Thursday, March 14, 2013

Eberron Remixed

I’ve been reading Don Bassingthwaite’s excellent Legacy of Dhakaan trilogy, set in the Eberron campaign setting. It really is one of the better game fiction trilogies I’ve read, and one of the things that it really does a great job with specifically is highlighting some of the aspects that make its setting really unique. I’ve always kinda liked Eberron anyway, but I’ve also thought for a long time that it struggled with fitting “D&Disms” into the setting, when it really was striving and pushing and trying to be something else entirely. In other words, it’s a bit dragged down by the dead-weight of needing to fit in elements that are quintessentially D&D because… well, it’s a D&D setting. But it didn’t always accept all of those elements as gracefully as it could have, and in some ways, those D&Disms diluted and “bastardized” the vision of the setting to a noticeable degree. And keep in mind, that by D&Disms I’m referring to stuff that was specifically kicking around in the edition in which Eberron was first released. Very early D&D would have probably fit the setting better, before D&D accreted so many things that later came to be D&Disms.

On the other hand, some specific D&Disms were made into iconic elements of the setting. Some of these D&Disms, on the other hand, never fit very comfortably in D&D itself, notably psionics.

In any case, Eberron strikes me as a fascinating and interesting (and obviously quite likeable) vision for a fantasy setting that both inspired me with its scope while disappointing me with its failure to completely live up to its promise. Eberron is, therefore, a setting ripe for “remixing” by a GM who likes the vision of the setting, and wants to utilize as much of it as possible, but feels the need to tweak it a bit to make it workable. Here’s what I’d do, in high level. I may (possibly) expand upon this notion with future posts that dive further into details. Maybe.

  • First off, Eberron struggles with the mechanical premise of D&D. D&D (at least in the third and fourth editions, when Eberron was in print) is all about careful, tactical combat. Eberron posits a more swashbuckling and cinematic flair approach. Action points, honestly, don’t really cut it to change this focus of the rules, although that’s their stated purpose. I’ve had to both ignore some aspects of the game in my personal d20 games, as well as house-rule Action Points to be much more useful than they already are to try and get there—but for Eberron, I’d actually recommend switching to a different system entirely. Savage Worlds plus the Fantasy Companion seems to be tailor made for the Eberron paradigm. Old School Hack would be a great choice. For that matter, Eberron would fit surprisingly well with old school games too: I could easily see B/X being used to run a great Eberron game. And if you can use B/X, then something like Labyrinth Lord would be a great fit too. The only easily spotted problem is the stuff that Eberron includes which isn’t in those systems and which would, therefore, require some minor house-rules to introduce them. But speaking of which…
  • There’s too much stuff in Eberron. A lot of it was crammed in because, hey, it’s D&D and this has to have a place. But that doesn’t mean that it fit well, or comfortably. Eberron could stand some aesthetic pruning, frankly. What are some things in particular I’d look at cutting? First, the monsters. Monsters, as per D&D, are too commonplace and run of the mill. The monster nation of Droaam is especially egregious in being a “trashcan” where anything that didn’t fit anywhere else was thrown in indiscriminately. I’d greatly reduce the appearance and impact of monsters. A vampire ruling as king in Karrnath? Sure, that’s great. The rulers of Droaam are a coven of hags? I can dig it. But Droaam itself needs to change from a land populated by a bunch of random monsters to one of savage clans of mostly people, while monsters themselves become more individual and special. By the way, the same thing needs to be done to Xen’drik. The land of savage giants doesn’t work as well as giants being rare and kind of individualized threats. This goes along with my argument of “making monsters monstrous”—but in particular, I think Eberron has been poorly served by the D&D paradigm on monsters in particular, and it has struggled to find a way to justify and rationalize all the monsters that are kicking around just because it’s D&D.
  • The same is true to a lesser extent about races. A common complaint about D&D is that it’s “like the Star Wars cantina scene” with a million types of people in funny rubber masks. Eberron has a few that are “signature”—shifters, kalashtar, changelings and war-forged. You probably need to have them, both because they’re mostly all pretty cool, and mostly because—like I said—they’re signature to the setting. Eberron also has a bunch of generic D&D fantasy races. Mostly these are well-integrated and interesting, but sometimes it’s a bit of a struggle. Dinosaur riding plains Indians-like halflings? Interesting, or trying too hard? Gnomes as spies and gangsters? Freeport did the same with halflings. Are they really different? Do they need to be? Why not have them be different cultures of the same race? The same is true for the “savage” humanoids—D&D has struggled with finding separate places for goblins, hobgoblins, orcs, half-orcs and whatnot since, in reality, they all stem from the same source. Some judicious consolidation and replacement, giving preference to races that your mechanical sourcebooks already have, should work fine.
  • That said, one of the unusual nations that works very well is Darguun. This is especially true if you read the expanded treatment of the culture of the area as presented in Bassingthwaite’s Legacy of Dhakaan trilogy (my review to come shortly—I’ve only got a few pages left to read of the final volume and I hope to finish it later this evening.) Although it seems kinda natural to have a hobgoblin nation, if the hobgoblins are supposed to be orderly and militaristic, for some reason few settings have opted to go that way. The hobgoblins actually are the heirs of a much more noble and grand culture, that of the lost empire of Dhakaan, while their upstart nation of Darguun has a long ways to go; it remains a rather squalid and barbaric place, in many ways. But the novel series goes a long way towards showing this more noble past, and the echoes of it that remain, as well as the nation’s attempt to advance to parity with the other nations of Khorvaire.  I've in the past said that I would want Darguun to be more of a civilized nation, if harsh and militaristic (more like the Skorne Empire of Iron Kingdoms, actually) but again; Bassingthwaite's novels made me more of a believer in Darguun as written.
  • The “story of D&D” is primarily that of exploring dungeons for profit and experience. The story of Eberron is a more pulp-noir hybrid, with intrigue, mystery, and adventure of a Raiders of the Lost Ark type of vibe. This has more to do with how the game is run and what PCs are doing than it does with actual elements of setting design, except at quite a micro, tactical level (i.e., you don’t need to populate your setting with a bunch of dungeons and stuff.) Still, it’s an important and in fact crucial difference to keep in mind when remixing Eberron, because it’s one of the main points of distinction in remixing Eberron to better fit my perception of what its vision really was vs. what D&D kinda drives it to become.
  • Along those lines, Xen’drik, as the “continent of dungeons” probably needs some work. There’s supposedly only one civilized city and the rest of it is made up of monsters, ruins, and jungles and whatnot. I think having it more like the situation in colonial Africa or the East Indies makes it more entertaining… which means both expanding the influence and presence of the nations of Khorvaire and their people, and integrating them more with cultures and societies that are native to Xen’drik. Reference the old Bruce Boxleitner show Bring ‘Em Back Alive (if you can find it) or borrow a bunch of crap from the Golarion setting by Paizo, especially the Sargava and Mwangi stuff, adapted to be more “Eberronish”—which mostly just means changing some names. Some pirates floating all around the area—and maybe even the insertion of Green Ronin’s Freeport would be good around here (but let’s face it; I’m always looking to add Freeport.)


James Sullivan said...

I loved "Bring 'Em Back Alive". Good times.

The more I read your essays of this nature, the more I lament my own gaming experience, though primarily I've been having a blast since roughly 1992.

I've never had an FLGS, and I come from such a small area, that the gaming community was rather small. As such, my experience is overwhelming Dungeons and Dragons (2nd through 3.5, and now Pathfinder).

When we wanted to mix it up a bit, we played a few sessions of Call of Cthulu or Deadlands. Pretty much it. I once played a session of Paranoia at a college I visited for a weekend.
I envy you.

But I also have some questions:

What is the D&D paradigm on monsters?

What system is B/X?

From your previous post, who is JB?

Joshua Dyal said...

In saying, "the D&D paradigm on monsters" I mean the concept that monsters are plentiful (possibly even infinite) and that they're hanging around waiting for someone to come and heroically defeat them. Monsters in MY campaigns tend to be more rooted in the horror genre. They're unique (or at least, unusual)--not something that PCs pass on the morning commute, but the focus of an entire adventure. They are extremely difficult to defeat, and are not necessarily meant to be met in straight up combat in passing. To me, it's more about presentation that anything else.

You can see it expanded upon more in this post:

B/X is an abbreviation commonly used to denote the Basic/Expert line of D&D that ran alongside AD&D back in the early 80s when I started playing the game. This game is usually seen as a more "pure" successor to the original D&D than AD&D was in many ways, and ended as the Rules Cyclopedia. Although my very first game of D&D was with the old brown box OD&D set, I didn't really "get it" until I played some B/X D&D (Moldvay, I think) with the Errol Otus covers. They were later re-released with Larry Elmore covers in a red, then blue, then green, then... amber, maybe? series of sets. To me, the image of those covers are amongst the most iconic D&D images ever released--barring maybe the original AD&D PHB and DMG covers.

JB is the author of the B/X Blackrazor blog, and someone I've quoted and alluded to at least once or twice in the past. He's a bit long-winded at times, but he's got an interesting approach to the game that is similar (in many ways) to my own.

James Sullivan said...

As far as D&D goes, I never thought of it like that. Is that the way most people play it?

We always tended toward a heavy does of politics, with most of our enemies being of the humanoid assassin variety with the odd monster thrown in once in a while.

I don't think we ever played an actual dungeon crawl, running into a ten by ten room with two Orc fighters in it. Or whatever variation was usual.

Joshua Dyal said...

I think so, yes--based on lots of discussions with folks online from a variety of different games, plus everything that most of the published source material and adventures.

Kristian Serrano said...

I completely agree with you in regards to Eberron and Savage Worlds. I never felt Action Points did Eberron any justice, but bennies and Wild Dice in Savage Worlds capture the high-action, heroic feel perfectly.