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Secret Wars: A Review of Eberron: Rising from the Last War Plus Thoughts on the Future of D&D

The 320-page Eberron: Rising from the Last War is one of several hardcover books released by Wizards of the Coast (WotC) for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition (5e) this year, joining other hardcovers like Descent in Avernus and Ghosts of Saltmarsh.

Eberron: Rising form the Last War is a setting book, a detail I’ll go into fully a little later on. For now, let me give you an overview of Eberron, then share a few bullet points on the book’s contents.

Eberron is set in a period after a devastating 100 year war ravaged the continent of Khorvaire, splitting the once mighty kingdom into 12 quarreling states. It is called the Last War because it was thought that when this war finally ended, the taste for bloodshed and battle would thankfully be over.

But while Khorvaire is technically at peace, the nations continue to vie for economic and political power through espionage and sabotage. Five nations in particular are the most powerful, this largely driven by the dynasty families and signaled by a dragonmark, which are unique, hereditary, arcane sigils that grant them magical power.

This political intrigue gives Eberron a wonderfully noir vibe, but that is not all that the setting is known for. Eberron baselines a classic fantasy flavor, then adds layer upon later of pulp adventure elements and non-traditional fantasy technologies such as “lightning rail” trains and mechanical sentient beings, all powered by magic. It’s a wonderfully pulpy, high adventure setting.

If you are new to the Eberron setting, don’t worry. The lore is engagingly laid out in the introduction and Chapter 2: Khorvaire Gazetteer. You get even more in Chapter 3, which introduces Sharn, City of Towers, a major locale in Eberron that *could be a hub for lots of adventuring.

You may have noticed I skipped past Chapter 1: Character Creation. That’s because it includes a new class, the Artificer! Although aimed at DMs, this inclusion alone will entice plenty of players to purchase the book.

The Artificer class is great and exactly what D&D 5e needed after years of no new classes. Artificers are a blend of high magic and science, being that they infuse items with magic. At 3rd level, you choose what type of specialist you want to be: Alchemist, Artillerist, or Battle Smith. I want to be all three.

Eberron also introduces several races that are unique to the setting, including the spirit-bound Kalashtar, the lycanthropic shape-changing Shifters, the, uh, shape-changing Changlings. There is also the sure-to-be-popular Warforged, constructs who were created to fight in the Last War.

If the above paragraph sounds fun to you, then you aren’t alone. Eberron turns up the fun dial just a little higher than your standard elf / dwarf / gnome fantasy fare. And when Eberron does include a standard fantasy race like Halflings, they give them dinosaur mounts, because that’s what pulpy fun insists upon, that’s why.

Chapter 4: Building Eberron Adventures is key. The pulpy adventure and noir flavor should feel distinct from the Forgotten Realms, which has served as the “default” setting of D&D for 5 years now.

Providing a chapter on how to build adventures unique to Eberron is important because there aren’t any hardcover adventure books available that support Eberron. You need to have an itch to homebrew to adequately play in the sandbox of Eberron.

“Write your own adventures,” they might say. Of course that’s a option. But should we have to? As the product line currently exits, we do.

Sure, there is the DM Guild, the online marketplace of downloadable PDF adventures and hordes of other stuff. But it’s famous for uneven quality and finding something of high standards is no guarantee. It feels like an errand to sort through a bunch of random online reviews just to find a good adventure to run, when as a busy DM I likely just want to pick up a WotC hardcover and trust its professional quality.

In short, there is unclear adventure support beyond the included “Forgotten Relics” adventure on pages 260-273 that only takes players to a measly level 2, a full whole level before the Artificer actually gets to do cool stuff.

I’m finding it difficult to do “typical” reviews of D&D 5e products of late. First, I have little use for what passes as a typical review nowadays, as too many are not much more than than a listing of the product’s table of contents. A review shouldn’t simply regurgitate easily Googled marketing material, it should add insight, commentary and thoughtful, nuanced and fair opinion. So let’s pivot this review into an unexpected direction.

The most interesting thing about Eberron: Rising from the Last War isn’t what is included in the book, it’s the book’s place in the overall D&D 5e product line and the product strategy that WotC is taking as D&D 5e becomes a fully mature product.

Here is my bias, clearly spoken: Eberron is my absolute favorite D&D setting and I love how Eberron: Rising from the Last War presents it. Yet I have no idea what to do with it. It’s almost like WotC is content with it being a book that is purchased, yet not played.

I already addressed the lack of adventure support, but there is a lack of organized play support as well. I’ll admit that I have given up on Adventurers League (AL; the organized play program of D&D 5e). Way too many bad apples eventually spoiled the experience for me. But I have Google, so I looked it up: AL is planning monthly opportunities for organized play. Those will slot among the regular AL content set in the Forgotten Realms, creating a potentially confusing environment for newcomers.

Maybe parent company Hasbro hosted focus groups and determined that the words “secret” and “wars” were popular among gamers, so they mandated a setting that was high in espionage and in-fighting in order to boost corporate profits. That’s a cynical take, because the Eberron setting really is fantastic. That it has potential for popularity is a feature, not a corporate bug.

But one does wonder about the pattern created by the last several WotC hardcovers, all of which have the potential to divide the player base–Tomb of Annihilation and the distinctive jungle-exploration vibe, Ghosts of Saltmarsh with a half-hearted dip into Greyhawk, yet another D&D setting, Descent into Avernus with its devilish hue, and now Eberron, a whole new setting.

Ironically, it is a retread of Tyanny of Dragons that represents the only “meat and potatoes” classic fantasy in recent D&D 5e products. To be clear, I’m not saying the recent product roadmap is bad. Just interesting.

Each of the products presents the opportunity for D&D players to say, “I’m glad this exists, but it’s not for me.” Eberron indeed feels like it is exactly for me. I just hope the player base doesn’t become so fractured and divided that they aren’t able to ascertain that Eberron can be for them as well.

We’re no longer all on the same page. Players now have to choose between settings. That has been an issue in the history of D&D, but things are different today. WotC understands their releases as transmedia, meaning there will certainly be streamed entertainment content set in Eberron.

Maybe that’s who the product is for? Those who listen to the Eberron pod or watch the Eberron stream might buy the book out of curiosity, with no real intention of playing, so no real demand for adventure support is created. Again, that’s a cynical take but WotC makes money from a “coffee table” book just like they would an adventure book.

I’m being a crank here; I understand that. But, again, Eberron is my favorite setting, so it’s hard for me to have the book in my hand and not see clear stepping stones that would allow me to play it regularly. I’d love to share the setting with my nephews. They’d love it. As it stands, I can take them to level two. But what do I say to them when they excitedly ask, “Now what?”

You can get Eberron: Rising from the Last War here or, better yet, from your FLGS.

[Disclosure: Nerds on Earth received a copy of Eberron: Rising from the Last War from Wizards of the Coast in exchange for an honest review.]

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