Murder on the Eberron Express

The Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron landed on the DM’s Guild this week, rocketing to Platinum status faster than an elemental-powered airship can fly adventurers from Sharn to Xendrik.

This setting bible for 5E has Eberron’s creator, Keith Baker, as the lead author. Judging from the reception, Eberron is what many Dungeons and Dragons fans have been yearning for.

Truth be told, D&D fans have been fed a pretty solid diet of the Forgotten Realms since the launch of fifth edition.  While medieval epic fantasy with a Tolkeinesque flavor is one of D&D’s best expressions, it isn’t the only one.

Baker’s “fantasy-noir” metaphor for the Pulp Era — the period of boom and bust between World Wars I and II — is possessed of a cinematic flair that has captivated players since its release in 2004.  

The cinematic influences on the setting can’t be overstated. On Page 7 of the original setting guide, there is a sidebar of Movies To Inspire You.  Check it out. Eberron is Casablanca meets Raiders of the Lost Ark meets Maltese Falcon meets The Mummy.

In the movies, Professor Marcus Brody might tell Indiana Jones that federal agents want him to “find the Ark before the Nazis do, and they’re prepared to pay handsomely for it.” In Eberron, some stodgy professor at Morgrave University will ask the adventurers to obtain the Ash Spear of Thakash Rin before the Order of the Emerald Claw gets their hands on it. Rest assured, dragonmarked heir Ashaya D’Lyrandar will pay handsomely for it.

I think one of the influences on the setting that is not expressly said, but exists, nonetheless, is that of novelist Agatha Christie. Some of her best-regarded Hercule Poirot mysteries — Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, Evil Under the Sun — were produced in that same era as the pulps, even if they weren’t of that literary skein, and reflect those times. The novels also showcase the author’s keen interest in archeology. And some of her characters are still coping with or adjusting to peacetime life in the aftermath of the Great War.

In Eberron, “The Last War” is supposed to be a defining characteristic of the player characters.

Beyond those similarities, however, I think the most Christie-like thing about Eberron is the assembly of the cast. Christie’s whodunits present a host of suspects who represent a wide swath of culture and social standing.  Do they hold up to modern standards for diversity? Hardly, and some of the stereotypes employed can be disconcerting. But for the 1930s, these novels are noteworthy. They have persons of nobility, servants, veterans, “foreigners,” doctors and ne’er-do-wells rubbing shoulders with one another — sometimes conspiring with one another — oftentimes in close quarters.  

When I think of player characters forming adventuring parties in Eberron, I am struck by a very similar aspect. A good adventuring party in Eberron is comprised by an array of fantastic character types.  Parties whose members have differences shine. In addition to the new races, such as changelings, Kalashtar, shifters and, of course, the setting’s iconic and popular warforged, the characters are indeed drawn from many aspects of society.

Many adventurers are former soldiers, of course, and that’s intentional. The Last War remains fixed in everyone’s memory. But even if your PC didn’t fight in it, it’s hard to ignore the drumbeat for another war that hangs overhead like an executioner’s blade.

A DM doesn’t have to stage a murder mystery on a snowbound lightning rail train to evoke an Agatha Christie vibe. Yet, it sounds like a great thing to try.  And very much in keeping with the spirit of Eberron.

Is that the conductor’s whistle I hear? 

It’s a lightning rail train that is pulling out of Zolenberg station. The sleeping carriages are filled with celebrities and noteworthy persons. There is even a master inquisitive on board, a last-minute addition to the passenger list. It’s more than two days to Sharn. So, please, settle into your berth and do your best to ignore any bumps in the night …



Not Yet Ready For Prime Time

How does the old joke about the novice swordsman go?

  • Do you know how to use that thing?
  • The pointy end goes in the other guy, right?

The same could be said to me about a paint brush. I know the brushy end goes into the paint.

But that doesn’t make me an illustrator.

Illustrators are amazing. Not only can they create artistic representations of things, they do it to order. An illustrator can take words on a page and produce a visual representation of  it.

And it’s more than lines on a page, an outline of familiar shapes. An illustrator has in their toolbox a host of techniques, including such things as sketching, shading, hatching, contouring, lighting, underinking, color, feathering, sweeping, light, shadow, perspective, proportion … well you get the picture. And those are techniques. The drawing or painting itself, if done skillfully, is evocative and alluring. It creates a mood, a place, a feeling. There’s a lot to it.

I, on the other hand, know just enough that my artistry is like that of a kindergartner compared with a secondary school graduate The gap between them is enormous.

I enjoy creating maps. So, I’m not unfamiliar with the tools of an artistic trade. Pencil, ink and watercolor are what I use. But a map isn’t an illustration.

All that said, one of the things I like about the DM’s Guild is that the risk of experimentation is low — so long as your expectations for sales are also checked. I think the real value of the Guild lies less with professional presentation, but in the contributions and creativity of dungeon masters. I care more about what is in the store window than the window dressing.

(I know that many Guild customers disagree. They want that “official” stamp on their purchase. I get it. But this hobby grows through sharing and play. One’s imagination does not necessarily come packaged and tied with a bow. Sometimes, great play is messy.)

With that in mind, I set about illustrating one of the scenes from the adventure, Lords of the Earth. In the scene, the PCs see the temple carved from the stone of the rock as they look up into the foothills. It wasn’t to show off my artistry, such as it is. It was about providing a handout to the players of this elemental temple that’s fed by a waterfall the characters discover in the foothills.

I completed the drawing and was able to paint it with some satisfaction. It’s flat and the waterfall didn’t quite look like what I intended. In the end I chose not to include it because I had other photographs that I felt — with the addition of the floor map — captured the feel of the temple.  Still, I was pleased with the final product even though I saw the deficiencies that prevented it from being a strong handout.

I share it now for two reasons. Firstly, maybe I’m underestimating its utility as a handout. Is it good enough for your game?  If you’re running the adventure, only you can answer the question. Secondly, in its own way, it speaks to the importance of editing in producing a product. Some things get included, others are discarded. In my mind, it didn’t turn out that I needed the illustration to bring the mountainside temple to life.

But if you are so inclined, feel free to use it. The adventure awaits.


Sights, sounds, touch and … smells?

For my new adventure Lords of the Earth, which is mostly a dungeon exploration, I tried something different from boxed text for the room descriptions.

Before I begin, however, my disclaimer on boxed text: Some Dungeon Masters rely on it so they can properly set the scene for their players. I identify with this sentiment. It’s a comfort level thing, and that’s good. DMs of any skill level can depend on it as a starting point. So much else a DM does is reactive and by the seat of the pants — it’s nice to have something solid to start off with. Others, however, feel boxed text doesn’t translate well to the spoken word or fit their personal style. I’m of a mind that the utility of boxed text depends on the style of adventure being told. Trying something new seemed appropriate.

That said, back to what I did for Lords of the Earth:

For descriptive text, I put myself in the shoes of the player characters and tried to anticipate what information they would perceive on the spot; in the moment they first enter the room or encounter area. Each of these are tied to the PCs’ senses — mostly sight and sound — but also touch and smell. (If I had needed taste, it also would have been included. I’ll save that for my next adventure Crashing a Waterdeep Dinner Party.) For the organizational purposes of a DM, these were ordered at the front of the encounter information, in an order that would make sense logically.

What the PCs feel. Is their air chilly or moist? Is it hot and dry? What the PCs hear. Is there a clacking sound? Is there a persistent dripping noise? Rushing water? Are their raised voices?  What the PCs smell. Is there a foul odor? Is it sickly sweet? Is that the crackling of ozone? What the PCs see. What is obvious from an initial glance.

Not every entry required that every sense be covered.

sightsoundboxBut the format did two things. First, in writing the adventure, it required me to take on the players’ perspective as they approached an encounter area or first stepped across the threshold into a new area. Instead of viewing the encounter solely as a DM, which has this sort of bird’s-eye view of a given scene — it made me think of each scene as it was being viewed “from the doorway,” so to speak. What would I see if I was standing there. (That doesn’t preclude that there are things in the room that are hidden from an initial scan. That’s why PCs search and investigate after clearing a room. But I was really hoping to capture that “first impression.”)

Secondly, it was a good check on making sure that I considered if smells and touch conditions were in play and how they had to be conveyed.  I bet that monster really has a stench. I went outside after an afternoon rain and took a whiff of a mud puddle; that smell was going in the adventure! I tried to remember the almost deafening roar of even a small waterfall at a nearby state park. You had to shout to be heard by even the person nearby. Imagine how deafening that would be in an underground environment. Tools that were cool and damp to the touch. The blazing heat of a fire. I really tried to incorporate those things in the adventure.

Is there still a place in published adventures for boxed text? Certainly. But I thought for Lords of the Earth, this approach served well. But, it will be up to those who run the adventure who’ll have the final say.