I was late jumping on board for Eberron. When 3e Dungeons & Dragons was in full swing, I was busy picking up all of the Forgotten Realms and main product line books, and I couldn’t make any room for a new campaign setting. In fourth edition, I took a look at the setting, in part to see how Eberron handled the shift between editions versus how the Forgotten Realms transition was handled.
It is fair to say that I haven’t been much of a “supplemental” Eberron consumer. I have the 5e Shadows of the Last War, and played an orc bard in a campaign, and the setting has had an increasing influence on me. It is a fresh perspective to the kind of adventuring you can do with the Dungeons & Dragons rules, and it allows you to reframe the narrative on many elements already present in the game.
People that read my reviews on the site may have noticed that I tend to avoid Dungeons & Dragons reviews on Gnome Stew. This is in part because I think that Dungeons & Dragons does just fine on its own, and if I want to look at something on my blog, I can do so. Exploring Eberron, the subject of today’s review, is a little different, so I decided to make an exception to my usual preferences.
As a full disclaimer, I was offered a review copy of this product. I can honestly say I would have been doing a review either way, because this is an interesting and ambitious project.
Exploring Eberron is a Dungeon Masters Guild product from Keith Baker, the original creator of the Eberron setting. It is a 248-page product that covers as much ground as you would expect from a similarly sized product from Wizards of the Coast. This is very interesting to me, because it is an aspect of the Dungeon Masters Guild that I thought might be more prevalent, and yet it hasn’t materialized. Because creators could engage with IP that they had made for Wizards of the Coast, I thought we might seem more “director’s cut” versions of settings and adventures.
While Ed Greenwood has worked with Alex Kammer to detail the Border Kingdoms in the Forgotten Realms, and there have been a few other nods in the direction of creators adding more content, for the most part, there haven’t been many large scale setting expansions that have been created by the actual creators.
In my mind, I was visualizing the potential for products similar to the Dragonlance line from Margaret Weis Productions, where the creators could go into details that had never been touched in the past (this is an example, I know Dragonlance isn’t available IP for the Dungeon Masters Guild). Where a creator could find an audience that may not be there for a major release, but would make it worth the creator’s time to take a deeper dive. It may be the terms of the Dungeon Masters Guild, or it may be something else, but this hasn’t happened to a significant degree.
Exploring Eberron looks to be the kind of thing I was envisioning from creators closely associated with a setting. It is a wide-ranging supplement that covers in more detail those areas of a setting not yet touched upon in Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition.
From the Libraries of Morgrave
Exploring Eberron is a 248-page product. It is available in PDF form, as well as print on demand from the Dungeon Masters Guild. This review is based on a review copy of the PDF that I was provided.
The book looks amazing. The formatting is very similar to the Eberron Rising from the Last War book that came out from Wizards of the Coast. Not unlike that product, it uses a mix of old Eberron artwork and some new pieces as well. One of the most noteworthy pieces of original art has to be the Map of the Planes that appears in the “endpapers” of the PDF.
Eberron Rising from the Last War is a very table focused book, and I love it for that, but Discovering Eberron takes a lot more room to look at history and other areas beyond Khorvaire and Sharn. While it has more details than Rising from the Last War, it’s still not a deeply minutia oriented product, although it does spend some time on the eras leading up to the Last War and some details that defined those eras.
This section also goes into a lot of detail on the lost nation of Cyre, and I think this is the first time I’ve felt a sense of loss at the destruction of the nation. The details on how the nation interacted with its neighbors and the discussion of day to day life make me want to create a survivor of Cyre for a future player character.
There is also some discussion about the magical economy of Eberron, and how magewrights (NPC magic crafters) are envisioned in 5e. This section gives examples of services that are available from magewrights, and explains how dragonshards are often used to “empower” the work that magewrights perform. I like that this utilizes the more 5e concepts that magewrights don’t need to be mechanically defined in the same way that player characters are defined.
Races of Eberron
This section isn’t so much about mechanical options (those appear later in the book), but rather, it dives deeper into the mindset of several Eberron specific cultures. Included in
this section are:
In addition to looking at the psychology of these cultures, there are sections on roleplaying quirks, mentors, and how the individual cultures interact with various character classes. It may be worth noting that this section still references primal magic as a source of power for nature-focused characters. This is interesting, in that the only real difference between magic sources in 5e is found in the types of foci a character can use, so narratively, there is no reason not to refer to the 4e convention of a primal power source. This comes up often with cultures that have less of a religious background, but still have strong ties to nature magic.
It’s a bit more nuanced than some other treatments of the subject, but I am a little leery of using the term Traveler for the Changeling sub-culture detailed in this section. I understand that it is connected to the deity known as the Traveler, but some of the traits of the culture dovetail with assumptions about real-world people that use that terminology, and it concerns me that something in the game could so directly tie to how people in the real world are perceived.
On the other hand, I love the discussions on various custom Warforged builds linked to their use, and I’m an easy mark for elven cultures that like to wear masks.
Faiths of Eberron
This chapter starts with a conceptual delineation between arcane magic and divine magic. The functional definition that this product is working from is that arcane magic is “knowable.” The source and means of summoning and shaping arcane magic is predictable. The source of divine magic is unknowable and unpredictable. It is purpose-based, rather than effect based.
This frames the overall concept of metaphysics in Eberron that no one is sure about anything that is fully in the sphere of the divine. Do gods exist? Are they directly involved in the daily progression of the planet? Nobody can prove this for sure, so faith and theology aren’t a knowable science.
Compared to Rising from the Last War, there are more details on different orders within the faith, heresies of the faith (from the viewpoint of the most mainstream adherents), and conflicts between different faiths on what is “true.” This gives you the tools to have an adherent of the Silver Flame that might correct a follower of the Sovereign Host when the discussion turns to the origin of the Silver Flame.
I also like that the Dark Six are framed in a broader context, rather than showing them as the “evil side” of the Sovereign Host. In fact, the only faith that seems to be framed in an almost entirely negative light is the Cults of the Dragon Below. There are many examples of cults, and explanations for how people that aren’t “in the know” could get involved, along with descriptions of what those cults are really trying to achieve.
In addition to the “big” faiths, there is some exploration of lesser religions in Eberron, such as the potential future god of the Warforged, veneration of the Lord of Blades, and worshipers of the Draconic Prophesy.
Aasimar are the final topic in this section, and this reframes Aasimar as manifestations of the divine, and how they might have slightly different nuances than the Aasimar detailed in other settings. There are more mechanical options for this presented later in the book, but I like that this addresses the role of Aasimar in light of Eberron’s unique planar structure. I also love the concept of a spiritual guide for an Aasimar of the Blood of Vol being the future divinity that they could become.
The next part of the book takes a look at some places that have been detailed before, but with more detail, as well as some places that haven’t gotten much love at all. The domains in this section include Droaam, Dhakaan, The Mror Holds, and the Thunder Seas.
Given the current discourse on Dungeons & Dragons and how different ancestries are portrayed, Droaam and Dhakaan are particularly interesting to look at in this light. Droaam is a nation of species traditionally seen as monsters, ruled by a coven of legendary hags. Each of the Daughters of Sora Kell are Baba Yaga-ish famous beings in their own right, and there are several discussions on what stories they featured in, across Khorvaire, before the founding of Droaam, and what each daughter’s “theme” is.
The Droaam section also discusses how unique creature abilities are utilized in the culture, and emphasizes that “non-monstrous” visitors that aren’t looking for trouble have reasons to visit, and what those may be. I especially like the mercenary gnolls and the discussion of their cultural mentality and refutation of gnoll servitude to fiends.
The Dhakaani are the goblinoid survivors of the Old Dhakaani Empire, which fell defending the surface from aberrations. They differ from the “standard” goblinoids in Eberron in that they have been living in underground enclaves, waiting to return to their past glory. They may have developed firearms, and they have a whole dreamscape through which they share a vision of the Empire that may be, and through which they can communicate with one another.
The Mror Dwarves have been touched on in the past, but this section looks at the differences between individual clans, and the strife that has arisen from some of the clans adopting symbionts and grafts from their wars with aberrations, and others that are staunchly against such practice. There are also what amount to weird underground “weather” or strange phenomenon summarized on a table in this section. The dwarven clans reminded me of the politics evident in the dwarven clans of Dragonlance, but with the details focused on the War Below and the emergence of House Kundarak.
The final section dives (sorry) into the Thunder Seas, and looks at the sahuagin, merfolk, and sea elf cultures there. It expands on the concept of the Malenti, adds a lot of depth to how the sahuagin are portrayed, and casts the sea elves of this region as offshoots of the Aereni, who have a more tyrannical grip on their undersea communities.
Planes of Existence
I could get lost in trying to explain everything that appears in this chapter, so I’ll give an overview of what you can expect here for each of the special planes of Eberron. There is a discussion of the difference between mortal, immortal, and manifestations on the planes. Manifestations are non-sentient “trappings” of a planar theme, like the planar equivalent of holodeck characters the plane manifests to further its own narrative.
Each plane’s section introduces you to the plane’s general concept, the inhabitants, and the different layers (usually variations of the main concept of the plane). There is also a section that describes what happens when the plane is coterminous and remote to Eberron, as well as the common traits associated with the plane’s manifest zones (and whether manifest zones are likely to allow access to the plane itself). Finally, there is a section on adventure hooks related to the plane.
I’ll admit that in the past, the planes of Eberron kind of made my head spin. This section does a great job of introducing them all as the elemental concepts of reality, rather than just weird alternate planes. I won’t say that I embrace the expression of each concept exactly as detailed, but it all makes way more sense to me than some of my first Eberron read-throughs.
More importantly, because of the way each plane is presented, I could envision many different adventures that engaged with that plane’s theme, and how to tie them to a wider campaign. Just traveling from Manifest Zone to Manifest Zone across Eberron could be a great campaign theme.
Character options include new backgrounds, new races and subraces, new subclasses, and new feats. Many of these provide mechanical details to concepts introduced in the previous sections of the rules.
For backgrounds, we have details for the Changeling Traveler background and the Malenti background, a background with a twist. It represents a sahuagin that has been transformed into another species, so the character uses the traits of the “new” form. It also provides for an alternate ability that allows water breathing, which is one of the more “mechanical” special features I’ve seen.
Race options include
- Aasimar (special planar variants)
- Ruinbound Dwarves (dwarves affected by the aberrations in the deep)
- Dhakaani Ghaal’dar, Golin’dar, and Guul’dar (variant hobgoblins, goblins, and bugbears)
- Gnolls (representing the Znir pact gnolls that rejected fiendish influence)
There are racial feats for Changelings, Aereni, Kalashtars, Shifters, and Warforged. Some of these options address background information introduced in the text, but for people familiar with the Explorers Guide to Eberron that was released as a “beta,” it reintroduces some racial abilities that were removed before final publication (like the imbedded tools for Warforged).
Class options include the following subclasses:
- Artificer (Forge Adept, Gaal’Sharat, Maverick)
- Bard (College of the Dirge Singer)
- Cleric (Mind Domain)
- Druid (Circle of the Forged)
- Monk (Way of the Living Weapon)
Many of these options represent traditions practiced by specific cultures in Eberron. For example, the Gaal’Sharat are goblinoid artificers that focus on making one special weapon to use for war. Dirge Singers are bards from the Dhakaani tradition. Circle of the Forged druids are Warforged that can change into mechanical animals. The Way of the Living Weapon is a monk tradition that is about changing the monk’s body to maximize attacks, and heavily uses shape-shifting language associated with Changelings and Shifters.
However, 5e doesn’t restrict subclasses by race, so each of these sections contains examples of how people outside of the culture that first practiced that tradition might have learned it. Most of this logic works for me, although I’m not sure how well a human that decides that they need to transform into Ravage or Ratbat fits into their druidic practice.
As far as the general options go, the Maverick is a fun Artificer subclass that revolves around adding a wider list of spells to your spell list, representing your ability to more widely and recklessly experiment with magic.
As with just about every section of this book, I’m left thinking of an idea I want to try. In this case, I want to figure out how to get a Hobgoblin Dirge Singer to work in an adventuring party.
The section on treasures features common magic items (which are kind of ubiquitous in Eberron), Dhakaani magic items (prevalent in a lot of ruins since the fall of the empire), general Eberron themed magic items, and Symbionts. There are also Dragonmarked items (which amplify certain dragonmark abilities), and Siberys Dragonmarks, which are presented as supernatural gifts.
Supernatural gifts have been showing up more often in D&D work as an area of game design, and this section details at what levels it might be appropriate to award them, and how to work them into regular progression. The Siberys Dragonmarks presented in this section also grant the power of the standard Dragonmarks, so they could represent a “late bloomer” that didn’t take the racial option for Dragonmarks at character creation.
Symbionts have an interesting twist, in that while they are generally beneficial, a character that attunes to one generally cannot unattune to the symbiont without a remove curse spell. In addition to the symbionts presented, it is noted that some standard magic items can be represented as symbionts as well.
Some of the magic items presented further explore the “magic as technology” theme of Eberron. For example, items that act as megaphones, and rods that can turn a cantrip into the “bullet” for a sniper rifle.
Friends and Foes
This section details some singular entities (one of the Daelkyr and two Archfey), as well as a new type of Quori (along with the abilities it grants to Inspired associated with it). There is also a sahuagin priest, the transforming mimic “tools” used by the sahuagin, and a mass of incorporeal undead.
An Unprecedented Find I don’t think it’s too bold to say that this is a model for how Dungeons & Dragons setting books should expand on the initial information presented.
If reading through a book and getting ideas for multiple adventures and campaign themes is the mark of a good sourcebook, this book definitely qualifies. The details on various parts of the setting are just packed with adventure seeds. I also appreciate that the text flows between presenting the setting, and engaging with the reader as someone using this to shape a narrative, rather than trying to 100% maintain a detached presentation of imaginary facts.
I also love that the mechanical options, from player character options to magic items to monsters, aren’t about providing something that would be fun in Dungeons & Dragons first, and “fits” in Eberron, but rather, most of these options take inspiration from Eberron first, and then find mechanical ways to elaborate upon the unique concepts of the setting.
X Never Marks the Spot
Exploring Eberron does a much better job of calling out adventure seeds and discussing how to work different elements of setting details into adventures and campaigns than many Dungeons & Dragons books in the past, and this complaint isn’t so much that the book isn’t usable at the table due to content, but that the RPG hobby still struggles to use formatting to call out story seeds as well as mechanical interactions. There is a ton of great, usable material, but it still sometimes gets buried in walls of text.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
I don’t think it’s too bold to say that this is a model for how Dungeons & Dragons setting books should expand on the initial information presented. It doesn’t drive a meta-plot, and it continually sticks to the principle of creating situations where people may think something is true, but there is plenty of room for the actual reality of the situation to be malleable. It adds new information that provides more opportunities for adventure, and ties that new information to existing elements and themes previously evident in the setting.
What do you think are best practices for campaign setting books? What setting books have gotten the right mix of interesting information that is usable at the table? We would love to hear your opinions in the comments below!
The original version of this review mentioned a potential issue with the wording of body transformations which, upon further review, I think was actually more clearly stated than I had indicated. I wanted to make sure to update the review to reflect this, and to thank readers that took the time to provide the context for this section. 8/12/2002