Following the UA breakdown of the races of Eberron, I’m now continuing into a review/breakdown of the full document. I received my review copy for free through Tribality. As I suggested before, I am a staunch fan of Eberron, so to the extent that this is a review, I’m already positively inclined toward it.
Given that I’ve covered the races, dragonmarks and magic items are the only other major mechanics to explore. For the most part, it’s flavor text and advice for Eberron DMs, and that’s awesome – I don’t look for mechanics beyond the absolute minimum to present the setting here. The two things that are still missing are psionics and the artificer. Their absence is acknowledged, and awaits the rest of the 5e team to publish final versions of those classes. In the meantime, I hasten to recommend Rich Howard’s Alchemist as a partial patch on the artificer.
There are a few other useful tables and small rules bits tucked away, though, and I’ll catch as many of those as I can along the way. Eberron’s 3.5 version was one of the first appearances of hero points per se in D&D, and it has been ported fairly directly into 5e in the DMG. This mechanic bugged the crap out of me in 3.5, and I don’t like it any more now. Specifically, I don’t like that your supply of hero points are replenished by gaining a level, and unspent points are lost. The reason I don’t like it is that I feel it asks the player to think about and predict how many more sessions it will take to gain another level. I find it to be an intrusive meta-consideration. Anyway, WGtE suggests using these rules, but they’re a weird look in parallel with 5e’s (also much-maligned) Inspiration rules.
The text also pushes an action-movie approach to obstacles and stunts, though it avoids offering any depth of system here. I don’t believe I’ve ever met a player or DM who wasn’t in favor of cool stuff in the environment to use during combat. To the best of my recollection, though, 4e’s terrain powers and hazards are one of the only serious attempts to build mechanics around that for D&D, not counting Iron Heroes. In fairness, there are more possibilities than ever could or should be set down in rules, so at most I’d want broad guidance and examples.
When it comes to presenting neo-noir intrigue, the text offers a d10 table of Regrets and a d10 table of Debts. As a way to get characters into the difficult, exposed state of starting heroes, they’re great. As story seeds, they’re even better. There’s also a paragraph discussing the balance between pulp and noir in Eberron; more than anything, it puts me in mind of the jovial/glum split of Epidiah Ravachol’s Swords Without Master, and I think there could be something really interesting in mechanics around which mood dominates a scene, and how that mood might shape outcomes.
There’s also a table of Military Backgrounds to help you figure out what you did during the Last War, in all the same ways that a character of the 1920s or 1940s would have some answer to that question – even if your background isn’t Soldier.
The majority of the PDF, though, is a brief overview of the setting, hitting the most evocative points without getting bogged down on any of them. If you’ve gotten someone’s attention with Eberron’s elevator pitch, this is the perfect next thing to show them. For some DMs, this is enough by itself to run the setting with confidence, while others will want to track down the 3.5 or 4e books. I like the energy and flow of the text, and how it focuses on helping players figure out their characters and helping DMs figure out the core conflict for an adventure. In this way, it accomplishes the basic needs of a setting book, where the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide misses the mark.
One of the big differences between Eberron and 5e’s core assumptions is that you can buy common, uncommon, and rare magic items with cash here, and low-end magic is omnipresent. The text often leans on the Magic Initiate feat to carry this with PCs and (insofar as it matters) NPCs. The rarity of magic tapers sharply as spell level increases, maybe more steeply than you see in 5e’s default assumptions. My point here is that I like that the text tackles this, and in fact gives it several pages.
Crafting Schema Research
The text largely recapitulates the magic item crafting rules of XGTE, and introduces rules for researching new crafting schema. Each rarity tier of magic items sets the number of workweeks to complete the research and the skill bonus you need in your crafting skill. Arcane spellcasters (Arcane Tricksters, bards, Eldritch Knights, sorcerers, warlocks, and wizards) use Int (Arcana); divine spellcasters (clerics and paladins) use Int (Religion); and druids and rangers use Wis (Nature). The problem may have jumped out at you just now – Religion with Intelligence for clerics and paladins? Good luck getting to a +10 skill modifier without multiclassing into rogue or bard for Expertise, y’all (other than being a Knowledge cleric). Conversely, an Arcane Trickster with a 16 Int and Arcana Expertise might be researching Legendary schema long before the design intent. All of that is to say, I’m not sure this is a great approach to research.
Additional Content for Core Races
Beyond introducing the races unique to Eberron, the text discusses setting-specific issues and perspectives for Player’s Handbook races. Dwarves get a d6 table of reasons for leaving the Mror Holds – I can’t hate more character inspiration.
Elves get a slight tweak for Aereni and Valenar elves. The former gain proficiency and Expertise in one skill or tool proficiency, which is outstanding – for most classes, this is the only way they’re getting that. As a replacement for Elven Weapon Training, this is crazy overpowered. Only a tiny number of classes gain any clear benefit from Elven Weapon Training, while this feature is a reason to pick Aereni elves all by itself as far as I’m concerned. Valenar elves have a different list of weapons they’re proficient in, and I can’t complain about these.
We also get rules for the Valenar double scimitar. In short, it’s a 2d4 weapon that automatically grants the bonus-action attack option of Polearm Master – a d4 “off-hand” attack that still adds your Strength bonus to damage. This is a very strong weapon, further improved by the Revenant Blade feat, and we need to have a Talk about that.
With Revenant Blade, you gain +1 Str or Dex, +1 AC while wielding a Valenar double scimitar, the finesse property with your double scimitar attacks (!), and your bonus attack damage increases to 2d4. This feat is kinda crazypants, y’all. I think this is the only time they’ve opened the door to the Great Weapon Master feat using Dexterity as its attack stat. Only elves can buy this feat, which means they need to wait until 4th level (at the earliest) to potentially switch their attack stat from Str to Dex. As a result, they probably had to suffer through the first three levels of play with different weapon or a not-great Strength, just to play the character they’d wanted to play from the outset. The point here is that changing a character’s primary attack stat isn’t pretty in its character-building and gameplay implications. Revenant Blade’s increased off-hand damage is nice, but it pales in importance compared to that second feature.
Gnomes have a d10 table of schemes. You know, I hadn’t ever thought about how much Eberron’s gnomes are just Ferengi without the extreme sexism, but the table of schemes highlights it.
Halflings get a d10 table of quirks to set the Talenta halflings apart as more barbaric. A few of these could use a big bold Don’t Be a Jerk to Other Players warning (as is common with personality features). There are also stats for clawfoot raptors, the traditional mount of Talenta halflings. I can’t believe the text went with CR ½, pricing it out of reach for Beast Master rangers. That seems like something you’d go out of your way to support here.
There aren’t any custom mechanics for goblinoids, kobolds, lizardfolk, or minotaurs, so I just want to point out that the text makes a whole party of them seem viable. Your adventures would be different from those of Player’s Handbook races, but still compelling and explicitly supported. Great stuff.
The change from “everyone gets a feat at 1st level” in 3.x/4e to “only Variant Humans get a feat at 1st level” in 5e made it a lot harder to see how dragonmarks might get implemented. (Because of my lingering affection for Themes/Specialties from D&DN, I still question this decision sometimes.) They decided to play with the mechanical space of subraces, since dragonmarks are so tied to race.
For humans and half-orcs, which have no subraces, dragonmarks are full replacements. Since I’ve said for years that the mechanics for humans are boring and variant humans are just… kinda too good, I’m fine with scrapping that. I feel weirder about House Tharashk half-orcs having essentially nothing in common with other half-orcs. Half-elves also have no subrace, but only some of their features get replaced by House Medani and House Lyrandar. Elves, dwarves, gnomes, and halflings simply shed their subraces.
There’s a new Background for employees and heirs of the dragonmarked Houses. It’s straightforward in concept, with two tool proficiencies that vary by house. Investigation and Persuasion for all House Agents seems a bit of an odd choice, but I guess it’s a mix of espionage and customer service? Naturally, the background trait is that you can call on enclaves of your House, found in every major city of the Five Kingdoms, possibly all of Khorvaire. The personality features are solid – the bonds and flaws are particularly crammed with story seeds.
I’m not sure that a House-by-House breakdown of dragonmark features is going to be real interesting reading. The summary is that you gain an Intuition die (a d4 to start) that you apply to all of the House’s sort of tasks. Some of these, naturally, come up a lot more than others. You can also cast a couple of cantrips or rituals, and get a further supporting feature. The Intuition die is universal, but it’s otherwise more a trend than a hard rule. For example, House Jorasco doesn’t grant a cantrip, even though spare the dying is right there, but they can heal themselves or others by burning a Hit Die as an action once per short rest. (To be clear, I think House Jorasco’s features are fine.)
Some Houses, like Ghallanda, fall far short in usefulness when it comes to the base dragonmark. +1 Cha, friends, prestidigitation, and an Intuition die for cooking and brewing rolls? That’s… scanty. They get paid back with interest by their Greater Dragonmark feat’s features, though. Sanctuary is nice, but Mordenkainen’s magnificent mansion as early as 8th level could be a huge change to a game, and provide a lot of fun spotlight time for the kind of player who would care about House Ghallanda in the first place.
Apples-to-apples comparison here takes a lot of work, because the opportunity cost of each dragonmark is so different. Overall, I love what I see here and it looks highly playable and interesting. Even some of the Houses that I would care about less on concept alone are sharp enough on features that I’d give them a go.
The Greater Dragonmark feat grants something different for each House. First off, I love the breadth of structure here; it’s a great inspiration and I plan to borrow it freely. It improves the Intuition die to d6, grants an ability point that varies by House, and gives you two spells that you can cast once per rest. Whether that’s per-long or per-short varies by House.
Finally, there’s a feat for aberrant dragonmarks. It’s unfortunate that only variant humans can start with aberrant dragonmarks as a result, but it’s not a dealbreaker. Aberrant dragonmarks carry a roleplaying flaw, boosts your Con, and grants you a sorcerer cantrip and 1st-level spell. The final feature lets you boost the spell slot level by 1 at the cost of a Hit Die; you also roll the Hit Die and take that amount of damage. There are some ways to powergame this, but overall it’s fine. It’s a mechanic I’ve been riffing on in my own work for awhile, so I’m happy to see higher-profile designers use it too.
One of Eberron’s most distinct features is its magic items. Here again I’m not going item-by-item, but I want to point out some of the most compelling ideas. First up are the dragonshards, which don’t get detailed rules as such. They’re Plot Device Magic, and their rules are in all cases customized to fit the story situation. At the same time, they’re a touchstone of Eberron’s aesthetic. If you need to know what a weird new piece of magitech looks like, figure out which kind of dragonshard fits the concept and build on that.
The text offers more detail and mechanical meaning for arcane foci (right or wrong, I have no truck with “focuses” as the plural form), which I absolutely love in concept. If you want to sell “wandslingers” as the gunslingers of your setting, and fully as normal as swordfighters, it’s great for their choice of arcane focus to mean as much as a duelist’s choice of weapon.
Three key options appear here: offense-focused imbued wood (rods, staves, or wands), defense-focused orbs of shielding, and a special rule for foci with the two-handed property. Imbued wood is touched by one of the planes, and grants a +1 damage bonus to spells appropriate to that plane. I don’t love a +1 to damage for a few of your spells, because that’s going to get forgotten – but remembering it baresly makes a difference. Fiddly +1 bonuses are just not 5e’s deal. I hope this gets revisited, because I love the essential concept.
Orbs let you reduce incoming damage of the associated plane’s type by 1d4. This will get forgotten a fair bit too, but 1d4 matters more than 1, you know, like 75% of the time. I still like the concept more than the implement(ation).
Two-handed foci such as staves increase the range of the cantrips you cast through them. I’m not sure how often a longer range even effects the outcome of spell-battle, but I guess there’s a time and place to be a sniper with cantrips, since it stacks with some similar effects. This is probably most appealing to a warlock. As all three forms of arcane foci are common magic items, maybe there’s room to see uncommon or rare upgrades.
The next set of magic items are the most relevant common items – magical textiles, magical hygiene, magical cyanide capsules (well, sorta), and so on. As with dragonshards, they’re keystones of Eberron’s aesthetic, in ways that XGTE common items really… aren’t for FR. What I’m saying is, A+ for worldbuilding, Keith & co.
Next up, dragonmark focus items. Eberron has another kind of mechanical hook to use for attunement prereqs, and it goes all in. Proprietary magic items on top of the powers of the dragonmark itself go a long way to explain how the Houses negotiate with even the rulers of the Five Kingdoms from a position of strength. In a lot of ways, these invert the customary story of magic items – these heighten your dragonmark’s power, rather than conferring the power entirely. I’m into this, in case it wasn’t obvious.
Eldritch Machines are the big plot devices. Everything here is world- or at least region-changing. There’s less than no point in talking about balance here, because even if they are intended for PCs to use, the PCs can’t take them with them. They all say interesting things and provide compelling story ideas, so mission accomplished. From a certain perspective, Master’s Call is a new racial drawback for warforged, or at least a device for making a warforged vulnerable for the duration of one or more adventures.
Warforged Components, on the other hand, are intended for personal use. The exclusive ability to attune a variety of magic items is sort of like a new racial advantage for warforged. Several editions of D&D would have explicitly called it that, anyway. Granted, 5e’s attunement environment means it’s much less so. Armblades and wand sheaths are great, but docents sound like the big fun to me.
The rest of the document is a deep dive into Sharn, and not particularly mechanical. The content here is great, it is filled to bursting with story hooks and immediately usable flavor text. It’s strong content with clear presentation, including tables of ideas for how every background might fit into Sharn and a ward-by-ward breakdown of the city. I want to see more settings presented this way, full stop.
Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron is a living document that will be updated as playtest feedback and new content come in, but in this early iteration it’s already a great setting book… as long as you’re comfortable inventing or researching your own nitty-gritty details of areas other than Sharn. Xen’drik is the most important game location to get short shrift. The absence of a final version of the artificer and psion mean that some key pieces of Eberron aren’t quite ready to roll. Even so, if Eberron is even slightly for you, this PDF is a must-buy.