Archives of Candlekeep: Eberron Mechanics and Gameplay
This article was first broadcast in Episode Ninety One on 2nd October 2019.
Mikey: Oooooh, this is what Ryu meant by “that big, magic-mechanical monstrosity starts using big words at us”!
ROSTRO: While her intent with the labeling was no doubt pejorative, the choice of vocabulary was interestingly accurate.
Mikey: … I see what she means.
ROSTRO: I would also bring to your attention that given the topic being discussed, my participation could be considered verisimilitudinous.
Lennon: Actually, that is a point. Huge machine run by magic is very Eberron.
As we discussed previously, Eberron as a setting represents a significant departure from playing in the Forgotten Realms version of the game. However, lest you think everything was a lore shift that just allowed for dinosaur-riding halflings and people trudging up mountain pathways to seek wisdom from an orc, Eberron actually introduces some alternate rule mechanics to the game as well.
We’ll start with the historical impact when Eberron first dropped. As many people point out, edition 3.5 of D&D had many more rules and rule mechanics to play with than 5th edition currently does, and exclusivity was more of a thing; certain classes and races sometimes weren’t allowed to mix, magic items were restricted to certain classes and alignments, and so forth. Also, feats worked very differently; they were automatically granted to most classes on a regular basis, and there were hundreds of them that allowed things like extra spells, special attacks, and so on.
All of this mostly came up in the context of the dragonmarks. As you might recall, the dragonmarks manifest on members of certain familial bloodlines and grant them more powerful magical potential than the average Eberron inhabitant.
In edition 3.5, the dragonmarks were feats applied to characters at whichever juncture a feat could be added to a character’s makeup. The typical progression was for a character to acquire a least dragonmark feat, which served as a prerequisite to acquire the lesser and then greater dragonmark feats, thereby increasing the power and utility of the dragonmark abilities.
Along with the basic feats allowing dragonmarks to appear on characters, there were several ancillary feats that served to enhance the performance of dragonmarks already possessed or provide skill and roleplay benefits related to the particular dragonmark manifestation. Additionally, edition 3.5 employed the “prestige class” mechanic. Similar to 5th edition’s class archetypes, further refinement and specificity of ability could be realized by use of prestige classes of a particular focus. Several prestige classes specifically related to dragonmarks existed.
This is when the first restrictions came into play. The dragonmarks in Eberron are all associated with particular races. In Eberron lore there are seven ( Human, Elf, Half-Elf, Dwarf, Gnome, Halfling, and Half-Orc ) and if your character wasn’t one of those races, you couldn’t have a dragonmark, though later adventures and rules bent that requirement a bit.
Mechanically, the dragonmarks themselves were magic boosters; they gave characters access to free spells and/or free uses of spells, usually along with a boost to skill bonuses. As mentioned by ROSTRO, piling on additional feats and prestige classes could further increase those bonuses.
Moving on from dragonmarks, you have one of the other more prominent legacies of Eberron; the warforged. As with 5th edition, Eberron in 3.5 allowed characters to choose Warforged as a playable race, but doing so had a whole host of caveats and exceptions everyone had to deal with.
Warforged in 3.5 were full magical constructs and retained many of the attributes associated with that. That meant they started with higher base defense, they were immune to a lot of effects like poison and diseases, and they didn’t need to sleep or breathe. However, there were a number of downsides as well; healing spells and effects were only half as effective, and because the warforged was made of inorganic material, spells that could normally only target objects could instead target them, such as heat metal.
Apart from special options derived from existing rules, Eberron was responsible for a completely new mechanic that seems to have only been present in edition 3.5. “Action Points” functioned in a manner similar to 5th edition’s bardic inspiration dice, although rather than being granted by a particular class, all characters received a reservoir of them each day. The dice would be additively combined with d20 rolls at the players’ discretion to increase the likelihood of succeeding at a particular activity. Unsurprisingly, a number of character feats were available to enhance or modify the available uses and effects provided by the “Action Point” dice.
Edition 3.5 has something in common with 5th edition at low levels; in general, the characters were fragile and not very proficient at things. The action points were added because Keith Baker wanted players to be able to immediately enjoy an “action hero” vibe without resorting to starting characters at higher levels or homebrewing rules. Adding a d6 to certain checks means previously impossible check DCs could be passed, or unusually difficult enemies could be hit with attacks where otherwise they’d be insurmountable. It didn’t always work that way, of course; you’re still rolling dice, but it sometimes encouraged players to try more outlandish or crazy stunts where they otherwise wouldn’t risk it.
It’s worth mentioning psionics and Eberron because of the discussion that’s sprung up around them in 5th edition. Some people who weren’t around for 3.5 think Eberron introduced psionics, which isn’t the case at all; for one thing, psionics was around since 1st edition. Second, edition 3.5 already had a nice set of psionics rules for people to scream about by the time Eberron came around. Keith Baker simply used the existing psionics rules and wove them explicitly into the fabric of the lore.
That weaving has sprouted the current discussion around Eberron and psionics in 5th edition. Whereas in the Forgotten Realms psionics is something you can sort of take or leave as you like, it’s really difficult to justify certain aspects of Eberron without psionics being both around and clearly defined. The Kalashtar playable race is supposed to be gifted in psionics, for one, and many of the primary antagonists of the setting do almost all their work with psionic energies. Eberron is the first setting for 5th edition where that level of connection is almost mandated, hence the assumption that if Eberron’s coming, psionics has to come with it.
5th edition has several fundamental alterations in approach compared with 3.5. Concrete examples include the elimination of prestige classes and a drastic alteration to the implementation of feats, to the point where they are technically not mandated for use at all as well as numbering several orders of magnitude less than previous incarnations.
From a philosophical perspective, 5th addition regularly avoids restrictions and limitations based upon racial choices. Taken together, all of these modifications to the D&D ruleset would seem to present obstacles to implementing aspects of Eberron, specifcially the dragonmarks and the introduction of warforged as a playable race.
Fortunately Mr. Baker and the D&D staff at Wizards were able to find a few solutions.
Beginning with the warforged, they actually retained a lot of their “soft” bonuses such as immunity to disease and not needing to breathe, but they were reduced to only being resistant to poison, and while they don’t technically sleep, they still have to sort of “shut-down” to get the benefits of a long rest. The integrated defensive bonus was changed to fit with bounded accuracy by doing something similar to what happened with the option for Tortles; Warforged have an automatic built-in AC rather than wearing armor, but the overall AC they can achieve still falls within average values. Fortunately for anyone that wants to play them in combat, the restrictions on healing and vulnerability to object spells was totally removed.
Since feats and prestige classes aren’t options for dragonmarks, Wizards went with the next easiest avenue to redefine a character; racial features. In 5th edition the dragonmarks take the place of a lot of racial abilities and features, in many cases completely replacing any subrace option someone would take. Mechanically the options function very similarly to any other racial bonuses, though in some cases the dragonmark options provide more choice than many subrace features.
While the action point system from 3.5 has been completely eliminated (unless one wishes to posit that it was the genesis of the current function of Bardic Inspiration) a remnant of it is present with the dragonmarks. Since providing static bonuses to certain skill checks would run the risk of mathematically sabotaging the limits of bounded accuracy, 5th edition instead provides so-called inspiration dice. These dice are employed when a dragonmarked character makes a check related to an activity their dragonmark is supposed to enhance. Some items and abilities acquirable in Eberron can replace the d4 with a die of higher denomination.
Psionics is still a touchy subject where Eberron is concerned. Very little mention of it is made in the Wayfinder’s Guide and so far there’s no official implementation of psionics as a game mechanic. Since the Wayfinders Guide isn’t technically a full release, there hasn’t been outcry suggesting Wizards’ ripped psionics out of Eberron, but so far any inclusion means several things in the guide would have to be errata-ed, for example the Kalashtar race.
So while jumping into Eberron is probably going to have more of an effect on your backstory than your character sheet, there are still a few things that work to set Eberron apart from vanilla D&D.
ROSTRO: I was previously unaware of the modifications permitting magical constructs to receive mundane healing. I shall update my operational parameters.
Mikey: So does that mean you’ll be giving yourself armor now too?
ROSTRO: I find probability manipulation to be a more reliable method of self-defense.
Mikey: Yeah, I’ve never understood that. How does math help you protect yourself? I mean, Ostron can put anyone to sleep but your … other-worldly-factor sort of offsets that
ROSTRO: I would invite you to attempt aggressive action. I will consider the activity purely experimental rather than malicious and hold no expectation of apology.
Lennon: No! No, we’re not doing this. I tried this once and somehow I kicked myself in the… natural 1s… Come on, I’m sure there are some nice, nonviolent listener comments in the Scrying Pool we can go read.