Welcome to "Eberron Under the Glass," a column that takes a look at how to handle staple themes of D&D adventure in an Eberron campaign. Whether the characters must search for a lost artifact, unearth lore in an old tome, or deal with a goblin uprising, Eberron campaigns do things a little differently. This series helps Eberron players and DMs get the right feel in the setting.
This article looks at the concept of character classes and levels in Eberron.
PC Classes Are Rare
In a standard campaign, characters with PC classes are uncommon but frequent enough to not be extraordinary. For example, on page 139 of the Dungeon Master's Guide, a typical 200-person hamlet has 13 characters with PC classes, including 3 clerics and 3 fighters. While that number seems small (it's less than 10% of the hamlet's population), it means that a party of four PCs in a hamlet are outnumbered by the number of PC-class NPCs.
By comparison, most of the people of Eberron never have the potential to take levels in PC classes. Adepts and experts run the temples, while the rare cleric is a true knight of the church. A typical veteran of the Last War is a 2nd-level warrior, while fighters are specialists and officers. Common cutpurses are merely experts, and guildmasters and master thieves are rogues. Spellcasters who create common magic items are magewrights, and only the true wizards wield the mightiest spells and forge the items of legend.
People with character classes are larger than life, even early in their career. PC-class characters are the Amelia Earharts, Wyatt Earps, and Thomas Edisons of their day -- famous and capable of things no normal man or woman could accomplish. Ask anyone who knew one of these people in their younger years and they'll tell you they were destined for something great. Of course, most people believed they were crazy, too, so being a person who is "special" in this way is a mixed blessing. Nonetheless, PC-class characters are the rare exception to the unwashed masses. In Eberron, a true cleric or wizard is someone to respect or even fear, and a paladin isn't someone you take for granted.
The same standards apply to evil characters; even at an early age, they stand out. Townsfolk remember the young man who tortured and dissected animals, and when it turns out years later that he joined the Cults of the Dragon Below, they nod as if they expected it. Fellow students of the woman now known as Demise (see the Eberron Campaign Setting, page 252) remember her as strange and obsessed, and they always suspected she was up to no good. In modern terms, the average person who does evil is the one with neighbors who say, "He was a quiet fellow -- never caused any trouble," whereas neighbors remember the exceptional person as, "He always seemed strange, gave me the creeps, didn't like having him around."
During play, players should see that normal people recognize them as unusual, just as they should sense when an NPC is similarly unusual. This is not to say that every memorable villain NPC has to have a PC class or that characters with NPC classes can't make interesting villains. It means that a sense of parity exists between heroic PCs and villainous PCs. When Indiana Jones vied with Belloq in Raiders of a Lost Ark, it was a contest of equals. Heroic PCs should face off against their equals from time to time, too -- even in Eberron where PC-class characters are rare.
High-Level Characters Are Rare
The Dungeon Master's Guide assumes that in a typical campaign, a significant number of NPCs of all non-epic levels exist in the world. Your typical small city has at least one 7th-level NPC of each of the Player's Handbook classes, or at least 10th-level in a large city and at least 13th-level in a metropolis (with additional characters at half that level, more at one-fourth that level, and so on).
In Eberron, the numbers are much lower. Just as their PC classes set PCs apart from normal people, their heroic adventures lead to increased class levels unavailable to common folk. As author Keith Baker points out in one of his Dragonshard articles, it's perfectly acceptable for a 20-year veteran soldier to still be 2nd level because most NPCs do not gain experience in the way that PCs do. That same article has variant tables that show how Eberron settlements have fewer high-level characters than a standard campaign. This means that in a few short months of adventuring, a young PC can outstrip the abilities of everyone in his home town and even those of experienced NPC characters in large cities. In Eberron, a "high level" character may be less than 10th level (for example, the Lord of Blades is 12th level, and he's feared for his own power in addition to the army of warforged he leads).
What does this mean in terms of gameplay? It means that established adventurers are forces to be reckoned with. A typical large city might have only five fighters at 4th level or higher, so the arrival of a party of four 6th-level heroes will draw some attention. Commoners and younger warriors wonder aloud if the visitors could beat the local champions in a fight. Magewrights gossip about a visiting wizard and whether or not she plans to dump any of her unwanted magic items on "their" market. Corrupt adepts and greedy expert-priests worry that the new cleric of the faith in town will upset business in their temple. Pickpockets and thugs wonder if the famous trapfinder is looking to take over the local thieves' guild. Though 6th-level characters are B-list celebrities, they're still celebrities. Any 10th-level characters are the stars, and NPCs will treat them as such.
One way to think of this celebrity is in terms of television shows or weekly movie serials. For the first few episodes of a show or serial, the viewers don't have any strong attachment to the characters because they haven't learned much about them. After the sixth or seventh episode, the viewers have learned to like or dislike the characters and know what sort of behavior to expect. After a full season, the viewers either love or hate the characters. Each significant adventure by the PCs is like an episode. At first they're unknown and untested. After several adventures, word gets out and the PCs are known well enough to have a following -- even to the point of making some casual enemies. After a year of adventuring, the PCs have a well-known reputation among regular people and several mortal enemies who'd like to see them dead. People in need approach heroic PCs for help and avoid those known to cause trouble, while villains avoid the heroes and try to recruit the troublemakers. PCs don't need to hang out in taverns to find work; people approach them on the street and local officials track them down at home.
Their abilities and power level make PCs a cut above most people in the world. With Eberron's advanced travel and communication methods, information travels quickly and a PC's notoriety spreads beyond the immediate area of their deeds. In Eberron, PCs are heroes, and they have a hard time trying to keep a low profile. Fortunately, when the PCs are famous, it just makes it easier for the DM to introduce excitement, danger, and cliffhanger action!
About the Author
Sean K Reynolds lives in Encinitas, California, and recently left his job at a video game company. His D&D credits include the Monster Manual, the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, and Savage Species. He'd like to thank Keith Baker for his advice on this article. You can find more game material at Sean's website.