Product Spotlight11/05/2004

Sharn: City of Towers
Designer Interview

Designer Interview with Keith Baker, and James Wyatt

In this month's exclusive interview, designers Keith Baker and James Wyatt discuss the latest Eberron adventure, Sharn: City of Towers, and give future visitors an up-close-and-personal tour of the city's hotspots and deathtraps.

Wizards of the Coast: So, why Sharn? What is it about this particular city in Khorvaire that made it worthy of roughly 200 pages of design?

Keith Baker: Sharn embodies many of the key concepts of Eberron. It is a city built through the use of magic; its towering spires are the work of skilled magewrights and the energy of Syrania, which supports all forms of flight. Visually, it is spectacular, with towers rising into the clouds and skycoaches and hippogriffs darting between the spires. From an adventuring standpoint, it supports all sorts of different adventures. For those seeking action, Sharn is the gateway to Xen'drik and contains many patrons willing to support expeditions to that mysterious land. If you don't feel like leaving the city, you could venture into the ancient ruins that stretch out below the foundations of the modern city. If you prefer intrigue, it's a hotbed of crime, scheming diplomats, dragonmark houses, and other power players. There are many cities in Khorvaire that can make an excellent base of operations for adventure--but size, magic, and proximity to Xen'drik make Sharn unique.

James Wyatt: From the very beginning -- by which I mean the period when Keith was here at Wizards and we spent a week going through his fleshed-out setting proposal and hashing out what we wanted this world to be -- Sharn was on the map as the Big City of the campaign, the urban environment where you could host a campaign: the pulp-era Los Angeles of Eberron. It's that last phrase that sums up, in a nutshell, why Sharn exists and why it gets its own book: The movies and books that inspired us to create Eberron often feature a city as a prominent character in its own right.

Wizards: When developing the structure of an entire city, right down to its holidays or the percentage of races living there, where do you begin? What are the first things you need to determine in order to build a city like the City of Towers?

Keith: Sharn has always been a central part of the setting, and we'd put a lot of thought into it long before we started working on Sharn: City of Towers. Some of the organizations you'll find in Sharn were developed in the ten-page setting proposal way back in 2002. When we sat down to work on the book, the first things in my mind were questions about the other unique aspects of Eberron. How has magic been incorporated into Sharn? How has the Last War affected its inhabitants? Where are the changelings, kalashtar, and the warforged? Given the noir elements of Eberron, the next question was how the city could reflect that tone. Who were the power players in the city? What is the balance between crime and law, and how will this affect adventurers?

James: The real starting point was the inspiration I just talked about -- the concept of a city as the home base for an entire campaign, a city full of crime lords and shady activities and hustle and bustle and all the rain you need for a good noir film. I read a lot of Raymond Chandler.

Once it came down to actual design, I started out with the city-building system that I developed a couple of years ago, which eventually became the Web enhancement for the Dungeon Master's Guide v.3.5. I built the city in terms of districts, grouped them into wards and quarters, and the city came alive from there.

Wizards: How does developing a city in the Eberron setting differ from developing one for, say, Dragonlance or Forgotten Realms?

James: It's not hugely different. They're all D&D, of course, and they all presume some level of magic -- but Eberron probably most of the three. Sharn is a city literally undergirded with magic: If something were to happen to the manifest zone, for example, things would start to fall. (Look at me, sprinkling adventure hooks into an interview!) Of course we tried to account for magewrights and artificers, as well as all the new races of Eberron. But at its core, it's a magical-medieval city not too unlike what you might find in Faerûn or Ansalon.

Wizards: Sharn is shown to have myriad districts as it rises from the underground level called the Cogs and up into the heavens to the uppermost level of the city, the floating Skyway. Between are the wealthy Upper City, the more middle-class society of Middle-City, the poverty of Lower City, and the forgotten levels of the Depths. What sorts of adventures might players expect in some of these different cross-sections of the city?

Keith: Well, it varies based on the quarter you're in as well as the level. Central Plateau is a seat of wealth and government, and Lower Central is a far different place than Lower Dura, which is riddled with poverty and crime. In addition to crime, the impoverished areas of the city are good places for some of Eberron's secret societies to recruit members and engage in schemes outside of the public eye. You might find a cult of the Dragon Below springing up among the inhabitants of Lower Dura, or a group of former Cyran soldiers plotting to take vengeance for their lost nation. You might search for treasures in the shattered ruins of the Glass Tower, or get caught in the crime war between the established powers and a violent cabal from Droaam. As you move up in the city, open violence becomes less common, but intrigue is more frequent and more dangerous. The dragonmark houses, the Aurum, the Lords of Dust, the royal families, foreign ambassadors -- there are many powers in Sharn, and each has its own agenda.

Wizards: What sorts of magic, artifacts, and monsters did you feel needed to be created to give Sharn its own unique flavor?

James: For monsters, I started off thinking in general categories about the kinds of monsters you're likely to encounter in a major metropolitan area. These start from "monsters" that are basically people -- humanoids like elves and orcs that might raise an eyebrow but aren't going to be attacked on sight. Harassed and dragged in for questioning, possibly, but not cut down in cold blood. Then there are monsters that you're likely to find as pets or companions, which include a lot of things that might be familiars, animal companions, special mounts, homunculi and other types of constructs, and even basic undead. As long as they're not rampaging through the streets or even just running wild, hey, nobody's going to worry too much about the flesh golem lurching along behind that wizard. . . . Then there are monsters that survive in a city by looking like people -- shapechangers, primarily. Monsters that don't get hunted simply because they're invisible. There are criminal masterminds -- monsters that might not be able to safely walk down the street, but get their business done in the city through networks of minions and underlings. And then there are the more traditional dungeon dwellers that you'd be likely to find in sewers, burial areas, or just those deep-down regions of the Cogs.

With that sort of classification done, I thought about categories that might be a little under-represented and filled them out with some new cool beasties!

For magic, we concentrated on Sharn's unique location within a manifest zone, which makes flying magic work better in the city. There are spells, magic items, and even feats that take advantage of that.

Keith: For my part, the magic items I was most interested in were functional in nature. In Eberron, the arcane lock spell is often used to protect buildings. So, we introduced the arcane key, a minor magical tool a rogue can use to temporarily deactivate an arcane lock -- preventing Open Lock from becoming a worthless skill. We've also added a few spells that make sense for a society that uses magic to maintain order. A guard can't use a wand of fireballs on a busy street, so there are a few new options for taking down groups of opponents without killing them.

Wizards: Play "tour guide" for a moment. I've just arrived in Sharn. Where can I find the best inns?

Keith: Skyway! If you want a room with a view, you can't beat a district that floats above the tallest towers!

Wizards:What I actually meant was the cheapest inns.

Keith: Callestan in Lower Dura, though you'd be wise to keep your sword in clear view. If you really want to take your life in your hands and don't mind sharing the common room with ogres and goblins, the cheapest lodging is in Khyber's Gate, down beneath the city.

Wizards: And where can I find . . . the shadiest hirelings?

Keith: While you're staying at your inn in Callestan or Khyber's Gate, you can probably find some very shady hirelings. Start with the halfling with his hand in your purse.

Wizards: . . . the least corrupt officials?

Keith: Least corrupt? You do know you're in Sharn, right? Well, if you insist, Northedge is probably the least corrupt quarter of the city.

Wizards: . . . the most corrupt officials?

Keith: Tough choice. Upper Central has the most officials, and thus the most corrupt officials. On the other hand, it's hard to beat the blatant criminal connections of the officials of Lower Dura.

Wizards: . . . the most reliable informants?

Keith: That's going to depend on you. The best informants are often the friends you make socializing, and different people will get a better response from different taverns. If you served Breland during the war, get your drinks at the Gold & White in Daggerwatch; if you're a changeling, try the Broken Mirror in Callestan.

Wizards: . . .the most likely places to get into some trouble?

Keith: If you're staying in Callestan or Khyber's Gate, you're already in trouble. Otherwise, anywhere in Lower Dura or the Cogs is a good start!

James: I'm so glad you asked this question this way, because it relates directly to one of my favorite parts of the book -- a big section in Chapter 1 called "What Brings You to Sharn?" My thinking was that a lot of players approach a city from exactly the perspective that you did here -- they want to know where to find the best things. So I wrote that section from that perspective: Here's where you want to go to buy or sell antiquities, to do your banking, to find work or hired help, and so on.

Wizards: Sharn is a hotbed of potential stories and campaigns. What do you see as some of the more centralized tales available in The City of a Thousand Eyes?

James: I'm a big fan of Raymond Chandler, so you can bet that my adventures in Sharn will owe more than a little debt to The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely. But as with Eberron as a whole, we're trying not to make the setting about any one big story, but rather about the hundreds of smaller stories that unfold every day, across the continent of Khorvaire and in the streets and towers of Sharn. One of the things we've talked about in regard to Eberron overall is that there are no end of stories where individuals face tremendous crises and overwhelming odds and are profoundly changed by the experience -- but the world as a whole barely feels ripples from this epic struggle. That's just as true in Sharn.

Wizards: Can players expect Sharn itself to feature in future adventures?

James: Well, we put a quickie preview of the Sharn book into my Eberron adventure in Dungeon 113, "The Queen with Burning Eyes," which was set in Sharn. The final round of this year's D&D Open at Gen Con was set in the Depths of Sharn, and that will be making its way to Dungeon at some point as well. There will certainly be adventures in the future that return to Sharn.

Wizards: What's next on the Eberron front for product?
Coming up next for Eberron: Grasp of the Emerald Claw, the third adventure, written by the inimitable Bruce R. Cordell. That comes out in January. Then comes Races of Eberron, in April, which was written by Jesse Decker, Gwendolyn Kestrel, Matt Sernett, and Keith. The novel line launches with Keith's book [also called The City of Towers, Book One of The Dreaming Dark series] in February, and Matt Forbeck wrote a novel due for release in March, called Marked for Death [Book One of The Lost Mark trilogy].

The Aberrations set for our D&D Miniatures line also holds some exciting Eberron tie-ins. The Sharn cutthroat mini is the most obvious connection to the Sharn book! There's also a shifter, another warforged, an exorcist of the Silver Flame, and a couple of others . . . and more to come in the next set!

Wizards: What are you working on now?

James: As I write this (end of September), I'm getting ready to head to Australia (with Keith!) for the RPGA's Spring Revel Down Under, which is exciting. I'm also finishing up work on a core D&D book due out in 2005. When I get back from Down Under, I'll be pulling together work from a couple of talented freelancers on another geographical sourcebook for Eberron, also due out in 2005. After that, I'll do some design work on a different kind of Eberron sourcebook. There's a lot of Eberron in my future . . . including a novel contract taking up most of my evenings! It'll be my first novel, and I'm excited.

Keith: I'm just finishing final revisions on my novel set in Sharn, The City of Towers. Beyond that, I'm working on the Dragonshard articles posted on the Wizards website and waiting for the release of my first card game (Gloom, coming from Atlas Games in October).

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