Dragonmarks 5/3: Aberrant Dragonmarks

This began as a side discussion on the Dragonmarked house post, but it’s expanded far enough that I’m moving it to a separate post. Feel free to add questions or comments about aberrant dragonmarks here!

I was always perplexed about the detail of the War of the Mark. First, there is an apparent lack of public opposition to the persecution of aberrants. Hundreds or even thousands of them must have been killed across the continent for no other reason than manifesting the wrong version of the dragonmarks. Of course, the Houses’ propaganda painted them as evil, but there is just that much propaganda can do. Most of those people had families and friends who knew otherwise. I doubt that aberrants have any bigger tendency to become criminals due to destructive powers of their marks than, say, sorcerers, who learn how to cast burning hands and magic missiles.

If you have a moment, there’s someone I’d like you to meet.

She grew up in village in Daskara, not far from the modern city of Sigilstar. She loved the country and taking care of the livestock. When she was 13, her family fell ill with a disease no one had ever seen before. They died, and the plague spread to the rest of the village and their stock. Only two things were unaffected: the rats and the girl. When everyone was dead, she fled to the town of Sarus. You’ve never heard of Sarus, because it doesn’t exist anymore. It was burnt by those who sought to keep the plague from spreading. The rats kept the girl alive, and were the only thing that kept her close to sane. In time she learned to control her power. Even so, she couldn’t bear the burden of the deaths on her conscience. She declared that the girl had died with her family. She was someone new, someone without a name. She was the Lady of the Plague.

Before I continue, have you read any of the following?

* The RPGA adventure The Delirium Stone, in which players actually experience a flashback to the War of the Mark.

* The Children of Khyber Dragonshard article.

* The novels The Son of Khyber or The City of Towers, in which we interact with modern aberrants and get to see some of them. They’re not all bad people. But many of them are strange or disturbing. Little “Junior Lady Of The Plague” Zae who only talks to rats. Brom with his troll’s arm. Crippled Filleon with his deadly touch.

Here’s a quote from the Dragonshard article, describing what it’s like to have a powerful aberrant mark:

You can feel your power festering within you. It’s different for every child of Khyber. One feels a chill no warmth can push away, while another complains of fire burning beneath his skin. An heir with the power of confusion feels the force of madness in his mind, trying to claw its way out and feast on the thoughts of others. Your mark may bring you pain. It may whisper to you as you try to sleep. But it is a part of you.

You say “Why would an aberrant be any more likely to be a criminal than a sorcerer?” The answer is that a sorcerer chooses his path. Sorcery may be a natural talent as opposed to wizardry, but the sorcerer applies himself to its study and chooses the path he wants to follow. The aberrant doesn’t. His power chooses him, and often in a very unpleasant way. If the aberrant has burning hands, odds are good it manifested for the first time when he was angry at someone. Was that in a lover’s quarrel? When he was arguing with a parent? A friend? What death is on his conscience? And whenever he gets angry, can he hold the flames in? Likewise, for a sorcerer the power isn’t a burden; it’s a tool he learns to use. For an aberrant it’s something he must master and control, lest it drive him mad or harm those around him.

Powerful aberrant marks are dangerous to the bearer. They often cause disfigurements or madness. Yes, with training these dangers can be controlled or limited, and that’s something Tarkanan was trying to do. But to your question of “Why didn’t people care? Why did people believe the propaganda?”… look at the Salem witch trials and imagine that these things were unquestionably real. That someone has a livid red mark on their skin and that they burned their mother to death – and that you’ve HEARD the stories about how these people are touched by Khyber, how they are all monsters. Are you going to say “Oh, he didn’t mean it, he just needs to learn to control it. So he killed my wife – mistakes happen.” Or are you going to sending a messenger out to find the nearest Deneith extermination squad? And again, in terms of just how dangerous these marks could be, I’ll note that Halas Tarkanan destroyed a city when he unleashed his mark – and that the curse of the Lady of the Plague still lingers over a thousand years after. Far from trying to STOP the Dragonmarked from persecuting the aberrants, most local authorities were glad they were there.

The aberrant marks seen today – the “least” aberrant marks, if you will – don’t carry the same restrictions or power. You can have an aberrant mark without being a madman or a cripple. And you’re not going to use that mark to destroy a city. But the stories haven’t been forgotten, and the houses simply keep them alive. And now the more powerful marks are starting to return… so what happens next?

So you are basically saying that abberant dragonmarks do tend to make people outcasts and criminals…

Aberrant dragonmarks certainly make people outcasts. They don’t necessarily make them criminals; being outcasts may, however. The point is that there’s a significant difference between having an aberrant mark that produces burning hands and being a sorcerer who can do it. For the aberrant, it begins as a dangerous burden. Some are driven mad. Some inadvertently take actions that lead to their deaths (unleashing burning hands in a public place and getting lynched as a result). Those that survive learn to control their powers – but it’s not an easy or comfortable thing.

But the logical conclusion would be that the society had been trying to deal with this threat long before War of the Mark. If I knew a kid who caused a whole village to die from disease and another kid who torched his mom in anger and they both had those scary red marks on their skin, I would probably vote for a kill-on-sight policy for anyone with a similar mark. I would have had a lynching mob go after such people. And if it were too dangerous, I would call on my liegelord to send a squad of archers and shoot the baddie from a safe distance.

Society would only have to deal with this threat “long before the War of the Mark” if aberrant marks existed in significant numbers long before the War of the Mark… and they didn’t. Mixed marks appeared in small numbers when houses mingled; this is how the houses discovered these existed and how “the threat” became known. At the time the houses set their policy, it was largely the way we have incest laws: mingling the blood of two houses has unsavory results, don’t do it. Then the marks began spreading – yet not tied to lineage or any predictable pattern. The first of these were the equivalent of least marks. Stories begin to spread… but bear in mind that there were no airships, lightning rails, or speaking stones at this time, so word certainly didn’t spread as fast as it once did. A boy burned his mother, and he had a mark like those of the Twelve, but traced in blood. More powerful marks begin to appear, but still nothing on the level of Tarkanan or the Lady of the Plague. People say it’s Khyber stirring in the depths. There are more stories of marks driving their bearers mad, and the deaths that have resulted are sensationalized. Ghallanda spreads the word through the inns. Orien passes it along the trade roads, and Lyranar the seas. Phiarlan sings songs of the unsavory aberrants… and it’s now that the Lady of the Plague appears, and her tale is one that terrifies the public. Families that have been hiding their aberrant kid begin to question their actions. And the marks keep appearing in greater numbers, and becoming increasingly dangerous. Now Deneith-backed squads show up promising to protect people from these unclean children of Khyber – and now is the time that people start calling on them for help, or organizing lynch mobs of their own. But…

… remember that aberrant dragonmarks aren’t predictable. They can appear on anyone at any time. It’s not just “a kid” who has the mark. It could be a soldier. A Duke. A powerful priest. Anyone could get an aberrant mark, and as society turned on the aberrants in fear, those who developed aberrant marks knew exactly what fate awaited them. The boy who burned a parent wouldn’t turn himself in; he would run. The duke would try to conceal his mark, fortify his stronghold and hide from the world. This degree of versatility meant that aberrant forces could have unexpected skills and resources. And then you have Halas Tarkanan. He was a Karrnathi officer before he developed his mark, a brilliant soldier who learned the arts of war at Rekkenmark and the ways of House Deneith from his mother. His forces weren’t solely aberrants; many of his unmarked soldiers stood by him, and he won others to his cause… as well as taking in goblins and other oppressed forces.

My point is – there wouldn’t be enough abberrants hiding out there to form a force capable to wage a regular war under Tarkanan. That would require a sudden surge of aberrant powers similar to what is happening in the world in present-day, which is quite possible actually.

First off, the current surge is far less than what was seen in the century leading up to the War of the Mark. It appears to be starting again, and a DM can take it that way. But at the moment, there’s neither the number or power level seen in the past. In canon sources (remember, novels aren’t canon), no one has been described as possessing an aberrant mark matching the power of Halas Tarkanan or his lieutenants… and it was the power of these marks that kept the aberrant forces alive.

Beyond this, bear in mind that they never fought a “regular war.” You never had formations of aberrant soldiers facing off against dragonmarked house armies. While Halas did his best to provide basic training, the majority of the aberrants were noncombatants, though with their marks they could put up a defense when cornered and forced to fight. Somewhat to my surprise, the best analogy I can think of is Battlestar Galactica. Think of the aberrants as fleets of largely civilian vessels, huddling around an individual like Tarkanan or the Dreambreaker – their battlestar, whose power was singlehandedly great enough to disperse conventional forces. You then have a small group of trained soldiers and people with lesser/greater marks – the vipers of the Battlestar analogy, able to carry out their commander’s will. But they were still always on the run, relying on the raw power of their commanders (and Tarkana’s tactical genius) just to survive, always searching for some lasting sanctuary. They were occasionally able to gather small elite units for their own commando strikes, but they never faced the houses with proper armies. And in the end, despite Tarkanan’s best efforts, they were herded to Shaarat and forced to make a final stand. And again, you can see a little of what that’s like in the RPGA adventure The Delirium Stone.

Is this what’s happening today? Aberrant marks are manifesting in ever-greater numbers, but are they going to reach the same level of power as Tarkanan possessed? And if so, is this a natural cycle? Part of the Prophecy? Or is it being actively manipulated by the Lords of Dust or some other force? That’s up to you…

I’d like to revisit one point…

If I knew a kid who caused a whole village to die from disease and another kid who torched his mom in anger and they both had those scary red marks on their skin, I would probably vote for a kill-on-sight policy for anyone with a similar mark.

Bear in mind that nothing about aberrant marks is predictable. The red and black marks that we’ve shown are the most common sort of aberrant mark, but aberrant marks can take a vast array of forms. The lines of a burning hands mark might be formed from livid scar tissue. An aberrant mark that grants charm person could actually be a shining array of glowing white lines that’s almost hypnotic to look at… while another charm person mark is red and black. Aberrant marks are, well, aberrant. So this helped slow things down. Sure, the kid with the scary scar mark burned his mom, but our daughter’s mark is beautiful. And she’s not hurting anyone, is she? Really?

Ultimately people would decide that yes, the charmer was hurting people – that mind controllers are scary. But again, this combination of diversity and limited long-distance communication added to the amount of time it took for public opinion to form.

In conclusion…

Aberrant marks originally existed in small numbers and low power. In the century leading up to the War of the Mark, they rapidly increased in number and power. There was excellent reason for people to fear the marks. If Tarkanan had been born earlier and been a diplomat instead of a soldier, he might have convinced people that the aberrants weren’t at fault – that if they were taught to control their marks, they could peacefully coexist (though some were, of course, mad or sociopathic). But most of the media of the time was in the hands of the houses, and when the fear was spreading there was no spokesperson for the aberrants. The “war” began as a simple witchhunt and purge. Tarkanan organized survivors into small guerrilla forces with enough firepower to defend themselves as they fled. Ultimately they were caught and erradicated.

In the centuries that followed, aberrant marks appeared in small numbers and only at the lowest level of power. But the stories remained and grew with each telling. People don’t run in terror from aberrants, because it’s been over a thousand years since the Lady of the Plague laid her curse on Shaarat. But they still know the stories, and aberrants are still shunned and treated with suspicion. And now the numbers of marks are growing again, and their power with them. But this is new and unusual. House Tarkanan has noticed it, and it is acting to gather the aberrants. But society as a whole hasn’t yet noticed exactly what’s going on. aberrants are an old bogeyman; even the houses are only just now looking at House Tarkanan and trying to figure out what’s happening.

Moving to more general discussion about the marks…

“Aberrant” seems like it’s shifted in meaning since the setting was originally published, and it was always kind of broad to begin with.

It’s something that was never developed as far as I wanted. I actually had a full system for aberrant marks developed for the Sharn: City of Towers sourcebook, but it ended up being cut for space. It is the case that a number of the SLAs in the original 3.5 sourcebook do NOT, in my mind, qualify for my vision of aberrant marks. I don’t see feather fall or detect secret doors as aberrant marks. To me, a core difference between aberrant and normal dragonmarks is that aberrant marks channel destructive or aggressive forces, while true marks are constructive. With that said, we’ve seen that true marks can be used in aggressive ways – from Lyrandar slamming you with a gust of wind to the Orien assassin teleporting behind you and killing you. But note that when aberrant marks were expanded in Dragonmarked the lists didn’t include superior flight or expanded detection capabilities.

What I’m wondering is if there’s some kind of substantive difference between Aberrant Marks and Mixed Marks. For example, would mixed marks tend to appear more as a mixture of the true marks? And would such a mark exhibit powers that call to mind the two true marks involved? Or is it more like the mixture of the marks corrupts their fundamental nature and creates some bizarre, unrelated effect?

The original idea is definitely the latter. Aberrant marks are entirely unpredictable. If you knew that Orien + Lyrandar = feather fall, then it’s not an aberrant mark anymore; it’s “the Mark of PassageStorms.” The idea of the mixed mark was simply that it was and is the only reliable way to produce an aberrant mark – but that there’s no telling what that mark will be. Likewise, this is part of the 3.5 aberrant mark system in Dragonmarked. You can have charm person as your least power and poison as your lesser power. You might have an aberrant individual who develops powers along a specific theme – all fire, all fear – but unlike the true marks this isn’t a given.

Now again, this is how it’s been presented. If you want to do things differently – and for that matter, play up existing elements like the feather fall aberrant mark – go for it!

11 Responses to “Dragonmarks 5/3: Aberrant Dragonmarks”

  1. Alexandre Antonov says:

    Thank you for this post. It sets things straigt for me. Actually, Tarkanan’s story looks very sad now. He rallied people to his cause, promised them protection and sort of acceptance, but ultimately led them to their deaths.

    The analogy that came to my mind while reading it is that of X-men (as shown in the movies). What if Charles Xavier died and never taught some mutants to control their powers and be good people? Would Erik Lehnsherr become a beacon of hope for them? Would that end in a full-scale civil war? I guess it would.

  2. Keith Baker says:

    It’s definitely a good analogy. If a Professor X-like figure turned up earlier things could have been very different. Which raises the question of what’s going to happen this time around. Are Thora and the Son of Khyber interested in training people to control their marks so they can integrate peacefully with society? Or do they want to preemptively bring down the dragonmarked houses? Or both?

  3. Siberys says:

    “Aberrant” seems like it’s shifted in meaning since the setting was originally published, and it was always kind of broad to begin with. What I’m wondering is if there’s some kind of substantive difference between Aberrant Marks and Mixed Marks. For example, would mixed marks tend to appear more as a mixture of the true marks? And would such a mark exhibit powers that call to mind the two true marks involved? Or is it more like the mixture of the marks corrupts their fundamental nature and creates some bizarre, unrelated effect?

    For example, in 3.5, one of the aberrant mark SLAs was Feather Fall – would that maybe have been the aberrant power of a mixed Orien (for travel) and Lyrandar (for weather/flight) mark?

  4. Keith Baker says:

    Good questions, and as a result, I’m once again adding my response to the main body.

    Having said that, there is another way to handle seemingly constructive powers like 3.5′s shield. In The Son of Khyber, Brom’s aberrant mark grants him regeneration, which is obviously a constructive power. However, the regeneration is random; imagine you roll on the reincarnate table to see where your new pieces come from. At one point he drops into a coma because a new organ is incompatible with his body, and the surgeon mentions that he has to cut such things out of Brom fairly frequently. So the point there is that the power is healing, but it manifests in a warped and dangerous way. Looking to the original 3.5 SLAs of shield and detect secret doors, I might look for ways that these powers are still a burden – albeit a minor one at the least level. Shield may have a strange cosmetic effect or operate by deadening nerves; detect secret doors may cause the aberrant to feel as though he’s seeing secrets in his peripheral vision. Now it’s assumed that player characters have (if they choose) learned to harness their powers without these negative effects – but it’s a sense of how life can be challenging for the typical aberrant.

  5. Matthew Morris says:

    Funny with aberrant shield I played a character with it (shield being one of my favourites) and I always pictured it as looking like it peeled off his arm, burning through any clothing covering it and the shield itself looked like the mark. So it worked, but also screamed “This is NOT a normal thing.”

    Glad to see I had the right idea.

  6. Keith Baker says:

    Yes, the mark crawling off your skin and serving as the shield is a great way to interpret that, especially with the idea of it burning through clothing. And hey, I can’t imagine it tearing off the skin feels great! So it’s a useful, lifesaving ability – but it’s not the nice, friendly normal magic of the Deneith shield other ability.

  7. Keith Baker says:

    One thing I will note is that Eberron being Eberron, the War of the Mark was never supposed to be a clear-cut situation. It’s not as simple as cruel Houses hunting down innocent aberrants. The Lady of the Plague killed hundreds before she learned to control her powers (and more after, but that was at least in self-defense…). It wasn’t her fault; she had no control over it. But you can bet that if the people in her village had realized what was going on in time, they would have killed her – and can you blame them? And as Alexandre observed, once people know that aberrant marks CAN have that level of lethal effect, panic and the urge to self-defense sets in. Yes, a more humane solution would have been to try to help them, to harness their powers, to understand them. But this was an earlier time without much of the magical infrastructure available today. people saw monsters and were simply trying to survive.

    So in the end, the War of the Mark is another situation where nobody walked away clean. Innocents were killed on and by both sides. The only question is whether a better solution can be found if it all happens again.

  8. Chris Handforth says:

    Speaking of aberrants with the shield power… Way back when you gave us for the stats for Rotting Bal. He had two feats that we’d never seen before, Death Curse and Hideous Strength. Given what you’re just told us, I’m guessing that these were part of that larger aberrant system that got cut from Sharn, and that you had hoped to get them out to us via dragonshards, but sadly the Children of Khyber article was the last one (although it was awesome that we stil got the PrC!).

    Would it be possible for us to see parts of that system, not as anything official, but as homebrewed feats and options you’d allow aberrants in your campaigns?

  9. Keith Baker says:

    It’s not a simple issue, Chris. Eberron material has to go through WotC. I’m skirting the edge of that just with the posts I’m doing here, frankly – but at least there’s nothing concrete. Beyond that, Hideous Strength and Death Curse were both originally part of the material I wrote and submitted to Dragonmarked – so technically it’s not just my house rules, it’s material they bought and paid for, even if it didn’t get used.

    I can at least describe them briefly. Hideous Strength gave a small bonus to the power of your aberrant mark abilities in exchange for a penalty on certain social skills and interactions with natural animals; the description explained that it was up to you to decide what form this took, and whether it was due to physical disfigurement or simply a repellent aura. Death Curse allowed you to unleash a single but amplified use of one of you aberrant abilities, and to do so if you dropped unconscious without dying – but using the power killed you instantly, regardless of hit point total. Needless to say, it was a feat intended more for NPCs than PCs; the point was that an aberrant foe could be dangerous even in death.

  10. Chris Handforth says:

    Okay, thanks, I understand the NDA makes it tricky.

  11. Ogiwan says:

    After reading this, and thinking about it some more…I see some parallels between the War of the Mark and the Lycanthropic Purge. In both situations, what was once a minor threat suddenly, and inexplicably, grew to be a major threat.

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