I could never decide whether I liked how 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons handled it’s classic campaign settings.
On one hand I liked that everything was left sufficiently open and multi-purpose that it could be applied to any setting and modified to suit most fantasy-plus genres, and we get the occasional allusion to how these creatures appear in other settings. Of course I respect and understand that the big three take front and centre: Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, and Greyhawk, and my favourites get a few nods, Dark Sun and Eberron, but there were never plans for a full-blown campaign setting “release”, singular books devoted entirely to establishing a fixed world with a vast array of content, plot hooks, geography and history!
And yet they found their way into a new setting format, in their Planeshift articles that offer ways and means of introducing your characters, creatures, and campaigns into the glut of worlds featured in Magic: the Gathering! Zendikar, Amonkhet, Kaladesh, Innistrad, each carrying very little original content, but showing Dungeon Masters how to use existing material to create campaigns in worlds of monstrous conflict, harsh competition, political insurrection, and gothic horror respectively. And as any good company does, they took that success and made it bigger with the world of Ravnica!
Ravnica… is not my favourite setting in Magic, and now it is not my favourite D&D setting either, but it’s fine. A world-encompassing cityscape, controlled and manipulated by ten guilds who war with one another through politics, subterfuge, control, and dominance. It’s a setting they haven’t completely flayed to the bone, but it’s been mined more deeply than some of their other settings. Their are humanoid elephants, mutants, and mages, factions to which players can swear, or defy.
It’s unique, but if I wanted political intrigue, conflict between corporate entities, and a fiercely faction driven campaign in a world of advancing technology, my go-to is always going to be Eberron by Keith Baker. The setting was a competition winner in 2002 and introduced in 3rd edition, expanding into a mini-catalogue of its own with deep dives into the religions, lore, distant continents, and the complexities of its greatest city, Sharn.
Inspired by a more modern aesthetic drawn from pulp fiction and film noir, Eberron’s chronology begins with the end of a devastating war that annihilated a nation, birthed a half dozen more, and amidst the tension between royal families there is also the rising power of these “gifted” people, the Dragonmarked, who – rather than embracing their power and turning to heroism – make money, form guilds, and monopolise industries. Arguably the Dragonmarked Houses are now more powerful than any king, church, or faction, and many spread into the distant and giant-haunted wilds of Xendrick, and are endeavouring to arrange deals with the mysterious and suspicious continent of Sarlona.
I cut my teeth on 3.5, found and loved Eberron from minute one, and delved deeper and deeper into the lore. I soaked up the 4th edition books alongside the rest of 4th (I was new, I know better now, but don’t regret any of my purchases), and I… on some level appreciated the way Eberron was handled.
No need for Wizards to release a Forgotten Realms setting, there was nothing unique to Faerun that isn’t already woven into the content. Same with Dragonlance and Greyhawk. But Eberron uses technology, features a host of original races, and uses unique mechanics to reflect the raw power possessed by Dragonmarked individuals. So an Unearthed Arcana article was a decent starting point for introducing the races, the automaton Warforged, the feral Shifters, the mercurial Changelings, and mysterious Kalashtar. There was an attempt at Dragonmarks using feats which doesn’t work with the current feat format, and a wizard variant that took the place of an artificer which was not all that inspiring.
I was pleased to hear that there would be a more thorough exploration in the Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron, which includes final versions of these races, a clever approach to Dragonmarks – effectively a variation on the relevant races – and a brief summary of the key components of the setting. Missing is the Artificer class, a key component for players, that has so far only appeared as a playtest… and so far I’m not overwhelmed, I am barely whelmed. We are supposed to see an update soon, and I look forward to it, I hope that we get some unique spells for artificers, and something that captures my imagination more than what we have.
In the Wayfairers guide, I would say the most telling component is toward the end, the appendix of further reading that is a list of old D&D books describing Eberron… and here I think is my biggest qualm.
5e has introduced a host of new players. These people know Eberron in hints and references, off-hand remarks woven into monster or race descriptions or footnotes and parts of appendices. Amidst all of this there is no thorough examination of what it all means, what it feels like, what potential lies in the war-wounded nation of Khorvaire. I find myself wandering is this taster enough to draw in new DMs to go hunting for and purchasing books that have been out of print for over a decade? Is this enough to get people as excited as I am to run an Eberron game? Or is the Wayfinder’s Guide good for fans of the setting and fans only? As a fan – well, I don’t feel cheated as such, it’s a very cheap purchase – I don’t think this is enough to see Eberron retain its individuality, instead it’s part of the process of Eberron becoming integrated into the great amorphous mass of campaign settings that are part of D&D history.
I guess that’s nice.