On Dragonmarks

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on August 5, 2009

Eberron is without a doubt my favourite campaign setting for Dungeons & Dragons. I enjoy its intrigue, moral ambiguity, post war/cold war setting and violence. Since I first read the 3.5 Eberron Campaign Guide I felt it was a setting designed for a more mature player. Not necessarily Wizard of the Coasts core audience, but rather the players who grew up with earlier editions of the game and who now wanted more than just a dungeon crawl. Eberron is a setting that encourages players and DMs to challenge certain assumptions and to role play moral and ethical issues.

Which is why I was disappointed to see that any race can now select any dragonmark. No longer are dragonmarks separated by race. It is now possible for Half-Orcs to muscle up to the table with Gnomes from House Sivis and provide the services that the Mark of Scribing allows.

Now, I should be clear. From the perspective of WotC I suppose I can understand why they expanded the role of dragonmarks. For starters it makes the campaign setting feel more inclusive. Also, by allowing all races to freely select a dragonmark they encourage more players to select the mark for their PCs. As the dragonmarked houses are central to the world of Eberron this makes sense. It can also be easily explained through the Draconic Prophecy. So with these points in mind I don’t feel that the expansion of dragonmarks in 4e Eberron is game-breaking.

However, I still don’t like it. Eberron is a setting of class and racial distinctions. It might not be pretty, but it is the reality of the world that was created. A world where one race for various reasons sneered or were openly hostile to other races. The emergence of the monstrous races of Droaam and the inherent distrust and racism that was present provided for interesting role playing opportunities. The Elves of Valenar border on xenophobic in their treatment of other races. Dragonmarks added a new level to this racial hatred and mistrust. By blurring the lines and allowing any race to select any dragonmark the setting feels a little watered down to me.

Now to their credit, WotC addresses this in the Eberron Player’s Guide. In discussing the option of taking a dragonmark outside of its normal racial lines the following is found, “You could choose to be a member of some other race, even a race that has no dragonmarked house of its own … You’ll probably never meet an NPC in the world like you and no Dragonmarked House would claim you.” So you can have the dragonmark, but you’d exist outside of the House. Not good enough in my opinion.

I mean this is a campaign setting that in its history had the War of the Mark. During this time the twelve dragonmarks that are present in the campaign setting aligned into their respective houses and the houses worked together to eliminate all other aberrant dragonmarks. In other words the Dragonmarked Houses killed anyone who manifested a mark outside of the respected bloodline.

Of course the history of Eberron as explained in previous editions would therefore allow for dragonmarks outside of the stated bloodlines, even if the previous editions rules didn’t allow it. One could certainly argue the point and I think the argument would have merit. However, the 4e treatment of dragonmarks and the allowance of the mark to manifest outside of respected bloodlines is too tame.

My thought is that a dragonmark that manifests outside of the normal bloodlines would be considered aberrant. Why would House Kundarak, charged with protecting the realms treasures through the Mark of Warding allow a Halfling who manifested its mark to roam free? If they would never claim the individual why would they allow that PC to live? The individual would represent a direct challenge and a very real security threat. Dragonmarks in Eberron are rare and manifesting one outside of the traditional houses bloodlines is rarer still. People would eventually take notice and people talk.

In the next Eberron campaign setting that I run, I think I’ll allow the PCs to select any dragonmark they’d like. However, I think I’ll rule that if they select a dragonmark that isn’t normally associated with their race that it is viewed as an aberrant mark and will carry all the stigma that an aberrant mark normally does.

What are your thoughts on the 4e treatment of dragonmarks? Do you think I’m coming off a little harsh or was the racial divide that dragonmarks represented an interesting mechanic that should have been preserved?

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Sean Holland August 5, 2009 at 10:51 am

I like setting elements that remind us that the world, even a fantasy one is rarely a perfect place.

As long as you are upfront about what role Dragonmarks have in your campaign, it should work.
.-= Sean Holland´s last blog ..Game Theory – What is a Skill? =-.

2 Malky August 5, 2009 at 11:48 am

It may not be expressed clearly enough in the book, but I think it’s safe to say that, within the Eberron setting, any out-of-race dragonmark is already considered aberrant. How the Marked Houses react to the appearance of such a mark is up in the air, though. While they certainly wouldn’t be happy, I could see the various Houses reacting in different ways, depending the situation.

I think the same cultural stigma in Eberron exists in 4th that existed in 3rd. The only difference is that something that was implicitly assumed in 3rd (Yes, if you want to, you COULD take an out-of-race dragonmark) is now being explicitly said. That’s it.

3 DBV August 5, 2009 at 11:59 am

I can definitely see where you are going with this. I believe that viewing it as an Aberrant mark is a good plan. Also, keep in mind that the War of the Mark is over. Aberrant dragonmarks are no longer a punishable offense, and I would think that as long as the character wasn’t trying to compete with the Dragonmarked house economically (undercutting, etc) that they probably wouldn’t waste the resources to kill them. However, I would still encourage my players to use this only rarely, and remind them of the trouble they could cause. Unless the entire group has these “aberrant” marks, and is tied together by the Draconic Prophecy…

4 focusgents August 5, 2009 at 1:22 pm

@DBV
Although the War of the Mark is over, I think your interpretation of the acceptability of abberant marks is different from mine. From the art in the books, aberrant marks seem completely different. If you see a guy with a tribal tattoo at the beach, you might think he’s a douche, but he’s not threatening. A shirtless guy with a flaming skull on his chest is different.

@Wimwick
That being said, I wonder how non-dragonmarked folks recognize these wrong-race dragonmarked. Can a commoner tell a Mark of Making from a Mark of Sentinel? Part of the mystique for me is that people look at someone with a dragonmark, look at their race, and figure that come from the appropriate house, then give them due deference.

5 Wimwick August 5, 2009 at 2:02 pm

@ Sean Holland
I’m in perfect agreement with you, which is why I find the Eberron setting so satisfying. Of course DM disclosure up front is required otherwise players end up with characters they don’t want to play.

@ Malky
I agree what wasn’t said in 3e is now being stated in 4e that any race can take a dragonmark. My original reading of the sourcebook was that a dragonmark outside of the normal race was aberrant. However, upon re-reading I feel the language used is softer than that. My reading of the book would be an anomaly, not aberrant. I however feel it should be seen as aberrant.

@ DBV
While the War of the Mark is over, aberrant dragonmarks still appear. From my understanding and the way I’ve played dragonmarked characters in the past bearing an aberrant dragonmark is a punishable offence. Perhaps not in the eyes of law, but certainly the dragonmarked houses would do what they could to elimante such individuals.

@ focusgents
You raise an interesting question. My assumption would be in a metropolis like Sharn commoners would likely recognize the different marks. Head out to the pastoral farmland of Breland and I doubt more than a handful (if that many) of people could identify one mark from another. I would say that a commoner mighly likely recognize the houses coat of arms, which may or may not be on display when someone with a dragonmark comes into town.

6 Karazax August 6, 2009 at 8:41 am

I agree that if you are playing in Eberron, then you are likely to be faced with outside problems if you select a dragonmark for a character of the “wrong” race. I don’t really see this as a problem though as much as an opportunity for a new story line.

Dragonmarked characters of the wrong race would likely be the only members of their race in the entire world who had such marks, and entire campaign plots or at least story arcs could be built on that strange dragonmark. A half-elf with the mark of healing for example would be of interest to House Joraso, probably with hostility being the most common reaction. Other houses might want to recruit the character, or might also want him dead because of alliances with Jorasco. At the very least the character would likely be treated with prejudice similar to those with abberant marks.

The Chamber or other dragons might have interests due to the prophecy. The Prophecy itself could be weaved into the campaign to help explain this once in a generation dragonmark. There are any number of villains who could be looking for the half elf with the mark of healing that the draconic prophecy mentions is the key to their evil plan’s success….
Cults might see the character as the perfect sacrifice to release their dark master, or perhaps House Tarkanan offers a darker alliance of protection in exchange for the characters doing favors for them. Maybe Vol thinks this character provides a way to restore her mark of death via some ritual. Or maybe the villian wants them dead because the prophecy says they will stop the villain’s plan.

Whatever the case may be, I totally agree that I would not allow a player to select an out of race dragonmark and stroll through the world without major repercussions. Since the game is meant to be fun, make sure the player knows what general repercussions he is likely to face, and either accept that or make a different feat choice.

7 Ian Argent August 9, 2009 at 2:04 pm

I intend to make it clear to my players once we transition to Eberron that an out-of-race dragonmark is an aberrant dragonmark. Not just treated as; but is for the purposes of everything.

I know I saw Hellcow comment to this effect someplace, but whether that was the WotC boards, ENWorld, or both, I cannot say right now

8 Suddry August 10, 2009 at 12:23 pm

I’m loving this article. Ameron and Wimwick and the rest of our Sunday night group are going to find out the effects of out-of-race dragonmarks first hand. While trying to retrieve a powerful item from the Boneyard they were subjected to a blast of energy from an altar surrounded by 5 dragon heads. When they recovered from being stunned they found that a dragon mark had manifested on each one of them. (They got it as a free feat.) In order to avoid totally screwing their character development I let them make the choice of the Mark they each got. Here’s what they chose:

Delian (Half-Elf Paladin) – Mark of Detection (traditionally Half-Elf)
Ethan (Human Rogue) – Mark of Passage (traditionally Human)
Nenia (Human Wizard) – Mark of Storm (traditionally Half-Elf)
Sterling (Warforged Warlord) – Mark of Making (traditionally Human)
Braddoc (Dwarf Fighter) – Mark of Warding (traditionally Dwarf)

So 2 of the characters chose out-of-race marks and the Dwarf is not from the Kundarak clan so he will be heavily scrutinized as well. While I am sure all 3 cases will be extremely interesting/entertaining, the roleplaying aspects of a warforged with the Mark of Making blows my mind (in a good way). He’s desperately seeking to obtain or make an Absence Amulet so House Cannith can’t scry him when they get wind of one of their own creations bearing the Mark of its Makers! The scandle is awesome!

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