a series of skill-check based entries detailing its politics, natural environment and notable arcane influences. They’re rounded out by overviews of notable cities and towns, as well as other points of interest. The end result is a book so chockfull of good information that game masters can open to any page and find a half-dozen adventure ideas.
The Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide was “love it or hate it” type of release. The radical transformation of the world – jumping the timeline forward 100 years, slaying the goddess of magic, physically merging two worlds — was disheartening to long-time players. Even as a casual adventurer in the Realms (mostly in the form of Balder’s Gate) I found the changes disappointing because it seemed like they were trying to ram 4E’s round peg into the Realms’ square hole.
Not so with Eberron. Here the changes are more subtle and frankly, more respectful of the source material. The myriad races of 4th Edition are spliced into the setting in ways that make sense: dragonborn can be found in the dragon-ruled continent of Argonnessen and the deep jungles of Q’barra on Khorvaire; devas are survivors of an ancient conflict with demons that all but destroyed the couatls; goliaths arose Xen’drik but dispersed throughout the world when the giants conquered that continent.
The single best addition is the arrival of the eladrin. These planer counterparts to the elves lived in seven ancient cities known as feyspires. Periodic concordances between the feywild and Eberron would allow the feyspires to crossover into the “real world”, but that all changed when the Mourning destroyed the feyspire in Cyre. Suddenly the mystical shrouds protecting the cities were shredded, trapping the feyspires – and their inhabitants – in Eberron.
Eberron retains its unique cosmology, with the standard D&D 4E planes like the Astral Sea, the Feywild, the Shadowfell and the Elemental Chaos finding corresponding homes in Siberys (aka the Dragon Above), Eberron (the Dragon Between, which includes the real world as well as the Feywield and Shadowfell) and the Khyber (the Dragon Below). Similarly, the religions of Eberron are intact, with the Silver Flame, the Sovereign Host, the Dark Six, the Blood of Vol and the Undying Court returning. There’s no attempt mesh these with the standard 4E pantheon; when you adventure in Eberron you leave Bane and Pelor behind.
There’s little in the way of crunchy rules in this book – for those, players and game masters will need to turn to the Eberron Player’s Guide. That guide contains the new artificer class, paragon paths, races, dragonmarked feats, magic items, alchemical creations and Eberron-specific rituals. This isn’t a flaw; I liked how the campaign guide was focused entirely on world- and story-building, and attempting to include game mechanics would have been a distraction.
The book’s not perfect. It includes an introductory 1st level adventure, which is useful for the new game master trying to get a feel for the setting, but for moderate to experienced players, it’s a waste of space. I’d rather the content have been split out into a standalone module while those pages were used offer a comprehensive index of both the campaign and player’s guide. The existing one-page index and new monster reference are adequate, but adding pages to the index would have served GMs far better then a one shot adventure they may never run.
The poster map of Khorvaire included with the book is great, but I wish the flipside had featured a world map instead of an encounter map of a tower. The book’s cover art, which depicts a steel-clawed warforged with iron wolves at its feet, is disappointing – while it touches on Eberron’s technomagical underpinnings it ignores the larger sense wonder and mystery that’s so fundamental to the setting.
These are ultimately minor flaws. The book itself is solid and is a prime example of how Wizards two-books-per-campaign-setting strategy can work, and work well. More importantly, it demonstrates how the 4th Edition rule set can be made to fit a given setting, rather than forcing the setting to conform to it.
Reprinted from GameCryer.com with permission. Want more Eberron goodness? Check out Episode 113 of The Tome Show, which I joined to talk about the book.