Friday, 22 February 2008

Literary Section VIII - Part 2 - Eberron Review

Here we are then, with the second part of today's update, a review that has been long in coming. Our subject matter is the world of Eberron, created by Keith Baker for the 3.5 edition of D&D (now how silly does THAT read? It's a bloody pen and paper RPG, not a Microsoft software!) and more specifically, said author's novel trilogy, The Dreaming Dark, consisting of Vol. 1: The City of Towers, Vol. 2: The Shattered Land and Vol. 3: The Gates of Night.

Vol.1: The City of Towers.

A little background first: both Ergo Proxy and I have been ardent pen & paper RPG players, for over 10 years and, as can be expected, we started with what was known at the time as Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D) or, in recent terminology, D&D 2.1 and moved to 2.2, which really only expanded on some matters, corrected some glitches and generally offered more options for the innovative gaming group. At some point, in 2000, with the parent company of TSR having been sold to Wizards of the Coast (the guys who created Magic: The Gathering) and then Wizards, in turn, becoming property of Hasbro, some "bright" product manager decided it was time for closure on the old edition and a complete makeover. As much as people who started gaming with the 3rd Edition can probably not see it, it was a disaster, both in rules complexity and sterilization of content. It is a very long discussion but let us say that, suddenly, even die-hard Barbarian Class fans found themselves trying out Wizards, because "the spellcasters did more damage". Never mind the old settings they took out of circulation: gems like Planescape, Ravenloft and Dark Sun were "too complicated" until, by popular demand, their publishing was effectively leased to other companies, via the notorious Open Gaming License (OGL). Essentially, people wanted the old settings, so the companies re-published them with worse rules.

Now, the OGL was not bad in and of itself but it gave a leeway for people to publish any and every junk imaginable, cluttering the market with useless compendiums, upon supplements, upon accessories, some of which were not only an RPG disgrace but also a linguistic one. At some point, the people high-up took the hint and published Edition 3.5, which put some of the things in their proper order but still, no edition later than the 2nd can possibly reach the same quality, by continuing along the 3rd edition lines. Yes, we ARE being called old geezers in the RPG world but that doesn't mean we are wrong. Now, among the stuff that was published under the 3.5 flag, there is this amazing setting by "who-the-hell-is-this-cool-thinking-dude" Keith Baker, called Eberron.

Reasonably, one would wonder: "what makes Eberron so cool if it's being published under the rules you so despise?" Fair enough and the answer, forthcoming: to begin with, Eberron has its own systems for nearly everything, from magic to combat, to even races and a totally different outlook at the setting, than any other Campaign World. It was something I had tired (and failed miserably) to adapt to my own campaign: Steampunk. In effect, magic is regarded more as a science and as something to be combined with technology, rather than "an arcane mystery for the few initiates". Magic, other than its usual fantastic effects (Fireballs, Lightning Bolts, Necromancy, you know the drill), is very much utilitarian and mostly based on the knowledge and control one has over the 4 cornerstones of creation: Earth, Water, Air and Fire. In that respect, magic has an almost Platonic or Alchemical (in terms of philosophy) character in Eberron.

In a world where mechanical science and magic mingle so freely, it is evident that you end up with what is probably Eberron's most defining characteristic: Artifice. Artifice being the art of binding energy patterns into objects, in order to serve a particular function or produce a specific effect, it was only a matter of time until the creation of animated mechanical constructs became a reality. However, sentience itself and free will are nothing more than concepts, therefore can also be expressed with another sort of pattern or combination of patterns, albeit more complex. Someone either managed to specify, uncover or discover these patterns, leading to the creation of the living constructs, the Warforged. This in fact, is probably the most interesting axis along which the Eberron stories evolve, as well as a central theme of Keith Baker's trilogy.

The writer introduces us to his characters at the end of the bloody conflict that shortly thereafter becomes known as the Last War. Like both actual World Wars, it rages across an entire continent, called Khorvaire and again, is very similar in cause, scope, length and form, to our historical 100 Year War, with the difference of including Wizards, Warforged, Undead, Air Ships and what-have-you of the Epic Fantasy Steampunk genre. The central characters are introduced to us as members of the Cyran army, in one form or the other (Cyre is one of the nations of Khorvaire). We have the human Captain Daine, formerly of House Deneith, Jode, the Halfling healer of House Jorasco, Lei, artificer and young noble of House Cannith and last but not least, Pierce, the Warforged scout and archer of Daine's unit. In fact, the characters survive the event that causes the end of the Last War, simply known as the Mourning. The nation of Cyre, in its entirety, is destroyed by a cataclysm which leaves very few survivors and then again horribly deformed into mad and hideous monsters. Not only that but anyone entering Cyre post-Mourning (whereby it becomes known as the Mournland), is also horribly transformed.

This disaster, of unknown origin and purpose, stays the armed hands of all the rulers of Khorvaire and makes them pause and think, in a most superstitious manner, that this is a sign heralding the war's end. Thereby, they decide to end it by signing the treaty of Thronehold, among whose conditions is that no more Warforged will be created and those already created will be set free from their military masters, that they may choose their own fates. Hence, our heroes, devoid of country, army and pretty much anything to defend, make their way to Sharn, the City of Towers, in order to start anew. There start their troubles and their adventures.

Keith Baker has an interesting mix of themes and characters: generally, a prominent theme are the Dragonmarked Houses (noble houses of ancient bloodlines, supposedly blessed by the Elder Race of Dragons, especially Siberys, Khyber and Eberron himself and whose members may possibly exhibit an innate power of specific orientation)) and the specialties of each: House Deneith or House of Sentinels, is militaristic and does mercenary work. Its Dragonmarked are brilliant strategists and tacticians, whether it comes to hand-to-hand combat or regiment command. Daine is a self-exiled outcast of his house, not Dragonmarked, who decided to honorably serve his country, rather than monetary interests. After the destruction of Cyre, he is a bitter and very self-conscious person with huge guilt issues, but also a very capable and reliable commander and warrior. Jode, of House Jorasco or House of Healers, is Dragonmarked but has no further dealings with his House, though the reasons are unknown. He is the lighthearted element of the group, much like Tasselhof was for the Companions of the Lance, in the Dragonlance novels. Lei is a Dragonmarked member of House Cannith, the House of Artificers, though she is "excoriated" (the equivalent of excommunicated or declared outcast) upon return to Sharn, for reasons unknown. Pierce was created by House Cannith some 30 years ago and by none other than Lei's parents. Built and bred to be a perfect soldier, in a world where a sort of "universal peace" has been declared (never mind that conflict is constant, outside of the paperwork), he is the most interesting character to consider, as he tries to come to terms with being his own master, having to decide for himself or be idle and have some sort of "pass-time".

The plot is quite intricate and manages to blend elements of the characters' personal histories and dramas, with the greater goal of averting the destructive plans of an other-planar race for their world. Really, this is as much as can be said about the plot itself, without giving away key points. In the first book, we are presented with an urban adventure, in the City of Towers, where our heroes must find their new niche in the world and keep bumping into obstacle after obstacle, especially when it comes to the ordinary-day stuff. During the war, they were a highly trained combat unit and have lived much of their respective lives as one, so when push come to shove, they shove pretty hard. However, when it comes to reassessing their place in a non-military world, where their homeland has been destroyed overnight, they make blunder upon blunder and let themselves be manipulated by shadowy forces. However, by the end of the first book, they manage to establish sort of a new life.

The trail of clues they followed in the first book, leads them to travel to the mysterious, exotic and deadly continent of Xen'Drik, in the second. Rumors, legends, secret histories and obscure writings abound as to the secrets of this peculiar land, including the first race to master magic, the Giants, their destruction by the Dragons and perhaps, the origin of the Warforged. This is more a tale of exploration than intrigue, of coming in contact with peculiar cultures and digging through the archaeological remnants of Eberron. High marks for the originality concerning Dark Elves (or Drow), who are divided mainly into two factions: the Fire-Worshipers and the animistic Scorpion-Followers. It is a fresh deviation from the standard theme of uber-feminist spider-licking and Lolth-worshiping bitches and the tales of distraught males (though Drizzt Do'Urden still remains one of my few favorite Forgotten Realms characters, at least until the Sea of Swords novel; the Orc Trilogy was utter crap and it follows that anything thereafter will be too). During the second book, we learn much about the rich planar geography of Baker's world, which brings to mind past glories of Planescape, though in a perhaps more limited scope. Caution is advised, as this book ends in a cliffhanger.

The third book contains the actual planar travel (or plane-hopping, you ignorant youngster) of the heroes, which not only leads to the big face-off but also to the revelation of the truth behind the heroes' nagging, mysterious pasts. This is where Baker, perhaps in an effort to keep some things under wraps in the interests of the game setting's sales or perhaps from lack of proper editing, makes a few blunders. This whole story began with the Mourning, which is not explained in any way. Jode, though in many ways developed over the course of the books, remains a character whose past is left in the dark, under circumstances when he would have actually shared it with his companions. The rather amazing changes that affect Daine during the course of the trilogy, receive only token explanations, in a way that does not seem mysterious, but inadequately plotted. Finally, Lei's and Pierce's pasts, a main focus of the story, though explored in depth and quite some detail, by the end of the book one would expect an aftermath, perhaps a three-page epilogue to show how these revelations affected the characters, whom we have seen bleed, experience terrible loss and doubt themselves along the twisted path of revelation.

At the end of the day, the Dreaming Dark Trilogy is a good read. It experiences some of the inadequacies of an emerging writer, with an excellent sense of background but still working on his pacing and structure. There are no contested points, no real mess-ups where at one point a thing is "A" and later on mentioned as "B". No, in fact the books are pretty consistent and not easily so, if one takes into account the sheer number of story elements that need to be accounted for. I believe that those seeking to read a good story in a fresh RPG setting, completely free of things pointing to recognizable game rules, with the added Steampunk element, will be very satisfied. Those who measure books in comparison to, say, Robbin Hobb's impeccable epics, should probably leave it be.

As a final note, a multitude of writers has contributed novels to the world of Eberron, with a theme for every taste, since the setting has provided space for detective, horror, action or plain old epic stories.

Enjoy reading,


P.S. The artwork here, except for the first book's cover, is by the amazing Wayne Reynolds and you can see more here.

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