This began as a question on the Dragonmarked post, and was expanded in questions from the WotC forums. While it deals with a dragonmarked house, it’s also about Zilargo and its goals and reach, and given the scope of it I decided to move it to its own post. Even more than usual, this is MY Eberron. It’s not that you missed all of this in the books; this is my take on these things and how they make sense to me. So, with that said…
I have always been curious as to why the Zils bind the elementals and not Cannith? It seems from nearly every Eberron source that Cannith has the top Artificers and Wizards, from above it sounds like you believe that the Mark of Making sound give them a HUGE advantage in this area. Plus it doesn’t seem to be magic that would be all that complex for Cannith to pull off, Cannith did create a new sentient race, creation forges, and genesis forges for goodness sake!
I’ve underlined the key point here. It’s related to the last question in this post – the fact that in Eberron, magic is treated like science. One of the key points here is that different forms of magic are as diverse as different fields of science. You can be the best metallurgist in the world; that doesn’t somehow make you an amazing biologist. The priests of the Blood of Vol are experts at necromancy. No one’s come close to matching Mordain’s understanding of transmutation. And the Zil are Khorvaire’s foremost experts on alchemy. And strange as it sounds, elemental binding is a highly magical form of alchemy; it’s based on understanding the elemental nature of things and the ways in which the elements interact. Cannith excels at creation. They are the house of Making. The Genesis forge is a tool that allows production of finished goods from raw materials. The creation forge assembles warforged. Cannith plays a role in the creation of the focus items used by most other houses – but they can’t create those items alone; they need the unique magicks of the other houses.
Don’t get me wrong: Cannith has alchemists. In 4E, it’s a possible benefit of the Mark of Making, and it’s something we’ve mentioned as a focus of Cannith West. I’m just saying that in my mind, it’s a Zil specialty – something they developed before the first Cannith tinker developed his mark, and the secret weapon they’ve always had. It ties into everything from their exceptional love of poison to the weapons they sold to Breland during the war. The Zil can’t pull together an army to match any of the Five Nations, but they’ve got many a basement vault full of wildfire! Quoting the ECG entry on Zilargo: “Though the gnomes committed few troops to the war effort, their alchemical and elemental weapons were devastatingly effective, and Zil spies were said to provide substantial intelligence to Breland.”
I read somewhere that the Zils brought back the technique from Xen’drik and reverse engineered it, which is silly to me since if a bunch gnomes can reverse engineer a thousnd year old relic, the Cannith should have no problem reverse engineering the actual working device they see everyday.
The first part is a misunderstanding. The Zil didn’t simply find a Sulatar firesled and say “Oh! Why don’t we do that?” Zil binding isn’t a copy of Xen’drik techniques. Rather, the discovery in Xen’drik was like Newton’s apple – the inspiration that helped a genius make a mystical breakthrough, which built on the pre-existing alchemical traditions of the Zil. You’ll note the Sulatar don’t have airships, and they’ve had their form of binding for thousands of years; they are stuck at a more limited level of development.
As for the second part: Why doesn’t Cannith just reverse engineer the object in front of them? Because it’s more complex than just taking apart the gears of a watch. Cannith can look at an airship and say “OK, that’s clearly a class three ward; that’s a omega level elemental. We can create the ward, we can summon an elemental… but how in Onatar’s name are they getting the damn thing to interact with the ship?” Think of it as building a nuclear reactor. If you don’t understand the science behind it, you’re going to have some trouble just understanding what the components are for. And even if you do figure out the science, you still need fissionable material – which brings us back to the fact that the Zil are the best alchemists in Khorvaire. There is a secret to Zil binding that Cannith can’t crack; essentially, it’s the Philosopher’s Stone – a substance that can only be created using Zil alchemy. Then you get to the fact that the Zil do have one of the most efficient network of assassins in Khorvaire and they are very willing to kill to keep their nation’s monopoly on elemental binding.
So short form: You can be absolutely sure that Cannith has tried to crack the elemental binding code, and that more than one Cannith research team has met with an unfortunate end in the process thanks to the Trust (those substances are very volatile – it’s too bad the workshop blew up!). For now, it’s easier for Cannith to continue to do the things they do best and that the Zil cannot match than to fight to master every field of science.
Now moving on the the WotC forum expansion of this discussion…
If a Cannith heir cracked the method of binding elementals, what would the fallout of that be? Would it spark a Hatfield-McCoy type feud? What side (if any) would any nations or other Dragonmarked Houses take?
This was clarified…
I meant a scenario where Cannith figures out how to bind elementals, so the house as a group knows. Thinking about it I would think the gnomes would be powerless to do anything about it. Not that they couldn’t try an assassination or two, or even succeed. But politically NO ONE else can afford to alienate themselves with House Cannith, nations need them in case the current cold war ever goes hot, and the dragonmarked houses need them for items to keep their competitive advantage. On the other hand no one really needs Zilargo.
Before I answer the question of what Zilargo could do if Cannith fully mastered elemental binding, I want to look at what it would take to get to that point. Let’s talk about that “Philosopher’s Stone” I mentioned above. Essentially, there’s two vital things you need to do to make elemental binding work. You need to understand the techniques of binding the elemental – but you also need the right substance to bind that elemental to, and that is a substance that simply doesn’t exist in nature: A Khyber dragonshard altered through alchemical techniques. And bear in mind that one of the things Zilargo is noted for is its mines. So, posit this:
So Cannith doesn’t just have to learn how to bind the elementals to the altered shards and integrate those shards into the control systems of an enchanted object; it has to learn how to manufacture the shards themselves and build up a sufficient supply to use in its initial tests and eventual production runs (or, of course, acquire them from Zilargo). Can it do this? Certainly, given enough time. As noted, Cannith artificers are exceptionally talented. Once they know what they need, they can hire House Tharashk to search for new sources of suitable Khyber shards. But this is not something that could possibly happen over night. They have to learn enough of the one technique simply to know they need the unknown shards; they have to learn what the base shards are, and figure out how to synthesize the philosopher’s stone; they have to develop a mine that produces the base shards. And because magic operates like science, this is going to require trial and error. It’s going to require tests, and facilities constructed for testing.
In short, it really is very much like a new nation deciding to develop a nuclear weapons program in our world. It’s absolutely possible, if you have scientists who understand the concepts, if you can build the facilities required, and if you can acquire sufficient fissionable material… but even once you’ve done these it will take time for you to put it all together. And in the meantime, the Zil will likely use the same techniques modern nations use to deal with new nations developing nuclear weapons.
Diplomacy. Remember the Zil maxim: five words can stop a thousand swords. They’ve got sticks and carrots. Until it has its own program, Cannith does rely on Zilargo for their elemental tools. The Zil can threaten an embargo, or offer better terms if Cannith will stand down. Then there is the other currency of the Zil: Information. You can bet that the Zil have been gathering dirt on all the leaders of the Dragonmarked houses. They don’t need to assassinate a Cannith leader if they can ruin him by exposing his secrets (say, an illegal creation forge being maintained under a certain major city)… or alternately, they can offer to ruin one of his rivals, which given Cannith’s political situation could be quite valuable. Carrot and stick. Beyond this, there’s the issue of what nation would choose to take the side of the Zil over Cannith. Well, none would voluntarily. But again, what sort of stick can the Trust bring to bear? Say they tell Kaius III “We know your secret, and we’ve liberated a certain prisoner from Dreadhold. Tell Cannith you don’t support their elemental research and that you won’t purchase elemental goods from them, or we’re going to make the political situation in Karrnath very interesting.” Last but not least, don’t forget that Zilargo produces the most trusted chronicles. Does Cannith really want the Korranberg Chronicle delving too deeply into its questionable business practices?
Sabotage. No one understands binding and the techniques involved as well as the Zil. So, no one is as well qualified as they are to sabotage a developing program while leaving few traces. I’ll point to the computer virus used to interfere with the centrifuges in the Iranian nuclear program; that’s the sort of subtlety you’d get from the Zil.
Assassination. Personally, I think they’d try diplomacy before assassination, because they’d rather have Cannith as an ally than an enemy. But if it’s a matter of eliminating a program in early development, and if it can be pinned on someone else (Aundair, the Lord of Blades, Dragons, Lords of Dust, whatever) they are certainly very very good at it. I’ll point to Madra Sil Sarin in Sharn: City of Towers – one of the highest level characters in the city, an assassin who always wears rings of sustenance and invisibility, receiving her orders via a telepathic bond with her superiors; she’s a deadly ghost.
This brings us to a vital question: Just how close IS House Sivis to the Trust? The recent Trust Eye on Eberron suggests the following possible adventure hook: The adventurers discover evidence that the current Proctor is a Sivis lord and that House Sivis has secretly controlled the Trust for centuries. Personally, that’s what I play with. Which helps address the question of Zilargo’s influence and just how effective the Trust is at gathering information: they’re tapping the phone lines. This has a few impacts. Set aside Zilargo negotiating with House Cannith: what you’d get is Sivis negotiating with them. And Sivis can threaten an embargo of its own; loss of long-distance communication is a serious blow. Neither house would want to lose the services of the other, but this leads us to the question: just how important is it to Cannith to have this secret? As it stands, they can get elemental binding services from the Zil. If they are talking about starting a shadow war with one of Khorvaire’s deadliest leagues of assassins and potentially alienating Sivis and breaking the Twelve… is it worth it? Even if in the end they’d win – is it worth the cost of the struggle?
Let’s assume it is, and lets assume they DO make it through all these hurdles, figure out the techniques, and start producing their own bound elemental goods. What can Zilargo do at that point? They certainly can’t engage in open war. As you say, no one is going to completely sever ties with Cannith to maintain relations with Zilargo. But again, what the Zil have always excelled at is subterfuge and intrigue. Go back up to the point on Diplomacy and consider what I said about Kaius. They don’t have to threaten Cannith if they can threaten all of its customers. They don’t have to demand that people break ties with Cannith completely as long as they insist people don’t purchase their elemental goods. The short form is that Zilargo’s power is subtle and rarely brought to bear, but if they are pushed to the edge they could do some very destructive things. Could they win a “war” against Cannith? Perhaps not. But is it worth it for Cannith to start that conflict? I don’t think so. Now that we’ve examined the issue in more detail, I think the most likely scenario is that a brilliant PC artificer might crack the first piece of it, and go to the Patriarch with this exciting news… only to have the Patriarch shake his head and say “Forget it. Drop it. We started down this path a century ago and it was a terrible mistake – we’re not going there again.”
Again, that’s just MY take.
On the other hand no one really needs Zilargo.
Well, no one needs Zilargo once Cannith has mastered all their techniques. Until then, they do. Beyond that, remember the other things that Zilargo provides. As noted above, they are the foremost alchemists of Khorvaire. Airships aside, they produce a range of elemental weaponry. They are a source of precious stones, both raw and fashioned. They are a source of information, both secret and through the medium of the chronicles. If Sivis stands with Zilargo, its services are a vital part of modern life. And most of all, it’s all about the damage Zilargo can do if you piss it off. Again, you don’t see the power of the blackmailer until he has reason to blackmail you. Zilargo prefers to keep its power hidden until its needed… but the power is still there.
How could Sivis negotiate with Cannith on this matter? I’m fine with the idea that Sivis runs the Trust, which is really cool, but Sivis relies greatly on the trust of others and their own position of neutrality. If Sivis let it slip that they were connected to the Trust, or far worse, actively feeding information to the Trust, then their business would be devastated. No one is going to use your service if you’re feeding everything they say to an intelligence network.
Really? Let’s look to our world. In the US, the fact of the matter is that the NSA can monitor any phone call. They can do searches for particular words. Meanwhile, Google is dissecting my searches and mails to figure out things I like. And yet… I’m still using my phone. I’m still on Google. In part, because I have nothing to hide. In part, because even if they can, that doesn’t mean they are. And in part, because what else am I going to do? Could I just stop using the phone and the internet? All of this applies to the idea of Sivis and the Trust. How many communications actually DO matter to Sivis or the Trust? Zilargo is a neutral country, and really, the secret of elemental binding is pretty much the only thing they have to protect – which is precisely why it’s a hornet’s nest Cannith shouldn’t kick. Is the tenth lord of Somethingsville having an affair? They don’t really care. Hence the point that if provoked, they potentially have access to vast power… but the odds of them ever using it are very, very low.
And bear in mind, Sivis would never say “Oh, we’re allied with the Trust.” They say something like this. “Merrix, our friends in the Triumvirate have asked us to talk to you about the elemental binding program you’ve got going under Wroat. As you know, elemental binding is a crucial industry for our people, and while we may be mere merchants, we feel a sense of loyalty to our nation and are deeply disappointed you’d seek to undermine them in this way after working together for so long. While we’d never condone such things, we’re concerned as to what consequences this could have for you – we don’t have to tell you how ruthless the Trust can be in protecting our national interests. Perhaps we can work as mediators to solve this problem. If you abandon this effort, we think we can get the Binder’s Guild to lower their rates by 5% for the next 20 years. If not… well, I’m afraid we really can’t support this effort to steal our nation’s one great gift. We’d hate to have to sever our bonds to Cannith South… especially since Jorlanna’s been so reasonable recently.” Note that they’ve said the Triumvirate came to them with the information; not that they passed it along. Spies have all sorts of ways to get information in the world. Heck, perhaps they hired Thuranni.
Another problem is how exactly Sivis is supposed to reveal that they know about Cannith’s experiments, and how they know. You can just threaten to reveal the creation forge in Sharn, but now Cannith knows that Sivis can’t be trusted. They levy their own embargoes against Sivis…
Again, Sivis doesn’t say “The Trust knows because we told them”; they say “We know because the Trust told us.” So first of all, that’s not how the conversation goes. Second… Cannith DOES know that Sivis can’t be trusted. The houses are ALWAYS engaged in this kind of delicate balance. And you are absolutely right about the consequences… that’s what I meant when I said “do they want to break the Twelve” above. If Cannith and Sivis go to outright war, the other houses will have to take sides, and they won’t all choose Cannith. Kundarak is closely tied to Sivis. Tharashk doesn’t rely on Cannith’s services as much as the other houses, and it’s got the biggest aspirations to power; the opportunity to weaken Cannith would be extremely appealing… which in turn means that Deneith would side with Cannith, as they hate Tharashk. Likewise, you’d probably see Lyrandar and Orien on different sides – one trusting Cannith, the other hoping that the gnomes will provide an elemental vessel that doesn’t require Cannith in the equation and generally willing to spit on their own personal rival. This would be terrible for EVERYONE. Which is exactly why I don’t think it’s worth it for Cannith to pursue it, especially at this point in their history. There’s more or less nothing else that would provoke the Zil to this extreme. It’s a service Cannith has access to at a reasonable cost – and again, a simple answer is to use an agreement not to pursue research as a way to drive down the cost of that service. Why kick that hornet’s nest when there’s so many other fields of magic to research?
Beyond that, in the situation described above, I think Cannith would simply fall apart. Assume it’s Jorlanna doing the research; Cannith West has always been the stronghold of Cannith alchemy. Why on Eberron should Merrix back her in this insane civil war when he could just step in and say “I condemn my greedy cousin’s behavior. I am glad to work with the binders of Zilargo in a fair manner, and ask this council of the Twelve to join me in sanctioning Jorlanna and recognizing me as the one true representative of my house.” Soon you have another Shadow Schism, only with House Jorlanna as one no one wants to do business with. And when it comes to spreading rumors, remember that Zilargo and Sivis essentially maintain the press and the phones. The other major player in that game is Ghallanda. But spreading rumors isn’t a Cannith specialty…
All their blackmail and secret hoarding seems like a double-edged sword, because once they reveal ‘what’ they know, they’ve revealed ‘that’ they know, and screwed their own neutrality.
Sivis wouldn’t engage in blackmail. They’d only engage in mediation, and even then only with their business partners, House Cannith. Any action beyond that would be performed by agents of the Trust or Zil diplomats, depending who they are talking to and the nature of the discussion.Which would hardly come as a surprise, any more than the Citadel acting on behalf of Breland. So it’s likely a representative of Zilargo who comes to Kaius and makes that statement. It’s a matter of national security, and Kaius has already shown that he is just as ruthless in his policies; frankly, of all the leaders, he’s the one most likely to appreciate the move.But you’re right; once you make the move, they know that you know and can start coming up with contingencies. So you don’t do it unless you have to. The question is whether Cannith would be foolish enough to push them that far.
There’s only so far you can push someone with blackmail, at a certain point the fact that they have more guns than you is going to come into play.
That depends on your threat. Consider the threat I’ve suggested about Kaius. If they could back that up, how do any of his guns help him? If they can truly unleash that, suddenly half those guns – or more – will be pointed at Kaius. Karrnath is already a highly unstable region; many of Karrnath’s warlords don’t like their king’s policies and would love an excuse for change. You are correct that there’s only so far you can push… so don’t push that far. Note that I never said they’d tell him not to trade with Cannith; I said they’d tell him not to support or purchase any Cannith elemental goods. If Cannith can’t sell those goods, why make them?
I would think that deep down the Zils knew that Cannith would unlock all their secrets someday. After over 2,000 years Cannith are hardly upstarts, and as you said they are pretty sharp. Plus being dragonmarked seems to mean you are chosen by the gods, the multiverse, or random dumb luck to be the apex of something… In accordance with the power of their mark, a dragonshard focus item for crafting alchemical items could likely be developed, further putting the Zils behind. In the end the gnomes remind me of a mom and pap store on main street trying to stay in business selling the same goods against Wal-Mart. They might have a few connections, bring up some zoning issues, appeal to the masses, but in the end are just delaying the inevitable.
As I said in my mind the question isn’t whether Cannith can do it – it’s whether it’s worth the trouble of doing it. Someday it might be. With everything going on – and the house at its weakest moment politically in pretty much its entire history – it doesn’t seem like the best time to be trying to steal the livelihood of a powerful partner.
To be clear: Cannith has the potential to not only learn the secrets of the Zil but to improve upon them. There’s no question in my mind that they could create a dragonshard focus item for converting shards, for example… and that once created, it would be far more efficient than the Zil technique the Zil are using. That’s what gives the houses their power: the dragonmarks simply let them do things others can’t match with mundane techniques. But it’s still a science. You can’t create an entirely new dragonshard focus item overnight; it can take years or even decades to develop a new tool, especially one dealing with an unfamiliar and advanced form of magic. They could do it, but it would be something that would require a research center, a supply of shards, a handful of highly capable artificers, and time. And if you couldn’t keep it hidden from the Trust (and possibly Sivis) throughout that time, you’d have to be able to defend it. The Trust doesn’t have to go to war with the house if they can simply sabotage every effort to create that focus item. And as long as they can, that research effort becomes a costly process. And who’s funding it? Remember, Cannith is on the verge of a three-way schism. You’re Merrix. You’re engaged in a bitter political struggle with Zorlan and Jorlanna. You’re sitting on a big secret that you don’t really want exposed. Is this the best time to devote your resources to a project that a) is likely to be sabotaged; b) duplicates services you CAN buy right now; and c) is likely to cause a very powerful intelligence agency to work to ruin you and aid your two rivals?
Long term? Sure. They CAN do it. But I don’t see it happening until Cannith is reunited and the benefits outweigh the many risks. And as for being dragonmarked meaning you’re chosen by the gods, well, tell it to Erandis Vol. Being destined to be the best at something doesn’t mean things will always work out the way you want them to…