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 …